In yesterday’s first part, Christian and I discussed his path to becoming a professional writer and what enticed him to write on Life Is Strange. Today, the discussion continues on towards the game’s characters, audience reaction and what Christian himself is planning to do next. We address some major plot points over the course of the interview (which include a discussion of suicide), so here is an obligatory spoiler warning if you haven’t got round to playing the game yet.
Characterization, Choices and Time
Life Is Strange taps in to its cultural surroundings most effectively with its main characters, Max and Chloe, both of whom are acutely influenced by a wide range of ideas and past-times that they enjoy, and are markedly different people despite their close connection. Max is presented as likeable but flawed, still finding her way in the world but possessing strengths and weaknesses like any teenager would, or any human being for that matter. To pretend to be otherwise is just another weakness.
“Max is a wallflower, she’s shy but she’s not crushed,” Christian said. “She has volition and she’s willing to step up. She also screws up, she’s not perfect, and that’s the other thing about writing both about and for teenagers, they know bullshit a mile away. You can’t fool a kid. Maybe you can trick them in to Justin Bieber,” Christian quipped, “but for the most part you can’t fool them. I mean I knew when I was a teenager, who was phoney and who wasn’t. That’s why Catcher In The Rye resonated so much, there’s a bit of a touchstone there with Life Is Strange because Holden Caulfield was all about spotting phoneys and when you’re that age you start realising who is being fake. ”
This relation between what a person is really like and the face that they show to those around them is crucial to the game throughout. It’s also what makes its portrayal of the characters so effective, as the player struggles to get a handle on what people are looking for, what their endgame is. David Madsen is a perfect example of this. At the beginning of the game, Madsen appears to be a domineering megalomaniac who has it out for Max and Chloe, but it turns out his character is far more than that. Christian told us that he enjoyed watching people react to characters in that way, and welcomed the diverse range of opinions.
“It’s really nice to see what people are thinking when people are playing the game. When you read the forums and people are trying to work out whether Madsen is going to be a good or a bad guy, or even people who were just divided over Chloe and what she wanted, some people love her and some people just don’t. Some people love Samuel and some think he’s creepy. Some people despised Warren and some people loved Warren. Everybody loves Kate though!”
It’s true. Amidst the sea of people with grey areas and agendas that you can’t quite see, Kate is a character that is unambiguously good. “Well you had to put one person in there who represented the ideal, one who is unsullied,” explained Christian.
That makes her story, which is a very dark one of being driven to the very edge by people who lack the kind, thoughtful qualities she has, all the more hard-hitting. We asked Christian about dealing with those very dark themes and how the team approached the discussion of suicide.
“I was always impressed by how far the team was willing to go with a lot of these issues,” he said, with an admirable amount of honesty. “Maybe it’s a cultural thing but the French are always willing to touch upon all these really serious issues that most American games would have shied away from completely. Jean-Luc managed to create this edgy scene that’s based in really hardcore emotional issues that people have to face, so it’s a tightrope you have to walk too because you don’t want to be exploitative, and that’s the number one issue. We always thought that we couldn’t exploit it, it couldn’t be cheap and it had to be real. I’ve known people that have committed suicide, when I was a teenager I broached it, it’s not an issue that’s totally unfamiliar for people, and there’s a frame of reference there.”
“We were sensitive to how players were going to play it, ensuring that it made sense from a character perspective, where the branching dialogue has to go and what choices you have to make. It’s a tightrope, but thankfully it seems like people are appreciative of how we did it.”
As a scene, Kate’s suicide attempt was incredibly well received, both for how hard-hitting it is, and the fact that to diffuse the situation, you must already have got to know and improved your friendship with her over the course of the game. If you haven’t, the game is completely unforgiving, to the extent that it shocked many, but that’s a good thing, because as Christian said, to trivialise something of that magnitude would be wrong. What made it all the more impactful was Kate’s status as a person of faith, and how low the pressures of the world have made her fall. Christian was glad that she has been embraced so avidly by the fan community, and credits co-writer Jean-Luc Cano once more for her popularity.
“It’s great that the fandom has really embraced Kate. The way that Jean-Luc wrote her was to not make her the source of all this finger-wagging preaching. Maybe you wouldn’t necessarily agree with her religious tenants but she’s not judgemental, she doesn’t push her faith on anybody, she’s very well liked, and I like the fact that people still respond to her character, because she doesn’t judge people in that way. Her predicament is sad, it’s very dark in the sense of what she goes through but it’s not unlike what thousands and thousands of young people go through every day.”
[Kate’s] predicament is sad, it’s very dark in the sense of what she goes through but it’s not unlike what thousands and thousands of young people go through every day.
The game does a very good job of linking storylines like Kate’s, which of course turns out to be inextricably linked to the game’s main mystery, with smaller storylines that explore all of the high school drama, whilst never forgetting that the central mechanic is Max’s ability to turn back time. This causes you to think about every decision carefully, even when they don’t seem worthy of the power you have.
