Narrative & Level Design

 

raiders of the black well

Development

The original Life is Strange used time travel as a gameplay device that was built into the narrative from the beginning. It was a clever conceit to players save/loading to get the response they wanted by implementing it as intended play. Time travel was connected to the player character, Max Caulfield, who would not be appearing in Life is Strange: Before the Storm due to narrative conflicts. The main character in Before the Storm is Chloe, a character defined by a lack of agency. In both games, her arcs generally focus on attempts to gain control over her life. However, no ability or power is ever given to her in aid of her ambition.

As a result, gameplay was developed ad hoc. Unique mechanics were developed to fill some of the gap left by the removal of time travel, but It would be unrealistic to create a host of new gameplay mechanics  to completely replace it. The wiser move was an approach that started with low developmental cost, then considered what other needs the design can accommodate. In the moment, what did the game need to feel engaging?

Below is a Let's Play of the scene, provided by XcageGame:

PURPOSE

ADdressing DRAMA FAT|GUE

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 its 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 contrast to suspend their disbelief. 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.

Adding Gameplay

The Blackwell exterior wasn't particularly dense with gameplay in Life is Strange, but it did introduce a sufficient number of characters to warrant its inclusion. While the goal was similar in Before the Storm (introduce characters, contrast the main character against their school experience, setup conflicts), there wasn't as much to do. In any game, there is only so much that can be added once production starts. I wanted something else to do in the level without putting too much strain on development. I wrote the initial draft of the scene, roughly as it appears in the game, where Chloe plays with newly introduced characters Steph & Mikey. 

Concept

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.

Dungeons & Dragons

An important element of the scene was to convey the basic idea of fantasy roleplaying along with an authentic fantasy roleplaying experience. If the experience scans as genuine, the character developed within will feel more organic. While format and scale required it to be simple, it also needed to avoid oversimplification and stereotyping. No one can sniff out pandering or inauthentic use of archetyping quite like gamers.

Inspired by my own past experience with fantasy roleplaying, I did my best to replicate that experience in microcosm. A new player (Chloe) is introduced to the game by the Dungeon Master (Steph) and another player (Mikey). I started by designing the simplest quest I could, an en media res adventure where the party was at the forking of a single path into three. The player can decide which path to take, but only one can conclude the adventure. The remaining paths would give the player additional options at the end.

Tone

Humor is used more in Before the Storm than the original Life is Strange. Because Chloe is the lens through which we interpret the story, it's more picaresque with elements and gallows humor. However, within the roleplaying game, Chloe is separated from the problems of the real world and can act more as herself. Her humor is brought forward, but her cynical nature is muted. In the game, she has control. Her defenses are down, and with that comes a more relaxed atmosphere.

THEMES

The simple story of The Raiders of the Black Well reflects primarily on Chloe and MIkey. Chloe employs a barbarian, a character of rage and force, to conquer a monsterous male figure that represents her step-father. At the same time, Mikey, a character we learn requires the supports of his brother, plays a wizard; A character is made independent by their intellect.

In both instances we see how Chloe and Mikey address problems when set apart from the elements that beset them in the real world. We're allowed a window into who they would be if given their freedom.