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How Hidden Nazi Symbols Were the Tip of a Toxic Iceberg at Life Is Strange Developer Deck Nine

Early last year, while working on the next entry in the Life Is Strange franchise, a few developers at Deck Nine stumbled upon something that didn’t belong in their game: Nazi symbols.

Initially, developers noticed a reference to , and flagged the issue to their bosses assuming it was an innocent mistake. But in the ensuing weeks, others found more problematic signs and in-universe labels, such as references to a , , and the . As the number of possible hate symbols mounted, staff grew increasingly concerned that someone was putting these items in their game deliberately as a dog whistle to white supremacists.

Nazi imagery would be inappropriate in most games, but in a Life Is Strange title the dissonance was especially frightening. Since its inception, the series has been lauded for thoughtful portrayals of marginalized individuals. Its most recent entry, Life Is Strange: True Colors, won Games for Impact at The Game Awards in 2021 and a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Video Game. With such a reputation, developers tell me, there was an expectation that any whiff of hate speech would be immediately removed and thoroughly investigated.

But as weeks went by, management remained silent and staff unrest grew. This wasn’t the first time executives had failed to act when marginalized individuals at the studio felt unsafe. According to over a dozen current and former employees across several departments, most of whom spoke to me on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, Deck Nine’s management has long let a toxic work culture fester at the studio. They claim the C-suite has protected multiple abusive leaders, encouraged crunch, and allowed bullying of individuals advocating internally for more authentic representation in Life Is Strange.

Now on the cusp of announcing its next game and struggling to secure other projects, Deck Nine leadership is facing growing internal discontent from those harmed by its inaction. While the developers of Life Is Strange love and believe in the series, many of them increasingly struggle to reconcile the values the games promote with the culture in which they are made.

Deck Nine Games was founded under the name Idol Minds in 1997 and for most of its history, worked on games very different from Life Is Strange. For a long time it focused on PlayStation games such as Cool Boarders 3 and 4, Rally Cross 2, and Neopets: The Darkest Faerie. Idol Minds also assisted on multiple Ratchet & Clank games. The studio briefly pivoted to mobile game development in the early 2010s before vanishing for a few years, reemerging as Deck Nine in 2017.

This wasn’t just a name change. Equipped with proprietary toolset StoryForge, Deck Nine announced it would focus on narrative games, beginning with the Square Enix-owned Life Is Strange. Deck Nine first took the reins from series creator Dontnod Entertainment on a prequel, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm. Though Dontnod followed up with Life Is Strange 2 in 2018, it , making Deck Nine the logical successor with Life Is Strange: True Colors in 2021 and the Life Is Strange Remastered Collection in 2022.

Deck Nine’s first crack at Square Enix’s popular narrative series involved significant crunch, and while efforts were made to improve workloads on True Colors, overtime never fully vanished. One anonymous individual told me they worked 70 to 80 hours a week for an entire month straight on True Colors. Another described taking on weeks of crunch to protect other team members, saying it was “never mandated” but that there was always too much to get done in the allotted time.

Much of the crunch, developers say, was the direct result of the relationship between Deck Nine and Square Enix. Several people told me it felt as though Square Enix had sold Life Is Strange to the lowest bidder, and that this was frequently reflected in production schedules with tight deadlines and small budgets. Multiple people were aware of producers being forced by their bosses and Square Enix to rework production schedules so it looked like every milestone fit within a very limited development time frame, despite their arguments that it was impossible. One called Square Enix – and specifically, Square Enix London, who Deck Nine worked with directly – “bullies.”

Another source elaborated, “Square always put a lot of pressure on our people, so that toxicity started to bleed into our environment too.”

Others I spoke to expressed frustration at Square Enix for a different reason: it was far too hands-on with the script. Sure, Life is Strange is a Square Enix’s owned IP, but sources told me Square Enix seemed oddly reluctant or outright hostile to the diverse themes and ideas that Life Is Strange fans love. For instance, multiple people recalled an incident during True Colors development where Square Enix told multiple developers it didn’t want Life Is Strange to be thought of as the “gay game.”

