Gaming Trend recently got the chance to interview Michael Koch, one of the creative directors on Life is Strange 2, Life is Strange, and Captain Spirit.
Gaming Trend: First, what inspired the story of Life is Strange 2? Do you have any siblings yourself?
Michael Koch: So, no. Myself, I don’t have any siblings. Our lead writer, Jean-Luc Cano, he has siblings. So it’s definitely a more personal story for him. He also has a young daughter so the theme of education was really, really important for him. But to go back to the beginning of Life is Strange 2 we started to work with Raoul Barbet and Jean-Luc Cano, Raoul Barbet the director and Jean-Luc Cano the writer, right after finishing Life is Strange 1 we started to brainstorm what kind of game, what kind of new story we wanted to tell with the second game. We knew that it would be complicated to continue Max and Chloe’s stories because of the two endings and the story that was somehow finished in the first game, we also wanted to try to talk about new scenes, different social issues, a different setting, so using the road trip structure was great for us to be able to showcase different kinds of characters and showcase a hidden, unknown side of the United States. So we started to brainstorm and quite quickly we knew that we wanted to talk about family, so that’s why we decided to have two brothers. In the first game we had Max and Chloe, who were close friends or lovers depending on what the players wanted to have, and we knew that family was really interesting for us to talk about and then we had this idea of using education as the main storytelling device, where basically every choice you make, every decision in the game has consequences on Daniel, on your young brother. So it would be like in each episode Sean’s actions would start to shape Daniel for the endings. Like, are you a good role model or bad role model, what would you do in front of him, and we thought that was a really interesting mechanic to challenge the player with this notion of choice.
GT: Speaking of that theme of education and Daniel, you’ve spoken a few times on social media about how Daniel learns from the player’s actions and choices but could you elaborate further? Perhaps with a specific example like the final choice, where the player only has two choices but there are five different endings.
MK: Yes, so with LiS2 we decided to keep it quite hidden, in the game, but we are tracking over the course of the game most of the choices the player makes and most of these have an impact on two different, hidden counters within Daniel that we call the morality counter which is basically if you are showing Daniel that he needs to comply to the rules of society or if it’s ok to just decide to act for yourself. For me it’s not really good morality or bad morality, it’s more about, um-
GT: How he goes about being good?
MK: Yeah, it’s more than good or evil, it’s not really good or evil. I think we recapped that, we phrased it this way at the end of the game: complying with the rules of society vs. keeping his own interests first. So we tried to not really say if one is better than the other, it’s more for the player to decide. So we have this big counter which we are calling morality and we have the other called brotherhood, which is basically do Sean and Daniel have a good relationship or not. For example, and this is where it gets interesting, there could be times where Daniel might be doing something that you say is morally bad, so you might scold him to not do it again. If you scold this action, it might put some points in the morality counter but it would lower the brotherhood counter because you were harsh to him in scolding him, but maybe you did that for a good reason. So it was all to that end that we took into consideration all the episodes where you had some choices that would increase brotherhood that would maybe decrease the morality counter. So those counters are taken into account at the end, how the final choice [ends up] or what Daniel will tell you, if he will listen to your choice or not at the end of the game. On top of this big choice at the end there are a lot of smaller choices with consequences at the end of the five episodes, like we had those moments where you could steal an object at the end of the first episode; if you stole a lot in front of Daniel he would steal for himself from Brody’s car or from Chris at a point in episode 2. We also had those moments where you could say curse words in the first episode and it would end up with Daniel saying some curse words in front of the grandparents in episode 2. We also had a lot of smaller moments that would showcase this idea of Daniel as a kid, he’s always looking to his big brother and he’s somehow acting in a way that reflects what you showed him.
GT: Yeah in my playthrough I kept cursing and telling him not to curse so he ended up cursing like a sailor the whole time.
MK: Yeah! [laughter] Because children, they mostly do what they’re shown, not what they hear. If you tell them not to do something but you still do it, they will continue to do it.
GT: How did you and your team feel about moving on from Max and Chloe in the first season, and starting sort of fresh while still remaining in the same universe?
