We talk with the developers behind Before the Storm about meeting fan expectations in following up a huge title like Life is Strange.
Life is Strange was a cult hit when it was released last year, and while there is a sequel in the works by the original developer, a separate team is taking lead on the prequel. Titled Before the Storm, this game will be an episodic adventure like Life is Strange, but this time the action will focus on a sixteen-year-old Chloe Price.
To learn more about the development of the title, we talked with Zak Garriss (lead writer on Before the Storm) and David Hein (producer at Deck Nine) about living up to fan expectations and why having a shorter game fit the story they're trying to tell. Our final questions was about which game they think you should play first; you probably won't be surprised by the answer, but you can scroll to the end of the interview for their answer.
GameSpot: Did any of the team from Life is Strange come over to work with you on Before the Storm, or do you coordinate with them on this project?
Zak Garriss: From the first concept through production until now, before The Storm was entirely Deck Nine, working separately from Dontnod. We're working with a core team at Square [the publisher] that worked on the first game as well, the designers and producers there. And the same VO director worked with us as well.
A couple of months ago, I did go to Paris. I shared the first episode in its entirety at that stage with the directors and the writer of the first game. I just, kind of, put the controller in their hands, they played through for four hours. Watching them laugh at the jokes and freeze up at the surprising moments was a pretty huge moment for us at Deck Nine. I think we identify as fans of the game before anything else. So getting to share what we did with them was a huge milestone. But we've been developing Before The Storm separately from them.
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Do you think players, because you don't have the same time mechanic as the first game, that people will play this multiple times, to see how different actions might play out? Or do you think people are more likely to treat this experience as a linear, one-time game?
ZG: We've designed the concept to be a very branching in its complexity, and the farther along you go in the story the more and more different sort of scenes you might see versus what I might see. Based on that, we always focus on the relationships that you've developed with the characters versus their relationships that I've developed. So I think there is a lot of replayability in this experience. I am curious about the ways in which Max, as a character, is prone to second-guess, is prone to kind of rewind and try something else. And I think that encourages trying different solutions; where Chloe just barrels through a problem, she's just going to deal with whatever the aftermath could be. That might inform the way players approach the content.
And the original Life is Strange has a very vocal, passionate community; does that frighten you guys as developers? Especially with reading comments and forums, some people have already decided how they feel about this game without playing it.
ZG: Well, yeah and I think people make decisions for sure. [laughs] I would say, and I hope I think this is true, it's never static. People have opinions of the content they've seen; they're going to see new content, and they'll form new opinions. Then they get the controller in their hands, play the game, and form new opinions then. At the end of the day, it is such an incredible privilege to work with a franchise that has such a fiercely invested community, that cares so much. They're going to be so critical. They're going to want the game to be wonderful in a lot of different ways. And we're very sensitive to that because we're fans before we're developers. We want to honor the bar that Deck Nine set with the first game and we want to really challenge and captivate and connect with the fans who love that world.
What made you guys want to take on a project like this? Because it is a challenge when you have something that people might see as a self-contained experience. Even though this is going to be a prequel, it's going to tell a story that doesn't overwrite the one that's there before. But you're a different team coming in--that automatically sets a pretty high challenge bar.
ZG: I don't want to speak for everyone, but for me, as the lead writer on the project, a big part of it was the chance to live in Chloe's world. To write a character who's so broken, so vulnerable, and so relatable. Because of that, and the kind of story that we can tell with her, and the kind of story that fits within the world of Arcadia Bay and the world of Life is Strange, it's the kind of story that I think celebrates difference and normalizes flaws.
It has a kind of inclusivity to it that I don't see in a lot of games, that I don't see in a lot of media period. This is a small story an intimate story about being sixteen, about being lost, about grieving the loss of someone you love, about meeting someone new. And these are sort of universal experiences that we all have. This isn't about fantastical monsters or crazy combat; and I love games that do all of those things, too. But this is something different.
I think the chance to work within the franchise and the IP--huge pressure. [laughs] Enormous pressure. But it's a joy, an absolute privilege. Because what they did was so different with the first game, and now what we're doing with the franchise as a whole, this is groundbreaking stuff. We all just feel so grateful to get a chance to be a part of it.
