'Life Is Strange 2' Team on Simulated and Real-World Violence: "Video Games Are Really Easy to Blame"
Known for its character development and storylines that echo real-world conflict, the episodic Life Is Strange series from publisher Square Enix and developer Dontnod Entertainment aims to empower players to consider the consequences of their actions and make thoughtful decisions.
The latest game in the series, Life Is Strange 2, introduces a whole new storyline and set of characters different from the 12th-grade students of Arcadia Bay who were the protagonists of the first installment. Brothers Sean and Daniel Diaz, two characters on the run from the law after an accident occurs at their home in Seattle and kills their father and a local police officer, take center stage this time around. The boys, one armed with a subtle and inexplicable power, flee Washington and begin a difficult journey to Mexico, thinking they can set up a life for themselves.
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Ahead of the release of the series' fourth episode Aug. 22, The Hollywood Reporter chatted with co-creative director Raoul Barbet — sans his directing partner Michel Koch — and lead writer Jean-Luc Cano about their vision for this second installment of the series.
"The first Life of Strange was meant to be a stand-alone game, and when Square Enix asked us to make the second season, we had to ask ourselves, 'What is the DNA of Life is Strange as a series and not as a stand-alone game,'" recalls Cano. "In Life is Strange 2, the main theme is education, so that’s why we wanted to give the power not to the main character, but to Daniel, the person he will have to educate. The player will see the consequences of his choices [correspond] to the power of Daniel and the way he will use it."
Life Is Strange 2 deals with heavy subjects of caregiving and education within the context of brotherhood, and there are few easy choices offered to the player. But within that, the game is a thrilling adventure that gamers play as a leisure activity. How did you approach balancing those two objectives?
Barbet: We asked ourselves what kind of game we wanted to create — we wanted to do something different from Life is Strange 1, to create something original for the players — and we began to [look at] the DNA of the game, with new scenes and subjects to explore within the interactive aspect of a video game. With the education subject and story of two brothers, it was interesting to put the player on the road for them to meet different people.
Did you look at educational games during your research?
Cano: When we were writing the first Life is Strange and also with the second, we did a lot of research — we read books about education, how to raise a kid, what are the good choices to make, what are the different phases a kid is going through. We also watched documentaries to ensure that we were as accurate as possible.
Barbet: Each state that the brothers are going to cross [required] more classic research for the environment and character teams, so we did a lot of interviews about people who want to live in the mountains, people who want to live differently. And we are French, so we have to be careful with all that so the subject and the people we describe are accurate.
Jean-Luc, you drew inspiration for this game from time spent with your daughter. Can you elaborate on the way your personal experience was funneled into the game?
Cano: It began with the first Life is Strange, when I had just become a dad during the game’s production. The subject of coming of age, growing old, taking responsibility — I took a lot from my own experience. When we began work on Life is Strange 2, my daughter was four years old, and everything I was doing or saying, she took it for an example. When I said to her, "You don’t say bad words," she told me, "Yeah, but you’re saying a lot of bad words when you’re driving." [I realized] everything I’m doing, I’m an example for her. So I discussed the theme of education a lot with Michel and Raoul, and I dug a lot into my own experience. When you put the player in the shoes of someone who has to be an example, every action, dialogue, will be taken to educate that [younger] individual.
The characters in the Life is Strange universe respond in a morally reprehensible manner not only to the actions of the player, but their personalities are influenced and shaped over the course of an entire game. How did you advance the AI this time around to continue the game's realistic approach?
Barbet: I think we have a lot of great examples of good AI in the game industry now, so we tried to focus on some aspects that will make these 3D characters realistic. It’s always complicated and it’s always very fun when you see some players really caring for 3D characters. We had a lot of discussions with the designer and animation team, and it took a lot of small animations, but also a lot of work with the actor in motion capture to make sure that you’ve got the small details a child can have. Then of course, on the dialogue, the cues the child could say, all the reactions he could have, it was really important to have all the small elements. It’s about finding the good moments and reactions. It’s a lot of work with the actor and voice actor for sure, but on the AI aspect it’s more about having a technique that creates believable animation.
This story takes place largely on the road; there’s a lot more movement than the previous Life is Strange. Were there adjustments made in the scriptwriting process as a result?
