Just a few weeks ago, Dontnod released the fourth episode of Life is Strange 2, an episodic series we’ve been enjoying so far. The journey follows brothers Sean and Daniel, the latter of whom has supernatural telekinetic powers. As with the first season, the second season aims to tug at your heartstrings, balancing the fantasy of superpowers with the reality of emotional struggles. To dive deeper into how Life is Strange 2 came to be, I spoke with co-director Michel Koch about the creative process behind Dontnod's increasingly successful series.
Fair warning, there will be minor spoilers for Life is Strange and the first few episodes of the second season.
Power and Responsibility in Life is Strange 2
Perhaps the biggest core difference between the two seasons lies in how players can interact with the superpowers. In Life is Strange, players have direct access to Max's time-shifting abilities. We decide how far back we wind time. We initiate the jumps into the past through photographs. The second season takes a radically different approach in that Sean has no powers. Instead, his little brother, Daniel, has the telekinetic abilities.
This design decision came early in the process, as Koch and the team wanted to tell a story about family and education. Tragic events in Episode 1 render the two boys orphans, forcing Sean into a guardian-like role. This creates a compelling narrative that forces players to raise an extraordinary nine-year-old boy.
"If he's just a normal little brother, it's already complicated to raise a kid, to teach him what's good, what's bad, or what's morally correct or morally wrong," Koch said. "But if he's just a normal kid, what's the worst that can happen? It can still be complicated, but when you give him this power of telekinesis, it starts to be really more important."
This contrasts heavily from Max and Chloe's story. In the first season, you used your own powers to determine the outcome of their relationship, inevitably living with your own decisions. With Sean, your decisions instead influence outcomes that someone else ultimately decides. In some ways, the responsibility weighs more for Sean.
"In the end, you're still somehow in control, but you're in control of the guy who's in control of the power," Koch said. "So by your choice, your actions, and your orders that you give to Daniel, you have to try to make the best out of this power, knowing that between you and the power, there is this entity—your brother—who has some kind of free will and might, sometimes, refuse to do what you say. Or, he might do it by himself without your consent."
Parallels in Captain Spirit
Before Life is Strange 2 properly kicked off, Dontnod released The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, a free-to-play mini episode. In the coming months, we'd see how it ties into the second season, as we meet Captain Spirit himself in Episode 2. The idea to release teaser content initially came from publisher Square Enix. By the time it was brought up, Dontnod was already deep into producing the second season. With the characters they had been working on, Chris was a good focus for the pre-season episode.
"He's a kid, so it could be a cool entry point to link with Daniel later," Koch said. "Like if you play Chris, when you play as Sean in Episode 1, you will know what it was to play a nine-year-old kid. So you might want to protect Daniel because you can make the connection between Chris and Daniel, basically."
The move brilliantly juxtaposed with our introduction to Sean. He's a teenager in high school, and he doesn't have time to play pretend with his younger brother. Instead, he worries about girls and looking cool. Making that boundless childhood imagination fresh in players' minds helps us empathize with Daniel.
But the parallels run deeper than that. Chris has a hyperactive imagination, and he wants to be a superhero. He dons his own costume during play time, and in his eyes, even a water heater could be a supervillain. In stark contrast, as Daniel discovers his actual, for-real powers in Life is Strange 2, he becomes more frightened of his capabilities.
"It was interesting to draw the parallel and the opposites between those two kids," Koch said.
The Shadow of Life is Strange
While Life is Strange 2 has been going well, the critical acclaim of the first season caught Dontnod off guard at first. The characters in Arcadia Bay resonated with many people, while Koch noticed the Diaz brothers didn’t reach similar heights.
"We knew that we were making a game that we liked, that should be good if we manage to not mess up,” Koch said. “But we had no idea [the first season] would bring so many players."
In some ways, the runaway success cast a shadow over the development of the second season. Everyone loved Max and Chloe, and fans always want to know what happens next. The two possible endings in Life is Strange left things open for the duo and Arcadia Bay, but that openness is what gives those endings such power. Their futures live on in the imagination of the players (or in the Titan comic books).
“I still think that the open-ended way of those endings for me was the best to let the player use everything [in] the season to project into Max and Chloe,” Koch said. “With Max and Chloe, we have a relationship that's pretty based on what the player felt and created during the way.”
In our interview, Koch joked that perhaps the only way to make a follow-up would be with two games. Alternatively, he toyed with the idea of a game that has two different beginnings that inevitably meet along the way. Regardless, these hypothetical games sound like pipedreams. Aside from the obvious financial and workload issues, they would do a disservice to the first season’s core message.
“[The message is that] at a point, you have to accept your decisions and try to not fix everything and go on with your life, with whatever effective choice you make. And that's it,” Koch said. “I don't see how we could have—and I still don't see it right now—made a follow-up of this game that works and doesn't destroy the message of the first game.”
Life is Strange 2’s Positive Reception
Since the launch of Life is Strange 2, Koch and the team had noticed that players weren’t as excited about Sean and Daniel. Nonetheless, the team forged on, and it’s paying off.
“It's what happens all the time with sequels that are not direct sequels. But I think that with time, with each episode we are getting more and more players,” Koch said. “We know that we still have players who are waiting for the whole package to jump into it.”
In fact, Episode 4 has been doing well for Dontnod. Per Koch’s words, the only episode to have been reviewed better was the fifth episode of Life is Strange. Considering that had the benefit of being the finale of the season, the higher review scores make sense. With each episode of season 2 though, more and more players have been jumping on the bandwagon.
“I've seen on Twitter and Reddit a lot of new players who start to finally get into the game,” Koch said. “Also because I think we are close to Episode 5, so they know they won't have to wait much if they start the game now.”
Life is Strange 2 Episode 5 is set to launch on Dec. 3, and it will complete the current season. You can play Episodes 1–4 right now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.