Dontnod Entertainment could have been a failure.
The studio, founded in 2008, has a familiar origin story: Five developers left prestigious jobs to strike out on their own. They came from companies like Ubisoft, Criterion Games and Electronic Arts, united by the desire to make their dream game. It was not as easy as they thought it would be.
The French developer's first project, Remember Me, was a troubled one. It involved a publisher drop and swap, and a launch greeted by mixed reviews and mediocre sales. Its sophomore effort, despite criticism for its writing and some technical issues, signaled a more confident, competent studio at work. Life is Strange went on to win multiple awards, nominations and praise for its handling of relatable characters in real-world situations.
As Dontnod prepares to release its third title, an action role-playing game called Vampyr, it has something to prove — both to itself and to its audience. The company is done chasing dreams of AAA, co-founder and CEO Oskar Guilbert says, and has a more specific vision in mind.
"We see ourselves as more like the Sundance Festival of movie independence, American movies," says Guilbert. "Maybe like — it will be pretentious, but — like HBO in TV. They [brought] something new to the TV series in the '80s, the '90s. This is something we want to do in games — to bring the content, the emotion — and I think we've shown that it's possible with Life is Strange. We want to continue like that."
"You know when we started it, we really wanted to do the perfect game from our point of view," says Guilbert. "Something we were really proud of."
In Dontnod's founding days of 2008, that game was Remember Me. It was the studio's initial spark, its reason for existing. But it was an ambitious project, a AAA-style sci-fi action-adventure that didn't meet the studio's expectations.
"The result was not perfect," he says.
"We faced the difficulties of building a new team, creating a new IP, finding the publisher. ... It was hard to do this first project."
Guilbert's memories of those days are fond ones. Although it was a turbulent time, building a new studio, it was exciting as well. The team was lucky, he says, because it had the creative freedom to pursue what it wanted. It created from nothing.
"No money," he says. "Lot of fun, lot of passion. Something very new for me, because it was the first time for me when I created a company. Good friends, because we were friends in the beginning."
Slowly, a studio was born. Guilbert and his cofounders built up their team, eventually bringing on developers such as Philippe Moreau and Stéphane Beauverger, to work on their first title, Remember Me, then known as Adrift.
"At the beginning it was crazy at every level," says Beauverger, who worked on the game's story. "We were so confident. We signed with Sony so quickly. We said, 'This is it. We are going to make The Game.'"
But the project soon ran into trouble as Sony made cuts from its upcoming catalog, with Remember Me among them.
"They were downsizing," Beauverger says of the games cut. "So for a few months, we had no idea where we — we really believe that from the difficulties, come the better ideas. If everything is easy, you get a little bit lazy."
Dontnod eventually signed with Capcom to publish the game, but it was a move that came with consequences: axed characters, cut sequences, killed gameplay ideas.
"We had to be swift, deadly and unforgiving," Beauverger says. "When we signed for the second time, we knew that we could deliver this, because we had cut so many things in the game that we could deliver what Capcom was expecting."
Asked if Remember Me suffered from those cuts, Beauverger is blunt.
"Of course," he says. "Yes. You can't create a whole world and a whole universe and a whole storyline and then say, 'No, we're going to show just one-third of this story.' … We had to rebuild a whole new storyline from the same basis, from the same universe."
"We made a mistake when we said we were going to make a great AAA game. That was not Remember Me. That was not what we delivered. We delivered a AA game, middle game — I guess it was a solid middle game. It was not a great, huge game."
In moving on from the game, the team learned to better "choose our battles," Beauverger says. This would come into play heavily as Dontnod pushed ahead on Life is Strange, a more concentrated title on a small budget.
In theory, Life is Strange shouldn't have been a success. The episodic game follows high school student Max and her best friend Chloe as they hunt for a missing girl and tackle both the normal and not-so-normal problems of high school. Although the game has a sci-fi twist to its drama, it's in large part a contemporary study of typical teen problems.
"We had a lot of themes in this game that were supposed to not be 'sellable,'" says Oskar Guilbert. "Female protagonists, things like your social network going adrift, [things] like drugs — many themes that are not 'supposed' to be in video games."
In the past, Dontnod has spoken about pressure from potential publishers to change its games — specifically, to ditch female leads for men. Other changes to the game's themes and characters were not always as direct, Guilbert says, but "even if it was not fully clear, what we understood within the lines was that it could be a problem." With Square Enix, Guilbert says, there was no pressure to change the original vision.
"what we understood within the lines was that it could be a problem"
"It's difficult to not sound too pretentious, but really, from my point of view, I'm very proud for what we did with this game," Guilbert says. "It reached people young, people like teenagers, but also people my age. I had friends ask me, who are like 45, when the next episode will be released. I really had people telling me that it allowed them to talk to their parents again, or to talk about subjects they would never talk about with other people. These kinds of things for me are very important."
To date, Life is Strange has sold more than 1 million copies. It's a financial success that's had a large impact on Dontnod: It's given the company a more prestigious profile, and made for an easier time hiring new talent. At the studio, developers speak as affectionately about the game as a parent parading good grades would. The game's heavy focus on emotional narrative and its staying ability in the minds of players exemplify some of Dontnod's goals.
