Deck Nine Games and Square Enix are bringing Life is Strange: Before the Storm to release this August. Fans of the original as well as narrative choice-based video games have a lot they can look forward to in the standalone prequel episodes. I recently traveled to San Diego Comic Con to speak with Lead Writer, Zak Garriss and Producer David Hein to learn more about Chloe’s life in the ever strange Arcadia Bay.
For those not in the know, what is Life is Strange: Before the Storm and how is it connected to the original story?
Zak: Before the Storm is a chance for fans to return to Arcadia Bay. Our story is a standalone adventure, it’s separate from the first game. It actually takes place three years before the events of the first game. That was important for us to tell the story for fans from the first series, they wouldn’t know the ending to ours. So we’re looking at Chloe Price, the life that she’s living at the age of 16 years old. Two years after her dad passed away, after Max has moved away, she’s really alone, she kinda burned bridges everywhere and what it’s like for her when she meets this mythic character from the first game, Rachel Amber and how two girls really each need something that only the other can provide at this time in their lives.
With this being a standalone game, will we see any events occurring in this game that lead as a prelude the original Life is Strange? There’s the same characters, same world, how are you guys using that to your advantage?
Zak: I think we’re really fans first of the original game and striving to create something for the fans from the first game. We’re looking at returning to many of the places you saw in the first game but we’re also introducing new environments as well and getting to spend time with many of the characters from the first game that you might know but also introducing new characters too because this is a different time and a different story. We’ve deliberately written and designed it so that you play Before the Storm first that it doesn’t spoil the content of the first game. But if you have played the first game, playing Before the Storm, you’ll recognize a lot of references to the world that’s going on and evidence of the characters before they become the characters you see in the first game, how their lives are different. In the same way, I hope that’s handcrafted, very carefully cultivated world of Arcadia Bay, in its strangeness and complexity.
Do you expect supernatural elements to appear?
Have you been in talks with Dontnod in terms of what they’ve been able to create and how they directly touched the narrative and design choices in the game?
Zak: Every stage from conception through production, Before the Storm has been exclusively Deck Nine Games working with the core team at Square Enix that published the first game. But we have shared our work with Dontnod. A couple months ago I flew out to Paris and shared our first episode in its entirety with the directors Michel and Raul and lead writer Christian, and producer Luc who we put the controller in their hands and sat there played through for hours, to show them what we’re doing, what we’re doing in the prequel, getting to see their responses and hearing them laugh, watching them react to the content, in the more dramatic or scary moments. It was really important for everyone at the studio, at Deck Nine. It was amazing.
With the Screen Actors Guild Strike going on how has that affected the production of Life is Strange: Before the Storm especially since Ashly Burch is not taking the role of Chloe this time around and how are you guys managing that?
David: We were heartbroken when we found out that was the consequence of that. We were really far along on production when that news broke and then the immediate understanding of what that news meant for the project. Especially with Ashly Burch voicing Chloe, we were just devastated. We are huge fans of the first game, we are huge fans of hers. It was a real bummer that was going to be what that meant. What we did is worked with her to try and figure out a way to try and get her involved. She has joined as a writing consultant on the project, we shared all of her scripts with her, she’s read every line of dialogue, she helped inform some of the voice that we were using for Chloe. While she won’t be present vocally in the game, her work will be felt.
Are any of the other voice actors who voiced the original Life is Strange returning besides Chloe?
David: Unfortunately, with the original game they were SAG-AFTRA actors so unfortunately that’s affected a number of characters.
The appeal of Life is Strange, how I played it, was how relatable Max was a character. Now you have Chloe who is a polar opposite in personality. What’s your approach in bring her to life and making her relatable to those fans?
Zak: Chloe lives in a different register from Max. Max has a sort of neutrality to her, quietness that a lot of people feel comfortable kind of stepping into her shoes and Chloe’s a lot louder, more aggressive, and polarizing in some ways. I think it’s important to point out that we’re not looking at Chloe at 19, we’re looking at Chloe at 16, she’s closer to the loss of her father and time. She’s alienated as a younger person and she’s definitely figuring out who she is. I think there’s an awesome vulnerability to Chloe that she works really hard in the first game to hide and I think our Chloe too, doesn’t necessarily want the world to see that. But I think that alone, that place of being there where you’re feeling trapped, maybe you’re grieving the loss of someone you love, or you don’t feel that you have anyone in your life at this stage who gets you. You’re feeling alone. I think there is a universally relatable aspect to that. We all felt alone at times. We all lost our way or have struggled to find meaningful connection. We all been 16. We all went through that process of growing up, so I think that’s where we want to be with the story and what we’ve really pursued is exploring that space of being that age at this time. Getting to see this fiercely strong character from the first game, still have that ferocity but have that real fragile vulnerability too. I think its going to make Chloe incredibly relatable and very exciting for fans to step in her shoes and see this place that they’re going to love but with completely new eyes.
