Out of the plethora of games released last year, Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange definitely stood out. A brilliantly intricate episodic story of high school life in a fictional town in Oregon, the game has received many plaudits ever since the release of its first episode at the beginning of last year, making appearances at all the major game awards, winning a BAFTA for best story, and even the first ever Peabody Award given to a video game. We were lucky enough to get the chance to speak to Christian Divine, a writer on the game, not only about his experience working on it but also about life as a writer and how he got started in the industry, among other things. We are delighted to bring that to you in two parts.
Be aware that we also discuss some plot points over the course of the interview, so here is an obligatory spoiler warning. This part only contains minor spoilers, but the second part is full of them so go ahead and play it, and then come back and read on.
School and Dungeons & Dragons: The Beginning
Before we talked of Life Is Strange, we first delved in to Christian’s background, and whether he always saw a future in writing for video games. It turns out writing has always been a passion, but not necessarily for games.
“Long story short, I’ve always known since I was a kid that I wanted to make movies, be a storyteller in some way, do writing or film-making,” he said. “As a child, I was a very voracious reader and loved TV and films. I actually really wanted to be a stop-motion animator when I was a little kid, that was my biggest thing. I loved animation and Ray Harryhausen movies, with their old school physical effects, and I started making films, but at a certain point I just realized that there were other people far more talented than me that could do this stuff and I was much more interested in putting it all together and overseeing it as a writer or director. I think games are just another just another storytelling medium that it’s good to be a part of.”
As a child, it wasn’t video games that taught Christian how to construct a good story though, but a different kind of game. “Dungeons and Dragons probably taught me more about storytelling than anything because I was a huge D&D fan,” he said. “I would always prefer to be the Dungeon Master than to be a player because you can control it, you’re in charge of what happens. I liked the idea, and it was good for honing your storytelling instincts because you have to respond so quickly to the roll of a dice. When you do, it becomes another story and when you walk in to that bar, you have to be able to voice all the different characters that are going to be in there, so it really does help from a storytelling perspective. I think D&D and roleplaying games are really helpful because they do force you to kind of put yourself in the perspective of the storyteller and see things from all these different, branching angles which is a big part of gaming of course.”
It was from the extremely popular table-top game that Christian’s writing career took off, but he was also inspired by a classmate who went on to great things in the video game world.
“I went to school with John Romero, and John was creating and selling games by the time he was fifteen,” Christian explained. “Before Doom or Quake or Wolfenstein, he was already selling games. He was a terrible student, like me, but he didn’t have to be a good one because he was getting his work published in magazines. John was a big influence and inspiration and had the math/programming mind that I didn’t have at all.”
Unlike Romero, things didn’t click so quickly for Christian, and the process took a while longer.
“At a certain point I decided to go back to school, start all over again and just assume I didn’t know anything, which was the best thing I ever did. When I was 25 or so I was really at an impasse in my life and I thought that I needed to do something in order to get some proof that I even had talent from the universe, so for the first time I actually submitted a play in this very prestigious national play contest. It’s the first time I submitted anything and I ended up being finalist, making it to the last 100 people out of 4,000+. It was the sign from the universe that I asked for.”
Normally, writers are told to believe in their work and not pay too much attention to the reaction of others while the work is progressing, and Christian agrees, but he also says there is a danger of becoming too detached from the real world if you don’t get any recognition at all.
“You have to believe in yourself as an artist or writer, you have to have that fortitude but then you do need other people to acknowledge what you’re doing,” he explained. “It’s important and it means you’re not completely in a bubble. You should be happy with the work you’re doing and you should do it no matter what, but if you want to share your work, you need to have some approbation, otherwise it’s not going to go far.”
You should be happy with the work you’re doing and you should do it no matter what, but if you want to share your work, you need to have some approbation, otherwise it’s not going to go far.
From there, things began to look up, and Christian met up with John Romero again.
“I started winning a lot of writing contests and built up a bigger resumé,” he said. “Eventually, I got accepted to UC Berkeley and went there as a film major, then at a certain point John started a company called Ion Storm in Texas with three other game designers. From there, he asked me if I would come write for his game Daikatana. “
“At the same time that was going on, I started getting attention from Hollywood as well,” he went on. “I got an agent from that so it was a good crossover period. I moved to Dallas to start writing for Daikatana, and that was a great experience, despite the fact that the game didn’t turn out to be successful in the way we hoped it would be.”
That game may be notorious for being a disappointment, but it was a foot in the door and a stepping stone to learn from. It didn’t stop the upward trend in Christian’s career and he continued to go on to better things.
“After that, Warren Spector asked me to write for Deus Ex in Austin, so I went from Daikatana to writing for Deus Ex which is a totally great extreme, going from a cool shooter game to this totally amazing intricately plotted beautiful science fiction conspiracy game. After that Hollywood came a-calling for one of my scripts, so I moved to LA and started writing there professionally for magazines. I also do a lot of non-fiction journalism work on film and writing.”
It’s clear that Christian enjoys having a diverse range of things to work on, and it’s certainly true that working on the likes of Deus Ex can only prepare you for future endeavors. He explained that he enjoyed mixing it with other things and thought he should inspire future writers too.
