Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Episodes 1, 2, 3, & Bonus "Farewell"
- Level Design
- Narrative Development
- Environmental Narrative
- Gameplay Development
I had the good fortune to work with Deck Nine Games on the narrative-adventure title Life is Strange: Before the Storm, a prequel to DONTNOD’s original Life is Strange. It was an unique challenge stepping into such a beloved franchise, but Deck Nine’s fan-focused direction and careful development produced a wonderful title that fan’s found, quoting Steam, “Overwhelming Positive”.
GAME & NARRATIVE DESIGN
Not including time travel was a hurdle for content development. Without the previous series’ core gameplay mechanic, less supernatural avenues were used to keep things interesting. One design I’m annoyingly proud of is the “role-playing” section of the Blackwell exterior scene in episode one, for which I designed the concept and wrote the initial rough script.
Clip starts at relevant time code. Is not full episode.
It would be unrealistic to create a host of new gameplay mechanics to fill the void of time travel. The wiser move is an ad hoc approach that starts with low developmental cost, then considers what other needs the design can accommodate. One concern stood out over others.
So many feels
Life is Strange is a series flush with complicated, visceral emotions that speak to the harsh, life-altering relationships most of us have experienced at some point in our lives. But powerful, resonant dramatic content comes at the price of it’s impact on the player. Series like Game of Thrones have occasionally let the momentum of intense drama exceed the bounds of entertainment. Viewers suffer “Drama Fatigue” wherein they find it difficult to care about the characters or narrative, because there isn’t enough contextual contrast to believe the world is real. For a given amount of drama, an amount of levity, mundanity, or introspection is required to widen the margins of that world’s experience and make it believable and interesting. And, frankly, we have to let people’s hearts cool off from time to time or they simply won't come back after a given play session. Even if they like the game, it’ll always be to stressful for the moment. I personally stopped watching The Sopranos for this exact reason.
The role-playing game is a low-stakes, insular moment where more mundane, but likable character traits are developed. Mikey, Steph, and Chloe show how they respond to problems when nothing important is on the line. This kind of character baseline is difficult to establish along the primary arc, but a story-within-a-story is far more forgiving. More than anything, the characters are allowed to be funny and relatable without detracting from the gravity of a more dramatic scene.
In terms of development cost, the role-playing game is clearly an extension of the existing narrative choice system, but it feels different because this specific content is a sudden thematic departure and choices have immediate consequences which all play out in the span of about twenty minutes.
Life is Strange could be said to have simplistic levels, but that ignores their purpose. The life of a troubled high school girl is not given to massive landscapes, cover from enemy fire, or jump pads. Chloe’s story breathes inside the mundane spaces of her relatively normal world. Without the simplicity, the events of Before the Storm couldn’t maintain their dramatic weight. While not spatially complex, the devil is in the details of the environmental narrative.
Unlike the macroscopic lens of an open-world title, players perceive Life is Strange at an intimate level. Without the impetus of a more action-adventure mechanic in play, content is experienced casually and with more attention. Smaller, simple to produce elements can be added to make the space feel “lived in” even when the player character is alone. An example I designed is the fan-named “Pencil Mystery”.
Steph, a high school stage manager, is suffering from a common issue in theater: Her pencils are not being returned. A very mundane, relatable issue made more interesting by Steph’s passive-aggressive (and aggressive-aggressive) notes and the twist conclusion that it wasn’t anyone’s carelessness, but instead Hayden purposefully throwing them like darts into the ceiling. Uncomplicated, a little stupid, but also so damned high school, an element often missing in teen drama.
Steph and Hayden, neither of which are present, are developed without voice-over or animation and players are given a satisfying, if simple, puzzle to solve without feeling as though they were led by the hand to find it. The exposition within this micro-story is relevant and adds to Chloe’s world rather than feeling like an irrelevant easter egg.