Life is Strange: Before the Storm interview with Zak Garriss and David Hein

After getting some hands-on time with the first playable demo of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, and getting an early look at a development video for the upcoming game, I had the great privilege of chatting with two key players in making Before the Storm a reality. I sat down with lead writer Zak Garriss and producer David Hein from Deck Nine Games to learn more about the choice to make Chloe the main character for this prequel, our return to Arcadia Bay, and how the personal experiences of these two men helped to craft the newest story in the Life is Strange franchise. Parts of this interview has been slightly modified to avoid overt spoilers, but conversations do allude to events at the very end of the first Life is Strange game; if you have not yet beaten the game, please proceed with caution!

While Chloe’s role in the first game makes her a great candidate for the playable character in this prequel, her attitude makes her an interesting choice for a playable character. Did you have concerns about making her the main character for Before the Storm?
Zak: When we first started concepting what kind of a story we were gonna tell for the prequel, we looked at every character in Acracida Bay, we really did. There are so many interesting characters in that space. We kept coming back to Chloe, precisely because of how intense she is, and how vulnerable she is simultaneously. So I think that there is a polarizing aspect to her personality that makes her a great principal NPC, but maybe not the first choice for a character you would play in most games. I think a lot of player characters are often a little more neutral, just to allow for a lot of different perspectives to indwell in those shoes.

It was a creative choice to make Chloe, who’s not so neutral, be the character we’re inviting you to play. We weighed a lot of those pros and cons, and it felt like the right decision. We really fell in love with doubling down on revisiting Acadia Bay, but through her unique eyes, and embracing the fact that it’s gonna be a different experience from playing as Max because Chloe’s a person who’s different. We found so many exciting ways to experience that space and meet those people that every step of the way is confirmation that this is definitely the right game for the right character.

I know that for me, personally, the most powerful moment of Life is Strange was that one instance where Max’s power was on the fritz and I couldn’t rewind time. Are you concerned about fans becoming frustrated about to not being able to turn back the clock in this game?
Zak: I don’t think so. I think we’re cognizant that this is a different experience. That was Max’s road to take; that was Max’s lesson to learn, that actions have consequences. It’s quite a brilliant way to learn that lesson, getting to suspend that truth for a while, and then, at the very end of the first game, you don’t get to rewind that, you have to choose a really hard choice. You have to grow up. But that’s Max’s story, I think with Chloe, we saw an opportunity to tell a different kind of story, a different chapter of her life.

That moment when you’re trying to save [someone], and you can’t rewind, how uncomfortable that moment can be; we’re really putting our bets on that, and asking you, as a player to, make every single choice when you don’t know what’s gonna happen. You’re gonna have to be like Chloe is, and smash through, and face the consequences, and live your life the way that you have to. I think that’s going to do really interesting work to embed the player in her world, to see the limits that she feels like she has at sixteen, the grief that she has over her father, what it’s like to be in this elite school where she doesn’t feel like she belongs, watching her mom move on with David, when she’s not ready to have that guy in that space. She’s so imprisoned, I think it’ll feel like you’re sixteen, like you’re angry, when you’re lost. We’re looking at what it’s like in that place when you meet someone new who changes your world. And that’s where the power lives, is in that relationship, and what it’s like to meet Rachel Amber.

The development video says that Rachel’s part in this game changes depending on the choices you make; she might not be a positive part of Chloe’s life at all. How do you craft something like that?
Zak: Carefully, and with many sleepless nights. I think it’s what games can do for literature; it’s asking our audience to have that agency in crafting a story that possesses a structure and creates an environment in which you play, in which you make decisions, and you occupy different spaces and have different relationships with characters. I think it’s one of the hardest things about what we do, and I think it’s something that was done extraordinarily well in the first Life is Strange.

I think the core tenet for us in the writers room is the idea that this is about this moment in time where this girl meets this other girl, and they meet each other in a very unique way. It’s a game about that relationship. Like any relationship, you decide how you feel in regard to this other person, and who you are together, every moment. It’s not static, like, “I made this decision, that’s what we are now.” Every day it’s a little different, you learn to relate differently. You evolve, but maybe they don’t. You evolve differently, or maybe you evolve together! That’s what we’ve chased, that’s what we’ve embraced and looked at. How can we craft that, in a way that fits within the larger plot structure of the story we’re telling. And we’re really excited about what we’ve found.

