At EGX in London last week, I was given the opportunity to take a behind-closed-doors look at Life is Strange, the latest project from developer Dontnod due to be published by Square Enix. What I saw piqued my interest, but also left me with a number of questions that will ultimately only be answered once the title has been released in its entirety (the game is set to be released in 5 episodes separated by roughly 6 weeks) and the credits have rolled.
Dontnod’s last game, Remember Me, dealt with memory and oppression in a near-future city controlled by a totalitarian corporation. It had zombies (sort of), an ambitious fighting system which mostly worked, and it let you delve into memories in an effort to rewrite people’s past in order to influence their behavior in the present. It was an interesting game, and while rough around the edges it ultimately turned out rather well. Dan gave it 8/10 in his review, noting that while the actual gameplay itself didn’t always hang together, the setting, characters and story elevated it above the usual fare seen in games of its ilk.
Unfortunately for Dontnod, Remember Me didn’t fare so well at retail and received mixed critical reception; the game’s title now feels more than a little ironic, under the circumstances. With much of the criticism of Remember Me centering around the combat encounters, it’s a relief to see the developer focusing on what is clearly their greatest strength with their latest project – characters and narrative. “The emphasis is very much on the story and the choice you make instead of puzzles,” Creative Director Jean-Maxime Moris tells the assembled writers prior to the start of the presentation.
There’s an audible sign of relief from the assembled crowd.
As the demo begins, we’re introduced to Maxine Caufield – the protagonist – and her friend Chloe. Immediately I’m struck by the difference in art style between Remember Me and Dontnod’s latest game. While Remember Me stuck very much to a more traditional method of rendering and texturing and had a very cold, almost clinical aesthetic, Life is Strange has a very painterly feeling about its characters and environments. Everything is saturated in a warm glow of oranges, reds and pinks. “Every texture in the game is hand-painted,” Moris tells us, and it shows. Life is Strange looks, at times, as though Rembrandt is on the art team.
Life is Strange has a certain beauty about it which sets it apart from other games on the market at the moment; it’s vaguely reminiscent of Telltale’s approach to art direction, but the warmth and artistry on display here instantly sticks in the mind and creates a unique visual identity. We’re told that Life is Strange is set in the American Northwest and, while no specific time period is mentioned, from the fashions and dialogue I’m guessing that the game takes place some time in the mid-nineties. The demo itself only showed off a single area, but it’s remarkable just how closely Dontnod has captured the feel of small-town Americana. I don’t know how genuine it is – I’ve never been to the northwestern United States – but it feels authentic, the sort of authenticity born of being raised on a diet of American pop culture over the last three decades. The atmosphere is aided by an indie-folk soundtrack, all acoustic guitar and honeyed female vocals.
The visuals and music combine to create a soothing, inviting atmosphere far removed from the studio’s last release. Life is Strange may revolve around the disappearance of a teenage girl, unravelling lies, the transition to adulthood and getting to the bottom of what really happened in the town of Arcadia; but despite dealing with a lot of dark themes, it doesn’t feel dark. Quite the opposite, in fact: it feels warm and inviting, the kind of game that makes you think of sipping homemade lemonade on a dusty porch as the sun goes down on a warm summer day.
As Maxine and Chloe enter Chloe’s bedroom, Chloe lays herself down on the bed and asks Maxine to turn on some music while she rolls a joint. It’s here that we’re introduced to Life is Strange‘s major gaming conceit – rewinding time. As Maxine moves around the room, investigating highlighted points of interest Heavy Rain-style, she opens a cupboard only for a snowglobe to fall from a shelf and shatter on the floor. Chloe is annoyed, but via an ability which remains unexplained, Maxine has the ability to rewind time – an effect which seems to take a little too long to take effect at present. “You can speed it up”, we’re told later during questions when it’s mentioned just how slow the animation appears to be.
Maxine’s ability to rewind time is limited – you can’t, for example, rewind past an entire scene – but it does allow you to explore the various outcomes of your actions prior to making a final decision. So, for example, you can experiment with choosing different branches in the game’s conversation system and witnessing their outcomes before deciding on which one to follow. For those of you concerned about how this might introduce the capacity to cheat in the game, Moris assured us that every decision has both a short, mid and long-term consequence, and just because you think you’ve chosen the ideal outcome for your immediate situation, doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t have a negative impact later on.
