Every now and then a games studio will cocoon itself away from the world, rebuilding itself from the ground up with a fresh vision and a new focus. This is exactly what Deck Nine Games (nee Idol Minds) has done for the past three years. This has resulted in a new project on a franchise of which many of the studio’s employees are fans. Deck Nine Games is developing the Life is Strange prequel, announced at E3.
Called Life is Strange: Before the Storm, the prequel will be a three-part side-story that will exist canonically aside Life is Strange’s upcoming sequel. For Deck Nine it’s the ultimate passion project and the perfect way to cut its teeth as a new studio with a new name.
“We spent the last three years turning our focus towards cinematic narrative adventure games,” says co-game director Chris Floyd. “We’ve built up a team of storytellers. We went to the film world and the TV world, but also video games to bring together cinematic artists, environment artists, level designers and of course writers who wanted to tell stories.
“We put that team together but at the same time we were also developing a toolset we have called Storyforge. That’s made to get all the technical barriers out of the way for these creative people and let them make these kinds of games, write creative stories and create these kinds of great cinematic sequences.”
Storyforge is a really unique tool and there really aren’t any tools out there like it
Chris Floyd, co-game director
Storyforge is what ultimately landed Deck Nine the Life is Strange gig in the first place. The tool demonstrated to Square Enix a devotion to and skill for storytelling which impressed them enough to hand over the keys to the Life is Strange kingdom.
“It’s a really unique tool and there really aren’t any tools out there like it,” Floyd says. “We’ve shown it to professionals who’ve made these kinds of games before and they were blown away. That includes the folks at Square when we sat down and showed it to them.
“Storyforge really has two main parts. One is called Playwright, and this is essentially our screenwriting tool. It’s like writing a standard movie screenplay and it looks a lot like that. Except our writers can also inject in the gameplay, the logic, the choice points and the branches, and we can actually then view the script like it’s a big flowchart.
“We can see how much it branches out here and see that maybe we have too few choices there, so we can flesh that out and see how the story expands and comes back together. Then we generate our gameplay and the open freeroam spaces. What are all the objects we can look at and what is Chloe going to say when she looks at them? That’s all in a script.”
Playwright is just part of the full Storyforge experience, though. “We can pull the script out of Playwright and bring in our other tool which is called Storyteller,” Floyd explains. “This is our cinematic development engine, so that’s where we lay out that script and it becomes a giant timeline with all these sequences in it. You’ll bring in a character and apply an animation to it at the right time and say how long it will play for.
“Then we’ll do a facial performance, where we will literally have sliders and say ‘hey, let’s turn up the sadness here’ or ‘let’s turn down the surprise’ and that’s where we get our nuanced facial performances. It also does all of our lipsync, which basically comes right from the VO files.”
For the time being, Storyforge is exclusively being used by Deck Nine, but there are internal discussions to release it as middleware. There’s no indication on timeframe (or even if it will definitely happen), as the studio is focusing on using it to make sure they can make the best games they can.
As fans of the original game, being handed the reins on a canonical prequel is a huge project for the studio, though taking on such a beloved franchise comes with its own problems. “We sat down to talk about a variety of projects with Square, and we showed them our tools,” says Floyd. “But then they came to us and asked if we wanted to make the next Life is Strange, and we were like... We just wanted to play the game! We honestly didn’t think we’d be making the next one.
“So this was huge for us and we were very excited, but it’s a lot of pressure. Life is Strange was a great game and to be picking it up now... I’ll be very honest to you it’s a lot of pressure but it’s a privilege.”