FEATURE: "Life is Strange" Interview and Hands-on Impressions
A quick look at Square Enix and Dontnod's new adventure, and some words with founder Jean-Maxime Moris
There's a lot of talk among gamers that adventure games aren't really games, because you're not, I dunno, walking around or flipping switches or climbing up a bunch of stuff endlessly, that it's all dialogue. See, to me, the dialogue of an adventure game is the game, and you get more invested in the story and world because the focus is on that instead of having to compete with other mechanics. While this doesn't always work out, adventure games can really go out of their way to deliver unforgettable characters and stories, and in the case of Telltale's critically-acclaimed The Walking Dead seasons, offer intimate and sometimes devastating consequences for your gaming experience.
It's with the Telltale spirit in mind that Dontnod Entertainment (Remember Me) has teamed with Square Enix to bring us Life is Strange, a five-part episodic adventure game. Late last week, I got the chance to play the first chapter of Life is Strange, the story of Maxine Caulfield, a girl finishing up high school in Blackwell Academy, a school tucked away in tiny Arcadia Bay, Oregon. While she gets to live in her own dorm and is studying photography under an artist she admires, it's still high school, and it still kinda sucks--everything is as you'd expect until a chance encounter with an old friend reveals Max's mysterious time-control powers and a bigger conspiracy starts creeping around the corner.
I was lucky enough to get to sit down with Jean-Maxime Moris, creative director for Dontnod and one of the minds behind Life is Strange. After fanboying a little over Remember Me (and coming clean on what I didn't like as much), Moris revealed some of the process and challenges of bringing Arcadia Bay--and Max herself--to life.
So with Life is Strange, you guys are really going for cliffhanger moments, really thinking about the game when you're not playing it and reflecting on your choices and how they affect Max and her world. What made you make the switch from the more direct one-shot feel of Remember Me to this episodic structure?
Jean-Maxime Moris: I think it's just because--over the course of Remember Me's development, which took five years--we basically started from scratch and wanted to tell one story all in one go. Since then, episodic content really came to the world in a big way in, on TV with Game of Thrones and in games with The Walking Dead and in movies with The Avengers, and we just wanted to be a part of this very generous format in terms of narrative, characters, and choice. We also needed to do something smaller in scale than Remember Me--we could have done something smaller that was not episodic, but we felt this was a more interesting way to go.
This certainly does feel a lot more personal, and I'm really getting into Max's head. Remember Me was this big, crazy cyberpunk battle for Paris, but now you're going more the indie-film route, with a school in Oregon. You were saying you wanted to go smaller--this is a great area and totally Hipstertown, USA, so what made you go rural instead of, say, San Francisco or Austin or another hipster paradise?
JM: Remember Me was set in a futuristic Paris, a huge metropolis, so we wanted to make something different on many fronts. One of those was the game's setting--we're based in Europe, so we went to America and visited many different locations, and we wanted something more intimate, and we finally settled on Oregon. The place's tone is very nostalgic--if it were a season, it would probably be autumn. Life is Strange is a coming-of-age tale, and nostalgia is about looking back, and the warmth of the memories and the chill of past failures. Summer is coming to an end, but there are new beginnings in autumn--it's not winter, and you feel very in-between in terms of your moods and perspective. Oregon really conveys the feeling of autumn, trees and the lighting, the fog--it's a very beautiful place, and we tried to convey that feeling in Arcadia Bay.
You guys are a new studio, and Life is Strange is only your second game. While you still have plenty of time to develop a "Dontnod style," I'm already seeing parallels--Chloe looks like she could belong in Remember Me, and there's just that ineffable feel with actual strong female protagonists. Without giving anything away, what are some themes you can talk about for people who've played and enjoyed Remember Me, and for people who've actually never played Remember Me that would attract them to Life is Strange?
JM: First off, this is something I just realized--I think at Dontnod, what we're doing is looking at human identity and what it means to be a person. In Remember Me, it was memory digitization, how we are the sum of our memories, and how changing memories can change a person, or change the world. Life is Strange is about making choices as a high school student, since those are the years in your life where you make a lot of life-defining choices that determine what kind of adult you become. If Remember Me was a digital look at the human identity, Life is Strange is the analog look at the same theme--Max takes photos, which is another way of saving and making memories. I think there's a very strong theme that ties the two together.
The second would be a defining mechanic, in this case Life is Strange's time rewinding compared to Remember Me's memory remixing. Although the two games look and feel and play very differently, and they are different, they have these themes and feelings tying them together.
I did see some anime influence in Remember Me--there's only the barest hint of it in Life is Strange, which is more of a slice-of-life, day-to-day down-home feeling. What can you tell me about the visual influences for Life is Strange?
