Life Is Strange Writer On The Importance Of Politics In Games
Writer and director Jean-Luc Cano has been a part of Life Is Strange ever since the narrative adventure game - the games - began life as a small project within Parisian studio Dontnod. That was early 2013. By the end of 2015, five episodes of Life Is Strange had been released, winning a raft of industry awards and establishing a community of fans passionate about the characters, events and locations of the game.
By the middle of 2017, Life Is Strange had sold over three million copies. A sequel was inevitable - and that sequel, Life Is Strange 2, releases its fifth and final episode on the 3rd of December.
"The first season was always meant to be standalone, so when episode five came out and it was a big success, (publishers) Square Enix came to us and asked for another one," Cano recalls. "So we sat down with a lot of ideas, and the beginning of a story - which was in a small town. Immediately we realised that'd be the same experience as the first game. The creators of Life Is Strange are making the same game again? That wouldn't work."
Life Is Strange brought closure to the stories of Max Caulfield and Chloe Price - the former a student blessed, or cursed, with the power to reverse time; the latter her dearest school friend who must navigate turmoil at home alongside the vanishing of another friend, Rachel Amber. Chloe and Rachel's relationship was further explored in the prequel series of 2017, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. But for the second game, Cano and the rest of the team at Dontnod were adamant that a wholly new cast was required.
"We wanted to get more political and face more real-life issues"
"We instead looked to new challenges," Cano continues. "We wanted to get more political and face more real-life issues. And when we went to Square Enix, and said we were doing Life Is Strange 2 without Max and Chloe (the key characters of the first game), they were surprised. Some publishers could have said no to our ideas, but Square Enix trusted us. When we showed them the story of Sean and Daniel, they were wowed. It is very different to the first game, but they backed us."
And while the sequel's story of Sean Diaz and his brother Daniel, who has telekinetic powers, perhaps hasn't resonated with players quite as much as Max and Chloe's tale, its bolder ambition is clear to see. Rather than set the game in a single place, Life Is Strange 2 takes its protagonists on a fraught road trip from Seattle to Mexico, from a family tragedy to hoped-for refuge at their father's hometown.
This means we get to see a variety of locations; and we're also made to play through a series of testing situations based explicitly on real-world issues that plague the United States, and beyond. That the brothers are of Mexican descent leads to encounters that, what with Donald Trump's continued barking about building a wall, inevitably bring biases and prejudice to the fore.
"On the first season, we dealt with some difficult subjects - abortion, school harassment, and euthanasia," Cano explains. "And with this one, we wanted to be more mature, and not see things in terms of high-school problems. So we've dealt with cop violence, racism, cult behaviour and religious abuse. It's important for us, as developers, to be as accurate as we can be with these things, to be as honest and as sincere as possible. These situations are ones that real people face every day, in their real lives. So if we dealt with it lightly, that'd be disrespectful."
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"We've put a lot of research into these subjects," Cano continues. "We've had so many exchanges with people directly affected, people who face racism every day, in the United States and in France. We want to be as accurate as possible. We're not being political to sell the game, explicitly, but it's important to highlight these subjects."
Cano tells me about some conversations he had with people, during his research, that left him shocked, stunned, and in no state to even continue his work.
"We live in a shitty world - but we also have hope"
"I had moments, researching this game, where I'd hear about something and think, what the f*ck? This is real? And I'd hear about people, black people, who were beaten up - one guy for refusing a cigarette from a skinhead. Are you okay, I asked him. He wasn't. He couldn't walk as a result of it. He's just 16 years old. So you close your laptop, and just put your head in your hands. This is out there, happening."
"We live in a shitty world," he continues, "but we also have hope. And the game we want to make is one that puts the player in front of hard situations. When you watch a movie, you're passive when you're being exposed to these things. In a game, I think it has more impact. Like the scene between Chad, Mike and Sean in episode four (see above, or on YouTube), when they grab Sean, and tell him to sing a song or they'll beat him. Facing that as a player, this is real racism - and as a white guy, I've never faced it. But to play this scene, wow, it's tough."
Cano tells me that, unlike the first Life Is Strange, episode five of the current series will climax based on decisions the player has made throughout the entire experience. "We've tried something at the end of the game, which of course I can't spoil, but I really want to feel the player's feelings and feedback on our choices," he tells me, adding: "You're going to get the ending you deserve, and I hope that people will be happy with the ending they get."
Whatever comes next for Life Is Strange as a series - and Cano sounds confident that there will be more, but that any third game will "be a completely different story" - there's no doubt that the games so far have opened up discussions about a variety of hard topics. And they've helped Dontnod feel confident about exploring all-new areas of interactive storytelling, too, as the recently announced Tell Me Why is illustrative of. (Said game, which features a transgender protagonist, is revealed at X019 a few hours after I leave Cano's company, so I don't get to ask him about it.)
"It's good to have this wide spectrum of video games," Cano says. "Some that are just entertainment, and some that more difficult, and tackle hard subjects. But I think a video game can make people change their minds. They can make people think again, and think differently, about certain topics."
Life Is Strange 2: Episode 5 is released for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC on December 3. Find more information about the game at its official website.