Life is Strange 2 Interview – Co-Creative Director Michael Koch Speaks on Episodic Structure, Opportunity for a New Genre, and Narrative Decisions
Life is Strange 2 Co-Creative Director Michael Koch explains behind the scenes narrative choices, canonical meaning, and fan backlash.
The world of Life is Strange is vast and full of opportunities. Max and Chloe have had their goodbyes after the original, with Life is Strange 2 entirely focusing on the adventures of Sean and Daniel that must go on the run after an incident at home. Sean must teach Daniel how to use his telekinetic powers in the way players see most fit. Recently, the penultimate episode of Life is Strange 2 released and we continued to find that it has a “strong blend of character development and hard decisions.”
Co-Creative Director Michael Koch sat down with me at PAX West to talk about the making of the newest entry of the story-driven franchise. We were able to ask him about how past experiences influenced Life is Strange 2, the decision behind players not having the power this time around, and the game’s theme of teaching.
Cameron Hawkins: What important factors did you learn from previous Dontnod itles and how did the team incorporate that into Life is Strange 2?
Michael Koch: With the first Life is Strange it was quite a huge surprise for us that it worked that well with the public and critical reception. It was our first episodic game so we did learn a lot on how to create episodic content, how to write a story for an episodic format, how to create a narrative adventure game. Remember Me was an action game so it was really our firsts on a lot of things with Life is Strange. When we first started to create Life is Strange 2 we knew we wanted to build the basic foundations of what we did with the first game to expand the franchise for Square Enix, but also for us as creators and a developer to see what we could improve on the formula and the storytelling and everything.
So we try to keep everything basic, have the simple gameplay of exploration, interaction with the world that entails which choice and consequences, and interactive dialogue. We asked ourselves, how can we improve on that? In the first Life is Strange Chloe was a friend with you, but she was just an aesthetic character in place. She would sit somewhere and you would just talk to her at a point, but she wasn’t with you. When we decided to welcome the story portion in Daniel we wanted to have a similar character be much more alive than Chloe was.
We worked really hard on his AI system so he could move with you, look at what you’re looking at, make comments and reaction at what you’re doing. You can notice that in scenes where you’re exploring environments and Daniel’s with you. If I stop to look at something he might come next to me and make a comment about what I’m looking at. If I wander too much away from him, he might just run back to me or decide he wants to look at something himself. On the opposite side of things, if I go and see what he’s doing we’d have comments based on me taking attention of him. We did try to work a lot on the relationship so we could make them more alive than Max and Chloe.
We also worked a lot to improve the interactivity in the dialogue system. We have what we call the dynamic dialogues in Life is Strange 2 where you can still be walking, interacting with the world and still having an interactive discussion with Daniel or with other characters. In the first Life is Strange every day is just staged with cinematic moments where you have your input, but its still some shots where you cannot move. Now we have those moments where you’re just playing the game and Daniel will say something, you have a timer with multiple choice answers where you can decide to answer or not say anything and still continue to advance on the game at the same moment.
We also tried to improve everything that’s technical for the graphical style: the animations, the clothes. There is a lot of physics and movements for the clothing, the hair, the backpacks, and all the accessories on top of the character in Life is Strange 2. For me, I think it brings a lot of immersion within our stylized art style. The art style is the same, the characters are still somewhat cartoonish, but have all those added animations. We are almost trying to bring the game to the quality of an animated movie somehow. I’m not saying we’re completely there yet, but that’s the goal to try and make it look like something that could be a Pixar movie or something.
CH: There have been large gaps between the release of each episode. What is causing the longer gaps? Have you thought about moving away from an episodic release schedule?
MH: The game is much bigger, it’s a bigger game with longer episodes. I think in the first season episodes were two hours long, here is more like three to four. It is also a much more ambitious game in the fact that we are using this road movie structure where each episode you are meeting new characters in new environments in new seasons so it’s a much bigger task to create the game which also ends up needing a longer development time for each episode. And yeah you’re right, I think the window between each episode has been three to four months instead of two to three in the first game so it’s longer which can be a bit frustrating for the players, but we also have this structure where each episode is really a small story during the road trip.