This is probably more technical, and I'm asking more because we've seen so much interest recently on bringing games over to Nintendo Switch, but is choosing what platforms you bring the project to, is that something that's decided on the Square side or on the development side?
David Hein: Yeah it's a conversation with a lot of different variables and a lot of different considerations. We talk through all of those things with Square Enix, internally talking about technological challenges there for supporting multiple platforms, as well as business concerns. All different manner of variables. At this time, it's just PS4, Xbox One, and PC that we're supporting.
It's obviously a more story-focused game, but is there anything that you're thinking about for the PS4 Pro or the Xbox One X that makes it a better game on those platforms?
DH: We will support the features set of Xbox One X and PS4 Pro--4K upscaling, those sorts of things. So that's a benefit there. A lot of what we look at is: How can we make the best game possible? How can we tell the richest story possible? And what's the best way to do that?
You've said before that the game will probably run six to nine hours, which is a little shorter than the first game. What drove the decision to tell this story in a more condensed three-episode format instead of five?
ZG: It actually wasn't quite that "shape" of a decision. When we were first talking to Square about what we would do with the IP and what kind of a story we would tell in Arcadia Bay, we weren't looking at a particular length over another. We were contemplating stories of all shapes and sizes. What really it came down to is: the story we found that, for Chloe in this chapter of her life, it genuinely felt like about a three-episode story. As opposed to taking what we were all really in love with and excited by and trying to try change it to fit a larger model, making it a three-episode story seemed like it. Ultimately, that's what we decided to do.
A lot of game development planning seems to start with features and gameplay, and then building a story around those mechanics. With such a narratively focused game, did you feel like you really had the skeleton of that story laid out before diving into development, or did that creation go hand-in-hand?
ZG: Very much hand-in-hand.
DH: When we first started to think about what kind of a story we were telling, we were simultaneously thinking about what kind of game mechanics we would want to use. What is this game? From a design standpoint from a narrative standpoint, what is the experience that we want to craft in going back to Arcadia Bay? And the two, in our studio, in our culture, are designed simultaneously. The story is the foundation of the franchise and the foundation of this game. But interaction and agency is the way by which you get that story. And you participate but become complicit in that story. So we cared a lot about, and we think very hard about, the different ways we're allowing the player to influence that world, interact with that world, solve problems in that world. And the ways in which those mechanics create agency and create ownership over Chloe's life, over who she is as a character, over the relationships that you're building in that world. So we see the two as working, by necessity, very closely together. As we answer questions on one front, we're answering questions on the other.
Were there any ideas or mechanics that surprised you when developing the game? Or were there any ideas, when you were playing through the original game, that you really wanted to do, and now you get the chance to make yourself?
ZG: Yeah, so we don't want to spoil the features we haven't announced yet, but I will say that at Deck Nine, culturally, we look at design in a very heuristic way. It's a process of discovery. We come up with some exciting ideas, but it's not until we create a prototype, then we can put it into a space and try it out, iterate upon it, and figure out what's good and what's not.
The act of discovery is so exciting and so dynamic that, often, really great ideas on paper may not translate to the space. A planned idea on paper might suddenly blossom, and when you're playing through it, you're like, "Oh! This is what it is. Definitely. This is so much fun; we didn't see this coming." I think that joy of exploration, of what's fun in the space is a big part of what drives the development. Sorry I don't want to spoil the specifics, but we've definitely had that experience with this title.
Last question, for people who didn't finish the first game, do you recommend that players go back and finish Life is Strange, and then come in and play Before the Storm? Or do you feel like it doesn't matter what order you play these two in?
DH: It's really intentional for us that no matter which title you come to first, you can play through it, enjoy it, and then go play the other title. Nothing in our game will spoil anything from the original game. And likewise if you've played the original game, you'll find all sorts of familiar faces and characters and locations. It will be a lot of fun and are kind of Easter Eggs, in a way.
ZG: The only recommendation I have is to play both. [laughs]