Later this month, the developers at Deck Nine Games have the unenviable task of delivering a follow-up to one of the most interesting games of the last few years, Life Is Strange. While the original developer, Dontnod Entertainment, is working on a sequel—it's currently unclear if it will take place in the same world, or function as an anthology—Deck Nine is telling a story set in the past. Over the course of three episodes, Before the Storm will fill in the blanks on the relationship between Chloe Price and Rachel Amber, which was previously only hinted at.
Life Is Strange was a specific brand of quirky. On paper, it shouldn't have worked, but Dontnod managed an endearing story about two young women that deeply resonated. To tread on that ground is to invite chaos and judgment.
Before anyone's played it, Before the Storm's had a rough go. Its existence was leaked ahead of time, and even after it was announced, it was revealed Chloe would no longer be voiced by Ashly Burch, whose performance defined Chloe as much as the writing. Burch wasn't able to take the job because of an ongoing voice actors strike, forcing the developers to work with a non-union actress. (Interestingly, the new actress did the motion capture for Chloe in the original game.) Burch is consulting on the game's writing, but her presence will be missed.
At E3 this year, I had a chance to sit down with Before the Storm's lead writer, Zak Garriss, to discuss the controversy over Burch, how Life Is Strange became so popular in queer communities, the dangers of writing a prequel, and more. I don't know if Before the Storm will (or could) live up to Life Is Strange—that game may have been lightning in a bottle—but Garris says the right things. Fingers crossed.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Clearly the most important question, will there be a plant we can water in this game? What kind of plant will it be?
Zak Garriss: I refuse to spoil that. [laughs] I can't do it, sorry.
Did you kill the plant? Did you overwater it?
Garriss: I kept her alive somehow. Green thumb!
I killed the plant. I felt bad about it, honestly. There's a lot of sad things that happen in that game, but I mostly think about that plant that I messed up.
Garriss: You're a monster.
Part of the charm of Life Is Strange is the quirks. I have to imagine you're thinking about that.
Garriss: Absolutely. I think the charm, the idiocracies, the nuance that was in that world was incredible. It did a lot of work for why fans resonated so strongly with Arcadia Bay, with the characters, with what Dontnod created with the first game.
Part of that charm was very specific to Dontnod. Picking where they left off, making a game before Life Is Strange, how do you try to emulate or put your own stamp on it?
Garriss: Yeah, yeah. Everyone at Deck Nine is almost fanatically in love with what Dontnod created with the first game. We love Life Is Strange. I love it as a storyteller, as a player. Just as a player of games, there's so much courage on display in the world they've created and the stories they choose to tell, where they focus their narrative lens. Just occupying an 18-year-old girl, out of the gate—not a lot of games are doing that. They believe in that vision, and they painted that world very carefully. Every brush stroke was intended. So as a player and a creator myself, just playing that game overwhelmed me with how obviously clear it was they loved what they were making.
So for us at Deck Nine, the guiding principle has been to court that same love with what we're doing with Before the Storm, to find that same passion for the story we're telling with Chloe and Rachel, for how we're returning to Arcadia Bay in a way that will feel familiar but also offer new insights into that space and those relationships and those personalities. And to let that lead. We really believe that if we love what we're doing, if we we love what we're making, then hopefully the fans will, too.
From a storytelling perspective, prequels are an interesting challenge because players know what to expect. How do you approach that, knowing this is going to a place people know. How do you allow them to have choices and consequences that are meaningful?
Garriss: That's a great question. Striving to tell a story that could end where the first one picks up and still create player agency would be a fight that we would lose. So what we do is that we don't pick that fight. By choosing to situate the story three years before the events of the first game and choosing not to tell the story of Rachel's disappearance, and to focus on Rachel and Chloe meeting…
"We all at Deck Nine admired what Dontnod did in breaking the ground they did, in the ways that you just described: telling stories from teenage female perspectives, telling stories from teenage females who might be gay."
It doesn't touch on that at all?
Garriss: It doesn't. That's not the story we're telling. We know from the first game the way that Chloe talked to Max about Rachel, how intense she felt. But we don't know the details of that relationship. Chloe never shared exactly how they met, exactly what their relationship was—she kept even that private from Max. That speaks to the intensity and the importance of that relationship for Chloe.