Even in our press guides, we were not to say anything about Alex’s sexuality, period, at all.

“There’s a lot of press out there praising True Colors for having the first bisexual lead in a Life Is Strange game,” said Mallory Littleton, a narrative designer who worked at Deck Nine on multiple Life Is Strange titles. “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.”

Square Enix declined to comment for this article, but instead pointed IGN to Deck Nine’s response, which we’ve included in full at the end of this article.

Fraught as the relationship with Square Enix was, some people I spoke to at Deck Nine laid the blame for the difficult relationship not at the feet of the publisher, but Deck Nine management. They said that managers at Deck Nine never seemed willing to ask Square Enix for more time or push back on notes the developers disagreed with. How, then, was Square Enix even supposed to know the studio was struggling?

Multiple sources gave the impression in our conversations that Deck Nine’s relationship with Square Enix for Life Is Strange was largely one of convenience rather than any deep appreciation for the series. Square Enix liked that Deck Nine was willing to do the game for a lower budget than other studios, and it had the StoryForge tool, which was made for narrative adventure games. Deck Nine, for its part, needed a good IP to pair with StoryForge. Telltale already had rights to many of the most appealing ones, and other large licenses weren’t willing to work with an untested studio. However, many developers told me Deck Nine management seemed unprepared for dealing with a game with “serious” themes, especially when it comes to thoughtful portrayals of diverse individuals.

Screens – Life is Strange: True Colors

Alongside complaints of low pay, difficulty getting promotions, and the aforementioned crunch, many people I spoke to expressed frustration that management allowed numerous instances of toxic behavior to go unaddressed for months on end. These included a number of specific accounts of sexual harassment, bullying, transphobia, and otherwise toxic work culture that multiple individuals corroborated. In just one example, multiple people remembered a senior programmer who frequently made sexist remarks and crude “jokes” with both racial and sexual overtones. One person recalled him repeatedly harassing a young, female producer, frequently speaking over her, invading her personal space, and blocking her from grabbing items. He also frequently screamed and swore at other junior programmers sitting near him. One anonymous source with insight into leadership decisions recalled management fighting to keep the programmer despite numerous reports, opting to move his team to desks far away from other departments so others couldn’t hear him yelling. He was eventually let go, not long after an incident where sources recalled overhearing him screaming at an HR representative.

Every woman I spoke to for this piece had at least one story of being treated poorly or harassed during her time there, and almost all said they felt they had to fight exceptionally hard to receive raises or promotions. “We’re usually treated as a marketing or PR asset, that’s how higher ups often talked about us,” said Madeleine Tate, a former producer at Deck Nine on Life Is Strange. “Every promotion where a woman got promoted took a team effort, everyone suggesting them, sending emails, both men and women, dozens just trying to get them promoted.”

While Deck Nine’s myriad issues impacted a number of departments and teams at the studio, the narrative team was particularly impacted. Consistently one of the most diverse teams in the studio, those I spoke to within and outside of the narrative team recalled the group dealing with sexism, harassment, bullying, transphobia, microaggressions, alienation, and other toxic behavior from those outside the department. But while these broader issues pervaded the day-to-day of the team’s work, sources say narrative faced internal conflict as well largely centered on its leader: narrative director and eventual Deck Nine CCO Zak Garriss.

Garriss joined Deck Nine in 2016 as the narrative director for Before the Storm. He is said to have quickly endeared himself to Deck Nine’s executives with his charisma, pitching abilities, and rare willingness to successfully disagree with Square Enix. But elsewhere in the studio, Garriss cultivated a different reputation. As Deck Nine began work on True Colors, sources say Garriss began forming close relationships with a number of younger women, often in situations where he had some sort of mentorship or other power over them, including at least one of the women on his team. Multiple women described him as “love bombing” them when they first met, showering them with compliments and convincing them he could get them promotions or raises. Sources say he frequently stayed late at the studio talking to these women – inviting them to lunch, dinner, drinks, movies, or even to his house after work. While in all these situations, sources say he would instigate personal conversations, and would even text some of them after work hours about personal topics.

