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Evolving beyond empowerment narratives

Life is Strange: Before the Storm narrative director Zak Garriss says developers are exploring more complex, human spaces, and finding support from big publishers in doing so

When creating a sequel or spin-off, it's common practice for developers to preserve the most notable elements of the original. Speaking with at the Game Developers Conference in March, Life is Strange: Before the Storm narrative director Zak Garriss acknowledged that posed a problem for his game.

After all, the original Life is Strange centered on a teenage girl who discovered she could control time, and players guided the story to one of two drastically different outcomes. As Garriss explained, the Before the Storm developers couldn't really continue that story without making one of those outcomes canon (thus invalidating the playthroughs of about half the original player base), so a normal sequel continuing the story of the original protagonist and her time-manipulating powers seemed impossible. They eventually settled on a prequel telling the story of Chloe, a side character from the original game, and having the story build up to a similarly climactic decision. But in doing so, they left behind the supernatural time control mechanic.

Before the Storm abandoned the time-manipulation mechanic but tried to retain what fans liked about Life is Strange

"We looked at all kinds of characters and powers," Garriss said of Before the Storm's origins. "We didn't even start with Chloe as an idea; that's where we arrived. We conceived of ways to have more or less supernatural [elements] and more or less traditional gameplay. But ultimately, what's successful about Life is Strange, when you ask fans what they love about it, they always talk about the characters, their personalities as people and the relatability of their struggles. And that became our North Star when it came to sussing out where we wanted to live within that gameplay spectrum. We chose to tell Chloe's story, to take a step back from the supernaturality of the time travel element.

"We're telling more sophisticated, pathos-driven stories in games than we have in the past. We're telling stories now that make people cry, or make people question their own sexuality, or their identity"

"What we were really doing was choosing to tell a more personal story, a more intimate story. And I think it did take a little bit of courage to say, 'Will this be enough? Let's try to make that enough.'"

It's a leap of faith developers might not have been willing to make 10 or 20 years ago, but the way video games deal with narratives has changed significantly in that span.

"It's definitely evolving," Garriss said of narrative techniques in games. "I think you'll see stories that embrace evolution themselves in this regard are the stories that are resonating and succeeding with fans. Mechanic fatigue is real, particularly within the story-driven genre, and this goes to another arena in which we're evolving as interactive literature. We're telling more sophisticated, pathos-driven stories in games than we have in the past. We're telling stories now that make people cry, or make people question their own sexuality, or their identity. We're telling stories that are going to places that, in and of themselves, are complex and dramatic enough to resonate with people's identities and dramatic experiences. That's what literature strives to do and what narrative strives to do, and has been done for like 10,000 years. And I think what we're seeing in games is we're just going to darker, more resonant, more human spaces.

"And a big part of that I think is a willful interest in the dev community to push beyond simply empowerment narratives. We're not just making games that are about having a jetpack, or being super-strong, or being able to shoot 100 dudes in the head. I mean, all those things can be really fun, and we are continuing to shoot dudes in the head, but we're also trying to do other things now. We have games like Journey, like Life is Strange, Edith Finch, that are weird, that are odd, and that aren't hinging completely on the coolness of flying, but are rather actually trying to talk about real human experiences."

To accomplish this, Garriss said developers are incorporating player agency in ways that go beyond jetpacks, super-strength, and guns. As evidence of that, he points to Giant Sparrow's What Remains of Edith Finch.

"One of the brilliant elements of Edith Finch is that every narrative you encounter has its own mechanic, or set of mechanics, for uncovering or unraveling that narrative," Garriss said. "I think that's fascinating and I love that they did that. What we're seeing now is an evolution in just the fact that you're pressing buttons and the buttons correlate to something happening on the screen, or you're pushing a stick, and we're learning how to play with that, or surprise you with that.

"And I think a big key to fun is surprise. A big key to helping players--and really, that's the emphasis--is play. Explore and find the boundaries of their input. And how that exploration, the fun of it and the discovery of it, changes the way you consume the story, as you're consuming it. You're not just reading and watching; you're swinging on a swingset, or you're moving a kite, or you're chopping fish or doing something else. We're figuring out how to do input more creatively, and I think that's changing our association with a story."

It's not just developers that are looking to push the narrative envelope. To use Garriss' own examples, Journey was published by Sony, and both Life is Strange games were published by Square Enix. Large publishers are increasingly signing on for games willing to be seen as exploring questions of sexuality, identity, and other weighty topics. Garriss isn't sure exactly what happened to cause that, but he's grateful for the change regardless.

"Part of the answer probably lives outside of the industry," he said. "The evolution of television narrative has done a lot to explode our understanding of the limitations of storytelling in general. I look at TV 20 years ago versus TV now, and I see a savviness, and a willingness, and a courage to tell more complex stories, more non-traditional stories. And we've seen success with that. We've seen audiences resonate with a bigger variety of narrative and I think that's sparked and inspired more imagination in the industry, top to bottom, from indie all the way up to the biggest publishers in the world."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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