With The Walking Dead, Heavy Rain and Gone Home among its peers, Life is Strange seems like a heck of a departure for Remember Me developer Dontnod.
Life is Strange is an episodic adventure game with a gorgeous, unusual cartoon style, branching narrative and carry over consequences. Is it just me, or is it going to be right at home in a world where Telltale’s adventures are hugely popular?
“This is definitely a game for the Telltale and Heavy Rain fans. We are putting a lot of effort into crafting a slower-paced game that again really emphasizes choice, story and character development,” Dontnod creative director Jean Maxime Moris told us.
“The consequences of a choice you make in a given episode will carry onto the following ones. The main narrative will move forward in the same direction for all players, but your experience of it will be customized depending on how you have interacted with the story’s protagonists. We will cram a lot of details into every cutscene and line of dialog that will make every play through feel very unique. There will be a few different endings, but not 67 of them.”
Life is Strange may seem something of a departure from Dontnod’s last release – the combat-centric cyberpunk action stylings of Remember Me. In fact, one grew out of the other: one of the biggest criticisms of Remember Me is that it didn’t make enough use of a “rewind” feature similar to that of Life is Strange.
“Coming out of Remember Me we felt there were things that we could take further with the rewind concept, and so we took it from memories into the real world,” Moris said.
“What links the two games I think is the theme of identity. In our first game you were playing as an elite memory hunter who could remix people’s memories at will and therefore change who they were. In Life is Strange and with our teenage characters, we are looking at a period in people’s lives where they make the choices that will define who they become, in other words their identity.”
“We are actually aiming for a spot that is in between the indie and AAA games.”
More attention on the rewind mechanic is not the only way Life is Strange answers criticism of Remember Me. I was initially super impressed by Remember Me’s Nilin, who was quite an unusual kind of protagonist for a triple-A action game, but later disappointed by the execution. With Life is Strange, Dontnod will once again focus on female characters – but in a very different way.
In a recent (and very worthwhile) developer diary, the team says it signed the episodic adventure to Square Enix because it was the only publisher that didn’t want to make changes; some of the others even flat out suggested swapping the female lead for a male one (again). Dontnod is making that effort again, and by moving away from the bombast of triple-A action to a story-focused downloadable adventure game, it likely feels it has much more room to manoeuvre in presenting its characters as human beings first and eye candy a distant millionth.
That step into a space mostly ignored by publishers has been hugely artistically liberating for many indies, with results like Gone Home (another adventure about women) as well as TellTale’s adventures. It’s a comparison Dontnod is comfortable with.
“We are big fans of indie games in general, as this is where the most innovative ideas have come to life in the past few years. The Telltale guys have invented the modern adventure game, focusing on choice, story and character development rather than traditional puzzle mechanics. The same can be said about Life is Strange,” Moris said.
“Gone Home definitely touches upon some of the themes that we explore and was an outstanding, unique experience that we feel honoured to be compared to. We are obviously bringing a lot of new stuff to the table, including the rewind mechanic, a unique art style and storyline. We are actually aiming for a spot that is in between the indie and AAA games.”
In that spot, Dontnod will explore universal themes – but also some pretty specific kinds of events. In the wake of violent real world incidents, Dontnod aims to explore these possibilities sensitively.
“The scene you see in the trailer where Chloe gets shot is a dramatic moment which triggers Max’s power to rewind time. We were keen to explore a situation where you saved your best friend, so without wanting to spoil the games story, you save Chloe and prevent the shooting so it never happened,” Moris said.
“We’re confident when you see this scene in context you won’t feel it’s at all sensationalist. Ultimately we do explore some mature themes, as we’re a coming of age story about life and growing up and all the choices you make which define who you are. Honestly, we’re not here to make a game that shocks, we want to make a game that handles themes, issues and a genre in a fresh, sensitive and original way.”
“We’re not here to make a game that shocks, we want to make a game that handles themes, issues and a genre in a fresh, sensitive and original way.”
One of the ways Dontnod hopes to make the extreme feel believable is by evoking “an undeniable feeling of nostalgia”.
“We went for an impressionistic feel, we picked indie and folk music as a reference, autumn as the season that the game is set in… And in terms of location, we immediately thought of the Pacific Northwest, as we believe it has a very strong identity and general poetic mood that perfectly fits our intentions,” Moris said.
“We did an immense amount of research online, traveled to Oregon and hired an American writer to make sure the experience felt as authentic as possible.”
Some of the game’s unique feel comes from its unique aesthetic. Every character and model has been hand painted.
“The larger brush strokes evoke an impressionistic feel that I believe fosters a stronger bond between the player and the characters. Indeed, the less a character is detailed, the more you can identify with it and the more empathy you can have with it,” Moris said.
“Hyper realism can be really appealing of course, but comics and animation prove that emotion can be found in very different places.”
Life is Strange will span five episodes. The first releases on January 30 for PC, PlayStation 3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.