GameCentral talks to one of the directors of Life Is Strange about the upcoming sequel and its free introduction Captain Spirit.
The best storytelling in video games is rarely to be found in the big budget blockbuster releases. More normally itâ€™s indie titles like What Remains of Edith Finch or Night In The Woods which have the best stories to tell, and while Telltale Games has managed to find mainstream success theyâ€™ve done so outside of the influence of traditional publishers. Which made Life Is Strange all the more peculiar when it appeared in 2015 and managed to take the Telltale format and do it all a lot better.
The engagingly lowkey adventures of Max and Chloe, as they tried to make use of the formerâ€™s time-travelling powers in order to avert a catastrophe, was a surprise hit for Square Enix. And it was even more of a surprise when the hastily commissioned prequel Before The Storm, by an entirely different developer, turned out to be just as good. But now original French creators Dontnod are returning to the franchise, but not with Life Is Strange 2 â€“ or at least not yet.
Although everyone fully expected Life Is Strange 2 to be unveiled at E3 last week it wasnâ€™t, although Dontnod have admitted theyâ€™re working on it. Instead they announced The Awesome Adventures Of Captain Spirit, a free standalone adventure that will be released next week and which introduces one of the new characters from Life Is Strange 2.
Although we havenâ€™t played it yet we got a quick hands-off demo of Captain Spirit at E3, which showed off the new Unreal Engine 4-powered graphics. Theyâ€™re notably improved from Before The Storm, while still maintaining the same painterly style as the original. Thereâ€™s also similar use of licensed music (Sufjan Stevensâ€™ Death with Dignity, in this case) to set the mood and the same laidback pacing, which seems particularly relevant here because youâ€™re controlling a young boy named Chris who is wasting time on a lazy Saturday morning.
Following the death of his mother, Chris lives only with his father â€“ who seems loving but clearly has a burgeoning drink problem. Chris is obsessed with superheroes and while youâ€™re free to wander the house and perform odd tasks the primary goal is assembling a costume, the exact nature of which (benevolent Superman-like figure or more aggressive Batman type) enables you to express Chrisâ€™ personality as you see it.
Unlike the first Life Is Strange youâ€™re given half a dozen different goals to pursue whenever you want, giving the game more of a sandbox feel as you explore the house and the snowy outside. There doesnâ€™t appear to be much in the way of difficult puzzles but the dialogue seems more naturalistic than the first game. Thereâ€™s also a nice fantasy sequence where Chris goes to turn off the water heater and imagines it as a fight with a terrifying monster.
Apart from a reference to Backwell Academy there are no obvious links to Life Is Strange, but the number of times Chris pretends to have Force-like telekinetic powers makes us wonder whether heâ€™ll actually be granted them â€“ in the same way that Max gained the ability to rewind time. Whether that will become evident in the full game, or whether weâ€™ll have to wait for Life Is Strange 2 (which still has no release date) we donâ€™t know, but since itâ€™s free itâ€™ll be as easy as possible for everyone to find out.
In the meantime, we spoke to co-director Raoul Barbet about his work on the series and his hopes and plans for the future. Following the recent Vampyr and the newly announced Twin Mirror, Dontnod have established themselves as one of the most exciting developers around when it comes to narrative-based games. And hopefully this free glimpse at Life Is Strange 2 will earn them even more fans.
Formats: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Release Date: 26th June 2018
GC: Before we start, Iâ€™ve always wondered: what is the relevance of the name Dontnod?
LB: One of the founders of Dontnod was Alain Damasio; heâ€™s a writer and he writes a lot of books. One is a sci-fi book that is well known in France, and he loves to play with names and letters, and so Dontnod is a palindrome.
GC: Oh, it is! I never noticed.
LB: And our first character from Remember Me was Nilin, and Nilin is the same â€“ you can read it from right to left and left to right. And so Dontnod is do not nod directly and do not accept things immediately.
GC: So is Captain Spirit classified as a prequel to Life Is Strange 2?