“He would walk me to my car, I’d open the door, say goodbye, and he’d sort of linger,” Littleton recalled. “We’d keep talking, I’d sit down, and he’d linger again next to the open door. He never made a particularly overt move, it was always subtle enough. It felt like it was maybe always just a vibe that I was getting. I felt stupid, first of all, for ending up in that situation with him in the first place. But because he never clearly made a move, maybe I was just reading too much into the whole thing. It wasn’t until I explained it in great detail to others that someone clued me in.”

I felt stupid, first of all, for ending up in that situation with him in the first place.

Multiple women who experienced this behavior from Garriss described a pervasive feeling of being unable to tell him “no” when he crossed personal boundaries due to his status at the studio. This feeling only increased over time and bled into the workplace, with several of those I spoke to reporting numerous incidents of him lashing out against those who disagreed with him at work. This was especially true of those fighting for more thoughtful, authentic, or sensitive portrayals of diverse characters. Tate, for instance, recalled being formally reprimanded for criticizing Garriss’ seeming reluctance to allow women in his scripts to express anger. Littleton recounted Garriss telling her that he didn’t think representation mattered because “he didn’t necessarily identify with every white man protagonist, and so other people shouldn’t identify with characters because they look the same.”

“At a certain point our job became finding a way to couch feedback in a way that Zak would hear, more than it was coming up with the feedback,” Littleton added.

Others recalled being reprimanded by Garriss for asking questions about the removal of a transgender character from True Colors that took place fairly deep in development. Two anonymous individuals told me that when the Deck Nine social team wanted to post something in support of Black Lives Matter, Garriss pushed back, calling BLM a hate group. In another example, multiple people told me that Garriss fought hard for a twist on True Colors’ final choice that a number of writers pointed out included a problematic portrayal of migrant workers and needed to be changed (it eventually was). And several sources recalled a meeting in which Garriss told those who had pushed back on this decision that they were getting too hung up on “political ideologies” and asked everyone present to go around the room and list their political affiliations.

Many people told me about a scene Garriss wrote for True Colors that the writers felt they had to fight him excessively hard to change. In the final script of True Colors, the main character Alex is taken into the woods by Jed, who she thinks is a friend. He betrays her, shooting her and missing, causing her to fall into an abandoned mine shaft. However, in Garriss’ original version, Jed spikes her drink at a bar and takes her out to the woods for an attempted murder. When they saw this version of the scene, a number of people pushed back, arguing that the scene would unintentionally trigger associations with date rape. Multiple individuals, including a number of women, recalled having to fight extensively with Garriss about this scene before it was eventually changed.

“It took a three hour meeting in the writers room and one of the writers sharing an extremely personal story to get Zak to agree to get the content out,” said Littleton. “It wasn’t about us not wanting to have difficult topics in there, but Life Is Strange shines because that type of content is chosen extremely deliberately and it’s given runway, it’s given space to breathe. This detail is irrelevant to the plot, it would have been traumatic for players, and there was no space to unpack it. We don’t have time to talk about what it means for Alex to be roofied by a man she trusted.”

She added that once Garriss finally agreed to take the detail out, he “went on a long tangent about how the writers need to be creatively brave enough to go to ugly places for the sake of our art.” Another anonymous source recalled Garriss suggesting that this pushback was only occurring because he was making a game about a woman, and that he wouldn’t have to deal with this if he was making a game about Nathan Drake.

“All the stuff people have praised in the queer community [about True Colors] was hard fought for,” Tate said. “[Garriss] had senior, queer people on his writing team that he refused to trust. The theme of the game is empathy, the power is empathy, but he didn’t really have any of his own. He would talk about how he felt so empathetic to people, but he genuinely seemed so repelled by any experience he couldn’t personally identify with…If someone talked about their lived experience as a marginalized individual, his response was always ‘Is that true?’”