“I think the irony in the game is that you get these amazing powers, and the first thing you do in the game is the most mundane bullshit you can think of,” Christian joked. “That’s what’s fun about it. Instantly you think you’re going to go out and do all these crazy things but no, it’s I’m going to nark or not nark on my friend for pot, and other day to day stuff that takes up your time.”
This is all once again linked to the game’s exploration of what it is to be a teenager, and how even a superpower doesn’t change the process that you go through.
“When you’re a teenager, a lot of what you’re going through is self-introspection and trying to figure out who you are, and those are critical years,” Christian said. “So the fact is if you had this superpower you might not be thinking about the fate of the world but more about day to day stuff like homework. I think it works well and there’s a nice irony level. There’s also a nice contrast between what Max knows to be a bigger world out there and then her smaller world that she’s a lot more absorbed in. Like any drama you need to contrast the real with the fictional so by creating these characters that maybe people align with, the more crazy sci-fi supernatural stuff that starts happening is more believable and acceptable in the world.”
It was intriguing to hear what the time travel mechanic, which is so crucial to the ‘crazy sci-fi supernatural stuff’ that Christian just mentioned, brought to the game in Christian’s view, and why he thinks it’s so important.
“I think it defines the game because it’s so much about that,” Christian explained. “Dontnod’s first game Remember Me had this memory remix mechanic, which is where they got Max’s power from, and that was such an amazing mechanic, it was brilliant to use it in this game as well, and also to make a game where the goal is not to rush hurriedly through something actually to give you all the time in the world to consider everything. That to me made it jaw-droppingly brilliant when they sent me what they had done. Of course it fits in with the theme of living in the moment, and those moments where Max just sits and contemplates life, questioning her decisions. I remember so often older people saying that my years at high school were the best years of my life, and I was like “really? I hope not, they’re so stressful!””
“I never took those years seriously either, I always knew it was a temporary station so I took it less seriously than some of my peers did and I knew that it was teaching people to conform or face bullying and all the bullshit that society trains you for, or at least what high school in America does. I know it’s a very harsh time for young people so you have to put yourself in that position where time really matters, where everything seems of the utmost importance, from dates to parties or whatever. You can see your future is stretched out before you, even if you can’t see it you know it’s there and so it’s terrifying, it’s ultimately scary and liberating because you don’t know where you’re going to be and that’s good and bad, so I think that the time concept is really important and captures all those ideas and those gnawing self-doubts.”
That idea is very much part of what makes the game as effective as it is, and informs every aspect. You are always thinking about whether it has to be the way that you chose, or whether it could be different, or better.
“Yeah, that’s very much the state of mind it gets you in,” Christian agreed. “It makes you think, “what if I would have done this, what if I would have done this or that?” What If? was the original title of course, and that is what you do with your whole life, until the day you die. But my motto has always been an aphorism from one of my writing mentors, Thomas Farber: “He chose the path of least regret.” That’s literally what I want on my tombstone and it’s very funny that a game like this came my way, a game about choosing. I always choose the path I will least regret later which means doing the thing that scares you the most even though often it doesn’t work out the way you want.”
Obviously, all the second, third and fourth chances that Max has at choosing the path that she wants end up being devastating because those choices are linked to the natural disaster that brings about the game’s final choices. Perhaps the game is teaching you to choose the path you’ll regret least first, but it also shows you other things, according to Christian.
“It shows you that if you could change time maybe things wouldn’t be better, maybe some things need to happen. It’s very funny because when I got the chance to work on the game I was so excited and so happy but I was also very cognisant of the fact that all the choices in my life, all the bad and good choices, rejections, acceptances, all led me to the moment of being able to accept the offer. You never know what it is that you’re doing that’s going to change that river of time,” he said, as philosophically as you would expect from a writer on a game like this.
The most divisive aspect of the game is, without doubt, its ending. Christian dispels the idea that the ending means that your choices in the rest of the game don’t matter, arguing that they definitely do.
“One thing I think that people don’t see because they’re so concerned about the ‘bae or Bay’ choice is that whatever choice you make, Max has changed. You’re playing Max, and it affects her. I’ll read someone saying that the choices don’t matter but of course they do,” he argued passionately.
I’ll read someone saying that the choices don’t matter but of course they do.
“Max has to live with all the choices you make throughout the game, even if the outcome in reality is not what happened, Max had to experience that in her reality, and those alternate realities she experienced may be real if you want to believe that time has all these alternate streams going on. There could be a million choices and it still would be possible to make the argument that there could be more. I think what the team wanted to get through was that not every choice is necessarily the right one but you do get to make that choice and you have to live with that choice. That’s part of Max’s journey in to adulthood. In the space of a week she goes from a shy introvert to this powerful force of nature. Everything she has done has changed her, so those choices had a huge impact on her no matter what, even if they didn’t play out in reality.”
The reason for Max’s power is also never revealed, and Christian thinks that is a good thing.
“Though there are lots of arguments for and against explaining where her power comes from, I think that even if we know, it’s often best not to say, and it doesn’t mean that there’s only one answer. It’s like Twin Peaks. I actually interviewed David Lynch once, and he said “we never should have told them who killed Laura Palmer, we killed the golden goose!” and in a way, he’s right. When you solve the mystery you kill the mystery, so how Max got her power is not as important as what she does with her power. That’s not to say that in the future it isn’t an element that can’t or won’t be explored. There are many stories that can be told about that.”
