In Life is Strange: Before the Storm, you play as Chloe Price, a rebellious teenager who is struggling with her father’s death and her best friend moving away while entering a new friendship (or something more?) with the most popular girl in school. The game is a cinematic adventure game, with in-game decisions changing Chloe’s path for better or for worse. I had the chance to play the first twenty minutes of “Hell is Empty,” the new and final episode of Before the Storm. After playing the preview, I was lucky enough to sit down with Chris Floyd, Game Director at Deck Nine Games, to discuss the process of creating this particular story as it nears its end.
What was the process of making the game like?
At Deck Nine games, we put together a team and a toolset to make cinematic narrative adventure games. That’s what we’ve been very focused on for the last few years. So we were talking to a lot of different publishers, and we talked a little bit with Square Enix and were really surprised when they said “What do you think about making the next Life is Strange game?” That’s where it all kind of started.
In terms of how we went about creating the story we made, we really started with the fans of the first game. We knew that they wanted to go back to Arcadia Bay and learn more about those same characters, so that’s when we started looking at a prequel. It didn’t seem right to continue the story. Because of the nature of that story, it didn’t make sense to make a story that followed after it. It has a couple different possible endings, and we didn’t want to pick one and move on with that and invalidate everyone else who chose the other direction. So that’s when we started looking at a prequel, and we started looking at the characters from that game and thought about which one looked like they had the most dramatic potential. That’s where we landed on Chloe Price, who is the main NPC in the first game, and now we’re making her the playable character. So that was really the root of the story. Who is Chloe at this time in her life? We went back to the story where she has lost her father in a car accident a couple years prior. Her best friend Max, the main character from the first game, has left town with her family and gone to Seattle and isn’t staying in touch. We started looking at this character and her sense of loss and grief. And finally, we knew from the first game that there was this character, Rachel Amber, who was missing, and the way Chloe talks about her as someone who really saved her life at some point in time during this time when Max is gone. We said, “Okay what’s the story of someone who comes into your life and changes it forever?” That sounded like it had a lot of dramatic potential.
Before the Storm covers a lot of difficult to discuss themes, such as drug use and a burgeoning relationship between Rachel and Chloe. Is that something that is difficult to tackle within a video game?
I think it’s difficult to tackle in any form probably and to do it really honestly, so a lot credit to that goes to our writing team. They took it really seriously. We felt like we had to address the nature of Chloe and Rachel’s relationship just to be true to what happened in the first season. So when we knew we wanted to do that, we knew we had to be really cautious and careful and cognizant of what we were doing every step of the way. They did a great job of putting in their due diligence and doing research, and being extra careful about how they talk about some of these difficult and controversial issues. And to hear them talk about it, they’ll say it’s about getting a lot of different perspectives on these things. And then just trying to think from the character’s perspectives, and being true to who they are and where they are at that point in their life. That’s really what they used to guide them.
How is it to balance that amount of gameplay vs story within the game?
It’s a great question, and one of those things we struggle with. I have a game design background so I’m very focused on the gameplay. My co-game director is a cinematic guy, a movie and TV guy originally. He was a cinematographer and a director and so he’s thinking of that piece while I’m thinking about the gameplay. And then we start from the script with our writers, so our writers have to be able to plot out the great dramatic moments and leave room for gameplay and interesting choices for the player and for things to explore. So it’s a constant challenge that we have and I think we’ve gotten better and better at it as we’ve gone along. But it’s key, and there’s some great moments we’ve been able to capture where we get the gameplay to really convey the emotional moments rather than relying on the cinematics, letting the gameplay kind of be the exploration. We have a few moments in our story where we actually get the emotional punch from the fact that it’s interactive. And those have been really special moments for me.
One of my favorite moments in the first episode is the mini [tabletop] game within the game. What inspired putting that moment in there?
