Life is Strange at first seems like a typical choice-based, episodic adventure game — albeit with the twists of teen protagonists and a special supernatural ability. In the beginning, the decisions players make create minor tweaks in the storyline, the effects of which can be mitigated by traveling back in time.
But, as its co-directors Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet explained during their packed Game Developers Conference 2016 talk, these choices become more and more impactful — and difficult to make — over the course of every episode. That's because the development team didn't shy away from forcing the player through difficult situations, ones which tackled challenging subjects and incurred heavy consequences.
The spoiler-heavy talk — those who have yet to play Life is Strange, be warned before reading further — featured the co-directors detailing their process in crafting situations which would have lasting effects on both lead character Max and the player who controls her. To illustrate the game's central themes of adulthood and acceptance, Koch and Barbet decided to have the teenager-focused Life is Strange address "touchy subjects." These include addiction, cyberbullying and, most powerfully for those in-game and behind the controller, suicide.
Koch and Barbet explained how they designed the game to include teen suicide in a manner that neither overdramatized nor trivialized the subject. Not only was it important to make the conversations about the topic feel realistic, but they wanted the player to consider the real world ramifications of Max's decision-making, as well as her friends Chloe and Kate's emotional states.
just as in life, there's no easy way out
The pair reduced their method of crafting these difficult moments to a series of steps: establishing context, preparation, creating "the moment" and making sure the player understands its consequences. They discussed some of Life is Strange's most pivotal, memorable scenes to show off how that process translates to the game; both involved forcing the player to weigh the effects of loss on Max, the friends whose lives are in her hands — and themselves, as they relate to the events.
Events were contextualized around a tough subject the directors wanted to address, like suicide. Then, to portray it as realistically as possible, the developers conducted research — talking to doctors or cyber harassment experts to nail down the particulars of these experiences. Crafting the emotional climax of these scenes involved careful formal choices, such as change in pace or score. Finally, Dontnod — the studio behind the game — made sure to reinforce that what transpired in these scenes isn't trivial. References are made to consequential decisions after the fact, and in one case, the studio felt the need to speak directly to players about the effects that these teenage hardships can have in real life.
The most notable of the scenes discussed was one from late in the second episode, in which Max must talk down her friend Kate from jumping off the roof of the school. It's a powerful and unforgettable scene thanks to the careful set-up put in place prior to the moment in question. The player is stripped of the ability to rewind time, ensuring that the tough choices provided to help out Max's friend in her moment of crisis really count.
decisions have emotional consequences
Whatever the outcome, players will have to endure the consequences for the rest of the game. Kate's suicide attempt, successful or not, is referenced throughout the rest of the episodes; it's never ignored, so both Max and the player must remember how they saved or lost their friend due to their own actions.
After this draining event, the directors felt it necessary to reach out to players beyond the game itself. Koch and Barbet recognized that the topic of suicide could hit close to home. What was most important to them was that the team give the players resources outside of the game for "talking to someone" about the subjects of bullying and suicide. They showed off messages sent from fans thanking them for their commitment to suicide prevention, talking about their personal struggles with depression or bullying.
The game's willingness to present these issues in a realistic matter, the letters said, helped those who wrote in and were around Max's age find the strength to address these issues within themselves. These responses made Dontnod feel like their work was more than just a well-crafted game, but an important and affecting one.
"It's a real challenge to deal with these issues," they said. But these issues are, well, really challenging, and in creating Life is Strange the developer refused to shy away from that. A choice-based game means making tough choices for the characters, but what makes Life is Strange different, they said, is that it reminds players that a game and real life aren't so different — while offering actual resources to confront those issues head-on.