This rewinding mechanic also feeds into the game’s puzzles, light as they are. A little later on in the demo, Maxine is trying to find tools in a garage so that she can repair her camera. After inspecting various shelves and surfaces, she spots some precision screwdrivers on top of what appears to be a tumble drier, out of reach. Switching the tumble drier on causes the screwdrivers to fall down from their perch, only to end up stuck behind a work counter. By rewinding time, Maxine is able to use that knowledge of the future to slide a piece of paper underneath the counter where the screwdrivers will fall, ensuring that she can then simply slide them out after turning the drier on again. It’s an age old puzzle, and this is a very simple demonstration of how the time-rewinding mechanic will be used, but it does indicate the level of thought that Dontnod is putting into the game.
With her camera repaired, Maxine returns to Chloe and takes some photographs while her friend dances along to some music. Chloe’s stepfather, hearing the noise, comes up to investigate. It’s here we’re shown another example of how rewinding time can be used to completely alter the outcome of a scene. In the first outcome we were shown, Maxine fails to hide in time and when Chloe’s stepfather bursts into the room he spots the joint Chloe was smoking and immediately accuses Maxine of being a drug dealer, a confrontation which ends with Chloe receiving a slap across the face. On the second playthrough, Maxine manages to hide in a cupboard but emerges after things become heated. During the course of the conversation various options are given to the player detailing how you choose to respond to what’s being said, and the outcome is said to be remembered by characters and will influence the course of future episodes and how characters see you.
After that scene, the demo ends. The lights come up, and we get our chance to put forward some questions about Life is Strange. Comparisons to Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead and Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain are made, which Moris smiles at. “We are great admirers of Telltale Games and what they achieved with The Walking Dead,” he admits. “Some staff came to us from Quantic Dream, and worked on Heavy Rain.”
One concern was how much the choices you make within episodes will influence the overall outcome. For all of Telltale’s accomplishments when it comes to telling a compelling narrative and crafting interesting characters, many of the decisions you make in games such as The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us ultimately have little overall impact on the course of the story. Moris acknowledges that Life is Strange will see each episode starting on a convergence point and that certain events in the story are locked in place, but argues that the decisions you make will change the perspective and finer details of exactly how those events transpire. A character might remember if you annoyed them previously and not be as defensive of you in the future, while others might ask about injuries you ended up receiving – leading to information being disclosed which wouldn’t have been otherwise.
I ask about the currently-stiff facial animations, which at the moment feel rather primitive and at odds with the emotion conveyed in the voice acting. Characters’ lips move out of sync with the dialogue, and facial expressions amount to little more than a character’s eyes changing direction. I ask if the team plans to improve that aspect prior to release. “It’s something we definitely want to do,” Moris tells me, “but at the end of the day we don’t have the same budget as someone like Quantic Dream. But yes, we would like to improve it before the game comes out.”
Another writer asks if the choice to go with a female lead for the second time in a row was a deliberate one, and this evokes an impassioned response. “We pick the characters we believe are right for the story we want to tell,” Moris says. “We don’t say, ‘oh, let’s do another female protagonist’. They have to fit the story. We know that there have been some things recently in the industry about women in gaming, but no, we don’t say to ourselves ‘let’s have another female character’ or ‘let’s have a male character’. They have to suit the story that we want to tell.”
Time will tell just how well Dontnod’s claims of player agency over Life is Strange‘s narrative stack up. The first episode is due for release early next year, and with each subsequent episode currently planned to launch six weeks apart, it’s going to be until next Summer before we’re able to finally sit back and evaluate just how successful Dontnod has been in realizing its vision of a modern, player-led narrative game. I retain concerns over how interactive and branching the game truly is – alarm bells started ringing in my head due to just how similar it looks to Quantic Dream’s previous output – but for now, Life is Strange is showing that Dontnod isn’t content on resting on its laurels.
Remember Me shows a developer trying to tackle big concepts about control, social decay, and identity. Life is Strange still deals with identity, but is tackling that concept from a far more personal angle. Everyone experiences the painful transition between childhood and adulthood, and it’s that transitional period that Dontnod is most concerned about with their latest title. Maxine’s story isn’t so much about the search for her missing friend as it is about her internal development as a character and how she learns to deal with the world around her and adult situations.
On first glance you might be forgiven for thinking that Dontnod has responded to the commercial failure of Remember Me by thinking small; but in narrative terms, Life is Strange is hugely ambitious – tackling mature themes and concepts and attempting to do so with care and subtelty, rather than theatricality and bombast.
Based on early impressions, they might be on to something.