Behind the Video Game: The Story of Dontnod Entertainment

Behind the Video Game: The Story of Dontnod Entertainment

Behind the Video Game

It is 2014 when Dontnod, a Parisian studio founded just five years ago and with only one title to its credit, risks closure. His first game, Remember, Me proved exhausting to rework: after Sony canceled its prototype, an RPG called Adrift, the transformation into a dynamic adventure had compressed and flattened it. Capcom spotted the project at Gamescom 2011 and acquired it in 2012, scaling back the team's creative ambitions. It was decided to aim for something more attractive to the general public and less expensive.

On that occasion, Dontnod "nodded", that is, humbly bowed his head. Finding a publisher hadn't been easy, Rachel Weber reports, due to polls advising against a female lead. Faced with an unexpected and important financier like Capcom, who allowed a fair amount of room for maneuver and to overcome the indie barrier, Dontnod accepted the conditions. Don't nod is a palindrome that stands for "not nodding": hence perhaps the desire to create, then as now, particular, innovative, progressive video games. To avoid the already seen and the banal, free from dictates from above.

After the fibrillating and as already seen long creative phase, the adrenaline rush and the showcase moment, all that remained was to sum up. Despite the excitement unleashed during the presentation at Gamescom 2013, Remember Me sold less than hoped, having to resort to the Plus to finally reach the two million players. There was a heavy air in Paris. Capcom was a passing aid: in 2015 a Remember Me sequel had already been written, but the major did not give any green light.

From left to right: Luc Baghadoust (producer), Raoul Barbet (screenwriter and director), Michel Koch (artistic director), Oskar Guilbert (CEO). When a judicial reorganization procedure, the last cushion to separate from bankruptcy, hung like a sword of Damocles on the heads of the five founders of the development house, the only solution to recover was to start a new project, with the help of public funds. Until the emblem of all the software houses that want to get up and try everything, one last challenge before retiring from the scene, a final fantasy appeared. Square Enix, famous for saving itself from bankruptcy thanks to Final Fantasy, funded Life is Strange, in its episodic form. From this point on, Dontnod calls himself an AA developer and begins to attract more and more offers.

The story of Dontnod is in fact a particular story: the story of a phoenix that would have died out without the help of the great pillars of the sector, but which over the years has decided to spread its wings, with difficulty, to first become self-publisher and later publisher, as revealed by the recent partnership with PortaPlay (authors of Broken Lines). But to reach this turning point, marked by the enormous funding from the giant Tencent (36.3 million dollars), the victories and defeats have followed one another at an undulating pace.

To give a little in order to the events, it all began in 2008, in a studio near Gare de Lyon, a very crowded station a stone's throw from the Seine. The headquarters are today between the districts of La Chapelle and La Villette, an area undergoing gentrification in north-east Paris, between start-ups and Little India. The five minds who founded Dontnod are Oskar Guilbert, Jean-Maxime Moris, the artistic director Aleksi Briclot, the writer Alain Damasio and the programmer Hervé Bonin.

Jean-Luc Cano (screenwriter and creative director), Raoul Barbet (writer and director) and Michel Koch (artistic director). Since 2015, with Life is Strange (IP in the hands of Square Enix), the team's paths have separated, with Oskar Guilbert remaining as CEO. But who are the other four minds, often reduced to a simple list of names from Ubisoft, EA and Criterion Games? Moris worked as a level designer on Hitman, with IO Interactive, and is currently the Creative Director of Amplitude Studios for an upcoming 4X, Humankind.

Aleksi Briclot, Art Director, works with Marvel Studios and Wizard of the Coast, as well as being a concept and covert artist for Darkhorse Comics. He is the merit of the comic atmosphere that permeates LiS. Alain Damasio is a science fiction writer, without whom Remember Me would not have had his most original insights and moments of acute social media criticism. In Italy his The Horde of the Wind was published, an interesting novel starting with its reverse layout, like a countdown.

Finally, Hervé Bonin, current CEO of Nameless XIII, recently published Ashwalker, a post-apocalyptic graphic adventure that makes choices his strong point. Regarding the importance of narrative crossroads, in an interview on Gamerant Bonin stated: "What we have learned from Life is Strange is that a narrative story is difficult to render in play, but it is important that the player is incorporated into the story. by means of choices ". The studio also boasts writers of the caliber of Michel Koch, Christian Divine, Jean-Luc Cano and creative director Raoul Barbet, mostly from the cinema scene and interested in story driven projects.

A remaster of Life is Strange is announced for this fall. Dontnod has found his way in telling characters and stories of strong emotional impact, with difficult themes ranging from depression to suicide, from racism to gender issues. The player is called to shape part of the story, so as to feel closer to the protagonists, certainly not a new formula but which in the graphic adventures of the team is often associated with the use of superhero power (or small variations, such as mental palaces like Sherlock) . The aesthetic quality of the scenarios, full of details to be examined, then serves to create a strong alternation between peaceful moments and anxious moments, between psychological thriller and horror.

In our interview, Raoul Barbet told us : "Among musicians, writers and designers, the videogame sector is increasingly rich in talented people who have a lot to say and communicate. Many also work in other sectors, such as Jonathan Morali who oversaw the soundtrack of our games , but he also has a band and composes soundtracks for some films. In general, this is an area where we feel a lot of freedom. Sometimes the funds are greater, and they allow us to create the experience we want. The video game itself is one extremely creative tool, which allows you to tackle many issues. This is what we have tried to do in LIS as well. "

Life is Strange has won a BAFTA for history and is considered the highest point in Dontnod. , much who uses it shadow obscures its future merits. A title able to rise and drag like a hurricane, strong in its charismatic characters, its "zoom" on the environments (such as to make the Blackwell Academy a completely plausible place), its scenes torn from a Stephen King novel and never too much mentioned Twin Peaks.

