A Conversation With Life Is Strange: Before The Storm’s Lead Writer And Co-Director

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm - Chloe Silhouette
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  • Playstation 4
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2017-08-31

Life Is Strange: Before The Storm made its long-awaited debut this week, giving fans a closer look at some of the most jarring moments in Chloe Price and Rachel Amber’s young lives. It’s a much different experience than the first season, which followed Max and a slightly older Chloe, and there aren’t any superpowers this time. But Deck Nine Games, the studio developing BTS, maintains Dontnod’s focus on people and subject matter that aren’t typically given center stage in video games.  

Our review of the first episode is already up - don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers - but we also had a chance to speak with Zack Garriss, lead writer on Before the Storm, and Chris Floyd, the game’s co-game director, about an hour after Episode One debuted. The conversation was about as wide-ranging as you can get, covering everything from timelines for the remaining two episodes to Generation Z’s familiarity with letter-writing. It also paints a much clearer picture of where the team’s heads were at when they sat down to explore Chloe and Rachel’s backstories.

Interview has been lightly edited for brevity (yes, really) and clarity

One of the recurring themes in Life Is Strange was power. Max had power over situations people don’t normally have power over and found herself powerless in some where she’d seem to have the upper hand. What sort of themes do you explore in Before The Storm?

Zack: I think a big thing we’re exploring in the game is what it’s like being a teenager. Life Is Strange, the first season, occupied a space between being a teenager and becoming an adult. Max is 18, Chloe is 19. And Chloe is the primary NPC you’re dealing with. She’s not in school but you are. There’s a kind of limbo there. A transitionary period. Which is good for Max because of what [Dontnod was] exploring.

We’re deliberately setting the story three years behind the events of the first game, so we’re deeply embedded in almost childhood. Being 16 is not being a child exactly but in some ways it very much is.

And you’re definitely not an adult yet.

Z: Yeah. You’re not an adult. And for someone like Chloe, I think she’s this really fun, but at the same time sensitive, vehicle for exploring the powerlessness that comes with being at that time in your life. And so desperately wanting control. I think every teenager does. But someone who’s lost something so important, like a parent, desperately wants control. Control is security. Control is expression. It’s not being silenced. It’s not being oppressed. And I think she feels very oppressed. So we’re exploring that.

Not a lot of games do that. It’s not the most sensational thing, at first glance.

Life Is Strange
Chloe and Joyce aren't in agreement over David. Photo: Deck Nine Games/Square Enix

It’s certainly not heart-warming on the surface. You’re looking down at all this stuff and thinking, “It’s a bit bleak.”

Z: It can be because it’s hard. But because it’s hard, when you get to see within that context what it’s like to meet this mythical character, Rachel Amber, I hope, we hope, that you can resonate with what it was like when you met your best friend. Or what it was like when you met your first love. And the transformative power of that relationship. When you start at that place of “No one gets me” and then you introduce the player to someone who kind of does. What is that like. How freeing is that. How inspiring is that. That’s what we’re hoping to explore.

We’re also really interested in grief. Which is kind of a dark thing to say. But it seemed really meaningful for the Chloe character from the first game. Grief being such a huge part of who she is and how she became the character she was by the time she’s 19. It seemed like too good of an opportunity, too meaningful of a chance, to say “Let’s take an honest and slow look at loss and the ways in which people in our lives can play a life-saving role (or not) in navigating that loss.” And I think that’s a very universal experience. We’ve all felt it or we all know someone who’s very close to us who’s felt personal loss. But at the same time, the way we experience grief is intimately personal. And maybe different, and idiosyncratic, for every person. So, for a game to explore that, that seemed too good to pass up.

Chris: Another part of that teenage theme that I think, for Chloe, is really powered by the grief. We see her testing a lot of boundaries. So you look at the mill scene that we showed a lot early on, after we announced, is an example of her seeing where she can go, seeing how she can push people (socially), sometimes push them away, sometimes challenge them. As a game designer, I really enjoyed a character who does those kinds of things and saying “What kinds of challenges and puzzles can we put in front of Chloe and how is she going to solve them that’s going to be really different from what Max does?”

Zack, you came under some fire when Before The Storm was announced, mostly pertaining to queer representation on the writing staff. You’ve been very open about your lack of experience living life as a 16-year-old girl and the team’s use of memoirs to help fill gaps in their own life experiences. But it sounds like grief is also a major focus of BTS, and it’s something we all deal with. We’ve all lost people. That’s something everyone can relate to. So how much did the team rely on memoirs and other accounts (vs. their own experiences) for that subject?

Z: We did a lot of research. I’m a huge fan of research. I don’t think you can do too much, really. We looked at psychology — we went as far back as Freud — just to sort of see, from a clinical standpoint, how do we talk about grief right now. What do we think grief does. How does it work. One of the more interesting psychologists we read, a British psychologist from the 70s, he coined the phrase “killing the dead.” He defined the process of grieving as learning how to put away the person that you’ve lost. And I think that set us on a certain trajectory of thought.

