Interview: Jean-Maxime Moris, creative director, Dontnod Entertainment
Jean-Maxime Moris worked in production roles at Ubisoft in Shanghai and Paris before going on to co-found fiercely independent Parisian studio Dontnod Entertainment and direct Remember Me. Now the studio’s creative director, Moris is currently overseeing several projects, including the ongoing development of Life Is Strange. Moris has a considered, confident air about him when we meet at Square Enix’s London headquarters, but one that’s offset with modesty and candour. Telltale Games currently dominates the adventure genre. What made you want to enter the fray? Telltale defined what I see as the modern adventure game, favouring character and story development, and choice, over puzzles. They’re a huge influence, but I think we’re very different in many ways, and I think that shows very simply in the game. If you take Gone Home, Telltale’s games and the Quantic Dream stuff, I think we’re somewhere [near] the intersection, but not quite in the same area. We were open to continue on the Remember Me IP, but we were also toying with other more action-oriented ideas, because we like different things and thought, ‘Let’s use our engine, the rewind mechanic and all the thirdperson technology that we have.’ We just wanted to try something else, and this is the one idea that we ended up focusing on. So what came first, the time travel mechanic or questioning the nature of choice in videogames? The brief we gave to the smaller team at the inception of the concept was: ‘Think of a new IP that is centred on the rewind mechanic we explored in Remember Me.’ Then we asked ourselves if we could use the rewind in real life rather than people’s memories. And we thought the rewind could be a way to question the nature of choice, because you can always go back and forth and change what you’ve done. So we were like, OK, what kind of story would we be telling? What’s the area of your life where your choices matter the most? Obviously, it’s when you’re transitioning between your teenage and adult years, and that’s how the game was born. So the supernatural time travel aspect was more a consequence of all that. We wanted to do something intimate that is being echoed by [bigger events in the story], but it’s always there as a metaphor for what’s going on inside Max and Chloe. Your approach to environments – which are more spacious than those of Telltale’s games – makes the game feel different. What’s the story behind it? It’s a mix of many things. One was that we wanted more environmental storytelling and exploration than you typically get in a Telltale game. The Walking Dead, especially, is a big influence, but Gone Home is another one. We started working on Life Is Strange way before Gone Home came out, but when it had the success that it did, we felt we might be on to something, because Life Is Strange had the exact same spirit. That was a huge boost to our morale. But the other bit was that Remember Me was heavily criticised for its linearity, and I think that kind of traumatised us. However linear Remember Me might have been, the problem was more that we were pretty bad at hiding that linearity – many other games are just as linear, but they hide it better. You’ve always had trouble pitching a female lead to publishers. How does that conversation go? It’s always the same thing. You meet a [business development manager] and then that guy takes it to a committee and comes back with feedback. What usually happens is that the guy you meet first comes back and says, “We love it and we’re ready to seriously consider it, but there’s just one thing…” It’s as straightforward as that. I think it’s like everyday racism – it doesn’t sound like it’s the worst sexist remark they could make, but it’s there and it’s just proof that this type of thinking and behaviour still prevails in the industry. Another differentiating factor is the sheer number of choices. That must have been a design headache. It was a headache. Not all of them will have major consequences, but we’re very open about the choices you make. So every time you see the [time travel] icon in the upper-left corner of the screen, it means there will be a repercussion. You’ll never be tricked into thinking there might be a consequence where there isn’t any. The story is going in generally the same direction for everyone, but to me it’s about the little details that make me feel important as a player. If two of these choices, combined with one more choice in episode two, mean that two episodes later I get a customised SMS that basically says, ‘You didn’t tell me you were meeting X at this moment, and you talked about this or that,’ I’m like, ‘What? Oh, that’s from back then. Wait a minute, how did they record that?’ And you know that moment where you’re like, ‘Holy shit, this is me.’ It’s not feasible to build 100 different branches into the game; no studio of our size has the financial power to do it… and many people will end up only seeing ten per cent of what you’ve built. There will be more than one ending in Life Is Strange, but there won’t be 67. But there will be a great number of these little moments. In a genre where most people like to explore and take their time, I think that’s where you do incredible things in terms of making people live the story.
“I think it’s like everyday racism – it doesn’t sound like it’s the worst sexist remark they could make, but it’s there”