It also created a space of ambiguity for us, where we can tell a story about that meeting and where each girl was in their life at that time, and the role that each girl had in empowering and maybe even saving the other, without ever inserting directly the core narrative of the first game, creating all sorts of opportunities for the player to have a voice, to have agency, to have choices through the story we're presenting, all the way up until the final moments.
There were certain communities, especially queer communities, that really loved Life is Strange. Other than being a game about young women, which is rare for a video game, it was about young women while also touching on their sexuality. It was very different. The footage I saw showed that it's clearly something you're thinking about and responding to. Can you respond to what you took away from the way some communities responded—again, specifically, the queer communities—to the game?
Garriss: I think, as creators, we all at Deck Nine admired what Dontnod did in breaking the ground they did, in the ways that you just described: telling stories from teenage female perspectives, telling stories from teenage females who might be gay.
Questions of representation are hugely important right now in general, and they're hugely important to us at the studio, and they're core to the franchise. When we were examining what kind of story we wanted to tell in the Life is Strange universe, I don't even think that was on the table for negotiation. That was definitely going to be a part of the story because it was such an important component to why the first game resonated so strongly with fans.
Even just for us as artists, we looked at what Dontnod did there and we said "That's a really good thing to do. We need to do that more. More of us need to do that." I don't think it was ever a question. We wanted to continue that unfortunately courageous thing [Dontnod did with the story]. I say unfortunately because I wish it were more normal.
Queerness was a theme the player had some agency over, but it wasn't really acknowledged until much later in the story, at least explicitly. It seems like what you may be addressing here is being a little more up front.
Garriss: That particular moment in the footage you've seen is a point of great, um, contention within the writing team. I say contention in the best way. We really examined this specific time in the story of the first episode—this specific place in that junkyard, that conversation, that choice, and what we're doing in the larger arc of the relationship between the girls. We looked at lots of different ways to explore that, ways to create opportunities for player input.
At the end of the day, where we've landed—and I'm really glad we have—is exploring a relationship that is like real relationships, in the sense that it is not static. There's not a particular moment in time where you make a decision about whether or not you're with someone, or even how you feel. I think a core port about being a teenager is not being in control. So we really tried to create a dynamic range of interactions over time between Chloe and Rachel so the player can feel one way one day and another way the next.
There's going to be an intelligent and thought out response from the characters you're interacting with accordingly. We think that will do interesting work in letting the player build and bond with the characters that they're interacting with, like Rachel, through the agency that we're giving you.
As a studio, as a writing staff, writing about teenagers is obviously different. Writing about potentially queer teenagers is obviously very different. What sort of work and research have you put in to understand that perspective and write it accurately?
Garriss: It's hard to do too much research. I think it might be something you can do? [smiles] For me, it's a lot about memoirs. I like to read memoirs on grief, I like to read memoirs on identity, because those are first-person accounts of experiences.
We have a diverse writing team. We have men, we have women. We have people from all walks of life. We have some people almost as old as I am. I'm the oldest, for sure—I'm a 35-year-old man. I'm not a 16-year-old girl. Our youngest writer is a 20-year-old woman who's still in college. We really try to have a plurality of perspectives in the room.
But the other core belief—or I should say [my core belief], as the lead writer. I don't want to speak for my team on this. We're not striving to speak for any one community. We're not striving to say "This is what it's like to be queer and 16 and a girl." We're striving to create Chloe, and we really want to focus on who Chloe is. There are many facets to her, and she's not defined by any one aspect of her character—her sexuality, her gender identity. It's an aggregate of all of that.
If we sought out to say, "the community is really responding to this archetype, let's build something that responds to that," we'd build an archetype, we wouldn't create a real character. We deliberately tried not to do that, but rather, to listen to voices whose experiences map onto what we're saying Chloe's experiences are, and to write from that place. To be vigilant, to be critical while we're doing it.
Sometimes mystery is important, and what might have occurred becomes fan interpretation, fan canon, Life Is Strange had such a passionate community on Tumblr and other places, where they often came up with their own interpretations. There must be some caution in realizing that sometimes fans take things one way, you another.
Garriss: It's a particularly challenging process with a community so in love with the content that we have.
An interesting problem to have.
Garriss: It's the best problem. It's the best community. It's an absolute privilege, an incredible joy for us to create a story for the people who love the world, too. The answer to your question goes back to something I said earlier. Our north star for making these decisions about the story is to follow what we are passionate about, what we love about what we're making. If we make that the guiding principle of our design, it gives us the hope that fans will, too.