LB: Hmmâ€¦ I wouldnâ€™t say that. Weâ€™ve kept the same team to create Life Is Strange 2, as Life Is Strange 1, and when we began to think about Life Is Strange 2 we created a new story and new characters and Captain Spirit and Chris is one of them. So itâ€™s more an introduction to the Life Is Strange 2 story. And also, as it is free, itâ€™s a perfect introduction to the type of game we are creating. As not all players know about adventure games or are not interested, so the idea was to show what the type of game we want to create is.
GC: Will Chris be in the actual sequel itself?
LB: Yeah, he will be one ofâ€¦ in the story.
GC: You almost said too much then!
GC: Letâ€™s get this out of the way first: is Max and Chole going to be in the sequel at all?
LB: I wonâ€™t talk about Life Is Strange 2, Iâ€™m not allowed to. [laughs] Letâ€™s just say itâ€™s a new story with new characters.
GC: Okay, well you might be able to answer this: do you consider Life Is Strange 1 to have ended on a cliffhanger?
LB: For us, I would say in Life Is Strange we wanted to tell the story of Max and Chole and we have told it. So if there is more afterâ€¦ I think it depends on the feeling of the players.
GC: Well, I feel really bad for Chloeâ€¦
LB: Yeah, for sure. When we began to work on Life Is Strange 1, even before meeting Square Enix, we wanted to tell this teenager tale about the difficulties of choice and consequences. And how you must live with the consequences in your life. So for us it was perfect timing, as when you are a teenager itâ€™s difficult to make some choices. And those choices will define you as an adult.
So, yeah, as we have told this story what we wanted to do with Life Is Strange 2, and with Captain Spirit, is to tell new stories with new characters. Itâ€™s interesting, but for us it also means, as this is the same universe, you will have some links between Captain Spirit and Life Is Strange and between Captain Spirit and Life Is Strange 2.
GC: In your demo the gameplay seemed more open-ended than before, almost sandbox style.
LB: I think the fact that the game is free changed something a bit about the design and the story. It allowed us to try different things and is different than writing an episode. The structure we want to have when we work with a writer is a character-driven game, so you have to expect some stuff. Here the idea with Captain Spirit was more to put the player into thisâ€¦ to remind the player of that moment when you are 10-years-old and you have time to waste.
And thatâ€™s quite rare when you are an adult, you forget about that sometimes, so that was the idea behind the game â€“ to really give the player the chance to remind themselves of those moments when you were a child.
So here you will be able to spend the time however you want. You can play with the toys, you can help the dad, you can finish a quest of Captain Spiritâ€¦ or not. It is up to you how you spend this Saturday morning, so it means you can replay a lot to find new details, find new information, new cluesâ€¦
GC: Is that non-linear approach something youâ€™re planning for the sequel as well?
LB: Itâ€™s more just for Captain Spirit for now and weâ€™ll seeâ€¦ but of course it allows us to think about new stuff. But the idea was that Captain Spirit would be just one or two hours long. It really depends how the player wants to play, but the idea was to give rewards if you want to replay and try new things. But this is a small story around Chris, you canâ€™t compare it to a full episode.
GC: The graphics were impressive, I take it youâ€™re using Unreal Engine 4 now?
LB: Thank you. Yes, we changed from Unreal Engine 3 to Unreal Engine 4.
GC: Presumably that will definitely carry through to the sequel?
LB: Yes. Weâ€™ll be using the new engine for improved animation and everything else.
GC: Would you say this is now close to an idealised version of how the games should look? Or if you had infinite budget and time would you want this to look like Detroit: Become Human or something like that?
LB: [laughs] I would say I would never want to have infinite budget or time. Because then I would only do one game all of my life, because youâ€™d always want to improve itâ€¦ So Iâ€™m not wishing that for anyone! But I donâ€™t think it would change so much anyway. Michel, who is the other director, is working a lot with the animation and I think this is a choice weâ€™ve had since the beginning: to have this impressionist style instead of a realistic one.
The visuals and tech behind the game is so linked to the year and the moment you develop, so I canâ€™t really say my perfect game would be this or that. I think it truly depends on what itâ€™s possible to do.