Memoirs were immensely useful because it’s a personal account. It’s a first-person account of grief. So we read memoirs from contemporary female writers who’ve lost their parents. I think the oldest memoir I looked at was by C.S. Lewis. He wrote a book, called “A Grief Observed,” about the loss of his wife that still makes me tear up when I read it.

We look at all sorts of things. There are four of us in the writer’s room, two men and two women, and we’re at very different stages in our lives. And we come from very different backgrounds. But we all have [grief] in common. And that is something I’ve never experienced, working on a project collaboratively, having something so personal become something that the team, together, was willing to offer up in the room for the sake of the project. And it made the project immensely personal for us. And I think the reason why we did, the “how” of how we did it, was we were really kind of trusting that it wouldn’t be misused. That it would be fruitful. That it would be helpful. And, at times, maybe it does.

That kind of thing is hard to measure. Writing is a craft. We write and we rewrite. And we rewrite. And we rewrite. And then, at some point, you put the pencil down and you hope it’s good enough. You hope it’s right. And somewhere in there, there’s blood on the page because inevitably we all went to different moments. We all went to those personal dark spaces to figure out how to make a scene work. Figure out how to make a line work. Figure out how to make the episode work.

Life Is Strange
Rachel and Chloe hanging out at the Overlook. Photo: Deck Nine Games/Square Enix

So, going back to themes, it sounds like Before the Storm doesn’t just ask us to deal with grief. We also have to find ways to keep going.

Z: That’s a pretty good way to put it.

C: And the role of another person. They’re not going to pull you out of your grief or make it disappear. But they strengthen you in all the places where you’re broken. They’re going to be there, someone who shows up at just the right time, to get you through that moment. That’s the kind of relationship we built at the heart of the game.

Z: To look at that from a mechanic standpoint, because mechanics and input are what games have that other media don’t, look at it from “How is the player practicing and performing agency in the execution of the story?” Having this other person be part of your life.

For Chloe and Rachel, Rachel’s going through something. This perfect girl, with the perfect world, is about to have everything come crashing down. And for Chloe, imprisoned in her own grief, she has no reason to get up anymore in the morning. She just doesn’t want to get out of bed. Seeing someone, she suddenly cares about, need her empowers her. And it gives the player an opportunity to make choices and to solve problems and overcome obstacles. That act of being a little bit heroic, in a certain few moments, is the galvanizing force that makes Chloe feel a little bit better every day. And for us, that seemed too perfect for how a game could talk about grief in a way that a memoir couldn’t.

Given the nature of Before the Storm’s story, a prequel for characters we might not see again, was there concern fans wouldn’t care about earlier moments in Chloe’s life?

C: It helped that Rachel, in the first game, was kind of a mythical figure. You knew a lot about her, it seemed like everyone had something to say about Rachel. But you learned a lot of secrets about her along the way. She clearly was somebody that everybody thinks they know but don’t. So that gave us a lot of freedom with our story, especially going three years back, to create something that could still be a rich, unexpected story with those characters.

Z: I think it’s a reasonable question. Why go back and tell a story about Chloe if I know what’s going to happen to her? I think the answer lies in the content of the play.

Why write The Hobbit if you know about Lord of the Rings ?

Well the answer lies in the magic of The Hobbit . It fits to the story we know about Bilbo in Lord of the Rings but it’s also partly its own thing. The texture and the details and the characters and the arcs and the magic of that story stand on its own. That’s my answer to fans when they ask, “Why should we go back and see what happens to Chloe?”

Our hope is that the story of Before the Storm is a completely new look at her world. From an interior standpoint. New obstacles, new drama, new adventure that is worthy in and of itself.

Life Is Strange
Chloe gets into trouble...a lot. Photo: Deck Nine Games/Square Enix

Now that the first episode is out, we’re only a few hours removed from fans demanding more information on the second chapter of the story. Is there a timeline for Episode 2?

C: We don’t have an official date yet for episode two or three. But we’re aiming for something like eight to 10 weeks, from launch day, for the second episode and probably the same for the third after that.

Switching topics, Max’s time travel abilities in the first season of Life Is Strange changed the way we think about adventure games. Did Deck Nine feel any pressure to continue expanding the genre (mechanically) in Before the Storm?

C: Rewind was a fantastic power and great innovation for a game about choices and consequences. But we feel like it was the relationships and the characters and the real world situations were the most powerful part of Life is Strange. We knew we were sort of taking a bold move when we didn’t have a power. But we kind of hitched our wagon to that horse and just said, “If we make a really meaningful, emotional story with these characters that people love, we think people are going to respond to it.” And we got excited about the stories we could tell. So we kind of knew this would work. And it effects how choices and consequences play out when you don’t have the rewind power. Now, oh boy, you better think about that choice because you and Chloe are stuck with it. And that’s got its own ramifications for how the game feels to play.