It's impossible to please everyone when everyone disagrees, so what we strive to do is treat the material with care and be thoughtful and strive to make something that is a genuine reflection of what we love in that universe, in the hope that will resonate with fans across differences.
"I'm really sympathetic to the sadness that comes about when you hear that Ashley Burch isn't voicing Chloe. We all went through that. That was heartbreaking for us."
No supernatural elements whatsoever?
Garriss: No. [pause] Well, Arcadia Bay is a strange place.
A little Twin Peaks-like vibe?
Garriss: Yes, definitely. I think we embrace that. Just because Chloe doesn't have a superpower doesn't mean we aren't keeping at least one foot firmly planted in the world of the surreal. The visual metaphors, the symbolism we use throughout the story, the strange spaces that we're going to ask the player to inhabit in Chloe's interior world—her dreamscapes, her fears, her hopes, and the ways those things manifest might surprise the player in Arcadia Bay.
One of the hooks of the original was that you could make a choice and you could back off it, which is different than designing a game in which when you make a choice, it's your choice. How did that change the thinking, as a designer?
Garriss: It's so evil of us! As a player, I loved having that freedom. It's also a bit of a crutch. The big arc of the game is teaching Max that she can't do that. As much as I loved that as a player, and who wouldn't, we're doubling down on the discomfort of knowing that when you have to make a decision without knowing what's going to happen you just have to make the decision. For us, it's about character. The rewind power fit Max really well. The lack of it fits Chloe. Chloe is a wrecking ball, she's going to push right through whatever obstacle is in her way. She's not going to overthink problems. We think that'll help do work to make the player even more immersed in Chloe's world.
By making it a prequel and setting it in the same world, there's opportunities for fan service. But stuff like that can also be a crutch. Where are you finding the balance between surprising players and bringing them back to places they knew, without using nostalgia as the only reason to tell a story?
Garriss: That's a really good question. A lot of ways, Before The Storm is a love letter to the franchise from us. We really believe in what Life Is Strange has done, and that passion and commitment and vision is what resonated with Square when they chose to partner with us. Again, I think it comes down to letting the passion for the work and the belief in the best thing we find in the room on any given day be the guiding principle, not to worry too much about whether it's too much of the familiar, not enough of the new, too much of the new, not enough of the familiar. It comes down to craft, it comes down to discipline, and being very honest and critical with our connection to the work. Does it feel right? Does it feel right for the story we're telling? OK, leave it in, let's make it good. Moving forward from there.
How many times will people say hella in the game?
Garriss: Oof. [pause] Uh.
Is there a hella count? Like, is there a board somewhere saying "Life Is Strange requires a bare minimum of 10 hellas."
Garriss: We're being very deliberate with that. In a way, yes. But I don't want to answer the number. I'm being really uncooperative here.
Obviously, the situation with Ashly Burch coming on as a writing consultant but not voicing Chloe—how are you working through the reaction to that? It's such a passionate community. They not only responded to Chloe but to Ashley's interpretation of her.
Garriss: I'm really sympathetic to the sadness that comes about when you hear that Ashley Burch isn't voicing Chloe. We all went through that. That was heartbreaking for us. We loved what she did in the first game. The strike is very complicated, and it really challenged us in the middle of our development process, having to make a tough call about that. We even contemplated not making the game…
I was going to say, did you contemplate delaying the game?
Garriss: Unfortunately, game development's so challenging. Delaying, it's more like cancelling. That was definitely on the table for us. At the end of the day, it felt more heartbreaking to give up on what Before The Storm was and could be. What we ended up doing was sending the episode one script to Ashley Burch and asked her to read it. She read it and developed a real passion for what we were doing with the story, and agreed to get involved as a story consultant. She works with me and the writing team redoing dialogue and reviewing the story and sharing her thoughts and interior perspective on who Chloe is.
My hope for the fans is to give it a try. I think, at the end of the day, that's all we can really ask. We're very grateful, even though we didn't get to have Ashley on board embodying Chloe at this time in Chloe's life, having her present in the story crafting was a real gift. I think if fans do give it a try, they're going to love what they see.
In terms of the production overlap, was there a point where she was involved?
Garriss: No, it actually came about before real production of the game.
Obviously, the strike is complicated, but any concerns over using a non-union actor while there's a strike going on?
Garriss: Not from my end. Just from my perspective as the writer behind it. I don't speak for Square.