The journey to freedom is one that feels like it can be daunting and neverending. That's certainly the case for Sean and Daniel, two young Mexican-American kids persecuted by Seattle police in Life is Strange 2. Their adventure has been a long, perilous one, but one where the end is in sight. Dontnod Entertainment only has one episode left to release in this five-part story of brotherhood, family, and what it means to have a normal youth completely upended by the strangest of circumstances.
At PAX West, Shacknews had an opportunity to meet up with Michel Koch, Life is Strange 2's co-writer and art director. As always, the conversation with Koch has proven enlightening, but there was something about this conversation that proved to be much deeper, on a personal level.
Speaking for myself, I've made no secret my feelings about the Life is Strange 2 plot. It's one that struck close to home and struck a bit of a nerve. Given the subject matter and what's going on in the real world, tensions can run high, and after those tensions start to settle down, all that are left are questions. There's a curiosity about the creative process, how this story came to be, what the goal of the story is, and whether the story itself might be taken a different way than intended.
I've spoken to Koch more than once in the past. We even had a nice long chat on our E3 2018 stream about The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, the precursor to Life is Strange 2. But this conversation at PAX West proved to be a much more raw look into what went behind Dontnod's latest effort. Join us as we discuss the past two episodes, the theme of brotherhood and family, religion, Koch's upbringing, and the sensitive subject of race, specifically race in 2019.
Shacknews: I wanted to ask about one particular aspect of Life is Strange 2 and that's in comparison to the original. In the first game, the only ones who knew about Max's powers were Max and Chloe. In this game, as much as Sean has tried to hide them, a lot more people seem to know about Daniel's power, to the point that it has become a major plot point. So what made you want to focus more on the main character's power and other people's reaction to it, as opposed to the first game?
Michel Koch, Co-Game Director/Art Director at Dontnod Entertainment: I think it just comes down to the kind of power, what kind of power it is. With rewind, when you rewind, nobody remembers anything. So when Max was rewinding, people were not knowing she was rewinding. She just mentioned it to Chloe at a point, mostly for story purposes, just because she trusted and she wanted to explain what happened. She'd say that she was going to die and she knew it, because she was able to rewind.
In Life is Strange 2, there is no rewind and the power is given to a nine-year-old kid. He just makes mistakes and uses it sometimes when people will notice it. It would have been impossible to just hide it completely. Even if Sean is trying, there is no way a nine-year-old kid could just completely never use it when there is a risk of someone seeing it. So we thought that it was better to incorporate it into the story and include the player dynamics of people knowing about it. In episode four, there is a plot point with the cult where it only works if he uses it in front of people. So yeah, I guess we thought it would make a great dynamic to have more people notice it, to integrate it into the story, and express what would be the consequence on Daniel and Sean to have the stress of fearing what people who know about the power would do.
Shacknews: I'm glad you brought up the fourth episode, because that brings me to the topic of religion. You touch on religion in episode four and for many people, religion can be life-saving. It can offer purpose. It can offer redemption. It can offer a whole assortment of things. But it can also be weaponized by certain people looking to exploit others. So how did you approach the topic of religion for episode four?
Koch: It was a difficult choice when we thought about this plot point, because of course, how controversial it could be. So what was important for us was to really portray Haven Point as extremism, somehow as a cult, to make sure that we are not saying that every religion is bad or that every religion is dangerous. That is definitely not the point. We already dealt with religion in the first game with Kate or with Sean's grandparents, showing also that religion can be positive. Definitely, the idea is to, like we do all the time, is not portray it as black and white, but show gray shades in any topic.
We really think that it was important to also show that sometimes, religious zealotry can exploit the weakness of people. So in this case, talking about this small cult commune that would just stumble onto Daniel and how a person like Lisbeth could see Daniel as a tool to increase her power over masses, who would be listening to her and do what she says. It was something that we wanted to deal with, this issue of extremism and how sometimes a fake use of religion can be used to manipulate people who are just fragile.