We already knew we wanted to introduce some new characters, and so we came up with Steph and Mikey as these two nerds who are basically going to be doing their things and so we had them playing roleplaying games. We were looking for some more opportunities for real gameplay in that particular scene, and what kind of things could we add that wouldn’t derail the main thread we’d charted out. So I said, “What about playing this [tabletop] game?” At first we kind of said, can we do that? It’s a game within a game, will it still feel like Life is Strange? And we said, [it will work] if we keep it grounded in these being real characters and these kids in high school. Then, when Chloe participates, it feels how Chloe would participate, not just how playing this sort of isolated separate game, but how would Chloe interact with that? How does her personality affect a tabletop game? So that was where we started and it felt like it could work, and we kept expanding it because it was so much fun. We asked ourselves, is this too much? And by the end of it, we said no, this is one of our favorite parts of the story. We kind of knew that everybody else would enjoy it too.
In the newest episode, we start to see Chloe’s transformation including the blue hair dye. This new episodes have explored Chloe’s journey to becoming who she was in the first season of Life is Strange. What is it like portraying this emotional and physical journey of Chloe becoming who she is in Life is Strange?
That was really one of our main goals. We said, we know this starting point after her father is dead and before she meets Rachel. We know that starting point, and we said, what does that trajectory look like going towards the blue-haired beanie wearing rebellious character of the first season. And it made sense to us that Rachel was a catalyst in that emotionally, and in other ways. For example, with the outfits that Chloe wears, we tried to show that it’s Rachel’s influence on sort of who she is, what she thinks of herself, and even just literally wearing some of Rachel’s clothes, that gets Chloe thinking about how she look sand dresses and how she relates to the world. So that was very much in our minds, that we’re sort of launching the character towards that eventual destination.
How does the inclusion of The Tempest relate to the overall story?
This would probably be a better question for our lead writer Zak Garris, I wish I could answer it as well as he could. He came up with it relatively early on. We thought of Rachel and said she’s kind of everything to everybody, that’s what you hear in season one – everybody mythologizes her. And she’s involved in every activity, one of those overachiever characters. And we were trying to think of ways to show that in the game and because we also thought of her as kind of a chameleon sort of character, another thing you learn about her in season one. That the role of actor made sense for her. So that’s how we started thinking, okay, she’s in a production of something. Honestly it was quite a while before we said, “Let’s put Chloe on stage too.” It also made a nice event in the middle of our story, to kind of look forward to from the very very beginning, you know it’s coming, and from there to take part in. As far as the Tempest itself, the character Prospero that Rachel ends up playing as Prospera. Is sort of a benevolent manipulator in a way, and a magical character obviously, so those kind of qualities really fit Rachel, and then we looked for ways to drop our other characters into the kind of archetypes that are in Shakespeare. And it just felt right at a certain so we dove into it with both feet.
What has been your personal favorite part of working on Before the Storm?
For me, it’s frankly been being a part of the team that we’ve put together. We have a really amazing team, we’ve gotten people with backgrounds in movie and TV as well as video games, they’re all really really talented people who have really stepped up and been challenged by this project to do their best world. We’re all really challenged by the level of quality that Dontnod had in the first game, so trying to match that, trying to write a story that’s true to that and feels like it can sit alongside it, was a real privilege and a lot of pressure. And having the fans respond the way they have, I’ve been really gratified that our team has been able to pull that off.
Is it more difficult to create an episodic game?
It’s a good question, it’s different. What you end up doing is you think about the pacing of the story both at an overall level and in these individual chunks so you’re trying to make sure you have a nice little arc in the individual episode, and some sort of cliffhanger or dramatic moment at the end, and you need to make sure you’re laying the groundwork for the full three episode arc. So it’s a little more challenging I think because you have to have three satisfying stories that tell one satisfying story, but the great payoff and what is actually really fun for the developer to see, is that we get all this great outpouring of thoughts and feelings and theories from the fans, we get that three times! These really are the best fans to make games for because they are so engaged and they care so much about the characters and the word, even about our team and Dontnod, they’re invested in everything about it. It’s just an amazing sort of wave to be riding.
Obviously, choice plays a really big role in this game, as it did in season one as well. Can you speak a bit to trying to involve those different choices and how they affect the overall story?