That's something Guilbert has on the brain as attention shifts to Vampyr. Unlike with previous titles, there's been no pressure to change the game's vision. Guilbert credits this freedom to trust between Dontnod and the game's publisher, Focus Home Interactive.
"We [had] a lot of pressure after Remember Me, because the game was not as successful as we expected," he says. "So yes, we had really a lot of pressure to do a game which worked and was sellable. But who knows that? No one has the recipe to know what will be successful and what will be not. We decided to do really what we wanted to do, what we liked, and push it as far as possible.
"[Vampyr] brings the same kind of surprise with Life is Strange in a totally different universe."
Vampyr surfaced in early 2015, a mere week and a half before Life is Strange's inaugural episode launched; at the time, Dontnod was still best known for Remember Me.
Dontnod had little to say about Vampyr then. The vampire RPG was set to star a doctor, a man turned against his will, after returning home from the First World War in 1918. As 2015 wore on, the developer dropped some details about the project: a city in the grip of the Spanish flu; choices on who to kill and who to spare that will affect the game's story. Duality — the struggle between protagonist Jonathan Reid's desire to be a humanist, a man of science who wants to heal, and a creature of darkness compelled to survive by taking the lives of others — is burrowed deep into its themes.
Stéphane Beauverger, the game's narrative director, often describes Vampyr's story as a gothic one: dark, despair-filled and full of melancholy. It's a romanticized tale of immortals, without the romance.
"Very far from Twilight," Beauverger says.
Twilight, in case you were wondering, has worked its way into the cultural fabric of many countries, including Dontnod's home of France. Beauverger addresses the sparkling elephant in the room without provocation, eager to dispel any ideas that the team's creature of the night might shine in the sun.
"There is a whole genre of pop culture [that focuses on the] not very frightening figure of the vampire for the teenage [audience]," Beauverger says. "That's not at all what we're going to do."
Vampyr is dark, both in the context of its story and the nature it wants to convey. Jonathan is turned into a vampire and abandoned in a mass grave; when he attempts to return to work, he learns he must kill to survive. It's a tale of choice and damnation that hearkens back to the fiction established by Bram Stoker with Dracula, or even Anne Rice with her Vampire Chronicles novels.
"A vampire is a doom creature," Beauverger says. "It's a human who has been condemned to live eternally, but he has to take lives, to kill, to survive. It's very interesting for us because it's one of the very rare creatures who is conscious of what he's doing. Zombies, mummies, ghouls, werewolves are, most of the time, just stupid killing machines. A vampire is seducing his prey. He is totally aware of what he's doing, but he's compelled to do so.
"As a vampire you just go deeper and deeper and deeper into hell ... there is no escape. You are doomed from the very beginning. You can just decide the speed of your slow descent."
Jonathan Reid's evolution, and by extension the game's, is intimately tied to the number of people you feed on. The more you kill, the stronger you'll become. You can advance your character's strength and skills through fighting — hunters, other vampires and so on — but feeding on humans is the fastest, most effective way to advance Jonathan's abilities.
Dontnod plans to include a stack of RPG features in Vampyr, including skill trees to better tailor the vampire experience to the player. During an early demo, the developer showed off a few of Jonathan's supernatural skills. While some give him strength and speed, like a spring attack that allows him to quickly close gaps, others are more insidious. The doctor has the ability to mesmerize citizens and manipulate those with weak minds.
In the demo's case, this led to one character revealing information to Jonathan that he wouldn't have otherwise. Players have the choice to mesmerize even further, during which Jonathan leads them off into the shadows and feeds on them. Unfortunately for his victims, there is no such thing as a quick bite; players will either feed and kill, or not feed at all.
According to game director Philippe Moreau, however, players are never forced to feed on anyone.
"It's really up to you," he says. "You can decide to feed on nobody, or to kill everyone. It's your experience. ... The death of a citizen will impact, in a meaningful way, the game's world."
Players have to make hard choices. Specific moments in the game will ask them to either kill or spare a character, and "depending on if you choose to do it or not — because you always have the choice to not kill someone — it will change the story," Moreau says.
In one ominous image, the city of White Chapel appeared to be burning — a consequence of attacking too many people. Death is part of Vampyr, and so is murder, but it's not glamorous, says Beauverger. It's aggressive, with players killing quickly and with power suited to a damned being.
"You take a life," Beauverger says. "You kill someone. It's a murder. We already knew we will be rated [M for Mature], and we hope for that. We want to tell an adult story about vampires, immortality, honor, responsibilities."
The idea of responsibility — in both a sense of morals and consequences — is the thread that ties all of Dontnod's work together, says Beauverger. Players must face the same dilemmas as the hero and find a way to overcome it.
"We like to put the player in a situation where they are confronted with the consequences of [what] they do," Beauverger says. "This was true in Remember Me. This was very true in Life is Strange. It will be true again in Vampyr. You are going to take lives in order to survive. The decision is, who will you kill?"