It's the same thing that happened with Jacob, where we dealt with this idea of conversion therapy, which is fortunately happening less and less because it has been banned through most of the states, I think, but it is something that still happens. And also the idea of denying medical treatment just in the name of some religion or some faith, which is hurting lives and killing people all over the world. As much as faith can help you and can be positive for people, there are still moments when you just need medical treatment and the power of faith might not be enough to save those lives.
Shacknews: What made the fourth episode the right time to introduce Sean and Daniel's mother?
Koch: If I remember, when we worked on the whole story almost three years ago, it was almost how it is in the game. We had the big story beats in the beginning and we had already figured out the ending of episode five and the ending for each episode and we knew that in episode four, you should be feeling the absence of Daniel. You would have had episodes one, two, and three with Daniel, learning how to bond with him, how to have this connection, both emotionally and as a utility of having him with you with his power helping you most of the time. Episode four, we wanted to put the player in a situation where they were just alone, completely broken, as a complete outcast, [Sean] had just escaped the hospital and the police and FBI are searching for him. Daniel is missing, he has no family left, he is handicapped, he's lost his eye, so he's just really at his lowest point.
What we wanted in this episode with Karen is that she's basically the character that Sean doesn't want to see and she's also the only one who could help. So it was interesting for us to put Sean in a situation where he would be facing Karen with all the grief, all the anger, all the resentment, but she is here and she's the only person who can help him. So there's this fight of, "Should I listen to her? Should I just push her back? But still, she's here when I need something."
We thought it would be interesting to bring this conflict and bring this resolution at this moment, because even if Sean is angry at Karen, even if you resent her for what happened, you still need closure. Being able to hear, at least, why did she leave, is a sort of closure. And that's something that we felt was important, because it's quite a personal story. On my personal level, my dad left me and my mom when I was a year old and died when I was five years old. So I never knew why he left. And I think that's something that, for me, was quite important, just to be able to, even if we won't forgive her, know why did she leave? And to be able to talk about that, it's something that I know was important for our character and the player can decide what to do with Karen, but [Sean] still got something in his journey and his progression as a teenager who will become an adult.
Shacknews: I'm glad you mention that episode four is the one where Sean is basically alone, because that makes me want to jump backwards into episode three. He and Daniel are part of a larger community, so I wanted to ask how you approached Sean's character for this episode. Was the intent to paint the picture of a teenager who wanted to belong with others like him, but had to make compromises because of the situation that he's in?
Koch: Sean is 16 years old and at the beginning of episode one, he's just a normal teenager. He wants to be with friends, maybe go to a party, maybe start dating a girl he thinks he might like. He wants to have a normal life. And he doesn't want to have his little brother bothering him, like he says when you talk to Estaban in episode one or even in the flashback in episode three. Having Daniel with him is a pain. So when Esteban dies, Sean is the only support for Daniel. Daniel is his only family left, but also his burden.
We really wanted to play with both of those aspects, like you might want to do everything for Daniel, but Sean is also a teenager who needs to grow up himself, who needs to bond, who needs to find new people who are like him, and just experience things. For us, it was a major plot point of episode three. "How do I fit in with a group of people when I lost everything, when I need to take care of my brother, but I just want to experience life by being with these characters?" That's why we developed all those plot points of developing your own sexuality and who you are with the drifter, with Finn, with Cassidy, and the others? And it was in balance with what you should need to do for Daniel and also, of course, there was something in that Daniel did resent Sean for maybe not being there all the time with him.
Episode four is the opposite. Sean, like I said, has lost everything. He's on his own and he's just trying to find the only thing he has, which is his brother.
Shacknews: Can you talk about brotherhood and what it means to the Life is Strange 2 story as a whole?
Koch: Brotherhood is the core of the relationship of this game. That and the idea of education, which are deeply connected. I think overall, it's really a game brotherhood, but on a bigger scale, about family, because Sean and Daniel are brothers, but Sean is also becoming somehow Daniel's legal guardian, Daniel's father figure. So it's really a story about family bonds. So, myself, I don't have any siblings, but our writer, Jean-Luc Cano, he has a brother and a sister, so he used a lot of his own experience as a brother when he wrote the character. He's also a father with a young daughter, so he used a lot of his experience for how complicated it might be to raise a child, or make a child listen to you, or how there can be a lot of conflicts when you try to have a kid.