It’s really key for us to find the choices that people are going to agonize over as much as possible. So we actually do a lot of tuning. When we come up with what we think could be an interesting choice, it’s not sort of over and done with at that point, at least when it comes to our major choices. We tune the language, even just what you see on screen, or we’ll look at the lad up before that choice and say, if I’m choosing between Joyce or David or something like that, we will look at how we lay the groundwork so we can imagine players coming out 50/50 on this particular choice. If we can get to the point where we think 50% of players are going to go this way and 50% are going to go that way, then we know what we really have is people who are going to sit there and agonize over something. We go really in depth, at least over the big choices to make sure that people are really going to feel it.
How much of the game is actually affected by your decisions?
It depends on the choice of course. We have places where we have some pretty big divergences. Some choices, even really big ones, come through in a lot of fun and little subtle ways, even in the way some people speak to you. When we can, we love when we can do physical or nonverbal consequences as well. For example, we have a lot of different ways in which the Victoria situation before the play can play out, based on whether or not you managed to get Rachel back into the play in the principal’s office or whether she’s still out of the play so you know, we kind of return to a certain baseline of our story. For example, Rachel always ends up back in the play somehow or another, but there’s a lot of different ways that that particular encounter could go that’s particularly interesting.
Do you think the fact that players already know Chloe from season one and know characters’ opinions on Rachel affect the way fans are playing this game?
If you listen to the fans, you can tell it really does. They’re very cognizant of where the story ends up and they bring a lot of baggage in a good way into the game from season one. We hope and we planned on making the story interesting for someone who hasn’t played the first season, because we did want to make sure we’re not spoiling anything in season one and that it holds up on its own. There are people who come in though who say, “I really didn’t like Chloe in the first game” because she’s rough around the edges and she’s prickly and people feel like she kind of bullies Max a little bit because of Max’s personality. So people who feel very close to Max sometimes think, “Oh, Chloe, I don’t know.” Far and away what we’ve heard from those folks is “Oh, now that I’ve essentially walked around in Chloe’s shoes for awhile, I get it and I understand her and I really see her perspective.” And it changes how they feel about season one.
So in Season One there was a huge storm coming, and in Before the Storm there’s a huge fire. So there’s a theme of natural disasters within these games. How do these themes affect the games?
So I think there’s some similarities between the two. The storm places a very specific supernatural role in the first game and the fire is more mundane, but what they both do similarly is let us reflect on something of the nature of the story on a larger canvas. We try to keep our story as intimately grounded in the characters as we can, but I think it’s a nice effect to let it reach out a bit to the world at large and see how these characters might have some effect on that world, and even in some sort of thematic or symbolic way, let it play out on a slightly grander scale. So that’s really what the fire does for us.
The first season has a supernatural element, but this one is just Chloe’s life. Can you talk to that difference at all?
In a way, it was a choice that we had to make because of the nature of the story. When we chose Chloe as our main character, we couldn’t give her a power because there’s no evidence that she knew about that kind of thing before season one started. But also, we didn’t want the world of Life is Strange to feel like a world of superheroes, like everybody and their mother and their dog has a power. So that was why it was the right choice for us to make, but it was still a challenge because it was a cool thing to have available to you. And it was really interesting due to how it interacted with adventure game mechanics and choice and consequences.
What we realized quickly was that by not letting you rewind, especially if you were used to being able to rewind, now when you’re making choices you’re feeling the pressure that much more. Chloe has to live with the choice you made, you have to live with the choice you made, you don’t have that option to rewind anymore. The power to rewind was really wrapped up in who Max is as a character as well, she’s a very hesitant and timid character and always kind of second guessing herself. And so that’s an embodiment of who she is, so that’s another reason it wouldn’t have fit with Chloe. So we decided to go into a different direction with Chloe’s game.
What’s next for Life is Strange?
As far as the future of Life is Strange, Dontnod is working on Life is Strange 2. In terms of what Deck Nine is working on next, we have some ideas but we’re not really ready to talk about. We do have the farewell episode that we’re working on, which is a bonus mini episode coming to anyone who bought the deluxe edition of Before the Storm, and that’s one more chance to play as Max with Chloe when they’re young kids, as a final kind of fun with those two characters again in Arcadia Bay, and that will come out sometime next year. What comes after that? I don’t know yet!