Replacing the time powers wasn’t a priority but Deck Nine did add something new with the Backtalk system. How did you guys decide to make that a focus and are there any design elements, like the musical selections and diary UI from the first season, that’s used to really drive home Chloe’s perspective home?

C: Backtalk came out of us thinking about Chloe as a character and how we could express who she is in gameplay. In a way, the rewind did that for Max. Her sort of hesitant, cautious personality fits with rewind. But we weren’t thinking in terms of a power, with Backtalk, we just wanted gameplay systems that made Chloe come alive. It’s a way of challenging a person with words. That kind of back-and-forth sparring sounded like a lot of fun for us. When we talked about Chloe as a character, those were the things that made her seem like a really different and really fun character to be. We do have some other elements, the biggest other one being the graffiti system. Instead of the photographs that Max takes, that are collectibles for the game, Chloe finds places around the world, takes out her marker and makes her mark on something. That felt like an expression of Chloe that was a little different than Max. Max leaves no trace. A little more passive. Here’s Chloe who’s going to leave something behind. If you come back to a location where you left graffiti you’re going to see it again. And people react to it.

Z: Music is also a huge component. We partnered with a British indie folk band called Daughter to compose a completely original score for the game. And the work that we actually did with them was we wrote thematic descriptions of the major movements of the story, tied to characters embedded within certain moments, and we used that kind of theme structure to empower Daughter to write, specifically, the right music for each of these movements. And we’ll use them in various ways throughout the story to really make sure music is doing the best work it can at any given moment to make you feel what Chloe’s feeling.

And you brought up Max’s diary, which is another good system. We didn’t feel like Chloe would be the kind of person who has a diary. so we wrote letters to Max. She’s at a place in her life where she still writes her but she never sends them because she’s convinced Max doesn’t care anymore.

Will you there be a tutorial to explain to younger fans what writing a letter is?

Both: *laughs*

Z: Man, we didn’t do that.

C: They’re not going to get it at all.

Z: But it’s a designed use of “Hey, what did I do last scene? What did I do the scene before”

It’s a good reminder but it’s also got a very particular voice. And it’s reflecting this part of Chloe where she misses her best friend but she no longer is with her, believes in her or connects to her. And even over the course of the adventure, as Chloe’s relationships in Before the Storm might change, you might even see the tenor of what she’s writing ultimately shift.

Life Is Strange
Chloe is dealing with grief over her father's death. Photo: Deck Nine Games/Square Enix

So as much as the game is focusing on the relationship between Chloe and Rachel, and their friendship, it sounds like a lot of BTS deals with Chloe trying to figure out where she fits in Arcadia Bay. Particularly in the wake of losing two pillars, her father and best friend, that so many of us rely on in everyday life.

Z: You’re revealing that the feeling of having a relationship grow with Rachel isn’t exclusive with these other aspects of Chloe’s life. We really courted complexity in rounding her out as a character and really honoring the messy reality of life. Particularly when you’re a teenager and your hormones are crazy and everything is so loud and intense. And the way that I feel about Person A is going to affect how I feel about Person B and how I feel about school and how I feel about home. And it all just kind of turns into this giant hurricane of experience where “Who am I?” is a question that can easily get lost in that sea. And there are ways in which Rachel can be an anchor, a guiding star or a problem. Your choices are going to explore that. But we really tried to make that be messy in a way that’s thematically coherent and tells us a story with momentum and with purpose. But messy in the way that life is.

Was there anything else you wanted to squeeze in before our time is up?

C: We briefly mentioned music and I always love to talk about music because I’m really, really proud of what Daughter created for us and some of the licensed tracks we got in there.

It sounds pretty unique, compared to what we generally see from mainstream acts featured in new games. We see existing music used on soundtracks pretty frequently but an original score from an established act isn’t something we see very often.

C: It was a great collaboration. They really responded to the themes we handed to them and then we let them do their thing because they’re the experts. And what they turned out is just amazing. When we started putting those songs into our scenes they just really came to life and became so much more powerful emotionally. People will see a lot of that in Episode One. And the soundtrack, all the Daughter tracks and some brand new songs, are coming out on an album tomorrow (Sept. 1). So hopefully fans will get that.

One last question, you guys are working on the Farewell episode, which puts Max back in the spotlight. Is that coming after the other three episodes? And is it meant to be a final farewell to these characters?

Z: It’s not tied to Before The Storm, from a plot or timestamp perspective. It’s a different story, one that takes place before the events of Before the Storm. And you’re not playing as Chloe, you’re playing as Max. It’s an opportunity to return to that relationship, that core relationship that started the whole franchise. And, kind of full stop, that’s what we’re looking at it as. And we’re going to tell a very particular story about the two girls and a very particular time. But we’re not releasing any information beyond that just yet. It’s just sort of intended to give fans one more chance to see them.

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Life Is Strange: Before the Storm - Episode 1 is currently available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC. The second episode is expected later this fall.

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