Welcome back to “You Wouldn’t Download A Date!” Last time, I talked about Harvest Moon: True Love Edition, small towns, and the value of unheard stories as I wrapped up my portion of this column. To round out the series, I went a little off-script by deciding to pull back the curtain and give the floor to some incredibly smart creators of a new fanmade work that hasn’t been released yet, but is worth your attention (and more than likely right up your alley)!
I’m talking about Love Is Strange, the slated-for-2016 visual novel that takes the cast and characters of Life Is Strange and transports them into a dating sim. Playing as Max Caulfield, you’ll get to progress through five days of a “normal” universe (i.e. no time travel powers or supernatural happenings) and romance either Chloe Price, Kate Marsh, Rachel Amber, or Victoria Chase. Each “route” has two endings and takes roughly a half hour for one playthrough, based on the team’s current estimation, which means a total of about two hours to experience every route on a first playthrough and four to get all of the endings. You can check out the team’s blog right here and give the demo a try over here!
Because there are fourteen people working away on this labor of love, I couldn’t interview every single one of them individually to feature every answer here (as much as I really, really wanted to) so I shot them a list of questions to divide amongst themselves to make sure everyone got to answer the ones they had thoughts about! Head on in to get to meet some of these folks and hear what they have to say.
Pluto: Hey, thanks so much for your time, everyone! I’ve already given a summary of your game for readers, but in your own words, what kind of project is Love Is Strange?
wussygirl: The pitch is that it’s a fanmade visual novel doing some serious queer Life Is Strange fanservice. But more than that, it’s truly a labor of love. It’s a love letter to this wonderful universe that Dontnod has created, and it’s a chance for the team to dig a little deeper into the characters that have touched all of us over the last several months. Max, Chloe, Rachel, Kate, and Victoria are all layered and relatable in their own way, and I think Love Is Strange does a great job of investigating that, all while providing the happy endings and queer representation that we and many other fans wanted to see in the source material.
Pluto: How did a game like this get started, and how did you all come together?
kunaike: We originally had a Skype group assembled by our incredible director Michelle (Gadget) for just LiS fans who think about Life Is Strange more than their own life tbh. Most of our team originated from this group and we happened to bring it up one day and had a pretty serious discussion on actually creating an LiS visual novel game. Gadget and Haaku have a great deal of experience in programming and are familiar with visual novel engines, so we couldn’t do this without them! We continued to flesh out the ideas onto a google doc as we discussed the details. Explosionshark came up with such great beginning script ideas and established our plot. Michelle threw something together in Ren’Py and we all thought, wowser!
This is all very possible with the people we have together in this group. We shortly organized teams and recruited more members to fill in the gaps and I’m so grateful to be part of this extraordinarily hard-working team of passionate people!
Pluto: What kind of work goes into coordinating something like this? Could you give us a breakdown of how you keep track of progress, or ways you all keep in touch?
thegadgetfish: Skype is our main mode of communication, with groups broken up according to teams. We use a shared Google Drive and have a bunch of documents that outline schedules, writing guidelines, assets needed, etc. The writing team have regular check-ins where they review and show off their scripts, and new art is always shared with the general team chat. Getting the demo released was pretty hectic, and took a lot of coordination. There were a ton of status checks during this time, but everyone really banded together and worked hard. In the end, we managed to get a really polished demo out!
Pluto: All the writers are split into the four different routes possible; namely, Chloe, Kate, Rachel, and Victoria. Care to tell us a little bit about each of yourselves, why you’d like the audience to try your character’s path, and what it’s like writing for a visual novel?
chloepricewithgun: Hey, I’m Jer! Eighteen, located in the Eastern part of the United States. I’m a full-time college student that does way too much thinking about Life Is Strange. As the writer in charge of Victoria’s route, I put a lot of work into making sure she’s as grueling as possible. If there’s one thing I’d like you to know about her path, it’s that it’s not going to be easy. Victoria is a character who tries to carry herself with as much self-importance as possible in order to hide her deep-seated insecurities; it’ll take a little work to break that ice cold exterior.
