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NEW YORK CITY — Life Is Strange took the gaming community by surprise back in January when its first episode arrived. It was the second game from Dontnod Entertainment, the studio behind 2013’s Remember Me. This new project was an episodic adventure game set in a small Northwestern town, a far cry from the futuristic Paris of their previous game. Players and critics were immediately drawn to the story and characters of Life Is Strange, which focused on a high school student, Maxine Caulfield, who discovered that she had the power to rewind time.
With the game’s final episode hitting as a digital download on October 20 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360), I spoke with producer Luc Baghadoust and co-director Raoul Barbet about the impending finale and the journey that players have taken with Max — and how the game’s popularity has grown as more episodes came out.
“The fanbase has grown a lot, we had more and more response from the public. The more of the story that was revealed, the more people were attached to the universe and characters,” Baghadoust said.
Although Max has special powers, she doesn’t live in a world full of superheroes. She alone seems to have unusual abilities and, by the end of the fourth episode, the developers hadn’t explained why. Her home town of Arcadia Bay still has its share of mundane dangers, like drug dealers, abusive parents, and bullies. Max’s friends occasionally find themselves in life or death situations and, if players use her powers correctly, she can save lives. If players make the wrong decisions, these can have tragic consequences.
Tackling tough themes
Among the challenging themes in the story are suicide and euthanasia. A pivotal scene in the fourth episode forces players to choose whether or not Max will help a friend commit suicide. That topic grew even more relevant in the months between Episodes 4 and 5 when California passed its Right-To-Die Bill which allows doctor-assisted suicide. The game takes place in a fictional town in Oregon, a state where doctor-assisted suicide was legal even before Life Is Strange began development. “We knew that a lot of people would be linked to this kind of subject,” Barbet said “Euthanasia is something that we have in our society now. So we wanted to talk about it, and we think that video games, because they’re interactive, can ask a good question about this. We wanted the player to think about it.
“It was great to see the streamers, the YouTubers, the guys on Twitch. When arriving at that specific scene in Episode 4, we’ve seen a dozen of them pausing the game and explaining why they would choose one or another. … It was good observe such a response.”
Barbet explained that they tried to avoid “gamifying” such scenes. “This is the kind of subject you have to be careful when you talk about it,” he said. “… there was a lot of discussion and debate inside Dontnod, and we talked about it with [the game’s publisher] Square. I hope we did it the right way, and we’re happy to keep those kind of subjects in video games, and I think it’s a great media to talk about that.”
The most common way that players use Max’s powers is to rewind time after making choices in the story to see what might have been. They can see what happens if Max agrees to help euthanize her friend and then rewind time a few minutes to see what would have happened is she had refused. They can even rewind a third time to go with their original decision.
In the first few episodes, this mechanic was new to players, and they could use it to solve dialogue puzzles by rewinding time until they learned the correct thing to say through trial and error. However, in later episodes, players had a clearer idea of who Max is, and they might simply make a decision and stick by it without bothering to use her powers to see if there was a better path.
“This is something we see. It’s cool because the story is also about that. About being able to make your choice and keep them, and live with them. At the beginning it’s more of a gameplay tool, or gimmick,” said Barbet. “As a player you know the character more and more, and you want to play Max, so you don’t need this power anymore [In some scenes].”
Max can only rewind time a few minutes at once, but this is still a powerful and versatile ability. Players might think up ways to use Max’s powers that the designers didn’t include in the game. Barbet points out that Max doesn’t necessarily think as a hardcore sci-fi fan or adventure gamer might, therefore, certain options are not available simply because Max wouldn’t conceive of them.
‘What if. …’
Among Max’s friends is Warren, who is a genuine sci-fi geek, and Baghadoust joked about what the game would have been like if Warren had been the playable character instead of Max. “If Warren had the power it would be really different, he would be like the richest guy and destroyer of everything,” he said. When asked about giving Max’s powers to her rebellious punk friend Chloe, both developers laughed at the notion, and Baghadoust said, “Arcadia Bay would be on fire! The West Coast would be on fire and a mess.”
“We want the player to follow Max as much as possible,” Barbet said, “because she knows that she has to do something, and she will do it with her methods, and it won’t be the player’s method. But we try to keep the solutions a wide as possible and to be logical”
In one scene in Episode 4, Max steals an item from a drug dealer and ends up in a potentially dangerous confrontation. Clever players might want to rewind time to several minutes before the conversation start and thus avoid getting caught at all. But the game forces Max into a dialogue with the drug dealer. Players can rewind to the beginning of the conversation if they don’t like how it turned out, but they can’t skip it entirely.
“This is a great scene to see a lot of the consequences of your previous actions, to see that you can change your relationship with a character totally,” said Barbet. “You can kill him, you can kill his dog, you can make him your friend, just by dialogue, and consequences of your actions. … It’s a bit complicated to come back and do it again, but a lot of players love this scene for this aspect. We take into account a lot choices that you have, and a lot of different outcomes”
With the final episode nearly here, many players will experience Life Is Strange by playing through all five episodes at once. Most episodes of the game end with a cliffhanger or sudden paradigm shift that left players pondering the story for months while waiting for the next episode to release. From this month on, players will be able to resolve those cliffhangers as quickly as they like. “I’ve got a friend who just began last week. He chooses deliberately to stop after each episode and take some time to think about it,” Barbet said.
While the developers don’t seem to mind people binge-playing all the episodes, Barbet does advise players to stick with each episode all the way through before taking breaks. “I think it’s great to play an episode as a whole. When you write and design an episode the pace changes from a stressed scene to a more calm scene. This kind of pacing is really important to us. So playing each episode as a whole, you will be sure you have the pacing that the designer wants. So this is something to keep in mind, because we write and design each episode as a whole.”
Baghadoust adds, “We’ve seen some feedback from people who wanted to wait until Episode 5 released to start playing the game,” but he also reminds players about one of the benefits of waiting for months between episodes “It sticks with you, you can discus with friends, your choices.”
Life Is Strange is, indeed, a game that sticks with players. Its use of superhuman powers to address real world issues strikes a balance in storytelling, and the rewinding time mechanic allows players to experience a series of “What If” moments that can make them question their gut instincts about the nature of right and wrong.
“It’s an amazing experience for us because we have an increasingly good response, so we hope Episode 5 will be the best,” Baghadoust said.
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