Report: Life Is Strange Devs Dealt With Toxic Workplace, Crunch

Report: Life Is Strange Devs Dealt With Toxic Workplace, Crunch

Life is Strange: True Colors and Before the Storm studio Deck Nine Games is the subject of a massive IGN report whereby current and former employees allege the studio was a toxic place to work, that there was studio-supported crunch, and there were leaders who only made things worse.

According to the report, Square Enix, the publisher of Life Is Strange: True Colors, was incredibly hands-on with the script. Multiple sources claim that Square didn’t want Life Is Strange to be thought of as the “gay game,” despite each previous entry in the series including queer characters and optional queer relationships.

“There’s a lot of press out there praising True Colors for having the first bisexual lead in a Life Is Strange game,” narrative designer Mallory Littleton told IGN. “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.”

Deck Nine employees claim it was a toxic workplace

And despite Life Is Strange’s reputation as an inclusive franchise, Deck Nine staff reportedly faced sexual harassment, bullying, and transphobia, which went unaddressed by management for “months” at a time, according to the IGN report. Multiple sources pointed to a senior programmer who would make sexist remarks and crude “jokes” with racial and sexual connotations. The report states this individual was allegedly let go from Deck Nine following an incident in which he screamed at an HR representative.

Every woman IGN spoke to had at least one story of being subjected to harassment within the company.

The narrative director and eventual company CCO Zak Garriss reportedly became the centre of conflict within the studio. Sources claimed Garriss formed inappropriate relationships with women at the company, called the Black Lives Matter movement a “hate movement,” and once said members of the team were getting hung up on “political ideologies” before asking all staff in the meeting to list their political affiliations, among other accusations.

Garriss responded to IGN’s request for comment, pushing back against and/or denying several allegations and clarifying others. He told the outlet he had “mentored” women at Deck Nine, but also mentored men. “In all of my career, I have never worked with writers who were as creatively inflexible, antagonistic toward difference, or less inclined to listen or compromise as a select few of this group,” he said.

Garriss also told IGN that he didn’t recall his alleged comments on the Black Lives Matter movement and “made every effort to handle the discussions” around the removal of a planned trans character in True Colors “with kindness and care.” He said:

“If you are looking for clarity around the views of Deck Nine–the studio and its leadership, myself included–look to the content the team created as a reflection of the intentions and beliefs of that team. No game is perfect, and no production is ever easy. Before the Storm and True Colors were very difficult. But earnest hearts working tirelessly for years prevailed in the production of those games, and I am proud of what the team produced, grateful for the chance to have been a part of it, and honored to have touched the lives we have with the content we created; please do not let the biased viewpoint of a select few blind you to the truth of the whole.”

IGN reports that Garriss quit Deck Nine following the implementation of an anonymous evaluation tool, which sources said made more people within the studio comfortable expressing their issues with him.

With Garriss gone, IGN’s sources say morale around Deck Nine improved. But in late 2022, developers reportedly found racist memes and Nazi imagery within an in-development Life Is Strange title. This included references to the number 88, which is often used as code for Nazi ideology.

In August 2023, months after their initial discovery, CEO Mark Lyons reportedly announced that the company would institute an anti-hate speech policy, creating a mandatory training course on hate speech, and hardcoding a process for investigating any further suspected instances of hate speech. Lyons also announced the situation would be opened up to further investigation and hired Denver-based Investigations Law Group as an outside source of help. IGN reports that, as of publication, employees have been given no further information on the investigation, and that allegedly none of the promised anti-hate speech policies have been implemented.

Crunch and layoffs at Deck Nine

IGN’s report also alleges the studio was subjected to crunch from higher-ups at Square Enix, which resulted in working with tight deadlines and small budgets. One source called Square Enix “bullies,” while another claimed the toxicity and pressure from the publisher ended up seeping into the culture at Deck Nine. And the studio’s culture problems have been reportedly exacerbated by company hardship, including layoffs following deals to work on The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us 2. IGN’s sources told the outlet they believe Deck Nine’s decision-makers are “bad dealmakers” who don’t advocate for their studio’s needs.

IGN’s says production on the next Life Is Strange game is progressing despite all of this, but that marginalised employees feel a need for trust to be rebuilt between the tem and its leaders. Deck Nine’s statement to IGN says it remains “committed to championing diversity and telling stories from historically underrepresented groups.” It also says that when allegations of employee misconduct are brought to its attention, it investigates these claims “as quickly and effectively as possible.”

For more details on the situation at Deck Nine, check out IGN’s extensive report.

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