I think, in that sense, Victoria is more relatable than a lot of people think. Max is one of the only characters who suspects there’s more to Victoria than her cruel act, and through Max’s curiosity, I aim to shed more light on Victoria’s motivations. I also believe that they both have a lot more to offer each other than meets the eye, though you’d have to play through her route to understand why! As for working on a visual novel, I admit that it’s a totally new experience for me, but it’s been nothing but fun delving into the new style. A little challenging, but it wouldn’t be enjoyable to work on if it weren’t! I’m honestly just glad I have such a solid, talented team to work with. It makes everything super rewarding.
gaychloeprice: The name’s Katy, I’m in my 20s, and I live in the Eastern part of the United States. A dear friend of mine gifted me Life Is Strange for my birthday and I fell in love with the game and its incredible cast of strong young women. I’m so humbled to be writing Kate’s path for this game.
Kate Marsh is incredibly special to a lot of people, myself included. Her struggle with depression and bullying is something that a lot of people can relate to. Some of that will play into her path in this game, but with Max’s help, she can overcome her insecurities. I loved Max and Kate’s relationship in the original game, so I’m incredibly delighted to be expanding upon it. There’s a lot of cuteness between those two in this path, and more of Kate’s happy side that we barely got to see in the original game. Look forward to that! Working on a visual novel is a new experience for me, and definitely challenging! But working with such a fun, supportive, and talented team of people is very rewarding, so I can’t complain.
surimistick: If you’re one of the people who picked the “Kiss Chloe” option in the Life Is Strange game, and maybe even rewound time to pick it again a couple dozen times, then the Chloe path of this visual novel probably caught your interest. Why you should play it? Because after the first dozen times, replaying the same kiss over and over again gets boring, and you could probably use some variety.
Jokes aside, the Chloe path of this visual novel explores and expands on a character dynamic that we already know and love from the game, staying true to it but also offering new scenarios and possibilities to evolve as people and as a couple. So if you loved Max and Chloe and want to see how their relationship could evolve, definitely give this path a try. A bit about me? I am a university and comic school student, and I’m one of the people who rewound to pick the kiss Chloe option a couple dozen times.
mjrrgr: Hello, I’m Major! I’m female, in my 20s, from Western Canada. I work in emergency services and do a lot of weeping over Life Is Strange. I’m the writer responsible for Rachel Amber’s path, which presents a set of challenges that are entirely unique to this route. Rachel is the one character we never got to meet for ourselves—we only came to know her through the eyes and the hearts of other people, and the conflicting stories we heard only deepened the overarching mystery that surrounded her. Maintaining the enigma of her character while attempting to reconcile the many contrasts in it has been a crucial aspect of writing her route. I wanted to humanize her and bring her to life—figuratively and literally. I hope that the prospect of unraveling the mystery of her character draws the player to try her path; to gain a full understanding of Rachel as interpreted by the visual novel, I highly suggest playing through her route more than once.
As for what the actual writing process has been like, I really like working in the visual novel format; I love how little differences in dialogue or approval can shape an ending or even just a scene. And I’m really happy to be working with such motivated, passionate people, of course.
Pluto: The artists are broken up a little bit differently. Each one creates individual groups of assets—like all the character sprites or the user interface. What do each of your titles mean, how did it all get broken down, and what’s your favorite part of your own pieces of Love Is Strange’s visuals?
kunaike: I am responsible for making all the character art. I will be creating all the emotive sprites for each character with slightly altered outfits. In the very beginning of this project, I was completely on board to create anything needed for this fangame, but my strongest point is drawing characters, so I was put in charge of just creating all of the sprites.
Even with all the determination and passion I have for working on this game, there was no way I could do it all without keeling over—resulting in recruiting our three other incredible artists on the team that I’m exceedingly flattered to be collaborating with. Anh’s beautifully illustrated backgrounds compliment my style for the sprites so well. Making these characters come to life and stay believable while sticking close to the beautiful hand-painted style of Life Is Strange is definitely my favorite part of working on the character sprites.
anhdang: I make all the background art in the VN and I also helped out in making some of the visuals for the UI, though Gadget and Haaku make sure it works at all. I contacted the group after most of the team was established to see if I could help out. Luckily, my background painting style matches Kunaike’s gorgeous character art, which I guess sealed the deal. There’s a big list of backgrounds based on the LiS VN script, and I get assigned each place one at a time based on importance and then move on to the next after I’m done. I really enjoy working on each BG and I feel like making so many has helped me improve my art a lot. It makes me really happy to work with such a cool team.
yuripirate: I was sent an inbox one evening by Gadget asking me if I was interested in helping out with this lovely game and I thought it was a really cool idea even though I had no clue what I was getting into. By the time I joined, their plan was already very solid and the idea was clear, and I learned that my role was to create the ending scenes arts. As the ending scenes artist for LiS, I am responsible for creating the drawings based on the writers’ wonderful outlines. Each character has two routes and each route leads to two different endings, which are influenced by the choices that the player makes throughout the game.
