IGN report: Life is Strange developers at Deck Nine describe toxic behavior and crunch culture

In a report posted today by IGN’s senior reporter Rebekah Valentine, which we highly recommend that you read in its entirety [Editor’s note: IGN’s story contains accounts of sexual harassment] multiple sources within Life is Strange True Colors developer Deck Nine (published by Square Enix) have described their troubled experiences dealing with toxic co-workers and management. Deck Nine has also provided a response, which is included in Valentine’s story.

These sources also state there were several situations in which hate symbols were found hidden in the game and, when reported, management was slow to react. Alongside accounts of a low pay, difficulty in getting promotions, and toxic co-workers being slow-walked out the door despite specific accounts of bully, transphobia, and sexual harassment.

Furthermore, the team states that despite the narrative team consisting of diverse talent, it’s lead who eventually be came CCO, Zak Garriss (narrative director who eventually became CCO) quickly endeared himself to management after he was onboarded. He is accused of developing questionable relationships with younger, less senior female employees working with him, grilled writers on their political ideologies, and fought to remove a transgender character from the game and include a scene depicting a date-rape protested by the team. According to Valentine, Gariss has contested these allegations, and has since voluntarily resigned from the Deck Nine.

Despite this, the team is proud of the queer themes that made it into the game. However, it also seems that publisher Square Enix was intentionally mum about Alex Chen’s bisexual identity until review copies were distributed to media. Mallory Littleton, who worked on True Colors as a narrative designer:

“Even in our press guides from Square Enix, all the way up until [review copies were out], we were not to say anything about Alex’s sexuality, period, at all. And then they did the advance copies, and all of these reviews came out saying how amazing it was to finally see an explicitly bi protagonist, and after that, Square was like, just kidding, Alex is absolutely, canonically, 100% bisexual.”

Valentine’s sources at Deck Nine Games state that Square Enix was attracted to the company’s offer to make new entries in the Life is Strange series cheaper, and with the company’s StoryForge tool that was intended for use in building narrative adventure games.

However, in developing their first project Life is Strange Before the Storm Remastered, employees described a period of crunch where developers worked 70 to 80 hours a week, with Square Enix London setting unrealistic milestones in the production schedule, so much so that it was described as “bullying”, though some accounts attribute this to Deck Nine management miscommunication about what the team was capable of reasonably doing..

While Square Enix owns the IP for Life is Strange, the developers state the publisher became “far too hands-on” with the script, and seemed “reluctant” or “hostile” to the diverse themes that were present in True Colors — even stating that they didn’t want the series to be thought of as a “gay game”. Deck Nine Games management were also reluctant to push back against Square Enix’s notes that the development team disagreed with.

Despite this, producer Madeline Tate is proud of the queer themes that made it in game and wants to assuage the feelings of players who may be disappointed in today’s report:

“But every good thing we got in those stories was fought for hard by female writers and queer writers, and games aren’t made by one person…If you’re marginalized you have to love games so much more to make them because you have to put up with so much more shit.”

While Square Enix recently divested itself of studios Eidos Montreal, Square Enix Montreal, and Crystal Dynamics, it currently retains the IP for Life is Strange.

Life is Strange True Colors released on September 10, 2021. Life is Strange Before the Storm Remastered released on February 1, 2022.

About the Author

Tony Garsow Tony joined Nova Crystallis in 2015, and has spent more than a decade writing in the Final Fantasy community. He also contributes to the Nova Crystallis Twitch and YouTube channels, where you can watch select gameplay highlights, previews, and streams.