“I’m a teacher on the side,” he explained. “I teach classes on film and genre writing. I think it’s really important as an artist not only to make art but also to be teaching if you’re interested and can because I was inspired by teachers and mentors in creative fields so I think it’s important to have that as well.”
After a few years writing various scripts for Hollywood and working on games, Christian’s path crossed with that of Dontnod Entertainment, and the meandering road to Life Is Strange was complete.
“A couple of years ago, one of my French writer friends, the esteemed writer/game designer David Calvo, who I had met through Deus Ex and who has become my big French cheerleader, told me that Dontnod Entertainment were looking for an American screenwriter for their new game. He said that they should talk to me about it, and put me in touch with Michel [Koch], the lead designer, and I talked to Luc [Baghadoust, the producer] through that and had a series of tests and meetings. Then, Luc sent over the magic offer and so it’s actually been around two years since I first got hired on Life Is Strange.”
Working on Life Is Strange
Of course, when considering a new project, you must decide whether it is worth being involved with. We asked Christian how Dontnod introduced him to the game, and what excited him about it.
“Initially, they sent over the menu for the game, along with the first scene that they had pretty much fully mo-capped, which was the Chloe, David Madsen, Max bedroom scene where Max is in a closet,” Christian explained.
“That meant the first thing I saw was the menu and I immediately, like many people who play the game, thought that the menu was an indicator of what was to come. It’s peaceful, it’s zen, and the art style is different. The music was beautiful so it immediately grabbed me, and then when I saw that scene, which they only had subtitles for at that stage. It was so well done and so visually stunning and the second that the first choice that presented itself was whether or not to nark on Chloe for the pot, I froze and just immediately said ‘this is fucking brilliant, this is amazing, I’m frozen for 20 minutes here trying to decide if I’m gonna nark my friend for weed.'”
Life Is Strange is renowned for the choices it compels you to make, and it seems that Christian was also swayed by its ability to make you think carefully about each and every choice, no matter how inconsequential that choice may appear. The choice that he’s discussing in this case serves as a marker for Max and Chloe’s relationship though, so it’s actually more important than it may seem, which is often the case with the more day-to-day decisions.
There is something else that excited Christian about the game though, and it’s something that’s still comparatively rare in gaming.
[Male gamers are] not going to refuse to play a game because there’s a female lead, that’s not how most of them are thinking. They care if it’s a cool game, what the subject is, the mechanics, things like that. So I was really glad that Square Enix stepped up as publishers and didn’t ask to change anything.
“Many of the scripts I write tend to have female leads, and it’s one of the problems that I have in Hollywood that they’re not forward thinking about having female characters as leads in films despite the fact that female audiences are the biggest in the world,” Christian explained irately. “It doesn’t really make any sense, but it’s the nature of the beast, and even Life Is Strange obviously had a lot of difficulties getting a publisher because of its female leads which is just silly. Speaking from experience, I know that male gamers don’t care about these things; it’s not an issue. They’re not going to refuse to play a game because there’s a female lead, that’s not how most of them are thinking. They care if it’s a cool game, what the subject is, the mechanics, things like that. So I was really glad that Square Enix stepped up as publishers and didn’t ask to change anything. When I saw those scenes and the issues they were touching on when they sent over the story, I honestly felt like it was the video game I had been waiting my whole life to write for. This is the kind of thing I wanted to do in the 90s with video games, and they just weren’t being done because it was still very much dominated by a certain kind of niche mentality.”
So for Christian, Life Is Strange represented the growing maturity of a medium that is starting to realize its full potential, and the game handles the issues it deals with so well that it felt right to help to make the game a reality. He explained that he knew that the day when video games reached that point would come, and that this game was coming out at a crucial moment.
“I knew things would change,” he said. “When I saw what they were doing I thought ‘okay, Life Is Strange is gonna come out at the perfect time, it’s going to be the right time because of all the GamerGate nonsense and the important issues of diversity, together with the changing narrative structure of gaming and the evolution of the medium.’ Regardless of my involvement, if done right, Life is Strange would have made an impact in that sense, so when I saw that I was hooked.”
From there, we get in to the nitty gritty of Christian’s work on the game. When he joined the team, the story had already been written, and he was brought in to add an American flavour to it and help with the dialogue. Christian piled a lot of praise on story writer Jean-Luc Cano, who he thought captured a lot of that anyway.
“Jean-Luc had a huge 60-page story condensation with character sheets, which meant I was able to go straight in to the world,” he told us. “They asked me to ‘Americanize’ it because one of the things that they really wanted to get right was to make sure that it wasn’t French developers making their version of an American game, but to give it verisimilitude, which to be honest they nailed in the look of the game, the vibe, the style and the music.
“That meant it was easy for me to come in and kind of expand on that and go into the characters and tweak things and just fix things in to more American idiom and just start building up the characters in the American environment. It was a very easy process because everybody was on the same page and working with the team was great because Michel [Koch, the director] and the team are very smart.”