In the first Life is Strange each episode was taking place in one day of the same week. In the second Life is Strange each episode is a few days during a whole year for the game and there is an ellipse of several weeks, sometimes months, between the story of each episode so I think the ellipse between the episode makes sense with the wait time in-game and makes sense with the time out-game for the players. Personally, I would love to be able to reduce this time and see next game if we can maybe be more advanced in the creation of the content and start releasing the episode later. When we finish one episode, we still have a lot of work for the next episode. It allows us to see the community reaction and the reviews and maybe use some of that directly in the creation of the next episode, but it also creates a longer time capsule. If we later try to reduce the gap between episodes we might not be able to react that much to what the community is saying. It’s a tough question and we need to find a way to improve.
CH: Following up on that, Life is Strange has an ongoing story, but Life is Strange 2 focuses on episodic stories. What was the decision behind that? By the end of Life is Strange 2 will there be a story that comes full circle or will this be the case throughout the game?
MH: We thought it would be really interesting, refreshing, and also a challenge for us as a creative team to try and work with a new structure. I really love the structure of the first game with a small-town mystery where you just visit again and again the same places and build some mystery. We just thought that when we started creating this new Life is Strange that if we went for the same kind of setting we would end up having the same kind of moments and ideas that would feel of course familiar and easy to go back to for the players. I think that in the end, it would be a resight of some kind of the same ideas. We decided to look at what story we wanted to tell. We had a really strong idea about family bonds, about brotherhood, and how strong a family bond can be in the face of adversity and this idea of education.
You’re playing as Sean the big brother with Daniel your younger brother, and your actions will slowly shape how Daniel would become over the course of the game. With this idea in mind, we needed to have a long timeframe. You’re not educating a child one day and going to have him change completely the next day. It needs time to have him get what you’re telling him, what you’re doing. So it made sense to have longer pauses between the episodes so that when we start a new episode we can change Daniel based on what you did in the previous episode. Overall, looking at all of this, the road trip made sense to bring all characters to some new settings meeting new characters so we could also focus on this education part because the bigger the number of characters you meet, the bigger the number of situations you have to deal with and Daniel can learn from it. So it’s a bit of all of that that pushes us to work on the road movie structure.
We still have a complete story which is heavily based on Sean and Daniel by themselves. Even if you’re leaving behind the sceneries and the characters you meet in episodes you still hear from them. Sometimes you will see some of those characters in multiple episodes and we are really trying to keep their memories within our two main characters. It brings something to them and brings something to those characters they meet because that’s what happens when you’re traveling. You have short moments when you meet someone and you can really get something from them but can also sometimes help them in a very short amount of time. It is what makes those short experiences great while you’re traveling. You keep small good moments in your heart that you will remember.
CH: The Life is Strange universe focuses on characters with superhuman abilities. Have there ever been thoughts about bringing the series to a different genre while still have an impactful narrative?
MH: When we started on the second Life is Strange we knew we still wanted to be in the core genre of adventure and heavy relying on the storytelling. When we decided the power of season two we were pretty sure that we wanted to give it to Daniel, but we still asked ourselves what would it be if the player had it, if Sean had it? We definitely knew that if Sean had it we would need to be more action-based. It works really well that Daniel has the power and you can ask him to use it and he accepts or refuses based on your choice and consequences, but it doesn’t frustrate the player to not be able to target anything in a room and use it and be more free form with the power. If Sean had the power I think it would have been frustrating to not be able to try and use it anywhere. We could extend the franchise by having more use of the power. We had it with Max where you could rewind almost anytime and it was heavily used with the story. That is something we could look into. The basics of Life is Strange is really talking about relatable characters that are facing real-life issues with the twist of a supernatural element so I don’t see why we couldn’t try to have more interactivity with the gameplay and supernatural elements.
