It's the last day of E3. Everyone on the show floor is bleary eyed. Tired. There's a palpable exhaustion; it washes over the crowd in waves, rising and falling to the beat of the trashy EDM songs that flood the halls.
My final appointment is an interview with members of the team on Life is Strange: Before the Storm; writer Zak Garriss, and co-director Chris Floyd. This can be a blessing or a curse. Interviewees are either laid back and open, or drained – falling back on perfunctory PR-friendly answers.
Thankfully, what I got was an earnest, honest discussion about how games often celebrate excellence, with stories about achieving goals and accomplishing the impossible. About how the team at Deck Nine is hoping to tell a story about mundane failures, that acknowledge day-to-day struggles. And, about shaping the medium for generations to come.
NZGamer.com: Life is Strange had a definitive ending, so it’s not surprising that you want to go back and tell a prequel story. What made you want to tackle Chloe’s backstory though?
Zak: Chloe’s a very different character from Max – in a lot of ways. There’s almost a paradoxical complexity to her. She’s really strong, fierce, aggressive. But she’s also vulnerable, she’s frail – there’s a pain to her, that I think is really authentic.
I feel like that nature, that kind of hero, potential for a player character like that – that’s very unusual in games. We’re really excited to explore a story based in her world, her reality, that feels so authentic. That feels so real. We think fans are really going to resonate with that.
It’s also a shorter season – is this because it fills a gap narratively? Or did you plan the tale you wanted to tell in that timeframe?
Zak: Yeah when we first imagined the prequel we would tell, we really didn’t restrict ourselves to any particular length. We focused on what we’re most passionately about, and we shared that with Square., and we had a lot of dialogue around that.
That result felt like a 6 - 9 hour story, so it was like “Let’s make that three episodes” [laughs]
Life is Strange also dealt with a lot of incredibly tough issues – bullying, assault, stuff like that. And Chloe had an incredibly hard time growing up. Are you looking to explore similar things?
Zak: Absolutely. I think Dontnod had a lot of courage in what they put the lens on. Their game, the issues you’re describing – we see that as a cornerstone of the franchise. So we’re definitely choosing to do the same.
We take that very seriously. I think it’s one of the most special qualities to what Life is Strange is.
Zak: And at Deck Nine we’re so passionate about doing it right, doing it carefully. That’s why Chloe again was the kind of character we ended up really wanting to be a part of, because of her background, her history, the hurt that she’s had. I feel like there’s a lot of potential to explore there.
One of the things is also tackling those issues with respect and the gravity they deserve. In the first season, each episode finished with a hotline to different places you could call if you had a hard time. Are you looking at doing anything to address these issues at the end of each episode, where people can reach out and find someone?
Zak: Yeah. I think with every – I don’t want to call them special topics. But yeah, when we go to dark places we’re being very careful about the kind of materials that we’re using. Research, and the foundations that we’re building from, and the kind of materials and communications we’ll share – through the UI, through the game, just like they did with the first one. Where it feels appropriate.
Chris: And one of the things that Life is Strange did well, was it approached all those issues, not in any kind of cheap or callous way. With a very honest eye, without any kind of agenda. So that’s really the other qualities that we wanted to apply when we’re addressing some of that serious stuff.
One of the PR reps outside was telling me that Life is Strange has one of the biggest social media followings out of any of Square Enix’s licenses. Dontnod also won themselves a BAFTA for their first season. Has that put any pressure on you to step up?
Chris: Yeah, yeah!
Pressure is definitely the right word. To be totally honest, there’s a lot of pressure. But it’s also just a great privilege. To be able to build on that franchise, and to build on the foundation that they’ve laid out – we’re really standing on the shoulders of giants, and we couldn’t be prouder to be doing that. And trying to fulfil the fans’ expectations – since we’re fans ourselves, Y’know?
Chris: And that makes it that-much easier. So, that’s really our driving goal all the time.
So [Zak], for you personally as a writer, what was the story you wanted to tell here?
Zak: I wanted to look at a character who was broken. A character who maybe questions from day-to-day “Can I make it? Who am I even right now, what is my future going to be like?”
I’m passionate, I’m interested in normalising that. We celebrate excellence in a lot of ways in stories, and I think there’s a space for that. But I also think there’s a space to recognise and validate having a hard time. Full stop.
Like, I mean, being sixteen, and not know who you are. Being alone, being alienated. Feeling like you’re never going to get over grief. Something that was really interesting to me, the idea of grieving, the idea of – for a time after loss, a time of unknown length – feeling like a fundamentally different person. Not knowing when that’s going to change, not knowing when you’re not going to feel alone anymore.
I have gone through that myself, and I know other members of the writing team as well. And what I hope to do, we hope to do with the story, is to put the player in the shoes, and to ask thoughtful and careful questions about what it means to hurt that way. And to really – at the same time – explore how incredible it can be when you’re in a place like that, and you meet someone who changes your world. Either because you need them, and/or they need you.
And how you can learn in a moment that “oh yeah, the way I felt yesterday, that’s not the way I’m always going to feel – that there are other ways to feel.” And to me, that’s the heart of the human condition. That’s the heart of what it is to connect, or not to connect with each other. So that, Chloe as a vehicle for exploring that, Arcadia Bay at this time and this place, is a space to raise questions about that, and tell a story within that kind of setting – it’s incredibly exciting.
And we’re all so proud of what we’re doing in Before the Storm, and so hopeful that fans are going to like it.
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