As in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in Vampyr you have to choose which side of Jonathan Reid to prevail. But not only that, his love story and the villain's dark motivations are among the most intense seen within a graphic adventure, in a narrative climax that no one would expect from a story with such a teenage feel. The gameplay, based on the Telltale model, is today the standard of the team due to its proximity to the rhythms of a TV series thanks to the dynamism it has managed to give to graphic adventures, updated once and for all.

Nel 2017 was to come out Vampyr, funded by Focus Home, postponed to the following year and a success at launch. With one million copies sold as of 2019, it was received with emphasis but in the long term it has not proved capable of winning over all players. If on the one hand it is a dream that is crowned by the team, which finally realizes an RPG as Adrift / Remember Me should be, on the other hand it is incomplete where they had conquered their fanbase: the narrative sector, satisfying but no longer the focus, net of a more complex game system to surround and built from scratch.

Also in 2017, another studio, Deck Nine Games, deals with Before the Storm, the prequel to Life is Strange, and is currently working on Life is Strange: True Colors. At this date, Dontnod has not yet decided to detach itself from the adventures of Arcadia Bay and its surroundings, from the evocative atmosphere of Oregon and its infinite sunsets. In fact, for 2018 he publishes Captain Spirit and Life is Strange 2, with episodes that are too dilated and overall unconvincing. The episodic structure, from a TV series, turns out to be a double-edged sword: it can keep the media attention high on a title, due to the periodic releases, but at the same time it risks losing the narrative rhythm and some players on the street.

Tell Me Why, for the topics dealt with, won the Game Award as the most impactful game of 2020. In 2020, with Twin Mirror and Tell Me Why, the shot is adjusted to the rhythm of the releases. The episodes are missing or are closer together, so as to be less distracting. Unfortunately, even in this case, critics and audiences are divided, due to good scripts but unable to capitalize on the attention as it was for the story of Max and Chloe. It should be noted that with Twin Mirror Dontnod is proposed for the first time as a co-producer studio, supported by Bandai Namco. With Tell Me Why, on the other hand, he makes a proposal to Microsoft and the result is an exclusive, the pride of the Game Pass, with a history of inclusiveness that is rare in the sector.

Inside the videogame

If you are interested in our other chapters of the 'Inside the videogame' column, we would like to point out those relating to Shigeru Miyamoto, Bethesda Game Studios, Hideo Kojima and CD Projekt RED.

In an interview for Making Games, the CEO by Dontnod Oskar Guilbert says: "We believe that diversifying the cultures and talents within the company will have a significant impact on the content of our games. This is one of the reasons that prompted us to open the Montreal office.

The more experiences, cultures and people working on a game, the more open we will be to new topics and social issues to address in our games. It is especially crucial for Dontnod, because it is in our DNA to tell stories from themes. strong and hopefully they can helping the players ".

Since November 2020 a branch has been opened in welcoming Montreal, an environment with less tax burden than in France and which, according to Guilbert, is favorable for the growth of independent studios. The team now has about 250 employees, with four divisions, but each project is born from a core team of about seven members, before evolving and growing further in scope, at the pace of the great developers. In short, we try to maintain an authentic creative core, away from the cold and blind logic of investors, before starting the great development machine.

The Awesome Adventure of Captain Spirit is a free chapter that introduces LiS 2, presenting one of its secondary characters in a somewhat particular context. Guilbert: "I think we still maintain this feeling of a human dimension throughout the studio, despite the growth. It is one of my priorities because it brings people together, it pushes us all together to stand in solidarity and tell our stories. their ideas are now what drives us, creating challenges and new ways of telling stories capable of touching many people ".

And here we are back to the present, to the investment of Tencent and the almost complete transformation of Dontnod, with several projects in store and an aura of secrecy that surrounds it, waiting for its next IP and its big announcements. Guilbert has repeatedly referred to the possibility that the studio will pass in the future from a double A model (with games that are after all short, intense, well-kept) to a triple A model (with experiences of more than 50 hours). After this phase of readjustment, who knows, the phoenix will be free to fly, without depending on anyone.

To be precise, Tencent has acquired minority stakes and will have a say (probably the last word) for what will affect the Chinese market. On the one hand, this may seem like a pact with the devil, because it is inevitable that to respect the pacts Dontnod will direct some titles towards mobile devices, perhaps with the risk of self-censorship. On the other hand, this is the kind of leverage that can free Dontnod from the impasse: it will guarantee the publication in the West, of their main games, as we have known them for thirteen years now, without any publisher to limit or even direct. the creativity of the developers.

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Twin Mirror focuses on the theme of duality and is co-produced with Bandai Namco. A first step towards financial autonomy. Guilbert points out that Dontnod's independence rests on three pillars: financial independence, for obvious reasons. Industrial, because they work with (and not under) different publishers, now also self-publishing. Creative freedom. Their importance for the public has been built on this last element, who if able to go beyond the more or less effective game, knows that Dontnod is at least synonymous with intellectual honesty, research of the new and stories told with passion. Time will tell if Tencent is the torch that renewed the flames of the phoenix, or a new chain.

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