Life is Strange 2 offers an interesting challenge for French developer Dontnod Entertainment. It's the sequel to a beloved game, yet it's also a brand new adventure with brand new characters and scenarios. We've now experienced two parts of the five-episode season and have gotten to know brothers Daniel and Sean Diaz and we recently caught up with Dontnod's co-game directors Michel Koch and Jean-Luc Cano (who also serves as a writer on the game).
"We first asked ourselves, what is Life is Strange?" says Cano of the process of coming up with the concept for the second game. "What is the real DNA of the game? Is it about Max and Chloe? Is it about Arcadia Bay? Is it about teenagehood? And we talked a lot about it and we figured out that the Life is Strange franchise is about relatable characters, everyday characters, facing social themes and everyday issues and with a little bit of supernatural stuff."
"When we were at this point, we had the real DNA, so it's not only about Max and Chloe, and Arcadia Bay, it's about this. So we came up with the story of Sean and Daniel and the new settings. Of course, we are really attached to these characters, [they're] like our kids, you know? But we also wanted to challenge ourselves and tell a new story and use different narrative ways or new themes we wanted to explore, new issues we wanted to tackle. And we thought it a good way to prove ourselves," explains Cano.
"I think as video game creators, making a game is a long [process], between the very first conception of a game and the release it can be three to sometimes even more than three years," continues Koch. "So I would say it's a chance for us to be able to work on a new story and a new set of characters, because in the end when you're writing and making games you make what 8-10 games in your career, maybe. So it's cool to really challenge ourselves, like Jean-Luc said, and try to talk about new subjects, create a new story, create new characters that we hope will be compelling and be able to not just do the same again and try new things. It's really great as creators."
The new story in Life is Strange kicks off as brothers Sean and Daniel flee Seattle where they grew up, with events taking place after an incident that saw their father get shot by a policeman, with Daniel causing an explosion that sent the officer flying. As such the game is something of a road trip as the duo travel the road south towards the mythical Mexican hometown of their father. The older brother Sean (controlled by the player) is very much a guide and mentor for Daniel who struggles with the situation and his newfound ability.
One thing that we feel the franchise and the current season in particular excels at is it's quiet moments, the more or less normal situations that don't necessarily introduced any sort of urgency or drama.
"It's something that was really important for us in the first game, and the second game, is letting the player take his time," says Koch. "I think that's something we really like, we're really fans of, to have those moments you don't see that much I would say in video games where you can just enjoy the scenery or take time as a player to let the characters process, to realise what is happening, to think about his decisions. The world we live is really fast where everything has to move fast, everything has to be in a tempo with a lot of beats and sometimes it's just cool to have the time to relax a bit, to think about everything.
"An even better reason, it's all about contrast," continues Koch. "When you have a slow sequence where you are building up some narrative elements you're taking time to, like in episode two, to enjoy your last night with Daniel in the old house taking the time to play a dice game to just be there and enjoy this small place that they found in the woods, cause when things start to go crazy the next morning and we have this ramp-up of action with what happened with the cougar, it brings, of course, contrast and I would say rhythm and life to the pacing of the game."
We had to interject here and say that, with all due respect, we hate them (Cano & Koch) just a little bit for the cougar incident. "Yeah, sorry about that. We know," says Koch with a laugh, as we discuss the heartbreaking scene early in the second episode.
One of the key moments in the second episode was when the events of Life is Strange intertwined with those of the free standalone experience (or prologue if you will) of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit where a young boy named Chris lived out his fantasies while dealing with the harsh realities of living with a far from perfect father.
"Because we already knew we were going to change a lot of things between Life is Strange and Life is Strange 2, for us Captain Spirit was a good introduction to this new world," says Cano. "So we already had in mind that Captain Spirit will be an introduction to Sean and Daniel but without saying this. Captain Spirit is the story of Chris... It could have been a single game, but we wanted to use it as an introduction into the new world of Life is Strange 2. So we already had in mind that this scene would be seen from two point of views. As Chris in Captain Spirit and as Sean and Daniel in Life is Strange 2. When we saw the commentary, the feedback from the players, we were really, really happy because yes, it worked. When you play Captain Spirit and in the end, you might think 'Oh my God! He has real powers.' When we saw this we had this little smile. Cool, cause when we'll release episode two people will be amazed..."
Will it be a different experience then if you didn't play Captain Spirit?
"I don't know if players who didn't play Captain Spirit, I'm not sure how they react to Chris," says Koch. "I think it works well also as a self-contained (scene), if you just play episode two, you have cool secondary characters with Chris and Charles, but of course, there is more if you played Captain Spirit. Cause the player feels more clever, I don't know, like he knows something he shouldn't know."
An interesting calmer sequence in the second episode is when Daniel and Sean arrive at their maternal grandparents' house. Their mother left their father for reasons that are a bit vague and so the two young boys haven't really spent much time with their grandparents, and while there's a bond, things are tense at first, and neither party really knows how to behave. It means the two boys have to adapt to the rules of their elders, and it's an interesting and highly relatable part of the episode.
"The main theme of Life is Strange 2 is about education," says Cano. "And when you educate someone you have to go through different phases. And one of the phases of education is to set up rules. This is good, this is bad. You can do this, you can't do that. The second episode is called Rules because it's the main theme of this episode. This theme is shown by Sean's actions; he's going to teach Daniel some stuff and he can say to him 'don't do this or don't use your power, don't lie or use this or use that.' And on the other side, Sean has to bend the rules in the grandparents' house, and it's a different kind of rules."
"It's a way for us to tell [players] that everyone has to obey somehow different kinds of rules," continues Cano. "And what is important to us is to tell that player that even if there are some rules you can break them if it's for the good of the people you love. It's morally acceptable. You don't have to be afraid of these rules."
In a way, the game aims to show you how someone creates their own moral code and rules and how it shapes others.
"If you tell Daniel to not use his power, he's going to use it anyway to save Chris," says Cano. "It's a good thing cause it probably saved the life of Chris, or from him breaking an arm or breaking a leg. But yes it can be a danger for the two kids... It's important for us to show that's it's not all black or all white, it's like in real life. You have to live in this grey area and you have to arrange yourself within the rules of society."
Portraying the grandparents was also a challenge for the studio.
"Grandparents and older people are really not a subject that's widely used in video games," expands Koch. "It doesn't bring, I would say, a lot of action or it can be seen as a bit boring. Or weird. Not maybe the sexiest location for an entertainment video game. But it was important for us to talk about this and trying to put the player into Sean and Daniel's shoes where they basically are trying to connect again to some sort of family bond."
The first episode of Life is Strange 2 was released on September 27 last year, with the second dropping on January 24, roughly four months after the first episode, and this time period was a little longer than initially communicated. For future episodes, Dontnod is committed to making sure the quality is kept high, rather than rushing a release.
"We are working hard right now on episode three and episode four and we're trying our best to be as efficient as possible. We cannot really give any firm date for now, but we are doing our best to advance as fast as possible and still create the best possible experience."
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