How did you tackle the “paths” within the story? Is there a “good” path, a “bad” path, a “correct” path?
Zak: This is a tenet of the franchise, I think: There’s no right path, there’s no wrong path. We’ve really kind of embraced this gray space, and we’re presenting players with difficult choices and saying, “You have to pick something, you have to pick a door, and you have to move forward.” The story’s not going to punish you for picking the wrong thing, but you’re gonna have consequences that fit the decisions you’ve made, and you’re going to have to deal with those consequences. Ideally it feels organic in that way… It feels like life.

The music thus far has all been amazing, and sounds eerily like the music I listened to when I was sixteen. How did you pick the bands and the songs featured in this game?
Zak: Music is such a core theme, a core part of the franchise. It’s such a huge part about how we all related to Arcadia Bay when we first came, how we related to Max, and to all the characters in that space. We’ve deliberately crafted a similar musical experience that fits Chloe’s version of Arcadia Bay in this part of Chloe’s life. There are elements that feel very much like the franchise, but there are elements at the same time that are unique to Chloe, and not like Max.

Like in the mill scene [from the demo], that’s a space and that’s a kind of band and music that I don’t know that Max would like, but it feels really good for Chloe. I think that’s been our guiding stars in figuring out what the sound track could be.

Do you have a favorite song from the Before the Storm soundtrack?
Zak: I do… but I don’t think we’re talking about specifics just yet.

David: I can, because the one that I like best is out there! It’s Speedy Ortiz, “No Below.” It’s in some of the video content that we’re showing off, and every time it comes on it gets stuck in my head, I tap my toe, I love it!

Speedy Ortiz "No Below"

Is there any part of the game that really spoke to you and your personal experiences?
Zak: Well, I’ve never been a teenage girl, but I will say that we have a writer’s team where fifty percent have been teenage girls at some point. For me, it’s grief. It’s looking at grief and the way that grief can imprison you and catch you off guard. There’s no one right way to grieve a loss, and there’s no clear moment when it’s done. It can chase you. It can appear to be gone for a while, then resurface. You are at the mercy of it, which to me is a really interesting metaphor for being a teenager; because you are at the mercy of your parents, you’re at the mercy of the rules, you’re at the mercy of school, of peer groups, of pressure, your identity, and figuring out what that is--even your own sexuality, you’re figuring out what that is! So many things that, as a teen, you don’t just decide. You feel like it’s all happening to you, and you can’t control it, and you just have to weather that. I think grief is a really great and kind of different metaphor for exploring that, and something that I’ve gone through in life and I’ve tapped into a lot in telling this story.

David: I think we’ve also all had that summer with a friend where you’ve just spent every single day with each other, and you found out who you were, and who they were, and who you wanted to be, and who you could be. And you were constantly dreaming together and imagining together. We’ve all had that amazingly dear friend, or that formative moment early on in our lives that changed who we are, that defined who we were; without it we wouldn’t be the same.

Zak: You might think back to that summer, and you’re thinking of that person.

David: Absolutely! You can only think at that summer through the lens of that person.

Do you have any closing thoughts about the game?
Zak: The game is courageous, the franchise is courageous, it goes to scary places sometimes. Just featuring a female lead, sadly, is courageous in games right now. We’ve gotten a lot of really good, critical questions that let us talk about what we love about the game, and what we’re striving to do, and what we really care about in the game.

The most exciting thing for me is just getting to tell a story that’s about two teenagers struggling to figure out how to be people. To me that’s incredibly exciting; it’s a chance to validate and normalize being on the outside, and a chance to craft content and story that’s compelling because it’s relatable. Doing that makes this claim, this argument, that we’re all weird sometimes, we’re not ok sometimes, and that’s perfectly fine. To me, walking away from this, I think that’s the thing that I’m most proud of in this story.

The first episode of Life is Strange: Before the Storm will be coming August 31st to Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. You can learn more about the game at the Steam Page, or check out more from Zak, David, and several other members of the production team in the development video at the top of the article.

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