Life is Strange 2 developer talks new cast, world-building, visual upgrades

Earlier this month, Square Enix unveiled the successor to its hit graphic adventure game, Life is Strange 2. While exploring supernatural elements synonymous with the original, the game embarks on a new tale surrounding two brothers, Sean and Daniel. After a tragic event leaves the duo on the run, the narrative follows their journey across the U.S. west coast to Mexico.

Life is Strange secured a unique position in the industry back in 2015, delivering a narrative built on widely-branching decisions and heavy themes. Exploring social issues rarely touched by games, the five-episode series further legitimized the medium's storytelling capabilities. And now, moving from its high school setting, Life is Strange 2 promises an equally ambitious narrative.

With its first episode set for September 27, we sat down with three members of its team, Dontnod Entertainment, to discuss what players can expect.

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Matt Brown, Windows Central: You stated that you wanted to move away from Max and Chloe's story for Life is Strange 2. What made you decide on Sean and Daniel for the next chapter?

Michel Koch, Dontnod co-game director: It's mostly the way we are working together when we start to work on the project. The strong theme we wanted to bring to the player, in this case we realized quite quickly that it was the theme of education, of taking your approach or choice of particular scene, and use it with a set of characters, where the character you are educating is always with you. And so the choices you make... most of the consequences are onto this new character that we have built.

Why Sean and Daniel? Again when we're thinking of this theme, of education, of there being a father, child, brother, sister. At a point, there is a similar theme that appeared where maybe those two boys, if they are on the run and they have the flee from somewhere, it can bring some very similar themes that we can talk about, and strengthen our main story about education. And it's a quite ongoing process until we arrived at those two characters, setting their backstory, who they are, and where they're going. Taking this all together to tell this story.

How does developing a story around Sean and Daniel differ from Max and Chloe?

Michel Koch: I think that one of the differences in the structure is that we are using the road movie structure since they are fleeing from Seattle to Mexico, where their father grew up. The way to write the story is quite different, because we are not in a fixed location with a fixed set of characters, that you can discover layer-by-layer over the course of five episodes.

It's more about them, the stories especially, and the different locations, and the different characters that they will meet at different points of their journey. That they will get to know really quickly, maybe bring something to them, maybe learn something from them. Then we have to move for a while and leave those characters behind, like you can see in road movies like "Into the Wild." There is a lot of fiction and movies that use this structure, and it's really interesting because it changes the way to write the relationships when you have something more intense, more quickly, with those characters.

But does that not cause issues in developing character relationships?

Jean-Luc Cano, writer: Yes, of course. You know, as Michel said, when we were in Arcadia Bay, we had the time to develop some characters, and make them reveal some secrets, and stuff like that. Now, you are on the road, so you really quickly decide if you can trust someone, so it will be a challenge for the player. And as for us, to create some characters that are intriguing, and say, "Do I want to trust him, because I have to take care of my younger brother, and the consequences could be terrible if I'm wrong." So it will be a nice challenge I think for players.

There's a supernatural element to the first Life is Strange, also hinted at for this entry. Is this more of an environmental force, or are we looking at powers again?

Jean-Luc Cano: In the first Life is Strange, Max had the power to rewind time, and it was linked to individual weakness. She doesn't want to grow up, so she had the power to come back in time, and change her decisions. In Life is Strange 2, there will be some supernatural stuff, there will be a power, and the power is linked to the main story of Sean and Daniel, as the same way it was for Max. But I can't tell more now, the "more" is part of the story.

Are there any learnings from the original Life is Strange that you've taken forward for Life is Strange 2?

Michel Koch: We're able to talk about the feedback we have directly at the studio. [...] We try to create believable characters and relatable characters. A lot of players put a lot of their own memories into those characters, even if they are different from looks, gender, particular life choices and those kind of things.