What stood out to me was Chloe’s actions in that E3 demo. She could deliberately sabotage someone’s parking brake so she could steal a t-shirt that she wanted and also get some money to buy weed of Frank. The player’s choices will always be there, how are you tying this into what makes Chloe her? The player can choose but ultimately it’s still following this narrative.
Zak: The space itself you were playing in is a good example. Chloe is going to go to the mill that’s the lumberyard where the concert is happening. That’s not a choice for the player, that’s a fact about Chloe’s life but at the mill you’re getting to choose how you interact with the characters you encounter there. You could walk out that seeing with a radically different chain of events begun by the decisions that you’ve made that will carry through the entire story. In some surprising ways. The trick is, kinds of moments where we’re inviting agency from the player. I think to a certain extent just by default, Chloe is a little bit more prescriptive than Max is. There are certain kinds of behavior Chloe is probably not going to do cause she has that ferocity and independence. We’re really kind of inviting the player to step into her world and once you do that, there’s an enormous amount of leeway you have for, choosing how you develop the relationships you do with your mother, with David, the guy that Joyce is now dating, with Rachel, when you meet her, and the ways in which that relationship can move forward based on the choices you make are very very different that we think are satisfyingly complex ways.
Life is Strange tied in real life public service messaging, like the suicide hotline, are you exploring this for Before the Storm?
Zak: Definitely. I think the care that Dontnod and Square Enix took with the first game and how they, they were simultaneously courageous about tackling social issues but then sensitive about the supporting materials they’ve provided. That’s a kind of leadership, I think as a dev studio and as a publisher that we admire immensely. So we want to tell these stories that are not afraid to go the scary places and go to places that we don’t go to a lot and public discourse and maybe would benefit from more public discourse. We’re being very careful about, every step of the way making sure we’re simultaneously being responsible with that, that charge and with how we handle issues we handle and what kind of supporting materials we might provide as well.
As for the studio, this is the first narrative based game, you’ve rebranded as Deck Nine Games, and due to the episodic based nature of tackling this type of series what are the challenges you’ve found in particular bringing Before the Storm to release?
David: We’ve been positioning ourselves to make this sort of game for a number of years actually. We’ve been internally developing a set of tools we call Storyforge. It has two different components, Playwright and Storyteller. Playwright is our scripting tool that Zak and his team uses. Storyteller is our cinematic engine component of that tool. Those have been in development for years, we’ve been positioning ourselves to enter this space, to exceed in this space. There’s obviously still challenges, it’s a hard task before us, constructing a branching narrative that feels really rewarding and has tons of player choice in it is really discursive. It’s really hard work writing something like that, producing something like that. There’s a lot of work before us and behind us but I think, I say in confidence I speak for the team that we’re all really really happy with what we’ve produced so far.
Zak: The team has also really grown in the course of making this project and making this game. We’ve acquired folks from all over the world who worked in television, film, and games who want to work on this. As a team, this is the first title like this we’re making together but team itself is comprised of folks who come from Hollywood, big budget things like Kong. I worked in television, indie work, and our cinematic director has a lifelong career in indie film, and our game developers from all over. It’s funny to see so many different disciplines and careers who have spanned decades all mingling on this one thing, coming together on this one project and for many of us this is the thing we wanted to work on forever. Getting to do this is sort of the culmination of all of the other disciplines we’ve found ourselves acquiring over the course of our careers.
For those looking forward to Life is Strange: Before the Storm, what is the one thing you would call out that would get them interested or if they’re fans of it already.
Zak: I’m going to say it’s Chloe’s personality and how that intercepts with gameplay and the story. I think by getting to be Chloe, you’re getting that license to be that wrecking ball that’ll just knock doors down, knock obstacles down, deal with the consequences, you don’t have rewind power now. You can’t try the different path that you took. You have to have the courage that Chloe has but I think it’ll create an exciting kind of gameplay and real personal connection and complicity in the story that unfolds.
David: I also think fans of the first game will really enjoy getting to learn who Rachel Amber is. She’s such a mythic character from the first game. Everyone had something to say about her but left her really ambiguous and unknown. So I think what’s going to be a lot of fun about this is finding out who she was, who she was for Chloe, and a lot of that is going to be driven about how you choose to interact with her as Chloe, the choices that you make, from moment to moment will define that relationship.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm releases August 31st on Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC. For more information, check out our preview from E3 and stay tuned.