CH: In the original Life is Strange, we play as Max who can reverse time with Chloe being her best friend or even romantic partner depending on how you interpret it. In Life is Strange 2 Sean is the main character who doesn’t have the powers while his younger brother Daniel does, flipping the perspective this time around. Was changing that point of view a big part of building the narrative for Life is Strange 2?
MH: I think it comes up with this idea of education. We wanted education to be the main topic and put the player in this state of mind to be careful of how Sean behaves with Daniel. We saw that giving Daniel this huge powerful power like telekinesis where he could basically do a lot of powerful things, I think it works great because it puts you in a world where you’re thinking “Ok, what should I do with this kid?” I need to be cautious of what kind of morality I put onto him. If I try to say “this is the right thing to do this is the wrong thing to do,” it becomes important because if you mess up he might want to use his powers and really hurt someone or do something bigger than if he didn’t have the power. The game could have worked just about education without the power, but it would have been much less intense in your self-conscious reflection about the choice you’re making thinking about how bad it could go with Daniel and with the power. So we thought that it was for the co-idea of this project and really wanted to focus all the game design about that on being careful about what you say and what you do when Daniel is around you and sees what you’re doing.
CH: At the beginning of Life is Strange 2 there is a prompt asking if the player played through the first game and pick which ending they chose. This seemingly feels like there is no true canonical ending. Do you think there’s a canonical ending? Can players expect a major connection to the original in Life is Strange 2?
MH: There is a connection in the first episode and you will have to see it with all the episodes when we release episode five in December. The other connections with the first game, I can’t say more about it, but we did put the question for a reason that you will see in the game. So definitely for me, there is no canon ending. Both endings are canon and even more, every playthrough of the players are canon. You have the endings, but even if you have only two endings in the first game, Max as a character, not every Max and in every ending has the same playthrough so when Max goes through ending A or ending B there are also the variations of what the player did during their playthrough. Did they save Kate or not, how Max was created as a human being so there is a lot of different variation in the ending even if the beginning of those endings are the same.
CH: There is a comic series that goes off the ending where Max chose to save Chloe instead of Arcadia Bay. Do you consider that comic canon, or is there a multiverse?
For the comic book, they decided to just explore one possible path in something that we could call a multiverse in one of the endings. I don’t know, maybe if there are ideas, but that is more on Square Enix for that because we didn’t work on the comic. Maybe they could also do comic books on the other ending and maybe explore other variations which are completely possible with time travel. Even in the first game, we never really explain that each time Max goes back in time or uses a photo to go to another place she might be creating universes with different versions. When she’s leaving a place by looking through a photo, I guess the place she just left exists somehow we didn’t really explain that. I always prefer to not give every answer and let the player figure it out.
I think it is really really important for me that every player’s playthrough is completely varied and is the story. The same thing applies to Life is Strange 2, all the variations. What is important with a player choice-based game is that your story is the real story for you. It’s really weird for me to choose one path rather than the other and say “Ok, this is the good one.” I think it would go towards the exact opposite of what’s interesting in making a player choice-based game.
CH: Is part of the reason we play as Sean instead of Daniel due to issues executing telekinetic powers into gameplay or did it have no factor at all?
MH: I would say no because like I said in the previous question we really thought in a narrative point of view it was really strong for Daniel to have the power. It was also the fact that we knew giving this power to Sean would push us to make a game bigger than what we wanted. It would have been frustrating if we didn’t give the player the opportunity to use it everywhere so we really didn’t even explore this possibility because we knew it’d be too much and wouldn’t serve the story. This is a story about Sean who is a teenager who just lost everything. His only power is to try and educate Daniel and to do the right thing and that is a story that was interesting for us.
CH: Life is Strange recently released on mobile for iOS and Android devices. Are there any plans to bring Life is Strange 2 to mobile, Switch, or Stadia?
MH: I can’t really answer that for now. Right now we are just focusing on finishing episode five for the platforms we’re already releasing on and we’ll see what happens next.
The first four episodes of Life is Strange 2 from Dontnod and Square Enix are available on PC, PS4, and Xbox One right now. The fifth episode will conclude Life is Strange 2’s story on December 3, 2019.