A few weeks ago we were invited by Square Enix, the video game publisher of 2015’s surprise critical darling Life Is Strange, to demo gameplay and be among the first to see (at the time) unreleased footage of Deck Nine’s prequel episodic game Life Is Strange: Before the Storm.
For those who didn’t play Life is Strange, it puts players in a story driven and decision focused game where the weight of consequence is your biggest adversary. As young amateur photographer Max Caulfield, you return to school in a hometown of Arcadia Bay with a best friend [Chloe Price] you abandoned in her time of need and the new found power to reverse time. You know typical things young people do. As a side effect of your ability, Max gets a vision of a massive temporal storm coming to destroy Arcadia Bay. Before she can get to fighting a tornado, Max has to investigate the strange disappearance of a young girl in town, win a photo contest, stop murders, and try to undo the damage done to the relationship with her best friend. By the time the final credits rolled on Life is Strange, we were left a blubbering mess and every thing the game made us experience left us wanting more.
While the developer of the first game, Don’t Nod, is working on a sequel; another talented studio has stepped in to fill the void Max, Chole, and the chubby goth girl we kept saving for no reason left in our hearts with the prequel Life is Strange: Before The Storm. In this game, you’ll play as Max’s best friend Chloe Price in time set after the tragic death of her father but before Max’s return to Arcadia Bay. Chloe won’t have powers of her own, unless you count a Hulk like rage against a world she feels is destroying her. The gift she has in the game is literally being a radical punk-ass-b***h in the best way possible. As players, we’re asked to step into the shoes of a girl looking to stay above water and learn what it means to let people in again after having the entire world drop a deuce on you. It might sound like an after school special but Chloe’s black metal vibe is a different type of interesting and deciding how to stick it to everyone around you is challenging in a rebel without a cause way that’s different from what players experienced as Max.
We talked with lead writer on the game Zak Garriss and Deck Nine producer David Hein about the Lynchian nature of Arcadia Bay, the challenge of going away from a major game mechanic, and what Chloe’s untold story brings to this universe.
Note: While our visit with Life Is Strange: Before The Storm developer Deck Nine happened during SDCC, publisher Square Enix asked us to hold off publishing this until August 3 with the release of new game footage previously only seen by media.
COMICS BEAT: Part of what was unique about the first game was Max Caufield’s ability to rewind time, it gave players the option to really contemplate and end up comfortable with their major choices. For lack of a better word what do you see as the “substitute” Chloe will have since she doesn’t have super powers?
Zak Garriss: I think the power even did more than that. There’s a thematic resonance with Max, you use the word “comfortable” when it came to the player making decisions and that rings true for Max as she was more passive than Chloe. Max hides behind the camera and it fits within the lesson Max is learning throughout the first game. Actions have consequences and she has to learn to accept it, her powers would let her circumvent that in some ways up until that final choice in the last episode where she’s forced to accept something bad is going to happen no matter what she does.
In regards to Chloe, she’s learning a different lesson. She’s learning how to be there for someone again. Chloe doesn’t need to learn to be comfortable with the consequences of her actions she has to learn how to think through her actions. Whatever happens she’s going to deal with it hell or high water. Her journey in this game is about discovering how not to be alone anymore. She’s just spent 2 years mourning the death of her father, mourning Max’s leaving Arcadia Bay, mourning her mother’s moving on. We’re exploring relatable things through Chloe, her grief and sadness from these tragic events in her life are things people deal with in different ways every day. Building up Chloe through everything we’re going to put her through we didn’t miss the power on that level. Sure, Max’s powers were fitting to the way you’d solve puzzles and deal with certain situations in the first game. We’ve had to develop new mechanics and things for the player to do that line up with who Chloe is. It’s something that’s going to feel familiar but different.
CB: Would you say the puzzles in this game have more to do with social engineering than figuring out timelines?
Zak: That’s fair to say, but we are going to see a lot of physical things in the world for Chloe to have to solve as well.
CB: LIS had another big component that set the game apart in its original score and use of music choice. What level of care did Deck Nine put musically into Before the Storm?