Since the game was released last year, it has had an incredible reception from a fanbase that grew and grew by word of mouth and very complimentary reviews. Often, those who work on a game that achieves success on a scale that seems implausible confess their shock at its success, but not Christian, who says he absolutely thought the game would find its audience, though he concedes not quite to the level it has actually achieved.
“I obviously didn’t think it would get to the level it has,” he said, “but I did believe it would do well based on the fact that what they showed me was so amazing. I couldn’t conceive of it not making an impact regardless of my involvement. I was telling the team all along, because I’m the loudmouth American, that I was certain about it. I’m more wrong than I’m right normally, but I was just so certain with this. If we could make sure it was done right it should nail that kind of game world that hasn’t been depicted before and needs to be out there.”
“I knew the game would get attention and early reviews of the demos were really amazing, so we got a sense of how the game would be received. I was always curious because the team pushed the game in to dark places that I was very surprised about, and I wasn’t sure how those sections would be received, whether they would offend people or be too traumatising, or whether they wouldn’t work and people would laugh. Certainly I could not call how people were going to respond to those individual moments.”
“While every fandom is great, the Life Is Strange fandom has been really amazing, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” he went on to say. “I love it because it’s the most gentle, open fandom that I’ve ever seen. People may have arguments about the ‘bae vs bay’ choice or Warren but generally there’s so much openness and warmth and everybody is looking out for each other. The greatest thing about the game is that it gives me hope for the future and for young people. I would call myself a cynical optimist, maybe things are shitty now but they can always get better, and I love the fact that people are embracing these characters and not judging them for their sexuality or their choices. It’s just really nice to see the characters loved in that way.”
Christian also told us that he loves everything that comes with having such a large fandom, and how people related so acutely with the characters.
“I love all the fan art that people have made, to me it’s like a cool superhero team, the Everyday Heroes,” he said, referencing a competition in the game that has become a fixture in the fandom. “I love the disparity of people drawing the Christian girl next to the badass punk girl next to the nerdy girl, it’s really neat to see all the fans bring the characters together and find things to identify with. I get messages all the time that say “I’m totally Max” or “I feel like Warren” so it’s cool that people have been able to actually see themselves in the game. From a writing perspective it’s quite scary, because before the first episode was released you realise that you’re about to be judged by the whole world and everybody on the team is going to feel that judgement so even though there were some people that didn’t like the dialogue and have issues with it which is totally fine, there are many people who responded to it very well and that’s extremely gratifying.”
From a personal perspective, after a project as large as this, it was interesting to hear what Christian wanted to do next, whether he would work with Dontnod again, as well as whether the further stories in the Life Is Strange universe that he alluded to previously were in the pipeline.
“I would love to work with them again,” he said enthusiastically. “We had a great experience, we talk all the time and it’s a great team, basically my dream team. You don’t often get to work on a game where everybody is on the same page and is firing on all the same cylinders. The nice thing about working on a French team is the French like to debate, which is a lot of fun. Not with any bad feeling, but they like to talk through and work out a lot of stuff, which is great. Just sitting there talking about Chloe for example is fun, working out what we can do with the different characters. It’s a great experience and they all speak English really well, which is good for me until I manage to learn French,” he joked.
On the potential sequel, he is much more coy. “I have no idea on that front,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out.” Perhaps the fact that there are possibilities on Christian’s mind provides enough hope for fans that there could be a sequel, though we know nothing of its nature at the moment.
We concluded our discussion by talking about Christian’s other projects, and his focus at the moment appears to be in the film world.
“I’ve got some stuff going through Hollywood as I said before. I have a few things that are in pre-production right now so I was just in LA talking about them with my producers there. I used to live in the city but I prefer working from outside and travelling in when I need to, it’s fun to just go down there and engage with people, have meetings with producers and then be able to leave.”
Writers that work in both video games and films are rare, so it’s good that Christian is working on both. For him, the reason for the lack of crossover is complicated.
“There have been a few high-profile screenwriters that they brought to video games but it hasn’t always worked out and I think the reason for that is that there are only a handful of games at any given time that require heavy-duty intensive narrative or screenplay. It shouldn’t be that way at all, but that tends to be the way of things.”
“It’s a different medium as well,” Christian goes on, “and a lot of writers and screenwriters don’t really understand games.They don’t understand the branching dialogue, which is a big part of it, and something you really have to be adept at. You have to get that it’s not just an interactive movie, there are other things going on that you have to include in the narrative. This means crossover is not common and I’m happy to be one of the few that do it. What I’m hoping for is that the games world will evolve from a narrative perspective, I left it behind for a little while because it wasn’t evolving, it was still stuck in a ‘little boy’ rut which it needed to grow out of, and now I think it has,” Christian concluded on a welcome, hopeful note.
Life Is Strange is out now and available to purchase on PC, PS3, PS4, X360 and Xbox One. If you enjoyed this interview, make sure to follow Christian on Twitter for updates on what he’s getting up to.