MK: I think for the team and for us as creators, I would say it was easier to start fresh. I mean, working on a game takes a long time; we worked on Life is Strange for four years with Max and Chloe, even if we love Max and Chloe it’s good for all the people who are working on the game with us to have new characters, new settings, new environments. It’s refreshing, always good to move on. But it was also really interesting to stay in the same universe and see how we could create cameos and see how we could link the two games. I’m really happy with the reception [from] the players with the presence of David and what we hear about Max and Chloe from him. We had that cameo planned from the beginning, because we started to work on the story of LiS2 in the beginning of the process, almost four years ago and the whole story was written after a few months of work. There were some changes after that but we started to work this way to write big parts of the story at the beginning of production and then when we’re working on each episode of course we are adjusting to rework a character or an environment, but the big story beats and how each episode will end and things like that didn’t change from the beginning. So we knew that we wanted to have David in episode five and give the players some information on what happened with Max and Chloe and some of the people in Arcadia Bay. We were really excited about episode five and adding this cameo, we were really anxious about how the players would react to this character and what he tells you about Max and Chloe.
GT: You mentioned some cut content or changes in the story from when you wrote it four years ago originally. What is one part of the game you wish could have been included in the final version but had to be left on the cutting room floor?
MK: Hmm, I think it’s sometimes mostly reducing the length of some content. One example is in the very first draft of the story, the beginning of episode four was way longer. Instead of just beginning in the hospital room where he was locked up and had to escape, I think the first version of the story Sean was in juvenile detention and he had to escape the juvenile detention. In episode four, we are talking about Jolena Shore where he’ll be sent the next day and actually the first draft of the story he was already in Jolena Shore and trying to escape, so there were many more characters and environments and it was, ha, way too long. We had to reduce it for the final game. I think in the end we are telling the same story, some of the characters we had planned in the prison have been transformed and replaced into Joey in the hospital and the sequence where you have to escape exists also in the hospital, so it’s the same feeling for the player but it’s a bit different to what we had planned. Originally in episode 5, when we go with Karen into the canyon with the lanterns, originally we had in mind a slightly longer version of the scene in a different environment, but with production issues we had to use the same environment so we slightly changed the scene and went back to the canyon.
GT: Dontond’s games have covered a wide range of topics from memory and social media in Remember Me and friendship and domestic violence in Life is Strange. Its sequel is no different, so what made you want to tackle ideas of brotherhood, masculinity, racism, and education in this game?
MK: That’s a good question, I think… I don’t know how it really happened, we started the idea of the game with just education and family and brotherhood, and knowing that we really wanted to use the choice and consequences with education and with your young brother having the [supernatural] power and not you putting more pressure on the player because your choices would impact a really powerful kid were the basics of this idea. Then we started to really think of what kind of story, setting, and journey we can create that is compelling and interesting with this story in mind. So we did a lot of research, we traveled to the United States and did some road trips following what we had in mind for the brothers. We met a lot of people on the road, some hitchhikers, homeless people, some people working in pot farms, we talked to a lot of people we met there. I think this also made us realize how difficult it is to live outside of society, how difficult it was for those people to survive, what kind of exclusions they were facing based on who they were and what kind of life they had decided to live. This made us want to talk about those people, to share some of their stories and showcase some of their struggles. When we were in Arizona and trying to go near the Mexican border, that’s when we talked to some people who explained to us about the vigilantes and those kinds of people who would roam around the border and just shoot at people they saw crossing the border. We were just amazed at this kind of story, that it was real. So we decided to have the vigilantes in episode five just to talk about what’s really happening in those parts near the border. Most of the themes we are dealing with in the game are from research and finding out about some subjects we weren’t aware of and we thought were important so people could learn about.
GT: Wow, that’s very interesting. The Life is Strange art style is fairly unique. It looks cartoonish but still grounded in reality. What was the process in finding this art style?
MK: It started with the first game, I was working as the art director or Remember Me and when we started to work on Life is Strange I knew that I wanted the game to be less realistic, less detailed. It’s maybe a question of taste when some games look overtly realistic I think we focus too much on the details than on the feeling of the overall picture. So I really wanted to find an art style that looks more like a pixar movie or something more focused on the big picture, the lighting, the mood, and the colors. We tried to find a balance between realistic proportions and simplified textures so we could focus on what we wanted to focus on rather than having details everywhere. So it was a lot of back and forth to find this art style. I think something like impressionistic realism, in the way we are using real proportions and everything feels realistic, but it’s more deciding where you are reducing the level of detail so you can sometimes put forth your own memories and imagination rather than having everything told to you. I also think this art style will age much better; one of my favorite games visually is the Wind Waker-
GT: That’s also one of my favorites!
