THE BIG INTERVIEW
With two episodes to go, Life Is Strange: Before The Storm writer Zak Gariss discusses the game.
With the first episode of Life Is Strange: Before The Storm out now, and the second due for release soon, this is the perfect time to catch up with lead writer Zak Garriss to learn how the prequel came to be. Taking over the writing reins from DontNod, Deck Nine had its work cut out making the prequel series unique and compelling. Garriss discusses the challenge of writing for Chloe, bringing Rachel to life, and the pressures of ensuring a choice-led game could remain true to characters’ true selves.
OPM: Through the first game you had lots of choices, then at the end it came down to a binary decision. Did you see that as a problem with this, in that it makes choice an illusion? Zak Garriss: I think it’s a good question. I don’t think it’s necessary for the consequences of your choices to last forever to be meaningful. The act of having to make the moral choices you’re making throughout the game, regardless of how long those consequences live, the act of being confronted with those choices and having to pick things is doing the work it needs to do to make you feel connected to those characters and that world, so by the end you are having to make one final choice that’s going to essentially clobber the town or save Chloe’s life. I don’t think that undoes all of the tension, that all of the choices leading up to that can force you
to think about, and probably directly forms which of the final choices you have decided.
OPM: In these prequels, it feels like there’s more going on with choices because you can’t rewind. Was that a bold move to make? ZG: It does feel bold sometimes. It’s funny, I think the rewind mechanic created a safety net that was really fitting for who Max was as a character. She’s the kind of person who’s going to second-guess her choices, she’s going to want to stress about doing the right thing. When we were building the game around Chloe, imagining ‘What will Chloe’s challenges look like? How will Chloe meet those challenges?’ that kind of a mechanic didn’t fit. She’s not the kind of person who’s going to stress about what the right decision is, she’s going to make her choice and charge right through, and then deal with whatever the consequences are. So, when we’re inviting the player to step into her shoes, we’re really asking you to be courageous or thoughtless in a way that Chloe can be.
OPM: Will there be any supernatural elements? ZG: Yeah, definitely. Just because Chloe doesn’t have a power doesn’t mean that we’re abandoning the supernatural aspects of what makes Arcadia Bay so strange.
OPM: There are comparisons to Twin Peaks. It’s a strange place with lots of offcharacters. Are you doubling down on that? ZG: Very much so, maybe even in some ways being stranger. I don’t want to spoil anything. I will say this: I think a big part of the game is looking at Chloe’s world at this point in time, from the interior, from her interior. And so, we’ve interacted with her as a character through Max’s eyes and we’ve not really known what’s going on inside of Chloe. One of the most exciting things for me as a writer is getting to round out Chloe’s depths, so she’s not just an angry girl… we’re going to see her being funny and goofy, and silly, and sad, and a full range of human emotions which makes a person, a person. And part of that, what she’s dealing with right now, she’s essentially grieving the loss of Max and the loss of her father, we’re exploring grief, and part of how we’re exploring grief is in the strangeness of grief, how it alters our perceptions, how it changes and takes control away from how we feel one moment to the next.
OPM: Since there was a lot of queer subtext in the previous game, how far are you pushing it? ZG: Pretty far, very far actually. Part of what we’re doing with that, that’s
WHEN WE’RE INVITING THE PLAYER TO STEP INTO HER SHOES, WE’RE ASKING YOU TO BE COURAGEOUS OR THOUGHTLESS IN A WAY THAT CHLOE CAN BE.
also one of the most exciting aspects of the game for me. There are people who have strong opinions about what Chloe’s relationship with Rachel was. In my opinion, the game itself, the first Life Is Strange, doesn’t clearly define that, it’s very suggestive. So, we’re looking at that suggestive space to give the player agency in determining how far that relationship goes, the nature of that relationship, and whether or not it’s romantic. But that is a path you can take, and it’s not a single choice you make, it’s not like: “Oh, we’re girlfriends now,” it’s more like an actual relationship where there are multiple opportunities to articulate how you’re feeling, and, depending on the choices you’re making, Rachel may or may not respond the way you want her to.