All the stuff people have praised in the queer community [about True Colors] was hard fought for.

Tate told me she went to HR repeatedly about Garriss’ behavior during his time there, but was simply encouraged to try and see things from his point of view. Another source, closer to leadership, was aware that Garriss had been instructed by HR to stop taking young women out to dinners; he did not. However, those I spoke to say that as True Colors wore on, Garriss distanced himself from his team of writers. He and another lead would make most of the story decisions, rewriting work from other writers without allowing them the opportunity to give feedback, even on stories centering marginalized characters.

Toward the end of True Colors, Deck Nine implemented a new, anonymous performance evaluation tool. As a result, a number of people told me they finally felt comfortable being honest with management about Garriss’ issues. But management, they say, did not take action. Some time later, Garriss quit voluntarily. But this wasn’t the end. True Colors launched to critical acclaim, and in the wake of its success, Deck Nine was preparing to expand its portfolio. But it was struggling with one story pitch in particular, and Deck Nine’s leadership pitched bringing Garriss back to fix it.

Once news got out, the narrative team erupted. Multiple people begged management not to bring back Garriss in a series of meetings, messages, and emails. One person familiar with leadership at the company recalls HR stepping in, noting that management was actively underpaying a number of workers, especially women, while considering a massive salary for Garriss. HR allegedly suggested that Deck Nine could be legally liable for Garriss’ behavior if they invited him back after the bevy of reports. When the company CEO and CFO persisted in arguing that they needed Garriss, multiple writers handed in resignations. Finally, management relented. Garriss did not return.

At least, not officially. Following his departure, Garriss landed at Telltale Games, which was working at the time on a project in close writing partnership with Deck Nine. Only a few months after his departure, several of those who had protested Garriss’ return were told that a few narrative team members had been holding story breaking sessions at Garriss’ home.

The Expanse: A Telltale Series Screenshots

In a statement to IGN, Telltale Games asserts it was “not aware of any concerns about Zak prior to his hire” and declines to comment on internal Deck Nine issues. It also notes that due to the move to remote and hybrid work during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become “common” for employees to meet at one another’s homes. The company adds:

“We can say that, during his time at Telltale, Zak was one of the most talented, balanced and inclusive game directors we have ever worked with, and that is evident in the games he has delivered.”

In response to a request for comment on this piece, Garriss pushed back on a number of the allegations above. Though he acknowledged having “mentored” many women, he says he also mentored many men, and never directly offered promotion but instead supported the existing promotion process. He says the team at Deck Nine was “very close” and often attended lunches, dinners, drinks, movies, and other engagements together, and that he hosted get-togethers at his home “a small number of times” “with both male and female devs” and that his 73-year-old mother who lives with him was always present. He added that he never engaged in “any aberrant or inappropriate behavior” in texting his coworkers and that “many of the devs in the studios…text often, about all manner of things.”

Garris went on to claim that the narrative team on True Colors was “initially characterized by torpor rather than toxicity” due to “a smaller portion of the group not collaborating well.” He said, “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.” Garriss claims that the work on True Colors prior to his presence on the team was “so poor, the game was under real threat of cancellation when I returned,” and that at a certain point he chose to reduce the “influence” of certain members. He claims that as a result, “Their conduct became unprofessional, more antagonistic, and accusatory toward me of the toxicity that, from the perspective of many people in the studio, was in actuality a result of their behavior.”

Garriss additionally said he does not recall referring to Black Lives Matter as a “hate group,” and says he “made every effort to handle the discussions” around the exclusion of a trans character from True Colors “with kindness and care.” He denies that the rejected story angle in True Colors’ ending regarding migrant workers was a harmful one, and says the team was “divided” on the issue of Alex being drugged by Jed and that he opted to change the point “because of the passion and the earnestness of their case.”

Finally, Garriss alleges that the number of complaints against him in 360 evaluations was “not significant” and that “the majority of the feedback on me personally was positive.” He also reiterates Telltale’s statement that meeting at people’s homes is “quite common” on certain teams given the nature of remote work.