Cano: The main difference between the first and second game is that in the first one, you will spend five days in the same location of Arcadia Bay and meet characters in each new episode, slowly uncovering their personalities. That was the main focus of the first game. In Life is Strange 2, we really wanted to capture new themes and challenge ourselves to change what we wanted to do. That’s why we found that the road trip structure was really appropriate to tell the story of these two brothers. On the writing process, I don’t think it’s more difficult — but when you are meeting someone in Arcadia Bay, you will have five episodes to discover their personality. [In Life is Strange 2], when you have the chance to, you will meet new characters and then leave them behind to continue to your destination. You have to portray the new character really quick, so the player can decide if they can trust them or distrust them. You have to go straight to the point.
Barbet: We wanted to play with the aspect that when you meet someone, you very quickly have an opinion about them — and it may be the wrong one. The people that Sean and Daniel meet are maybe not people you would meet in everyday life in your own city or town. We wanted to put the player in situations where he could be with different people, and in real life, [maybe] the player will react a bit differently because of this story.
Can you talk about the visual influences for the game?
Barbet: We wanted to continue the same artistic direction — so that at the beginning of Life is Strange 2, or even Captain Spirit — [the player] recognizes something. We also wanted to show more quality in the animation, and continue with the lighting: that is very important in our game because of the cinematographic aspect, of course. I think the characters look beautiful in this new season. We tried to create more quality but keep the same soul. The road trip structure is also perfect for us to show a lot of different environments. If you cross California or other states, it’s incredible how many different landscapes you can have. It’s a beautiful country — from the hills, to the forest, to the desert, to the cliffs — it’s incredible, so we wanted to show that.
There are supernatural powers incorporated in Life is Strange, but I don’t think anyone would categorize it as a sci-fi game. What points did you emphasize during the development of LIS2 to ensure the game remained known chiefly for its narrative thread?
Cano: The first Life of Strange was meant to be a stand-alone game, and when Square Enix asked us to make the second season, we had to ask ourselves, 'What is the DNA of Life is Strange as a series and not as a stand-alone game?' The supernatural aspect is already a huge part of the DNA of the series, it’s linked to the narration and to the story we want to tell. In the first season, the winding back of time is linked to the weakness of Max because she was afraid of growing old and the ability to wind back time and change decisions was linked to a weakness. In Life is Strange 2, the main theme is education, so that’s why we wanted to give the power not to the main character, but to Daniel, the person he will have to educate. The player will see the consequences of his choices [correspond] to the power of Daniel and the way he will use it. I think for the supernatural element, it will not cheapen the story because we will never explain where the power comes from. The thing that is important is the way you are using the power and the decisions you will make by using the power.
Video games and their possible negative effects have come under the microscope in recent weeks. Having made a game that isn’t violent, is there anything you’d like to add to the conversation?
Barbet: I think it’s a very difficult debate and subject. I think it’s a bit too easy to say "This is the reason" — it’s much more complicated than that. We all know that every medium can be violent and when you say that we create games that are not violent, I think Life is Strange could also be very dark, because we create realistic stories that are taking place in our world, and our world is violent. I think if we want to be respectful of a teenager’s story on the road, we have to talk about some subjects because its reality. The terrible events [of recent weeks] carry a lot of bad reasons, but on a personal point of view, I think it’s a bit too simple to say that video games are the reason. I don’t think if we ended all video games tomorrow there would be no violence in the world. If it was that easy, we would have done that before.
Cano: When you have something dramatic happen in life, like El Paso, you are searching for something to blame. Video games are really easy to blame, but it’s not the core of the problem. There are a lot of countries where there are lot of video games and there is no such thing like what happened, so the problem is not video games, the problem is the violence of society. Video games don’t make people violent, our society creates the violence.
Are there other recent games that you feel exemplify a powerful narrative and push boundaries in gameplay?
Cano: To be honest, I was really amazed by recent games like Red Dead Redemption 2, I think it’s the feeling of freedom that I have while playing the game is incredible. The story, the characters, are fantastic. I can’t imagine the amount of work to create a game like this. In the last year it was one of the games that I loved the most. Another game that blew my mind the most was Shadow of the Colossus, because every feeling that I felt while I was playing the game totally changed my mind. Even today when I’m playing the game, I can’t describe the feeling I have.
Barbet: Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of time to play games, but if I have to pick one, I always talk about What Remains of Edith Finch. After playing this one, I think, we have work to do [laughs]. It’s a great way to use narrative and gameplay. I know I have to play Return of the Obra Dinn, a lot of people told me it is great.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
by Graeme McMillan
by Graeme McMillan
by Richard Newby