Ever since I joined the super talented crew, I’ve learned so many things, and this includes exploring a completely new and experimental art style for me. And because these are the ending arts, I feel very pressured in making sure they are at the best quality I can make them, so I’ve been redoing the drawings a bunch of times to make sure of this! Other than that pressure, I feel super honored working with my favorite artists and writers in the LiS fandom, whom I am now friends with and I’m hella glad to be part of this!!!
maxmyhipstersock: My responsibilities within the VN team lies with making the “Contest Photo Art.” It is, as the title suggests, where I create the images that Max photographs at the end of each individual route for contest entry. Before the idea for the VN was formed, I was already in a Skype group that consisted of most of the VN team and was later asked to join in making art for the upcoming visual novel. Having the opportunity to visually create moments that were otherwise not shown in Life Is Strange would definitely be my favorite part of my work for the VN. It gives me a chance to express my love for the characters—to capture their moments of happiness in a single image.
Pluto: You’ve got a team member creating original music for Love Is Strange! As spoiler-free as possible, what kind of things are you keeping in mind or aiming for with creating your music?
Workard: Life Is Strange and soothing guitar strings goes hand-in-hand, and so does Max and her love interest, so having some acoustic guitar with some romantic vibes is often the optimal element. Of course, the settings in Love is Strange change throughout, so I often create a keyword for the desired mood and mix together the music accordingly. It can be as simple as repeating the word “Coffee” over and over in your head and then creating music for this coffee. Now, the characters are not coffee, but it did work well with Hawt Dog man. I can reveal one of the words I will be repeating in my head and that is “Looove.” All in all, I would say I aim to add to the appealing atmosphere the writers, programmers, and artists are setting up with this captivating game.
Pluto: I noticed two of you are working as “Consulting” and “Quality Assurance,” individually. What are your jobs on that end like, and how’s your experience been with a project like this? Have you worked on other, similar things?
Xumbra: As a consultant, I draw from my experience in making visual novels to answer various questions on things like UI coding and team organization. Sometimes I’ll QA builds to make sure things look good before the game gets released. This is my first time being a consultant. I haven’t met everyone yet, but the people I’ve talked to so far have been super fun to work with.
Mostlymilkwood: Similarly to Xumbra, I first came on as a consultant due to my past experience with the visual novel genre, which is a fancy way of saying I’ve played a lot of them in my time and like to read up on how they’re made. For quality assurance, I mostly try and break the game! I play through new builds and note any bugs or errors I come across that need fixing, so hopefully the players will have a smooth experience when they finally get their hands on it. This kind of role is a first for me, but so far, working with everyone has been amazing. There’s a real positive vibe that goes around and I think it pushes us all to keep working to the very best of our ability!
Pluto: To round out your group, you’ve even got a programmer and a producer who also does supplementary programming. On the production side, how would you describe your job and what responsibilities do you have? And on the programming end, you’ve mentioned that you use Ren’Py. What goes into incorporating all those assets into a playable game, and what’s your experience with Ren’Py been so far? Do either of you have any previous programming knowledge?
thehaakun: Yeah, there are two programmers! Gadget and me. At the moment, I’m responsible for coding Rachel’s and Victoria’s routes (they’re SO good, I can’t wait for you all to play them), and occasionally some front end things, like UI changes. For the most part, Gadget does a lot of the main, heavy duty stuff—most of the UI changes are hers. I do side things when I have time. Incorporating the assets into Ren’Py is pretty easy! We’re thankful that Ren’Py’s easy to work with. Not too much code goes into coding the actual storylines; the biggest struggle for us so far has been getting the UI to function properly (lol). I’m currently in college, majoring in Computer Science! Been coding for roughly ~4 years now, but not in Python (thankfully Ren’Py’s easy to learn, God bless).
