Life is Strange Interview: How Dontnod made the most with a small budget
We chat with game director and producer ahead of the finale
Square Enix held a press event at this year’s New York Comic Con to sample some of their upcoming games, and among them was Life is Strange, with its fifth and final episode coming October 20th (released today). On hand at the event was Raoul Barbet, game director at developer Dontnod Entertainment, and Luc Baghadoust, producer. We had a chance to speak to them about the game, the reception so far, and what’s in store for Dontnod after Life is Strange comes to its conclusion. Warning: Some spoilers ahead for episodes 1-4.
GZ: We enjoy Life is Strange a lot, but it’s hard to ignore some of the criticisms online towards the writing and lip syncing. What is your take on those complaints?
Luc Baghadoust: The lip sync wasn’t really accurate. In fact it was for a technical reason...because the game needed a small budget, much smaller than what we had in Remember Me, for example. So we had to make decisions, like with the resources available to us. We implemented something to improve it later on.
Regarding the writing, it’s hard to say because we are French, so we don’t have the ability to exactly assess whether it is accurate or not. But we have been very careful with it...we have received a lot of feedback from players saying it was really great and others who didn’t like it. Our writer comes from San Francisco. He’s very familiar with Oregon and the way people talk so we trust him, and we really fell in love with his writing. In each interaction, the little cues you have that tell you more about the story and the characters, we really like that. So for both of those criticisms...we understand, but we are really proud of the results.
Raoul Barbet: When you do a game you try to do your best...but we are a small team and a small budget game. We try to do the best for the player to be as immersed as possible. I think it works in the end, but of course you can always do better.
GZ: You’re one among a few games doing the episodic thing, and it seems difficult to put out games in quick succession. How do you do it?
LB: Storywise, everything is written from the beginning, the whole story arc, even though you won’t go into detail at first, we have to really define the exact scenes we need. And in terms of the main storyline, it is written with the episodic format in mind. It isn’t just a classic story that you cut into five parts. It’s really, how can we tell the story with the episodic format in mind.
It means you have to focus on the writing. Each character arc...do I have to talk about this thing or this topic to prepare the player so they know the characters. For example in episode two, dealing with Kate, you have to make sure the player knows and understands her connection with Max.
RB: From a production point of view it’s quite difficult -- it’s like shipping five games in fact.
LB: Yeah, it’s not like a full game that we’ve broken up afterwards. It means the biggest part of the work was preparing episode one, because all the code features have to be there and afterwards it’s only supposed to be additional content. But in fact, we discovered that once episode one was shipped we missed something that we need for episode two. It’s difficult to work in parallel with everything, polishing one episode while preparing for what’s coming next.
It’s a lot of work, but at the same time you can’t get crazy. We have to respect the steady release we wanted to have. We promised at first six-to-eight weeks, but episode four was ten weeks and episode five is, I think, a little bit more. Just because it’s such a huge task -- we have to make sure, especially for a game like this with choices and consequences, that we don’t forget, like, “Okay, does this have an impact on this?”
GZ: Was there any feedback you got from the community that caused you to make changes as you went along?
RB: Yeah we look at the feedback, and also the metrics on the choices and the way players are playing. But, the main story is there and we won’t change it but we can…
LB: ...adapt or tweak it. When you know that the audience loves a character, and you feel like this character should actually have a few more lines...you cannot change the whole story but you can adapt some stuff. You see during a VO session that an actor is really good, so you may want to add some lines. Or even, they put some of their personality into the character and you can adapt the script to it.
GZ: Who are your favorite characters in the game?
RB: For me it changes for each interview. Easy choice would be Chloe but I would maybe choose...I love a character like Victoria or Nathan. It’s easy to think, oh that’s the bitch or the asshole, but they’re not so simple. It’s what we wanted to do...beginning with archetypes and then add more depth to them. I love those kinds of characters that are not so simple to understand and that you have to spend some time with them and discuss with them to learn more.
LB: For me it’s Chloe. I love everyone, I love Max. The actress Hannah who plays her is an awesome girl.
GZ: In the transition from episode three to four you had that big cliffhanger with the alternate reality. Going into episode four it was easy to feel that that whole scenario couldn’t last, but how did you go about deciding how long to keep players in that alternate reality?
RB: We wanted to talk, and address these kinds of topics in the game. What happens to Chloe and her family and the difficulties they have on a financial point of view and a physical point of view...and to talk about the choice you have to make before leaving. We had this discussion about how much we can endure with this scene, but we really wanted to have some time in this alternate reality to talk about those topics. We really wanted to give a soul to this reality. It’s a balance...also with Kate, I think you have to be careful about what you are saying and the way you are talking about those things. So it’s a lot of discussion. We put some interaction and some lines from Max with information about the situation that can help the player to understand. Also the music and camerawork...for example the scenes with Max and Chloe in the bedroom are really important so you have to take your time and let the player choose the right way and have the time to think about it. It’s really about giving the player time to think about those themes.
GZ: Do you feel like you’re walking on eggshells with some of the themes you explore?
LB: (Laughs) Yeah, you know these important themes are even debated from, sometimes, a legal point of view in countries that have different opinions. So the important thing is that we treat them the right way. It’s not like sensationalism, it’s not just in there for the sake of being in the game. But we are kind of afraid sometimes about the reaction. So far, we’ve been really happy with that. We’ve not seen like really bad feedback.
RB: We’ve got a really important debate in France about bullying, and I think that’s something that a lot of teenagers deal with, it’s complicated. So with those topics we really wanted to find the good moments, and the good words to talk about it. And even when there’s feedback where the player maybe doesn’t agree with the character evolution, they like the fact that they can discuss it with friends or family. It’s really cool and it’s why we wanted to talk about those topics.
GZ: We know you’re just finishing up episode five now, but what’s next, do you have a next?
LB: Holidays! (laughs)
RB: Yeah, after a few years on this game we want to rest, think about the game, enjoy the free time -- time to play games that piled up on our consoles at home. And then we’ll decide what we want to do next. We loved working together, the team, and with Square Enix. If Square Enix wants to sign something again with us...of course we have no idea what it is. We need some time and we hope we can take it!
GZ: Life is Strange feels like a peer to the kinds of games Telltale makes. Do you communicate with them at all?
LB: There was some communication, yes. At first it was Square Enix contacting them for a few questions regarding episodic release and they gave us some advice. But first we are really big fans of their games. They were a huge inspiration, as well as Quantic Dream’s games may have been, for this kind of game.
RB: For narrative games in general, I think there is a lot of stuff going on now, and I think Quantic Dream has really opened up something with Heavy Rain and Fahrenheit. It’s cool to see where it’s going.
LB: ...yeah I remember when Heavy Rain was released friends would ask, “Oh, I love Heavy Rain, what should I play next?” and there were not many games like that.
After that the conversation abruptly devolved in MGSV chat before they showed us a very provocative trailer for Episode 5. Thanks to Luc and Raoul for taking the time to talk to us, and we can’t wait for the finale!