Life really is strange for this unpredictable Parisian outfit
We visit Dontnod Entertainment, the young Parisian studio for which life really is strange
The words ‘Final Boss’ are written on
Oskar Guilbert’s office door. Inside, rather than an intimidating showdown with a challenging figure covered in glowing red bits, we find Dontnod’s friendly CEO. His spacious workplace features a slanted glass wall offering a grand view of Paris’ Sacré-Coeur Basilica sitting on Montmartre, which is bathed in an orange early-evening glow.
Guilbert, a self-proclaimed ‘tech guy’ with a PHD in computer graphics and programming, worked on Criterion Software’s Render Ware engine for a number of years before becoming a producer at Ubisoft, and started Dontnod in June 2008. “We were only five people at the beginning – we’ve grown from five to 100,” he explains. “It’s really impressive when I look back to see how it moved, how it changed.”
The studio’s first office was a 50m² space near Gare De Lyon on the north bank of the Seine. The current one, located in a quiet neighbourhood at the top of Paris – the Quartier De La Chapelle – allows the growing company more creative control. “When we moved, the owner of this place said, ‘OK, we can give you this space and you can do what you want.”
This explains the unique interior. With matte-black walls sliced at odd angles and seemingly randomly inserted windows, Dontnod’s current HQ could moonlight as a laser-tag arena, and it’s easy to imagine employees at the end of crunch deadlines unwinding with epic Nerf gun firefights. “We were at the end of Remember
Me and one of the UI designers had made these black shapes for the UI,” Guilbert tells us. “So we had him design the walls and the meeting rooms like that.”
In the largest meeting room we sit not around a boardroom table and chairs, but on one of a dozen, teardrop-shaped beanbags. No wonder the studio is called Dontnod: from the walls to the furniture, there is evidence of a wilful resistance of any kind of convention. Its debut game, the Capcom-published 2013 action-adventure
Remember Me, was a bold first step, not least for its female, mixed-race protagonist. While flawed, it was a thought-provoking, smartly designed action game set in a Neo-Paris of 2084, where brain implants allowed the population to upload memories to the Internet.
Despite a lukewarm reception in certain quarters, its vision remains unique. Chrome and glass twirls around iron and stone landmarks, robots ferry about shopping bags, and holographic menus hovering in front of restaurant display the price of confectionery. “As far as art is concerned we’ve gained some street credibility from Remember Me,” says art director Grégory Szucs. “We’re completely confident in our ability to deliver, and if they want something that they’ve not seen before, they trust that we are going to be able to carry that vision.” Dontnod’s beginnings were tricky, however.
Remember Me was originally known as Adrift, and was to be a PS3 exclusive published by Sony – but when the platform holder had to make cutbacks, Dontnod found itself without a publisher. Capcom would come to the rescue, but for a while the studio was in limbo.
“Between the time we lost Sony and signed with Capcom, it was this very strange time where we had no publishers, we had not much money left, but we still had a game to deliver,” says narrative director Stéphane Beauverger, who joined in 2009 (Sony dropped the game in 2011). “That was a very strong, very intense time. We had to find solutions very quickly. I’m convinced that the more constrained, back-against-the-wall, more trapped you feel, the more clever a solution you have to find.” Beauverger recalls an old quote from one of the Monty Python team: “‘We had to be brilliant because we had no money!’ I liked that very specific time of Dontnod because we had to be very clever, very efficient, without money.” Dontnod went to Gamescom in 2011 with a teaser and some concept art, hoping to generate press interest and, through that, another publishing deal, aiming to have a contract in place before the year was out. It worked, but the team learned a valuable lesson. “We may have been too ambitious with what we wanted to do with
Remember Me," Szucs tells us. “Now we know definitely how to choose our battles and deliver our specific polish.”
The studio’s follow-up was Life Is Strange, which borrowed Remember Me’s time-rewind mechanic but was otherwise a stylistic world apart from Dontnod’s debut game. Guilbert admits some trepidation about the game’s risks. “I challenged them at the beginning,” he says. “I said, ‘Are you sure about the two girls?’ And they were all the time very affirmative, and they told me, ‘Yeah, this story would not work if it was two boys or a boy and a girl’. It’s always a difficult question to answer: ‘Why this? Why a woman? Why a man?’ For us, it’s more about what kind of emotion we want to create, what we want to convey.”
Life Is Strange retained Remember Me’s thirdperson perspective and movement, yet this was no action game, but rather a choice-driven narrative that owed a certain debt to Telltale Games and point-and-click adventures of old. Like Dontnod’s debut, it starred an atypical protagonist, this time the introverted teenager Maxine Caulfield. It was episodic, with five instalments spread over January to October of 2015. It passed the Bechdel Test. It covered difficult social issues such as drugs and suicide. And it was, above all, an incredible success.