Christian explained that the team knew what they were drawing from, and he relished all of the game’s influences and the way that the story worked.
“We all have the same cultural references and understand the game’s influences, which are all these disparate things from Twin Peaks to Catcher in the Rye to Breaking Bad to Twilight Zone and even Stephen King,” he explained. “For me it was like an American Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, that’s how I thought of it. The ultimate John Hughes, David Lynch, Stephen King Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book done as a game but also with the flavour of a Netflix series, so it was really exciting from that perspective. Also, to be able to work on the branching storylines and dialogue is fun as a writer because you get to write not just one version, you get to write three or four different versions of a scene. It’s very difficult of course and it’s the tricky part in writing for games because you have so many branches but you need it all to come back and make sense in a linear way even when it’s not necessarily linear. What Michel and Raoul [Barbet, the co-director] were doing with the game was so advanced and the ideas behind it were so powerful that it was very easy to come on board and see exactly where they were at with it.”
For me it was like an American Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, that’s how I thought of it. The ultimate John Hughes, David Lynch, Stephen King Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book done as a game but also with the flavour of a Netflix series, so it was really exciting from that perspective.
When Christian came on board, the game was already set in Oregon, but he had a telling hand in lots of aspects of the story that you will notice throughout, starting with the name of the sleepy town where main character Max Caulfield has her adventures.
“Originally, the town was called Aurora Creek,” Christian explained. “I suggested Arcadia Bay because it just sounded more peaceful and mystic, and the word ‘Arcadia’ has all these connotations that would be fun to play with and contrast with the darkness that’s actually going on in the town. It has all these different representations and metaphors that you can look in to and work with.
“I did things like that, just ensuring everything had the feel of Oregon. I’m very familiar with the area; I’m up there all the time so it was great for me. I called the football team in the game The Bigfoots for example, because that is much more indigenous to Oregon. What I loved doing was layering in all these cultural things and the team is all behind that because that’s what the game is, layering in all these elements and environments to create that Oregon arts school vibe. There was nothing major that was changed in terms of the arc of the plot but certainly I was able to go in to the characters and add more backstory, and help create Chloe’s idiom, giving her the word ‘hella’ for example, that kind of Northwestern lingo.”
Capturing the voice of teenagers is a major aspect of the game, and one that it manages to do well, subverting stereotypes to bring out interesting and nuanced characters. Christian heralded that as a success in the game’s writing and relished working in that environment.
“The characters that Jean-Luc wrote are very archetypal to begin with, and then the surface is peeled away and you get to see much more than that,” Christian said. “So you present the bitchy girl, the quiet girl, the nerd kid, all these archetypes and then you delve deeper in to who they are, so they’re not quite as easy to read as you might think, which is one of the themes of the game.
“After the team drew up templates for how they wanted the characters to be, I just drew upon my experience of going to an American high school and growing up there.”
An important aspect of the game, though, is that while it is set at Blackwell Academy, a high school in a sleepy fictional town in Oregon, that doesn’t mean that people in other countries or other areas of America can’t relate to the experience at all. Christian agreed.
“What’s great about the game and how it’s translated across culture and gender and all these different strata is that people all around the world know what school is like. It doesn’t matter if it’s an American school, a Japanese school or a school in London. School is school for teenagers; it sucks, you’re dealing with a lot of issues about your body and social pressure, you’re dealing with homework and teachers and all these things so I think that’s one thing that’s pretty universal. At any school, even if the system is different, the emotions are the same and the shifts in culture and language are the same, as for all teenagers. I’m not out to capture exactly how teenagers talk in 2013, which is when the game is set, but if you start from the premise that there’s a universality to high school and then you go in to the characters and who they are, it’s clear that each character is a different person. Then as a writer you get yourself in the mindset of linguistics and language and all these different issues that would face the characters and hopefully you’re creating something that gets to the truth of what it’s really like, and that people watching or playing believe that these are teenagers.”
Christian specifically addresses one of the major talking points in the game, which is its use of slang.
“I don’t believe teenagers talk a set way,” he said. “There were a lot of people criticizing and saying that nobody says words like ‘hella,’ and it’s okay if you don’t like that word but people actually do use it, and they use it regularly in the Northwest.”
“Regardless, one thing you’re trying to do in a game or a fictive world is to capture how people talk in a particular universe, you’re not capturing reality but a recreation of it,” he went on. “The characters in Life Is Strange exist in a particular universe and they talk in a particular way, and you also have to give characters identifying characteristics that will make them stand out. I mean, only Chloe says ‘hella’, and everybody’s got their way of talking whether you like it or not, it’s set up to define individual characters and help create their personalities. I like to think that the writing in Life Is Strange is different from a lot of game writing because it’s really trying to tap in to these cultural elements that aren’t really presented to you often in games. Of course this is not the only game doing that, which is great because there are all these other new games coming out that try to tap in to these niche cultures and diverse issues.”
Check out part two of the interview tomorrow, where we talk about the characters in Life Is Strange, how people responded to the game and Christian’s plans for the future, along with his thoughts on how gaming has evolved over the past couple of decades.
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.