OPM: Are there Easter eggs and things that the fans of the last game will pick up on? ZG: I think the best way to reference material that you love, that fans love, isn’t necessarily… well, Easter eggs are kind of contentious, too much of it isn’t good. We’ve deliberately crafted the story to be nostalgic with the first game, to really resonate with the material of the first game. You’re going back to a lot of the same places, you’re seeing a lot of the same characters. We’re looking at them in a different time and we’re looking at them through Chloe’s eyes, which is going to change how we see them compared to Max. But we really tried to make it an even mix of spaces you’re going to know and love, and spaces you’ve never been to. Characters that you’re going to know and love, or hate, and characters you’ve never met before that are new and interesting… We loved the first game long before we were talking to Square about working on Life Is Strange, we were huge fans of the franchise, so we couldn’t help but put that love all over it.
OPM: There’s a bonus episode with Max. Can you tell us something about that? ZG: Yes, it’s the fourth episode. It’s an opportunity to play as Max one more time, and we’re looking at Max and Chloe’s relationship at a time before Before The Storm, so it’s early.
OPM: In the first game you kind of felt there was a danger in the world. Was it a challenge to keep that level of threat when you’re playing a character who’s quite confident, who’s open to danger? ZG: It’s different, it is challenging, it’s not the same, but what it does to have Chloe being out of the gate, less scared than Max, is, it gives us an opportunity to really make you wonder what’s going to make Chloe scared. So, when you take a character like Max, and you can create this looming backdrop of threat, it’s not a surprise, necessarily. For us, we took a different approach with Chloe; as a character she’s seemingly fearless until she’s suddenly not, and we’re looking at the kind of thing that will make Chloe afraid. I think that’s going to do interesting work narratively.
OPM: Did you sit down and work out ways to put Chloe through the mill? ZG: I think good drama puts the hero through a journey. That can be really difficult, the nuance for me, with Chloe, the way I wanted to take her even further than the last game did, was more about creating situations where we get to see Chloe vulnerable. I want to find ways to have her be willing to lower her guard and open up, and, yeah, potentially then be hurt, and how she could react to that. Finding ways to make Chloe comfortable enough to be happy for a bit, we get to explore these parts of her throughout the arc. That’s been the most satisfying.
OPM: We don’t know much about Rachel. Was it a big challenge to work out why a character like Chloe would love a character like Rachel? ZG: Yeah, that’s one of the core challenges. When we started concepting the story what we really connected to was this idea of looking at this chapter in Chloe’s life when something happened that was incredibly significant, so significant that when we see her in the first game, she’s putting flyers up all over Blackwell because this girl’s missing and she’s losing her mind. And she never reveals why, why she was so connected to Rachel, exactly what the details of that connection were. And so, that seemed like a great opportunity to create a lot of depth and a lot of agency for the player.
OPM: Were there times when you thought: “Oh, I would prefer it if we didn’t know anything about these characters”? ZG: Yeah, that’s a good question. Prequels are really hard in that way. We kind of cheated it because we’re not telling a story that leads up to Rachel’s disappearance, that’s not the story.
OPM: Yeah, but we know, for instance, you can’t kill Rachel in the game. ZG: That’s true, but sometimes restricting the options, what you have creatively, is actually quite helpful. We can create all kinds of dramatic tension that has nothing to do with threatening Rachel’s life.
OPM: If you’ve got a game where every choice you make develops that character in a certain way, do we really know who that character is? Does the player have a Chloe or is there a Chloe in your head, as a writer, that is actually the true Chloe? ZG: That’s a complicated question. This is what the craft of interactive narrative is, of writing choice, of writing hooks that the player can use. It’s a question of what the choices are? How different they are from each other, and where they live within the story overall, that will really form the answer to what you’re asking. If we give a lot of very black and very white choices to the player, where this version of Chloe and this version of Chloe are this far apart [gestures a wide gap with his hands], the story is going to struggle to accommodate those two personalities. I’m more interested in choices that live within a moral grey space and I can imagine a version of Chloe that would do that, on a different day I can imagine a version of Chloe that couldn’t do that. You’re going to have to decide for yourself where you land within that. It’s really abstract, but that’s a question of the difference between the choices that we’re giving and when within the story those choices live. I think when you get to the very end of the narrative, you can have choices that are this far apart [displays his hands far apart], but if all of them are like that, then the game’s going to spiral out.
Chloe’s rebellious nature leads to a bit of sarky backchat. We like that.
Left Chloe gets her nerd on with some classic tabletop RPGing… Right …and then rocks out by sneaking into a killer gig inside an old barn. This girl’s complex.