But I think Iâ€™m really happy with that aspect of this one, because what was important for us if that if youâ€™ve played Life Is Strange we wanted the player to recognise that itâ€™s a Life Is Strange game, so we wanted to keep this impressionistic aspect. And I think for Life Is Strange 1 it was for the same reason, we really think that having this non-realistic aspect allows the player to put a bit of themselves into the character.
When you play Life Is Strange 1 now I think yeah, it looks awful, but I still think itâ€™s better than a photorealistic game that is like 10 years ago. Itâ€™s sometimes much more difficult to age well when youâ€™re a realistic game.
GC: Life Is Strange was never a prefect game, and the dialogue often came in for a bit of criticism. Are you using the same American writer this time?
LB: Yes, yes. Itâ€™s Christian Divine, who lives in San Francisco. And weâ€™ve also expanded the narrative team in France with a core composed of two directors and a writer, who are the same as before. Jean-Luc Cano, whoâ€™s the writer of the first Life Is Strange, is creating the general storyline and the evolution of all the characters. We always work with the same voice director too. Itâ€™s a lot of talents working together.
GC: But there is the obvious issue that American teen culture is quite different to French culture.
LB: Yeah, of course.
GC: Surely that makes things difficult when youâ€™re trying to evoke a sense of nostalgia for a childhood you never had? For example, my understanding is that France doesnâ€™t even particularly like superheroes.
LB: Yeah, of course itâ€™s difficult because you donâ€™t want to be the French adult guy writing for an American teenager. So yeah, itâ€™s difficult because you always have a lot of clichĂ© in mind, because of course we see a lot of movies and TV shows â€“ but itâ€™s not reality.
So one huge part of the work is documentation and research and references. We do that for everything. For example, for Captain Spirit we went on the Internet to see what kind of furniture the father could afford or what would be the type of house theyâ€™ve got. What would be the job of the father and how much would he earn, etc. Itâ€™s a lot of research to be sure to be accurate.
We have made some mistakes, of course, but we have tried to have as much as possible be accurate. But we are quite happy with Life Is Strange 1 because a lot of people didnâ€™t realise it was a French developer, which is the best compliment we could have. We had some fans from Oregon who said they recognised their experience and that was really something for us.
GC: Do you think the games industry will ever mature to the point where you could make this game and just have it set in France? So developers wouldnâ€™t have to pretend to be American.
LB: Yes, of course. We have a lot of ideas, set in France and in other countries, in other countries of Europe, in Asia, in Africa. I think itâ€™s really important.
GC: Traditionally, itâ€™s not something games do well.
LB: No, but of course itâ€™s because youâ€™ve got financial pressure. You know that the American and English-speaking market is huge. So if you want to reach the biggest number of people you also have to think about that. I donâ€™t say that you have to have the game in English but you have to think about it.
There is a great example in Metro 2033 where it is all in the Russian language. So maybe weâ€™ll do that in the future. But itâ€™s also because of the story that we wanted to tell, since from the beginning we wanted to do it in Oregon with teenagers.
I think if I had to create a horror story or a sci-fi story I couldâ€™ve had a lot of languages in there, and that would be great. I would love to have that, because even for the people from those other countries, with other languages, I think it gives a lot to the realism.
GC: Itâ€™s just refreshing to have a game that isnâ€™t set in America or some American-dominated future setting.
GC: So after Vampyr I assume Life Is Strange 2 and others are all going to have a branching narrative â€“ that thatâ€™s going to be your signature gameplay element?
LB: Yes, but I think it depends on the scene. Because sometimes itâ€™s not how expansive the branching is thatâ€™s important. The most important thing is the feeling of the player and if they feel that this story is their story and itâ€™s because of their choices that itâ€™s unfolding the way it does.
And what youâ€™re describing with a lot of branches is one way but itâ€™s really the reaction to your choices thatâ€™s important, knowing that the game is responding to what you do. I think itâ€™s most important to find a good way to make the player feel that this is their story, so we will try to do that I hope!
GC: Itâ€™s been great to meet you, thanks for your time.
LB: Thank you, that was very good to discuss.