Life is Strange 2’s creators talk choice, and why there isn’t a ‘right’ way to play

“There are no good or bad decisions in life. There are just decisions.”
By Duncan Heaney

The Square Enix blog recently sat down for a chat with Life is Strange 2 co-Creative Director Michel Koch and Writer Jean-Luc Cano to discuss the latest season of the critically-acclaimed series.

The wide-ranging conversation that followed covered the process of building a sequel, how success breeds pressure, why superpowers actually make their characters weaker and much, much more.

Note: This part of the interview doesn’t go into any major story points but does touch on themes for both Life is Strange 1 and 2. For a fully spoileriffic discussion, check out part 2.

The first series of Life is Strange was received incredibly well. What was the impact of this success on DONTNOD?

Michel Koch: We certainly didn't anticipate it!

When we started five years ago, we just wanted to create a game we loved. We didn’t know if it would find an audience, or even if it would work - we’re obviously very happy it did.

But that positive response also puts a lot of pressure on us to work on the second season - to find a good story and a good set of characters.

Jean-Luc Cano: And because we don’t want to let down the community.

Michel: Right - it’s challenging because the first season told a complete story. And that’s what we basically want to do - tell good stories. But to do that, you have to be renewed - doing the same thing again with the same characters would have impacted creativity.

So with this season, we wanted to do something new - deal with new themes, look at social issues and show characters from different backgrounds.

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On that subject, Life is Strange 2 deals with a lot of issues most games don’t - like abuse, alcoholism and racism. How do you make sure you present these issues sensitively, without it looking like you’re going for shock value or courting controversy?

Michel: So one of our goals is to talk about the things we want to in the right way.

When we start working on games, we take elements from our own backgrounds. In that way we use ourselves as reference. But obviously we can’t use that for everything, particularly some of the more unpleasant issues we deal with in Life is Strange 2.

So we read books, look at biographies and watch documentaries to try to get good reference points for how to approach these very serious topics with sensitivity.

Then, when we get to the process of writing, and actually making the game, we do focus testing and try to get a sense of how things are being perceived. If they aren’t being treated in the perfect way, we need to identify that, and rework the scene so that they are.

Some narrative games make choices explicitly clear - for example Telltale’s famous “Clementine will remember that” messages, or Detroit: Become Human’s flowcharts. Life is Strange 2 keeps a lot of its key decisions largely invisible to the player - why did you choose that approach?

Jean-Luc: When you make a decision in life, you don’t always see the consequences right away. That’s something we’ve always examined in Life is Strange and wanted to continue into Life is Strange 2.

We do show the player some key decisions but, as in life, there are lots of consequences to little decisions. A perfect example of this is that the behavior of Daniel is shaped by the small choices you make as Sean.

That ties into the theme of responsibility in Life is Strange 2 - when you take care of a child, your behavior influences theirs. So Daniel learns from you - if you steal, he may steal later in the story, for example.

One thing I think’s good about Life is Strange is that there doesn’t feel like a ‘correct’ path, or a ‘good’ ending. How do you design decisions to be impactful and dramatic, without making the player feel punished for their decisions?

Michel: The Life is Strange games are about life and real issues. We try not to portray anything as black or white, but instead as shades of grey.

There is no pre-defined right way to live - a person’s life is defined by the decisions they make. Some decisions may come to bite you, but you have to live with it. That’s what we try to emphasis in our games - it’s not our job to decide what’s right or wrong.

Jean-Luc: There are no good or bad decisions in life. There are just decisions.

One thing I loved in Episode One is how subtly Daniel’s powers are represented - particularly in the opening section. There’s nothing showy - it’s fast and matter of fact. Why did you choose to present it this way?

Michel: Well, Life is Strange 1 and 2 are not about the powers. We’re not creating, you know, ‘sci-fi’ stories. We use supernatural twists to add another layer to the story and characters - to increase the characters weakness.

In the first Life is Strange, Max is still a teenager. She doesn’t know who she really is or what she wants to be. She’s at the point in her life where she has to make decisions. So her rewind power amplifies that weakness - she’s no longer locked into one path, which makes it even harder to pick the right thing to do.

In Life is Strange 2, Sean has to take responsibility for Sean - basically become a father. By giving Daniel powers, it amplifies the amount of responsibility he has to deal with.

Jean-Luc: So powers need to be couched in reality, right? They have to seem like they fit in the world we’re creating.

But, as Michel says, Life is Strange is not about superpowers. We don’t want the player to ask where the powers come from and we don’t explain it. It’s not about what the power is, but how the characters deal with it.

So there’s some insight into the creative thinking behind the Life is Strange series. But we’re just getting started.

Check out part 2 of our interview, where we get into spoilers about Life is Strange 1 and 2, discuss the dangers of fan service, and have a frank discussion about a certain puppy...

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