MK: Oh, awesome! This game is still really pretty even if you look at the first version on GameCube. It’s the kind of visuals where you don’t need too much technology to advance and it still looks good even after some years. In LiS2 we tried to improve on the visuals, but I think what we wanted to improve was the small details and movements, like we wanted to have movements in the characters’ clothes and hair, the trees and the grass. I think sometimes movement can be more important than details to make a world feel real.
GT: What was the most challenging part of making Life is Strange 2?
MK: I think there was a lot!
GT: It’s game development, so pretty much everything is hard.
MK: I think this game was a big challenge on multiple fronts. It was bigger and more ambitious than the first game, maybe too ambitious sometimes. We have tons of different places and characters which, going back to the beginning, it was like creating a whole new game for each episode. Even with all the new characters we had to cast new voice actors for each episode where in the first Life is Strange basically after episode one all the voice casting was done. I think after that we only had to cast William for episode 3, and that’s it. Everyone was already present in the first episode. I think another big challenge was to have a kid as the main protagonist. How do you write a nine year old kid, how do you find a good voice actor that is young but experienced enough to convey all the emotions, how do you make the character feel alive with the AI, animations, and reactions to what you are doing? Daniel was definitely a big challenge, but in the end I am extremely happy with how he turned out and especially happy with the voice actor we found, Roman George, who was just really great at playing Daniel.
GT: Who is your favorite character in Life is Strange 2 and why?
MK: There’s so many characters… I think, I really like and I’m really proud of Karen. I think Karen was also a really big challenge for us, she’s a character who’s really important. With Karen we’re dealing with something that’s really quite complicated and we are trying to showcase… I mean, in out time maternity is something that is the “holy grail” for women and every woman somehow has to be a mother or she’s missing the best part of her life. Women who don’t want to be mothers are really seen as weird or even prejudiced because of it when a man can decide to not be a father and everyone’s OK with it. So it was something we really wanted to talk about, this double standard between men and women with motherhood and fatherhood. We wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t be too preachy or wouldn’t say “look at her and realize you’ve been wrong!” It was important for us to talk about this issue but let the player really decide how they want to think about that. So it was a hard balance between that, of course; Karen did hurt Sean and Daniel by abandoning them, but we also wanted to try and explain the reason behind that and try to talk about this subject, how society pushes every woman to be a mother and how it’s OK to not want to be a mother. I’m really, really happy with the way players reacted to Karen. I’ve seen on Reddit how some players say they would react in real life to Karen I’ve seen some really interesting arguments about that and just thinking about it. Which is great because that’s what we wanted to do with these characters, make the player think about that and maybe realize some caveats of how our society pushes us into some roles.
GT: Yeah when I first heard about Karen from Sean I thought I would hate her, but as I grew to know her in episodes four and five I think she ended up being my favorite character as well. Aside from Daniel.
GT: How did you, personally, get into game development?
MK: I started my career as a freelance illustrator so I’d do some art pieces, drawing and concept art, illustrations. So for a few years I worked on book covers, RPG visuals, and freelance concept art. With concept art I was already working as a freelancer on some video games doing environments, characters, and test art for video games. It was really at the beginning of the creation of Dontnod I just applied for the position of concept artist and then started work on the very beginning of Remember Me. Starting from there, I was promoted to art director on Remember Me and just at the end of development, we were a really small team that wanted to work on our own idea for a game, and that’s how we started to create the first Life is Strange, as a smaller side project after Remember Me. I guess going from there I’ve been doing less and less art and more and more story and direction.
GT: This is more of a personal question, but when is Remember Me 2 happening? [laughter] I really enjoyed that one.
MK: [laughter] I guess it’s really a question to ask Capcom, who still own the rights of the franchise. I think it was a cool project to work on the first time and it’s a really nice universe, so who knows! It’s really up to Capcom to decide if they want another game in this universe.
GT: My last question is: what’s your favorite game from this year?
MK: There are a lot of games from this year I still haven’t played…
GT: Just, your favorite game you played this year, it doesn’t have to be from this year specifically.
MK: Right now, I’m playing Divinity: Original Sin II which is really great, I’m a huge fan of the old school RPGs like Baulder’s Gate and Planescape Torment. I don’t know why I didn’t play it before, but I just started it and I find the same pleasure playing it that I found when I played Baulder’s Gate a long time ago. Other than that I played a short game that I really enjoyed called A Short Hike. It’s a really short experience that I really enjoyed. What else… Of course I can’t wait to play Death Stranding, I don’t know what to expect. Last year my favorite game that I played was What Remains of Edith Finch, but that’s already an old game. It’s one of the best stories, experiences that I’ve played in a long time.