David Hein: Music is a pillar of Life is Strange. This is soo much of what helped you understand the environment and Arcadia bay. For Before the storm, we’ll have licensed tracks and a full score with details forthcoming about. We worked with an indie folk band on the score but the core difference is Chloe. The barn show isn’t some place you would have seen Max [Caulfield] in, the heavier tone of the music wouldn’t have been something she’s into. We really strove to find a sound that Chole in her grief and anger would have resonated with.
CB: For a game about making choices why are there certain parts that funnel you down through a specific action? For example in the concert when the 2 guys Chloe spills the drink on come back for revenge, she can decide between fight or flight but no matter what we had to push the button to “insult” them.
Zak: There are parts of the game where we ‘re embracing the prescriptive nature of who Chloe is. Aspects of her personality are more clearly defined where Max was more neutral and could accommodate different ways of dealing with something. Chloe is more challenging and interesting as a player/character in that way, while we can put in a lot of critical choice for players to make there some moments where we’re asking you to take a leap of faith and try being a version of Chloe. She has a story to tell and part of it is going to be told her way, you’ll see in the game that’s who she is turning into before your eyes.
CB: From a technical standpoint did you have to build from the ground up or go from the assets and coding of Don’t Nod’s first game?
David: As a studio, we’ve been positioning ourselves to make this type of game for a number of years. In that time, much of what we were doing was developing an in-house tool set we call Story Forge. It has two components to it: Playwright is a component that allows Zak and his team to write interactive narrative scripts. Then you have Storyteller which is a cinematic engine, inside it has controls for facial emotion, expressions, redness of the eyes. Animators can even go in and customize things like the lips of characters if they don’t like the auto generated version for things like the lip sync. What we did leverage were some of the art assets from the original. Spaces like the Junkyard had a lot of elements to it and the work done by Don’t Nod helps us build our game.
CB: In Life is Strange, from the onset players knew Max’s ultimate challenge would be this tornado destined to destroy Arcadia Bay. From the gameplay demo and the video for BTS I still don’t get a sense of what Chloe’s tornado will be. When in the game do we find out what the dilemma of her arc is?
David: I think something exceptionally compelling about this is…while I’ve never had time travel powers cause a giant storm, I have had a person try and be a new father figure to me. It’s those things that give it our more grounded tone, but in no way does it discount the tremendous storytelling value the first game had. In a way it makes it more challenging for us to find what this story will be.
Zak: The tornado is pretty interesting, at times I was so invested in these characters playing the first game that I almost forgot there was a quantum storm coming to destroy everything. What’s brilliant and elegant of what Don’t Nod did was making the storm mean you were going to lose your best friend. It brought a new level of significance to the story.We’ve chosen to situate in a different register.
CB: True, does that mean the game won’t have the Twin Peaks feel to it that the original shared?
Zak: The team is committed to keeping the Lynch atmosphere, we have Firewalk in the game for people that get the reference and Arcadia Bay itself is a big part of this world. We’re going to have supernatural elements and crazy surreal aesthetics that fit this quirky Oregonian town. Players will have deep psychological states where you find yourself questioning who you are as a person. Yes, there will be large elemental threats that represent deep things going on in the characters. Those things are all second to us in comparison to shaping Chloe as a person who when she encounters Max’s ability for the first time she’s not afraid of it. Remember, Arcadia Bay isn’t just a picturesque place to vacation it has secrets of its own. But that’s all we can say about it at the moment.
CB: Tell me a bit about the special “Farewell” episode Deck Nine is working on?
Zak: It’s separate from before the storm narratively. It’s kind of a bonus episode we’re releasing with the deluxe edition. It gives players an opportunity to go back and play as Max exploring a time in her and Chloe’s relationship that takes place before the events of the first game. We’re still working on it so I can’t give much, but I can say it’s an exciting piece for us to work on.
COMICS BEAT: You’re gonna make me wait aren’t you? Lucky for you there’s a David on the team. Lucky for us all Life is Strange: Before the Storm launches its first of three episodes on August 31, 2017 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Check out the game on Square Enix’s website for more info.