Storytelling Authority in Today’s Political Climate: An Interview with Life Is Strange Series Co-Director Michel Koch

Games Features Life Is Strange 2
Storytelling Authority in Today’s Political Climate: An Interview with Life Is Strange Series Co-Director Michel Koch

From graphics that let you see the pores on the faces of Final Fantasy VII Remake’s characters to sprawling stories delivered through additional content that can see the light of day years after a game’s release, videogames have radically changed in the last decade. One of the biggest and most positive developments over the course of the last 10 years has been the much more inclusive array of stories. But exclusively white developers still represented 61% of the industry’s workforce in the International Game Developers Association’s 2017 Developer Satisfaction Survey, with men representing 74%. So while stories are becoming more diverse, the teams creating those stories aren’t diversifying at the same speed—and it’s important to have more marginalized people telling their stories.

This is something the team at Dontnod Entertainment, best known for developing Life is Strange, is conscious of in their mission of creating games about empathy. When they announced their upcoming 2020 game Tell Me Why—which will focus on two siblings, one of who is trans—many people expressed concerns about a story centering on a trans individual being made by a team of majority cis male developers. When Life is Strange 2’s first details were announced, I remember being wary about how the team would handle telling a story about two Latinx boys in today’s political climate. To get insight on how the Dontnod team handles emotional storytelling, writing about marginalized people, and the understandable concerns over who can tell those stories, I spoke with Michel Koch, the co-director of Life is Strange, as a fan of the series and as a marginalized person who is always considering these problems in the industry.

It took over a year for Life is Strange 2 to wrap up. The first episode came out in September 2018 and the last one was just released this past December. It’s easy to understand why—this is an ambitious project, with each episode taking place in wildly different locations with different characters. It’s also ambitious in ways the first season was not; while the first season tackled more universal issues like cyberbullying, friendship and love, the second season focuses on specific themes like bigotry, racism, police brutality, and immigration in addition to universal subjects like family, education and adulthood. Addressing these subjects, especially in a game taking place in the U.S., requires a great deal of care considering America’s current political climate.

It’s a responsibility that Koch and the team were deeply aware of, especially as white men who don’t live in America. They knew their work could have potentially done more harm than good to the marginalized community it centered on. So, they committed to doing the work to get it right.

“We traveled the United States and talked with people we met, and those people shared their stories and the issues they were facing with us,” says Koch. He knew it’d be important to try to represent some of their struggles and, “give a voice to some kinds of characters that are not often seen enough in videogames. That’s why we said that, even if we’re not comfortable with it, and if it was not violence that we’re facing ourselves, that it might be important to showcase that in the game to talk about it.”

In speaking with marginalized people and being committed to shed light on their experiences, Koch stresses that empathy was crucial. “When you just talk to people with empathy,” says Koch, “when you try to be genuinely interested about what people have to say, that’s a good way, I think, to write about them—to try to know them, to talk with them, to be interested with their stories, and then that helps you to talk about them.”

It’s certainly easier said than done. One aspect that complicates showcasing such struggles in a videogame is that it contradicts the tendency of videogames to be power fantasies. Furthermore, Life is Strange 2 is a choice-based game—and the fact is that choices often look different for marginalized people.

“We have a game about choice, and we are giving the choice to a character who sometimes is just powerless and cannot really make a choice because the world, the society around him, is not allowing him to do that,” states Koch. “So it’s something that’s complicated because it is still a videogame. But if we want to talk in a good way about those subjects, I think that we need to put the player in a position that will feel powerless if a situation requires it.”

One such situation is the season’s most emotionally uncomfortable scene. In episode four, Sean is verbally and potentially physically attacked by two racists after he breaks out of a hospital to reunite with his little brother. They mock Sean for being Latino and threaten to beat him up if he doesn’t sing a song in Spanish for them. Either way, you end up violently dehumanized; there’s no escaping the situation, merely how you come out of it. It’s a gutting scene—so much that it remained uncomfortable for Koch until the end of its recording and implementation.

“Those moments where he [Sean] was saying the lines in Mexican Spanish and singing at the end of the scene, it was quite difficult,” Koch says. “And most of the time we ask ourselves … if we even have the right to write a scene like this as creators. Raoul Barbet, the other game director, and Jean-Luc-Cano—we are French white males who have an easy life. So sometimes we ask if it’s okay to write scenes like that because it’s definitely not our struggles, not our issues. We’ve never faced things like that.”

It’s impossible to tackle incredibly complex subjects like racism, sexism and injustice without the help of the other developers working on the project…In particular, narrative designer Macha Lopez “did a lot of research and she writes a lot of our dialogues,” Koch explains. “We had a lot of back and forth to find good branching dialogues. It was important that we were not pushing too much the subjects … The idea was to present them and let the player also have a lot of different answers to them so that we wouldn’t rob the agency from the players.”

When your work involves such extensive labor to create difficult scenes that aren’t about your own experiences, one has to wonder why do it at all. Why does this work matter to its creators? To the videogame developers crunching to meet rigorous deadlines, dealing with criticism from both players who care about better representation and those who hate that they’re touching on these subjects at all, and who are aware of the limited resources and time they have in this short life to create? I ask Koch why he does it anyway—why this kind of work is rewarding.

“I’m almost 40 and I worked on several casual games before this,” says Koch. “I started my career as an illustrator, working on drawing for some smaller mobile games and simulation games. It’s cool because it’s art, it’s drawing, it’s creating videogames … But at a point, you’re still asking yourself if you’re working on projects that really have some meaning—and it was important, at least for me, to start working on games where I think that I could bring a lot of what I’m interested in and what I care about.

“When games take, like, four years [to develop], I know that I would be able to make four or five more games in my career, tops. So I think it’s important that each of those games, in a way, says something that’s important for me … to try to make a difference, to use the few times we have as creators to make something…I wouldn’t say important, because it’s pretentious, but to make something that we feel is important.”

His honesty in his distinction between creating something important and something that he feels is important surprises me. That humble philosophy, I suspect, is part of why Life is Strange 2 touched me as much as it did. Because at the end of the day, it’s three progressive, hard-working, well-meaning, but nonetheless cisgender white European men at the helm, directing a story whose every facet is shaped by marginalization. It could’ve gone so very wrong. But the team was dedicated to using their platform to raise awareness for experiences they don’t know firsthand, and about doing it right. I ask him what advice he would give to the creators—and people—out there who do care about social issues, about the state of the world, about making the world a more welcoming place for all, but who are scared of getting things wrong.

“I think that it’s not bad to be afraid. It’s important to continue to be afraid to write badly. I don’t think that overconfidence is a good thing in creation. We were always asking ourselves if we were writing those characters in a good way, if it was okay to even talk and write for those characters. And I think that having this self-conscience of asking yourself if it’s okay to write something helps you to write it in a better way because you will challenge yourself.”

Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.

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