We tried to create the story of the two brothers, and we hope that everyone will be able to put themselves inside. For example, for Chris in Captain Spirit, we are not Daniel's elder anymore, but there's some memories of our own childhood. So here, the idea was to put the player in a difficult situation, when he has to take care of a younger brother. So to do that, and to do it the right way, we wanted to change ourselves and make a new ally, and this is not something we've created with the first Life is Strange. And in the first Life is Strange, we already tried to created Chloe, who could be seen as annoying sometimes, at the beginning of the game, and in the end, try to love her.

So here the idea was the same as Daniel. You can create someone believable, annoying, a pain in the ass, but the other way, very funny or very cute. So this is really something that we wanted to continue and we have learned a bit with Square [Enix]. But remember because it's 3D characters in a story, we need to make them feel realistic and feel like a real friend, or here a brother, and like a son for you, for the player. It's a bit challenging, but something we really wanted to continue.

With an on-the-road approach to Life is Strange 2, can we expect variety in characters and locations?

Michel: We explained that the journey is fleeing Seattle to trying to reach Mexico, so it's a big journey over the west coast of the United States. And it allowed to discover a lot of variation of environments and but also, of course, different social scenes based on where they are and different situations which are part of where they will go.

So is there potential for famous real-world U.S. locations to feature in the game?

Raoul Barbet Dontnod co-game director: The story is taking place in our world, it's fictional. It's a fictional world, but we take the same geographics. So I think it will be interesting to talk about some states or parts of the United States, in a realistic way. But you also have to remember that those two brothers are chased, so they have to be hidden. So the idea about some of this project is to talk about the people who want to live [independent] of society, not to follow the rules. So you will discover a lot of locations and I hope some characters and locations you're not used to seeing in games or fiction.

Michel Koch: We've documenting also a lot about this sort of journey we're doing. We went to the United States and took a lot of pictures of different places. So definitely, we're trying to make it look as real as possible to those types of locations we've been visiting. We are trying to find the right mood and the impression that you're there, even if the "there" is not exactly a real place.

Are the locations also significantly bigger? That was the impression from our press demo.

Michel Koch: Yeah, since the game takes place [on the go], there is this journey on the run, so then we have make some places that are less populated. So we have some big spaces that allowed us to give this feeling of big… and just for us, it needs to look impressive. If you want those kids to feel like they're lost in the woods or alone somewhere, we need a place to reflect that. So we've tried to have particularly bigger environments which was important for the mood of those scenes.

Raoul Barbet: The idea is not to build too much, but as wide as possible to keep the narrative. We want to keep the same level of interaction in the environments, so we go bigger, but not too much to ensure it works, with Daniel, and players will find some stuff. We really want this to be bigger than the first one, but not too much.

You've touched on plans to bring visual upgrades to Life is Strange 2. What can we expect from this? You've changed the engine entirely, correct?

Michel Koch: Yeah. We did switch engine, we're now working on Unreal Engine 4, the first Life is Strange was Unreal [Engine] 3. And we wanted to keep the same art direction and use the same stylized visuals that could look like some impressionistic rendering.

But we really wanted to improve almost everything, so we've been working on a new facial animation system. New lip sync, that is really improved by listening to the sound of what they're saying, so the lips move realistically to the sounds. And a little bit of control rig to really have the possibility to have real expression on the face of the characters. We've upgraded the overall physics and animation system, most of the shaders and hair shaders, skin shaders, and I've seen a lot of other things for the foliage. We've really tried to upgrade parts of the game while still keeping the same theme and the same mood.

So wrapping up, is there anything you hope players will take away from Life is Strange 2?

Michel: For sure, that players really care about Daniel, and really enjoy Sean about Daniel. If they play the game take their time with the season we have with Daniel, I think it could be a great success, because it will mean they care about the relationship of those two brothers, and that's the main message we have with this game.

Your thoughts on Life is Strange 2

What are your thoughts on Life is Strange 2 so far? Drop into the comments section and let us know what you think. In the meantime, preorders for the complete season are now live, priced at $40. The game's first episiode is currently set to launch on September 27, 2018.

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Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.