Michel Koch has been with Dontnod Entertainment for 11 years, and has worked on the Life is Strange series for around six of those. That would be a long time, he says, to work on a project that he didn't feel had some kind of weight to it.
"I don't want to spend three years of my life working on a project without trying to talk about subjects that are important to me," he tells me in an interview at PAX West. "I'm really happy our publisher allows us to talk about tough subjects. We could be afraid of representation or talking about those heavy subjects and important themes because the choices we make when talking about these subjects can be divisive. It shouldn't be, but it is."
The two Life is Strange games, as well as their bridge game The Adventures of Captain Spirit, tackle a considerable amount of challenging material throughout. The games explore issues of race, gender, and sexuality, of violence and bigotry, alcoholism, abuse, and neglect. But Koch says that the reason why the games tackle these topics in the first place is because Life is Strange is grounded in the real world, and centered around characters with real-life problems the player will (he hopes) identify with. Skipping over the tough stuff simply isn't an option for Dontnod if they want to tell an impactful story.
"I don't want to spend three years of my life working on a project without trying to talk about subjects that are important to me"
"We start first by thinking of our main theme," he says. "The first Life is Strange was about coming-of-age and accepting the consequences of your choices, and Life is Strange 2 is a story about a family bond and education. Two brothers, alone without their father, and Sean as a 16-year-old is forced to take care of his younger brother while fleeing and on the road. And since they are Mexican-American, for us it was important that they face real-world issues. They're facing racism, exclusion, and they're meeting other people on the road that are also the kind of characters we don't speak enough about.
"For Captain Spirit, it's a game that talks about imagination -- how as a kid you can be lonely but still have an inner world and you can use your inner world to escape the harshness of real life. We all have kids, so we put some of our own interests in Captain Spirit. But we really like to talk about characters that are not seen enough in video games or in general.
"We're living in a world that I think is getting more and more intolerant. With social media, most of the time we talk with only people that think exactly like us. And even if some of the world is really connected, we sometimes don't look at others enough. So, for example, with Sean as the main character of Life is Strange 2, we wanted to have him crying sometimes, to show that masculinity doesn't have to be just a big guy who doesn't show any emotion. You can see that often in video games. We tried to stay away from ideas of what toxic masculinity can be.
"There are a lot of different characters that I think are not represented enough, and it's not just about minorities. Sometimes it's about emotions, or state of mind, or the way they're thinking."
Though Life is Strange's characters and themes are very grounded in reality, each game in the series adds a touch of the supernatural. In the first Life is Strange, the main character Max has the power to rewind time and try to achieve different outcomes when things don't go her way. In the sequel, Sean's younger brother Daniel manifests telekinetic powers.
Koch says the team wasn't always sure the supernatural elements were necessary to tell the stories they wanted to tell, but ultimately found inspiration from how science fiction was used in other media such as TV, literature, and film to add a sense of urgency to everyday, familiar conflicts.
"We wanted to have [Sean] crying sometimes, to show that masculinity doesn't have to be just a big guy who doesn't show any emotion"
"When we started working on the first Life is Strange, we asked ourselves if we really needed the rewind power to tell the story," he says. "It could have worked without the rewind, but even a slight sci-fi touch is great. You can use it as a catalyst to push your story forward, and in the first Life is Strange I think it allowed us to ask more questions for Max, like, 'Maybe I cannot make my life perfect, and I need to accept it for what it is.' We gave the player this power to show that they don't need to use it, and they might feel better when they just accept what's happening rather than trying to fix everything.
"It's the same idea with Life is Strange 2. By giving this huge power to Daniel, it puts Sean in a more dangerous situation where his choices and how he decides to react to the world around him or what he teaches to Daniel has a bigger meaning because Daniel can be a ticking time bomb. It puts even more emphasis on your choices, the consequences, and on the real-life situations you're facing. We like to use it as a way to strengthen the odds of the story."