“We’d learned from our errors,” says Beauverger. “Each company has to learn from previous errors, previous mistakes. And I guess we are more organised now; we are more able to deliver on time because we know we have more budget to do so.” Life Is Strange was
“IT WAS A STRANGE TIME: WE HAD NO PUBLISHERS, WE HAD NOT MUCH MONEY, BUT WE STILL HAD A GAME TO DELIVER”
originally meant to be a single, full-length release that Dontnod would self-publish, but when it signed with Square Enix, the Japanese publisher felt it would work better split into episodes.
Few studios can boast of having made two original games, in two completely different genres, with their first two releases. Remember
Me and Life Is Strange are completely unrelated in terms of tone, mechanics, and genre. So just what is it about Dontnod that fosters these kind of ideas? For Beauverger it has to be freedom of creation. “As narrative director I would say I really feel free to create many stories, many characters. Now we’ve made Life is Strange, people see us as storytellers. We have this tag on us: Dontnod tell stories. So we’re more confident in that, and we know that we can tell even more complicated, even more intriguing stories to the player because this is part of Dontnod’s DNA.”
Art director Szucs agrees on the importance Dontnod places on narrative: “I really think it’s dedication to telling stories, having the player make tough choices and face the consequences of their decisions. That will be in all our games.”
Dontnod’s current project, Vampyr, is similarly story-centred and similarly unexpected. Set in post-Victorian London, it tells the dark story of Dr Jonathan Reid, a vampire who uses the chaos caused by the Spanish Flu and the confusion following four years of brutal war as cover to skulk around, either curing citizens of their affliction or feasting on them. Vampyr tells of a studio more confident in what it wants to create before it creates it. On our tour, we see developers engrossed. One monitor displays pictures of Ripper Street, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and Sherlock Holmes (both the Cumberbatch and Downey Jr versions) for visual reference. There are shelves stocked with literary reference materials, including Liquid History: The Thames Through Time and The Book Of Facial Expressions: Babies To Teens. Authenticity, both from a geographical and anthropological perspective, is important to Dontnod. Remember Me’s Neo-Paris was not a city rebuilt for the future, but repurposed, its architecture built on top of, rather than replaced – a sense of a city that has grown and evolved over time, much like the studio that made it.
Guilbert stresses the importance of renewal. “It’s very important to change, to have several creative people who are strong, who can develop their own ideas. And change is good for us.” The studio holds a dedicated ‘de-clutter’ day each year, for which everyone throws away anything they no longer need. More important, though, are creative days. “Every month or two we have a day where people can do whatever they want,” Guilbert explains. “It has to be linked to the project we’re doing here – something that will be useful for the company as a whole.”
“We call them Dontnod Days,” Szucs tells us. “We’ve had some pretty silly game jams, like super-deformed animals kissing each other. I’m not sure I can talk about other specifics…”
While Dontnod may seek to reinvent itself with every new release, it ensures it holds true to its past. Traces of its history are everywhere: there are Life Is Strange- style Polaroids on walls, a big orange wireframe model of Remember Me’s Nilin in the lobby, and a large banner bearing the name Adrift, a callback to Dontnod’s days with Sony. Successful studios inevitably expand, but by dividing the roughly 100 staff into groups of no more than 15, and giving them ownership over individual projects, Dontnod keeps them motivated and ensures they feel their work is important, despite the rising headcount.
And it’s clearly working. “I’ve always been fascinated by the passion of the staff, and how involved they are,” Beauverger says. “I know it may sound clichéd, but sometimes it’s quite a problem in the videogame industry. Even when it’s not crunch time, the people here work a lot. Working many months just to deliver the game to the desired quality… there’s a very vivid passion at Dontnod, I think.”
“I’ve been working for Dontnod for six years," Szucs says. “Every year there’s a birthday party [for the studio’s founding]. We get a shirt every year, and I’m just missing the first one.” And, of course, Dontnod always finds a way to have fun. “We were nominated in two categories at the Develop Awards and I had promised to go swimming in the English Channel at Brighton if we won those two awards,” Guilbert says. “Well, we won, so I was happy to keep my word and went swimming in water at a temperature of 12°C! Fortunately, we drank a bit before and the champagne warmed us up.”
So what’s next? Whatever it is, you can be certain it won’t be a sequel. “We want to do something different,” Guilbert says. “Not repeat ourselves, not say yes to everything.” Finally, the studio’s name makes complete sense.
“PEOPLE SEE US AS STORYTELLERS. WE KNOW THAT WE CAN TELL EVEN MORE COMPLICATED, INTRIGUING STORIES”
Guilbert and his team try and freshen up the office once a year, discarding what they don’t need and building anew
The top-floor studio offers incredible views over Paris, although the interior works hard to be an interesting space in itself, taking a little inspiration from Dontnod’s debut release