Square Enix Brings Characters to Life and Drops Life Is Strange: True Colors Episodes
It’s fair to say that Deck Nine had a lot to prove with Life Is Strange: True Colors. While this wasn’t their first Life Is Strange – the Colorado studio released spin-off game Before The Storm in 2017 – it was the first time they were tasked with creating their own world and characters, instead of inherit Dontnod’s creations.
Thankfully, Deck Nine managed to walk a tightrope in honoring the series’ existing DNA, while taking the world of Life Is Strange in new directions. To learn more about how it was done, I caught up with Philip Lawrence and Sarah Van Rompeay, Senior Narrative Designer and Senior Producer respectively at Square Enix External Studios.
One of the most important parts of Life Is Strange’s DNA is, of course, the supernatural abilities of its protagonists. While the series’ original hero Max Caulfield traveled back in time and Life Is Strange 2 saw Daniel Diaz accidentally flip cars with telekinesis, True Colors took an unusual approach with Alex Chen’s ability: empathy. As the powers go, it might not be the most immediately obvious, but it’s deeply Life Is Strange, as Lawrence points out.
“You say it’s not obvious,” Lawrence says, “but when we were testing with fans, it was something they expressed interest in. Life Is Strange has always been about emotions, it’s “It’s absolutely the heart of these games. With empathy, he felt that was the point of these games. So let’s put it front and center and make it a power.”
“Everything else is grounded in reality. The powers are a great concession to the imagination.”
Although, Lawrence rejects the “superpower” moniker, pointing out that the team’s goal is always to ground their characters‘ abilities in reality as much as possible. “Yes, powers are an element of fantasy, but everything else is grounded in reality, the characters, the real issues, the themes. Powers are a big concession to the imagination, if you will,” explains he. “But because of that, it has to be absolutely rooted in character. It’s their story, it’s their current dilemma, it’s a challenge they face in the game and of course it’s a tool they use to meet this challenge.
Therefore ‘who is the main character?’ is one of the first things they work on in development, and the fact that it changes every time is, Lawrence jokes, “a rod for our own backs!” – but it has advantages. “[it] allows us to explore a different power and develop it in a way that really resonates with the character and the themes we’re going to want to explore through that character. We develop character and power very much in tandem, right from the start.
I’m curious about this rod for their back and the design work of a new LIS protagonist. Since the appeal of the franchise has always been rooted in the strength of its characters, this must be a daunting process – especially for a studio taking on an existing, beloved IP.
“It’s a very organic, time-consuming process,” says Lawrence. “We spend many months at the start of development in the design phase. We have a writers room in Deck Nine, Colorado, with a very diverse and inclusive writing staff, who offer very different perspectives on story and character, and very different life experiences.
Lawrence explains that a lot of the research for the character is in the casting, especially now that they’re using full performance capture with the actors. “Once we cast Erika Mori for Alex, it was a back-and-forth process where the writing team saw what she was doing with the material they gave her, and they wrote about the points. strengths of the character as she described it. So much rests on the shoulders of the lead actors in these games, it’s a pretty gargantuan acting task.
Full-motion capture is a first for the series, whose higher emotional moments were sometimes undermined by the characters’ somewhat blank facial expressions, especially in the first game. game, with True Colors being by far the best looking Life Is Strange game to date. “Deck Nine was very keen on using motion capture, and it came with some risk because there were a lot of unknowns about it,” says Van Rompeay. “But we agreed it was the right thing to do, because we really wanted to push the performance, nuance and fidelity of the game. Deck Nine really embraced it, they did so much research during pre-production and development, and constantly improving the pipelines, finding ways to save time, improve yield, and achieve better quality. It’s become the beating heart of the game.”
“We really wanted to push the performance, nuance and fidelity of the game.”
“Erika stepped in and brought Alex to life in a vivid way,” Lawrence says. “Creatively, it was a wonderful journey of exploration, because once you start getting this full performance with all the tiny nuances of facial expressions, then you can start writing on it and leave it behind. some dialogue, because an actress like Erica can just sell emotion without saying a word.
Motion capture aside, perhaps the most immediately noticeable change in True Colors is the abandonment of the episodic release model. While the game is still broken down into chapters, offering the usual breakdown of how your choices compare to other players, True Colors was the first Life Is Strange game to release as a full experience.
“I mean, it’s partly a matter of player choice,” Lawrence explains. “We were careful to structure a story around the five chapters, so that structurally it feels very much in line with previous Life Is Strange titles. So if players want to step back, reflect, and have those fresh moments with the community, they can. But for those who would be frustrated with the episodic release model, we save them from those frustrations.
“And I think from a creative standpoint, it allowed us to focus on developing the story, putting the scripts in a great position, and then producing a game. So we didn’t have that awkwardness of the episodic model where you rush into production on scripted content for the first episode and then move on to the next. Approaching it that way is much more cohesive and organic, I think.
It’s also a sign that the episodic model is going out of style somewhat. While it has its upsides, the unreliable world of game development schedules makes consistent episodic releases incredibly difficult to keep up with – and often frustrates more than it entertains fans. As Deck Nine and Square Enix move forward with the Life is Strange torch, is the episodic model a thing of the past?
“I can’t imagine us going back to the episodic model,” Lawrence says. “The reaction has been very positive. I think we’ve been careful to keep that episodic structure because it seems to appeal to players. It’s all part of Life is Strange’s DNA. As you can imagine, it was a decision that was talked about and a little nerve-wracking, but I think on reflection it was the right decision.
All of this goes to show that the future of the series is hopefully in good hands – through the success of True Colors, anyway. Still, even with all that extra support and development money behind the game, taking on any other studio’s IP must have been a daunting prospect – even with their experience on Before the Storm factored in.
“I never directly asked them that, but they wouldn’t be human if they weren’t apprehensive!” Laurent laughs. “Before The Storm was a very useful springboard. It’s obviously a beautiful game on its own, but it’s a smaller game and a game where they inherited the characters and settings. He describes this game as an excellent ground for integration. “But coming up with a new character, a new setting and raising the benchmark in terms of visual fidelity for True Colors was a huge task for them to undertake.” I think they succeeded.