If you are looking for clarity around the views of Deck Nine, look to the content the team created.

He concludes as follows:

“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.”

In the wake of Garriss’ departure, many of those who had worked closely with him told me that they felt optimism about the future of their work. As Littleton put it, the team hoped they could work to build Deck Nine into a “home for people like us.”

“Queer or trans or women of color or just writers of color, folks who are not typically comfortable, able to be at home in the games industry just because of the way that it is,” she continued. “Zak left, we managed to reshape the story into something that we liked and cared about and really, genuinely believe in. I think [the upcoming Life Is Strange game] is a really good game, and we built this incredible, diverse team of writers who are very, very good at their jobs, but on top of that extremely good to one another. It was such a supportive, open, honest place to work.

“And then everything hit the fan, one thing after another.”

Near the end of 2022, as management was fighting to bring back Garriss, someone noticed something odd in the in-development new Life Is Strange game. It was an in-game sign that incorporated the word “Sheeeit” in what seemed to be a reference a . The individual flagged the asset as problematic, and was reassured at the time that it would be changed.

But the meme soon surfaced again. A few months later, another person saw the same scene and noticed a problem with a different asset: the number 88, which is widely used as . This person flagged the issue to their superiors, presuming it was accidental. But as word spread around the studio and more people looked at the scene, even more symbols were found. These included (among potential others) , an apparent – widely used in Nazi Germany to signify devotion to Nazi philosophy – and the same apparent racist meme reference before, albeit shortened to “Sheee.” Developers flagged these to various team leads and managers, and received reassurances that it would be looked into. But weeks turned into months, and the assets remained unchanged. By the end of June, employees had been told an HR investigation was ongoing, but had received no other feedback.

Meanwhile, concerned staff were forced to contend with the notion that a coworker was using Life Is Strange to promote hate speech. Multiple people told me that while they could easily believe someone might accidentally and innocently use the number 88 or 18 without knowing what it meant, the sheer number of racist and Nazi items in that one room made it difficult to believe it was all just a big coincidence.

“I have tried to hold space for the idea that one person made a bunch of extremely unfortunate coincidences,” said Elizabeth Ballou, a former narrative designer at Deck Nine, when I approached her about the content. “It is really hard for me to believe that. Especially because we asked them to remove the sheeit meme, and they kept it on there but smaller. So either this was a case of the worst miscommunication known to mankind…or Occam’s Razor, simplest explanation is that someone was trying to see how many of these things they could get away with before someone noticed.”

I have tried to hold space for the idea that one person made a bunch of extremely unfortunate coincidences. It is really hard for me to believe that.

One anonymous person pointed out that given the particular fanbase Life Is Strange served, having imagery like this seemed like a recipe for certain disaster.

“To put that in this game in particular feels targeted,” they said. “It feels like a way to say, ‘You don’t get to have this either.’…It’s not a little thing. If you meant it as a joke, it doesn’t matter. It reads the same.”

Finally at the end of August, after numerous reports of the hate speech, management finally addressed the assets. In a message posted in Slack, CEO Mark Lyons informed staff that it had removed the symbols and investigated how they came to be there. Lyons claimed that following the investigation, management determined that this was “not an intentional action.”

“Regardless of intent, we will not tolerate any form of hate speech in the games. It doesn’t matter if we accidentally put such symbols in the game, unaware of their meaning, if some segment of our audience perceive them to be espousing hate speech.”

In response, Lyons announced the company would be instituting an anti-hate speech policy, an internal page outlining what such symbols entail, communicating a process for investigating future instances of hate speech, and creating a mandatory annual training course to raise awareness of hate speech with the goal of preventing it from appearing in games.

The message was met with mixed responses, with some employees asking for more information, some expressing gratitude, and others appearing defensive or even mocking. One person suggested that everyone reacting to the original post with the “100” emoji (which typically signifies agreement, as in 100%) should “receive written warnings for their racism,” .