Brotherhood bonds is something we tried to use a lot of the own experiences of our team member and do a lot of research, also, to find how to portray brotherhood, how to try not to just have the perfect relationship, because we know that most of the time, brothers are fighting, loving each other one minute and disliking each other the next minute. We wanted to find this dynamic between Sean and Daniel to show that they will be here for each other, but there are moments where we need to have conflict. This is also behind the big mechanic of the game, where education and what you do is shaping the relationship of Sean and Daniel over the course of the episodes and so you saw already that we have variations and consequences throughout the game. Some smaller in the first episode, which are most of the time small differences, like if Daniel would be stealing something or not. And we have some bigger ones in episode three and episode four where Daniel can start to hurt and where Daniel can really hurt Lisbeth.
We will have more of those kinds of variations in episode four, which at the end of episode four they are together again, so we would imagine that Daniel will be here for episode five. And that will be the episode where we will be using most of what happened in the previous episodes to shape the end of the story.
Shacknews: Alright, I have one last question. We've talked about this over the last couple of days, so I want to ask something that's… close to me, personally. The last several years, moreso than ever, have been trying times for Latinx people like myself. We're demonized, we're caged, we're scapegoated, I could go on and on. There are a few things about the plot that I have some reservations about, but there's one thing that I want to focus on, in particular. Was there a concern that the central plot point of Sean feeling his only solution was to flee to Mexico would be offensive to Latinx people. In a climate where we're told to our faces to "go back where we came from," was there a concern that Latinx people like myself would interpret the plot as "A Mexican kid born in America is giving up and going back where he came from?"
Koch: That's a good question, because I see your point. We have the exact same issue in France, where we have the president who said, "If you don't like France, just leave it," which is pretty racist. (Editor’s note: Koch has clarified that this is in reference to a previous presidential administration, not the current one under Emmanuel Macron.) It's something that's said to immigrants in our country. So definitely, this is not the idea of this plot. I will have to see what happens in episode five and the end of the journey and the different endings, but for us, what happens at the beginning of the episode is that you have this dialogue with Estaban where Esteban is talking about owning a plot of land in Mexico with an old house. When Sean sees what happened with the death of Esteban and the police officer and the police cars arriving, he just has to grab Daniel and run away. Don't get caught by the police. And then he has this dialogue in episode one where he doesn't know where to flee, because he doesn't want to surrender because he knows he will be separated from Daniel, so he thinks he cannot stay in the United States. And for us, it was this idea that maybe he would just have to escape the country to escape the police. So it was really for us, not this idea of "I'm escaping the country because the country is racist or the country doesn't want me," but rather, "I will be in jail and I will be separated from my brother."
But I do see that it can be interpreted in the way that you're mentioning. And it was important for us when we started to write this story, which is not about us, that we try our best to talk to Latinx players, Latinx people, to do our research. We also have on the team people who are immigrants in France, so we are working with them to see how the story is working for them. Even if it's not the same country, just make sure that we are not making mistakes. We had the feeling with the big stories and what's happening with the police search and Daniel's powers that it wouldn't be interpreted this way.
But yeah… if for you, you got some of this impression, maybe it wasn't perfectly clear. I hope that with episode five and the whole journey, we won't be portraying this idea for you. Because this isn't the message of the game, for sure. You shouldn't just leave a country that doesn't want you. You shouldn't do what the racists want, basically.
Life is Strange 2 is four episodes in and is set to conclude later this year. For more on the game, be sure to check out our impressions of Roads, Rules, Wastelands, and Faith.
Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, Life is Strange 2 interview with Michel Koch: Family, religion, and race
I was satisfied with the answers and a big part of it was that Michel and I actually kept talking after the interview was over. We talked more about our upbringing, his own immigrant experience, the injustice we've seen and encountered, and our hopes for the future. I actually wish I had kept the recorder on, because we had a wonderful chat and even though we still don't necessarily agree on everything, hey, we had some A+ civil discourse.