JM: You're right, Remember Me was influenced by Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and other classic cyberpunk anime. For Life is Strange, though, we went for a belief of "the more realistic a character is, the less people can identify with it." If I took a picture of you with a camera, you're the only one who will really identify with it, because it's very clearly you. If I draw a smiley on the wall, everyone can identify with it since everyone has two eyes and a mouth. By hand-painting every character and texture in the game, you allow the viewer--the player--to input more of his or her own reality, perspective, emotion into the character. Again, this is about identity, who we are and how we become who we are, and we really want to make you identify with Max as much as possible. You discover her world at the same time she does.
What are some adventure games that have really stuck with you?
JM: We all grew up with Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island and the other great LucasArts games. Recently, though, it's Telltale--they turned everything upside down. If there was a Triforce of influences for us, I would have to say The Walking Dead for structure and approach to the modern adventure game recipe, Gone Home for its themes and protagonist and approach to environmental storytelling, and finally Heavy Rain for its focus on pushing production values and emotion forward. By not going with a realistic look and sticking with impressionistic visuals, we hope to be somewhere at the crossroads of those three.
Life is Strange has an awesome soundtrack--will we be able to get this at some point?
JM: I hope so! This is something that we're obviously talking about, as we put a lot of emphasis on music in the game. It's part of the nostalgic atmosphere, so there's licensed music and a wonderful score by Jonathan Morali, who's the frontman of a band called Syd Matters. We really hope we can bring that soundtrack to everyone.
Finally, just a personal thing, what are you playing right now?
JM: I am currently playing Child of Light, and it's beautiful.
Now, I'm going to give a quick walkthrough of the beginning of Life is Strange's first episode. It begins with a storm--although "storm" is kind of an understatement, as this tornado is less an "act of nature" and more "the fist of an angry god," bearing down on the tiny seaside town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon. These are clean visuals that evoke the feeling of a painted graphic novel, showing a creative and artistic use of Unreal technology similar to Guilty Gear Xrd -SIGN- stretching what could be done with the engine. Maxine Caulfield ("Max" to just about everybody) watches helplessly, then suddenly jolts awake, having dozed off in her photography class--it was just a dream.
You can check little details like what's inside Max's pencil case or her notebook, but conversations don't stop just because you're busy--your teacher will call you out if you're not paying attention, and you can interrupt class with your actions (you're actually encouraged to do it to get the story going). I forgot just how bitchy teenage girls can be, and Max takes quite the lashing from stuck-up sorta-villainess Victoria. Roleplaying your character (in my case, I play Max as dry and take-no-crap as Daria Morgendorffer) shapes other characters' reactions to you, and Max is kind enough to give her thoughts on every student you decide to focus on. A bunch of assholes giving a nerdy kid a hard time, that one couple who just won't stop making out, the popular cheerleader who's really nice but it's hard not to be catty about, that other couple who only knows how to fight publicly... welcome back to high school.
Despite the familiar, almost-cliche setting and the chill folk-rock song playing in the background (I half-expect Zach Braff to show up at any moment), Life is Strange doesn't feel pretentious or artificial, but rather comes off as effortless and nostalgic. I'm back in high school, and--as a perpetual new kid due to growing up as a military brat--I'm instantly familiar with this feeling. With class over, Max heads to the restroom, stressed about a big assignment for her photography class. She tears up the photo she's already made, and luckily another opportunity shows up--a beautiful blue butterfly flits in through the bathroom window, and Max heads behind the stalls to snap a picture.
It's a perfect shot, but Max isn't alone for long. A boy comes into the girls' bathroom, muttering to himself about how he's not going to let anybody push him around any more. "It's okay, Nathan, don't stress, you're the boss," he keeps repeating, until he's joined by a tough-looking girl with blue hair. She threatens Nathan for money, and mentions something about how he's been giving drugs to other kids in the school. She threatens blackmail, at which point Nathan pulls a gun on her. Max can only watch, frozen with fear, as the two start to fight, and suddenly the girl is shot in the struggle. Max screams out, and suddenly she's back in her seat, back where she last woke up from a vivid, all-too-real nightmare.
The game gives me a quick tutorial of Max's newly-activated time-rewind mechanic, letting me experience the conversation in photography class again, only this time I get to put Victoria in her place by knowing the answer to the teacher's question, Groundhog Day-style. Earning the teacher's approval (and learning which answers get the best responses from people), Max gets to leave class quickly and try to prevent the girl from getting shot. In the restroom, everything happens the exact same--the butterfly comes in, the boy comes in, the gun comes out--only this time, through some trial and error, some time rewinding, and a simple puzzle using objects in the back of the bathroom, Max is able to set off the fire alarm and keep the mystery girl safe.
I actually ended up playing the entire first chapter of Life is Strange during my time there, but that's all for now--we'll have a full group review later when we've had time to play through and really digest what this first episode means to us. I'm a little disappointed that I'm unable to use Max's powers the way I would--rewinding time to deliver the perfect burn to the people who need it most--but Max isn't nearly as mean as I am, and the game is really good about not telling you what to do aside from a few subtle, general hints.
Will you be checking out Dontnod and Square Enix's episodic adventure game Life is Strange? It's hitting PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One this Friday--sound off in the comments and let us know what you think about this upcoming game!