Stu­dio Pro­file

Life re­ally is strange for this un­pre­dictable Parisian out­fit

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY BEN GRIF­FIN

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

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