They’re not going to be proactive in looking for these things until we hold their hand to the fire.

Other employees felt deeply uncomfortable with how the whole situation had played out: the length of time and the amount of complaints it took for management to take action, the lack of transparency around the investigation, and the response of some of their coworkers to management’s message. Several individuals I spoke to said they tried to communicate with leadership after the fact to gain more information, but that while management heard their concerns, Lyons in particular just seemed…confused.

“Our CEO seemed taken aback in that he had never considered this, that people might feel unsafe, that someone would intentionally put this stuff in a game,” one person said. “I don’t know what year you’re living in, but people do this kind of stuff all the time.”

Another individual suggested that leadership seemed sheltered and unprepared for the difficult conversations that a series like Life Is Strange prompted. “You’re not going to learn this stuff overnight, but at least show more aptitude toward having these conversations and giving space to people to let them tell you,” they said. “They’re more reactive than proactive. They’re not going to be proactive in looking for these things until we hold their hand to the fire.”

Weeks later, Lyons announced that Deck Nine would be investigating the incident further, saying that Deck Nine was not equipped to do so on its own. Deck Nine claims to have hired Denver-based firm to look into the situation — as of the publication of this piece, no further information has been given to employees about the investigation, what it entailed, or its results. Additionally, current employees say none of Lyons’ promises of anti-hate speech policies, training, or processes have yet been implemented.

While all this was taking place, Deck Nine was being rocked in other ways. In spring 2023, the studio underwent two rounds of job cuts. The first was smaller, impacting a single-digit number of individuals. And in May, Skybound Entertainment canceled a deal with the studio to work on a sequel to Telltale’s The Walking Dead (Skybound declined to comment for this piece). Roughly 30 people across all Deck Nine projects lost their jobs, reducing the studio to around 100 people. Team leads were told to choose who to cut, a move that resulted in Littleton and a fellow narrative lead volunteering to lay themselves off to save two of their coworkers (a third member of narrative was also laid off involuntarily).

With her remaining weeks at the company, Littleton recalls having to “haul ass” and to “write more and write faster than we had the entire project” to ensure the remainder of the Life Is Strange team was set up for success moving forward. “It’s difficult to describe the mental and emotional toll it took to crunch when you know you’ve already been laid off.”

Then, not long after, there was another blow, this time at Telltale Games. Deck Nine had been working on a pre-production script for The Wolf Among Us 2. But Telltale was having its own money issues, and eventually pulled the funding from Deck Nine. , and Deck Nine found itself down two major projects and a lot of necessary funding. In a statement to IGN, Telltale Games says that The Wolf Among Us 2 “remains in production internally at Telltale. We value our relationship with Deck Nine and continue to explore ways we can work together.”

The cancellation of two major projects and multiple rounds of layoffs have not inspired confidence internally. Among those I spoke to, there was a strong perception that Deck Nine leaders were bad dealmakers who were unwilling or unable to advocate for their studio to get resources even when their deals were successful. Just this past February, Deck Nine experienced yet another round of layoffs, with management citing an inability to sign a new project after the loss of both The Wolf Among Us 2 and The Walking Dead. A total of 23 individuals were impacted, leaving Deck Nine at just over half the size it was a few years ago during the height of True Colors. Leadership took pay cuts, but impacted staff only received two weeks of severance pay regardless of time served at the studio.

This leaves those remaining at Deck Nine once again reliant on Life Is Strange. For now, sources says development on the current project is progressing well despite some early struggles. For better or worse, Deck Nine has become the steward of Life Is Strange, and their fates are inextricably linked. In order for the studio to survive, developers say studio leadership needs to rebuild trust, especially from the developers advocating for the diverse and empathetic stories that have been a beloved hallmark of Life Is Strange since its inception.

“I worry that True Colors and Before the Storm are important to the queer community, and I just worry people will think they can’t play these anymore,” Tate said. “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.”

Rebekah Valentine is a senior reporter for IGN. Got a story tip? Send it to [email protected].