thegadgetfish: Production side, my responsibilities include keeping the team on schedule, coordinating with the artists, and making final decisions. Explosionshark helps me a lot with the master schedule, and also does a great job leading the writers. As programmers, we’re the first ones to see how everything fits together, and it usually results in a lot of hyped screaming. There’s actually a ton going on behind the scenes, and I’m super fortunate to have Haaku helping out. I’ve been programming in the games industry for around five years, with both development and publishing studios. I love using Ren’Py. It’s very intuitive, and quite flexible for what we want to do.
Pluto: I mentioned in the introduction that you released a demo, which (by now) has been out for a little while! What made you decide to release a demo, and what kind of things do you think you’ve learned from the process?
thehaakun: Our original goal was to release the demo a few days after Episode 5 to provide something after the ending. That was a bit too tight of a deadline, so we pushed it back, but we were intent on releasing a demo to keep the fandom going for a little longer. And, with Episode 5 gone and passed, it was also to provide something nice and cute and happy for the fandom after … what happened.
I think, overall, we’ve learned how to organize ourselves in terms of meeting deadlines, prioritizing certain tasks, and how to stress test/QA the builds. Releasing the demo’s also given us an opportunity to see what the fandom likes or dislikes about the demo (or what might be buggy), so it gives us a chance to patch things up before the final release.
Pluto: Do you have a more narrowed-down ETA on when the game is going to come out? As of right now, the only estimate I’ve seen is a general 2016. Do you have a more specific time frame than that?
explosionshark: We are currently anticipating a Valentine’s Day release!
Pluto: Could you share a little bit about the general plot of the game and the storyline, as well as how the division into specific routes works?
explosionshark: The basic plot follows Max through the course of five days as she works on an entry for a photo contest that could seriously boost her budding photography career. At the start of the week, Max chooses a partner from our roster of love interests to help her complete her project! The biggest diversion in the plot of the game relies on who you select as your partner. Will you ask Chloe Price, Arcadia Bay’s resident bad girl and your childhood best friend to help you? Rachel Amber, the mysterious and beautiful model? Kate Marsh, the shy, quiet artist? Or even your biggest competition, Blackwell mean girl Victoria Chase? The choice is yours!
All of the writers are following the same basic story format, but they’ve been given freedom within that outline to tell the story they’d most like to tell. Each character has a subplot unique to their romance path with further variations in plot depending on player choice. Max doesn’t have rewind powers in this game and your choices might not yield the reactions you were anticipating, so choose wisely!
Pluto: And last, but definitely not least, for the whole team! In a single sentence: what’s your favorite thing(s) about working on a project like this? Anything else you’d like the audience to know or any last words to share?
thegadgetfish: It’s amazing to work with such a great team (although they like watching me suffer), and we’re all pretty blown away by the support!
thehaakun: Hanging out with all the people I’ve looked up to for so long has been totally awesome, and I hope you guys enjoy the whole gayme when it releases!
yuripirate: This project makes me feel really gay.
mjrrgr: Getting to work on this love letter to Life Is Strange with a team of people I adore has been an amazing experience, and I am so, so excited for the day that we can share the full game with the fandom.
chloepricewithgun: It’s just incredible to see all the passion and creativity the team is putting forth for this, so I’m super stoked to see everyone’s reactions to the full game!
anhdang: I really like everyone on the team and I’m having such a good time working on this project; I hope everyone enjoys the game and thank you for all of the support; I drank at least my body’s worth in coffee working on this.
gaychloeprice: I feel incredibly humbled to be working on such a fun project, and I can’t wait until we can share it with all of you!
kunaike: Finally, a game where it’s only ladies loving ladies.
surimistick: I am having the time of my life working on this project with this amazing team of some of the sweetest and most talented people I know.
Workard: It’s great because working on this—with these wonderful people—gives the same effect as being high: I’m tired, confused, and often hungry for some reason.
maxmyhipstersock: It takes a village. 🙂
Mostlymilkwood: Love is … weird.
Pluto: Thanks so much for your time, everyone. It was an honor to interview all of you! Can’t wait to see the final product!