One of E3's more niche announcements came from Square Enix and developer Dontnod when they announced not a sequel to Life is Strange, but rather The Adventures of Captain Spirit, an interquel set before the still-in-development Life is Strange 2.
Captain Spirit will only be one episode, and launches for free on June 26th. If you're a developer fascinated by Life is Strange's episodic format, you might be interested to know that according to the game's creative directors, the game seems to be a kind of waypoint that shows where Dontnod has been, and where it's going with Life is Strange 2.
That's what emerged during a discussion with Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch, creative directors at Dontnod, during a chat at E3 two days after debuting their small game to the world. Unlike the first Life is Strange, which followed the time-traveling Max, Captain Spirit follows a young boy named Chris, whose imagination and pretend alter ego (for now) seem to be the only superpowers he has.
Since producing any episodic game means that you're kind of building a rocket while launching it as fast as possible, it was worth asking Barbet and Koch why they set out on a side adventure while working on a much-anticipated sequel.
"Captain Spirit lets us prepare ourselves"
According to them, the shift from Unreal 3 to Unreal 4 meant they had a lot of new tech they had to build, and simultaneously, they had a new character they were developing who seemed to be a natural fit for this short adventure.
Per Barbet, "It's not a waste of time to work on Captain Spirit...it's like adding a super-episode. We knew we wanted to also polish and finish Life is Strange 2, and Captain Spirit lets us prepare ourselves to completely launch a new game."
"[Captain Spirit] allows us to train ourselves to design with those new ways of thinking and interaction."
Building on that, Barbet says that Captain Spirit gave Dontnod a chance to experiment with and build on mechanics from Life is Strange 1. "It allows us to train ourselves to design with those new ways of thinking and interaction."
It was somewhat difficult to piece together precisely what Barbet was referring to (the demo of Captain Spirit was hands-off), but he seemed to be referring to a third layer of interaction beyond "look" and "touch," where Chris' imagination takes over and players can "change" the world (even if it's only through the eyes of a kid.)
Looking through Chris' eyes also meant looking at his new environment, and it's clear that one of Life is Strange's most fascinating design points has only lived on between two games. What's been remarkable about these games set in the "real" world has been the sheer number of unique assets created to reflect the lives of the characters.
In the first game, each dorm room of the students at Blackwell Academy had personal objects, photographs, art, and more that reflected their tastes and experiences. In Captain Spirit, it's a larger array of toys, posters, and drawings that all give Chris' room a lifelike feel.
What to an ordinary player may just be a natural room is to any environment artist of course, a giant checklist of unique assets that need to run through the pipeline and not run over the available memory budget. Koch says even though these objects were a lot of work, they're also a design aspect he thinks is essential to Life is Strange.
The production cost -- and payoff -- of environmental storytelling
"One of the points in storytelling we really like is environmental storytelling, that goes---as human beings---where you live, the stuff around you is defining yourself as a character as much as the character itself," he said. "As a kid, you have tons of toys, drawings, all the small stuff that you cherish as a kid, and when you grow up, you discover that you miss them, and you lost them, and you don't have them anymore."
"And yeah, it was a challenge on production because it means creating a lot of unique assets we won't reuse, for another room or character, because it needs to be Chris' toys and it can't be verybody's. But it's fun to do that and we think we can tell a lot about those characters with the environment."
But after the first Life is Strange, Barbet points out these assets aren't necessarily "wasted" just because they're only in one scene. "It's good to see that, like in Life is Strange 1, you have some unique things. You have seen the dogman toy, and that is a small element we love to keep."
So as episodic development continues, it's a chance for the Dontnod team to find meaning and emotional impact in those small objects, and resurface them when it's the right time to remind players about who the character is, and what their values are.
Moving between Life is Strange titles, it's of course important to remember that this series deals with some heavy topics. The first game depicts a suicide attempt, has a teacher who assaults his students, and relives a violent car crash that changed Chloe's life forever.
As the games industry grows older and struggles to deal with real-world subjects, it's interesting to see what Barbet and Koch have learned from the first series. "When we talk about difficult issues...the important thing for us is to have characters that feel realistic," says Barbet, "so we don't want to [show] a subject just to talk about a subject."
"This subject has to improve our story, to create also a difficult choice to make, and make the player think about it. This is the main goal we want to do with our games, so as a team we know that, I hope---we try all together to do it in a smart way."
Barbet pauses before revisiting Life is Strange's scene where Max's friend Kate attempts suicide. "Sometimes it's difficult, as it's interactive. Sometimes you can't have nonsense, or you don't want to gameify some subjects...I hope we managed to do [that scene] in the right way, at least, away that is respectful."
In Captain Spirit, Barbet says Chris' alcoholic father brought the team back to a similar moment. "It's not adding some difficulties between Chris and his father for fun, it's because we want to talk about this, and to allow the player to think about Chris...and why he would take refuge in his mind, in an imaginary world."
Which, strangely, brought our question back to art assets, as Koch linked the team's art process back to these vivid moments for Chris.
Throughout Captain Spirit, Chris wanders into a fantasy world out of his imagination, bringing the player with him, and while building those worlds was a departure for a team that had been making real-world environments for some time, they all had to link back to Chris' reality, his fears and anxieties.
"That's the kind of thing you'll discover as you play as Chris, going into these imaginary worlds and using imagination and your Captain Spirit superpowers, this is a way for players to discover those underlying seams and issues with the character they're having in the story."
So when The Adventures of Captain Spirit drops later this month consider it not just a waypoint for the story (and an introduction for what Life is Strange 2 holds), but also a waypoint for its developers, a rare chance to see them processing what they've learned from one game and preparing for the next.