Koch made multiple references to gaming's connections with film, TV, and literature throughout our conversation, especially when it comes to issues of representation and politics. Though Koch acknowledges that there's a contingent of gaming audiences upset about the inclusion of such topics in video games, he doesn't believe there should be an issue at all given that other forms of media have been doing the same thing for years.
"We think video games don't just have to be entertainment," he says. "It's been done a lot of times in movies and TV shows where you have representation, you have politics -- everything exists in movies and TV shows, and it's normal. You have different sorts of movies and books and TV shows where you can talk about anything. Why not do it with video games too? And since video games are interactive and you're putting the player in the shoes of a character, I think it's a really powerful medium to sometimes make the player discover things they aren't used to, or make the player think about situations they would not have thought about."
"Not talking about something is having a position, because you decide to not talk about it"
There's no need to ask Koch whether Life is Strange is political or not -- Life is Strange 2 especially makes direct references to the current political climate in the United States, and doesn't shy away from the troubles that people in situations similar to the game's main characters deal with on a daily basis. And because their game is so grounded in present-day and present time, Koch believes that glossing over or ignoring political issues outright would "have a very strong opposite political message."
"Not talking about something is having a position, because you decide to not talk about it. We've received a ton of great messages from players who say they felt it was important that some of what they suffered was represented in the game. We'd prefer to be wrong and [find out] that those issues aren't happening, but we're hearing people say it helped them understand some real issues.
"There have been some players who say they don't want politics in their games or they don't play a game to be reminded of some of the darkness around us or the issues people are facing. And I understand that. Sometimes you just want to play pure entertainment and not have to think about the world. But there are so many video games you can play! It's the same with movies. Sometimes you want a romantic comedy, sometimes you want to watch a heavy, sad movie.
"In video games now, there is space for a lot of different games, a lot of different topics, a lot of different ways of thinking. I think our game is in a spot where, yes, we talk about some subjects and it might not be just a fun game, but if you don't want to be in that state of mind, you can play another game."
Important as Koch feels these issues are to talk about, there still remains the fact that his life as a white, adult game developer in France is a far cry from that of a Mexican-American teenager trying to raise his little brother as they try to escape authorities pursuing them from Seattle to Mexico. I ask him how he and the Dontnod team handle the knowledge gap to ensure they deal with challenging topics with respect and authenticity.
"The most important thing to do when talking about these subjects, especially when we are not directly ourselves concerned in our lives with those issues, is to make sure we do a lot of research by talking to people, looking at documentaries, articles, playtesting the game with players to make sure we are not hurting anybody or misrepresenting someone," he replies. "That would be the complete opposite of our first intention if we did that. We try to take a lot of time and work to make sure we are doing right."
"The most important thing to do when talking about these subjects is to make sure we do a lot of research by talking to people"
Koch adds that, to his knowledge, the team hasn't ever dropped the ball entirely on something serious in Life is Strange, but he's also open to the possibility that they can always improve.
"I read a lot of Reddit and Twitter reactions from players and the press and we've received a lot of good responses for the various portrayals of characters in the game. Hopefully, we're doing fine, but it's always interesting to see even if there's just a small something where players have something to say. It's important to read it and think if we could have done something better. But I'm happy with the reception and how the players are identifying with the cast of characters."
Life is Strange 2's story is coming to a close soon, with the final episode dropping in early December. Koch's desire to see players take something meaningful away from the game's story extends to its ending as well, with him hoping that the game's real-world message inspires both action and emotion.
"I hope when players finish Life is Strange 2, they walk away wanting to talk more to other people when they meet someone that's different from them," he says. "Maybe to not look away, but to engage in conversation, talking to people who maybe live on the fringe of society. And for the game itself, I'd love for the player to have the feeling that they lost a part of their family when it's finished. Like, they'll miss Sean and Daniel like brothers.
"I really enjoy when a TV show or movie really works for me. I have the feeling that I'm losing some friends or family when it's ending, and that's a sign that it was a great story. If people get this feeling with our characters, I'm happy that they're sad."
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