The original Life is Strange from Dontnod Entertainment turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of 2015. As an episodic adventure game focusing on the everyday struggles of Max, a high-schooler and outcast in a small town, her life gets even more complicated when she discovers the ability to turn back time. Subverting the mundanity of everyday life with a supernatural undercurrent, the twists and turns that its story took while simultaneously telling an incredibly heartfelt and tragic tale of young love between Max and fellow outsider Chloe, it earned itself a lot of praise from fans. After the release of its prequel Before The Storm, the developers were ready to move onto the next game in the series, now centering around the story of two brothers on the run.
Set three years after the first game, Life is Strange 2 focuses on the new central characters Sean and Daniel Diaz. After a tragic run-in with the police, Sean and his younger brother flee from home, leaving everything they know behind. With some ties to The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, and some connections to the first game, the story of the two brothers and their loyalty to one another will be tested. With every choice leaving an impression, the sequel’s story will offer more branches than the original, leading to some unexpected consequences for the young duo. We sat down with Life is Strange 2’s lead writer Christian Divine and voice-over director Philip Bache, who talked about the daunting task of living up to the original, while also expressing their excitement on crafting a new story.
Though this is a sequel, it’s also its own unique story. Can you talk about what it was like coming up with something brand new, that retains a similar dynamic, while also not stepping on the toes of the original? It must have been challenging trying to follow up the first game.
Christian Divine: Yeah. Michel Koch [co-director] and Jean-Luc Cano [co-writer], who came up with the original story, they wanted to move forward with this game. We all love Max and Chloe and all the other characters, but we wanna be ambitious and keep moving forward and expand the universe. It’s not just those characters. So the exciting thing is just to explore a different kind of relationship, the sibling relationship, which evolves. Education and experience, in a road trip format. We all love this kind of road trip format because it opens you up to all these really cool narrative experiences you can have, and other characters you meet along the way.
We all knew we were gonna do something different and weren’t gonna do the same characters, same story. So I think it was not so much a challenge for us in that sense, but it was more of a challenge when it came to the players, because they love those characters so much, to get them to embrace these characters on this journey was the biggest challenge I think in terms of it.
Philip Bache: We also have the same core team from the original, and there’s a lot of trust among the different departments [at Dontnod]. But it’s a challenge in that we know how much Life is Strange 1 is loved and we’re pushing it. For me, I think we’re all beating up what we’re doing so much more now. So I definitely feel the pressure in the voiceover booth. I can feel the pressure from the team. But we’re taking it head on. I do appreciate the challenge. If it was to keep going the same way and we were gonna keep doing that, it’s like we can’t–but there is a threshold for everyone for a story. For one person it might be like, “Oh, I could have fun with Max and Chloe for 10 years.”
Other people might be like one year. For me, what’s interesting is the new characters, you’re gonna fall in love with just as much. If we did our jobs, you will. If we didn’t, people aren’t gonna enjoy it. But from what I’ve seen, it’s been great. I’m a tough critic, but I’ve loved everything we’ve been working on, everything I’ve seen that was written, everything.Christian Divine: I think the main thing is that as an artist and creator–it may sound cliché or pretentious but it’s not–you wanna challenge yourself and you wanna move forward. Art is like evolution. You should move forward.
To speak on challenges a little more, did you have to come up with a lot of ways to not disrupt one player’s view of what the LiS canon was? Since the original had multiple ending, and this game is set years after and some characters from the original will return, did you feel you have to make story choices that wouldn’t go against certain decisions fans made?
CD: Right, well–there’s no canon to us. There’s definitely a canon for the player. The player is the one that determines the outcome. The player is the one that says, “it’s bae or bay” [a reference to the defining choice in LiS1]. They decide that and that’s what they care about. It’s not up to anybody, us to say no. Because it’s not canon. Otherwise you’d have one ending only. That would be canon. The point of a choose-your-adventure book or a genuine adventure narrative, is for you to dictate what the outcome is, all based on your choices. So I think you’re always gonna have, based on the amount of choices, several different endings. We’re gonna have different branches in Life is Strange 2.
PB: You know what’s tough about that is it would almost kinda stink for a player in a way to say, yeah you played the game, you made a choice but this one was right or this one was wrong. That kinda takes away everything of what the gameplay and the experience is of Life is Strange. So if I made a choice and then it turned out canon was the other thing, it would kinda stink.
Also, that’s a huge challenge for any sequel now, to creatively come up with a story that fits within the universe, while also allowing the player to still have that choice. It’s tough but I prefer it that way. Who’s to say what other properties under the Life is Strange umbrella will do with some of the story, or what could be considered canon. Also to follow up what I said earlier, there’s also still the supernatural element as well. There’s still core characters that hopefully you’ll fall in love with. But I think a lot of what Life is Strange is about is supernatural, core characters you can really fall in love with. A very grounded story. That’s what I loved about the first one.
It’s usually challenging to come up with ways to offer a decent balance for those types of stories.
PB: Yeah, but it’s also like the groundwork of the story, which is what I want. Then it feels real.
CD: That’s actually how you make people believe the supernatural. You create a very similar to that and then you can pull them in. I mean, Stephen King is the master and he became literally popular in the ’70s because he was literally creating blue collar supernatural horror and nobody had ever done that before. Nobody had ever said, “What if the washing machine might eat you? What if the beer can has a hole in it and you start getting toxified? What if your dog goes rabid?” It’s a very mundane, suburban situations and he pulls in that supernatural element into it. So you buy it based on the setting of it.
You’ve kept a lot of the game under wraps for a while, and it’s already going to be released fairly soon. Can you talk about of the biggest successes you’ve had with creating the game, while also some of the challenges you had?
CD: Good question; I’d say the biggest challenge of course was writing varied, diverse characters, and make them believable. As a writer, your job is to make these characters that are so different and unique, believable. So that to me is always a challenge. But what I’m proud of the most with this game is that I think we’ve hit that level of engagement in terms of the characters and their relationships in creating a world that has these social issues that we’re gonna deal with, along with elements of the supernatural story. So I feel like we’re nailing this particular new world where the player can decide its fate. The acting of the kids are wonderful and the team did a great job directing them. It’s hard to direct kids by the way. It’s one of the hardest things, literally the hardest thing to do I think is direct kids.
But I’m also proud of the narrative expansion of our game. I am proud of the fact that I really feel like we’re pushing narrative boundaries and hopefully creating something new. And it’s a wonderful new wave of this. Not just for Life is Strange. It’s a wonderful new era of storytelling. So it’s fantastic to be part of it and it’s great to see storytelling finally reflect and start evolving to the place where it should be. Games are a very young industry when you look at it. It’s only 30 years old technically. From palm to digital is only 30 years and now we’re at this point we have the technology and now the narration needs to jump up and start matching. The storytelling needs to rise to the technology.
PB: The thing I’ve been most proud about has been a lot of people don’t know that my job exists. A lot of people, it’s disregarded. If I did my job correctly, hopefully it stands out. I think I’ve been lucky, not just with the Life is Strange projects, but with other projects and be able to show that, “Well, if I’ve been able to do it this many times, hopefully there’s something to it for the people who are good at it.”
That’s been the thing I’ve been most proud of, is pushing performances in games to mean something. Because a game like this really, I think, it needs it. If it doesn’t have it as much as in other games like this, or any other game, then our fans are gonna make that clear. So I’ve pushed the performances pretty hard with everybody else. That’s difficult. But maybe the most difficult is knowing how much people are gonna have a closer eye on Life is Strange 2 because of how much they love Life is Strange 1. We’re all pushing ourselves, I think, harder than before.