“We wouldn’t be forced to change stuff” – the Life Is Strange team on being asked to switch female characters to male

"We made something important for us."

Life is Strange is a game that we really enjoyed playing and reviewing on Gadgette, appreciating its well-written female characters and willingness to tackle difficult issues. Clearly we weren’t the only ones, because the game was nominated in five categories at this year’s BAFTA Games Awards, walking away as winner of Best Story. We got the chance to sit down with three of the game’s development team – co-director Michel Koch, producer Luc Baghadoust, and writer of the original story Jean-luc Cano – to talk about Life is Strange. Warning, there may be spoilers for the game ahead!

Congratulations on all the BAFTA nominations! What’s life been like since Life is Strange proved to be such a success. Was it surprising, what’s changed for you?

Michel: It was really surprising. We knew we enjoyed the game, we knew we were going to do a game that people who enjoyed a series like Telltale Games would like. So, we knew some people would like it but we really didn’t expect it to reach such a massive audience.

Luc: When we started making the game we weren’t thinking about an audience or marketing targets, we just wanted to make a game that we loved. We thought ‘okay this is a game we would love to play’ and we worked hard to – it maybe sounds a bit cheesy – but we worked hard to make a game we really loved. Just seeing the community that’s grown and receiving letters, emails, gifts – even booze! – it’s quite amazing because to work really hard on a project you love and seeing that people love it and that you’ve reached the players it’s pretty impressive and it’s really good because when you make games, you make games for players to enjoy.

Jean: We had an idea of making the game that we wanted – what we wanted to write, what we wanted to play. Don’t try something that couldn’t change your life and that’s what we’ve done.

Michel: It’s changed our lives. We put a lot of ourselves into the game. It wasn’t just a job. We made something important for us.

I’d seen in your developer diaries that some publishers had asked you to change the main characters into men. First of all, thanks for not doing that but secondly, was it this desire to make something you really loved that helped you when deciding not to compromise on this?

Luc: It would have been a difficult compromise to make. We’d spent so many hours on the game and we wouldn’t be forced to change stuff just for the sake of a marketing aspect. No. For us as long as we could do the game we wanted it wasn’t that important to reach a massive audience. We preferred to keep the game as it was.

Jean: We’d put so much into it that when someone told us “oh, Max is a unisex name” we can make it a man we just [shakes head and claps hands] It’s something we felt strongly about.

Michel: There’s a scene in Chloe’s bedroom in episode one, we went to publishers with that and Squre Enix was one of the only publishers who instantly loved the game and didn’t want us to change anything. Looking back at that scene we wrote and how we made it, it’s almost exactly like it, we didn’t change anything. They really trusted our vision.

Do you have any characters who are particular favourites?

Jean: For me I really really love Chloe and Max. But also, I think I really love Kate because from the beginning it was the character I hated most; she’s the opposite of what I am. I’m writing this character, a Catholic girl, very shy and I’m thinking oh my God but then as I’m working on her I think “okay, she’s a good person” and Christian [Divine, a writer on the game] he brought a lot more to her and I think she’s one of the characters I now love most because I didn’t love her at the beginning.

Luc: You feel guilty for that.

Jean: [laughter] Absolutely

Michel: I think my favourite character is Chloe. But something I love in the game that isn’t a character but stands out is those still moments where you can just take your time and not really do anything. It was something that wasn’t easy to pitch to publishers, that you have this moment where you just sit on a fountain and just…sit. But I think that it’s one of the important parts. We live in a world where everything is busy and fast and everyone is always in a hurry and giving the player the ability to learn to take their time, to give that ability to Max and to the player, it was really important to us to show that sometimes you need to take time to reflect on yourself and some of those sequences are my favourite.

Luc: I think I love Chloe. She’s amazing, she’s different from you, she makes you move forward and I loved that. Although it’s funny because recently now that I’ve had some more distance from the game and Max is a little bit farther from me I find myself missing Max and I realise just how important Max is to me as well.

You tackle a lot of difficult themes in the game, which we really appreciated. Were these themes difficult to write? Did you ever have moments where you hesitated to discuss something?

Michel: I think it was one of the biggest challenges in the game when talking about those difficult subjects like cyberbullying, suicide, or euthanasia. We took a lot of time working on it with Christian when it came to the dialogue and it took maybe two or three times as long to write for those scenes to make sure that everything was right because when you’re dealing with subjects like this you know that many players will have experienced a similar situation and if you don’t do it right it can be really hard on those people, it can be very disrespectful and it was really important to us that if we have those moments in the game, we take the time to make sure they were right.

Jean: With all the difficult hard subjects we’re talking about, they were there from the beginning of the story. But we’re not American teenagers so we had to research a lot. On the one side you have the story you want to tell, and on the other side you have what is reality and Christian made a good reach between the two because we had the scene we wanted to tell, the bullying or Kate’s attempted suicide, and Christian would make it real because he knew. He was a teenager in the United States, he knew how to tell it more realistically. From the very beginning we wanted to look at female teenagehood, a female coming of age story, so we knew ‘we have to talk about this, we have to talk about this, you know, what was it like when Michel was a teenager? Okay’ but when we were young we couldn’t film a friend with an iPhone. We might have had the same situations, just not as big as a teenager has to face today.

Michel: Another thing that was really important was that we had this big story to tell, the coming of age story was the main seam of the game about growing up and accepting sacrifice and then, like Jean said, we had this realistic setting where it’s logical to talk about real world issues. But it was also important to never just really push so hard on one issue if it didn’t make sense with the main story so most of those scenes it was really important to make sure they integrated with the main story if that makes sense, that they served the main story and weren’t just there for exploitation. We did a lot of work to be sure that everything was connected and worked with the story so it doesn’t come off as gratuitous.

What is making an episodic game like? Were there ever moments where you wanted to jump in and change things as you went or had it all been set out firmly from the beginning?

Jean: The main story was there from the beginning. It would have been bad to start working if it wasn’t rock solid so we were really confident with the story we had but with the episodic format we were able to change some minor stuff, change some lines, because you learn from the experience as you go. With voice recordings if you feel like a voice actor was even better than you expected you can maybe add some lines or adapt the writing to their personality.

Michel: Something interesting with episodes again is that most of the time an episode will last around two hours, maybe two and a half hours, and most of the time players would play the episode all in one session so that really enabled us to control the rhythm and be sure that the player doesn’t drop off right in the middle of a point where we want them to be. So it’s harder sometimes because you need to work in a chronological order. When you’re making a full game sometimes you can start with the ending and stuff like that but working in episodes also gave us a lot of control around the rhythm and the story. It forces us, I think, to work better around the character and be sure that each character works in a good way.

Thank you to Jean, Michel, and Luc for taking the time to chat to us. If you’d like to read our reviews on Life is Strange you can find them here: Episode One, Episode Two, Episode Three, Episode FourEpisode Five.