Life is Strange 2 repeats the sins of its predecessor – for good and for bad. Sam Brooks reviews.
Video games are, as an artform, not known for their subtlety. If you’re not a gamer, your video game references are likely Mario, Grand Theft Auto, Fortnite, maybe Final Fantasy. These are the technicolour dreamcoats of games, known less for their observation of the human condition and more for jumping on mushrooms, carjacking innocent civilians, and getting your child addicted to the computer. It’s a form that has, historically, lent itself more to constant engagement and dopamine releases than it has to quiet emotional experiences.
All art, in some way, aims to speak truth to human experience, so how do you do that when your chosen form is more interested in shooting up zombies? It’s the struggle of many indie games, and even some bigger blockbuster games: trying to provide gameplay while still being y’know, art. There’s a reason why a depressingly large subsection of gamers have labelled some of these games ‘walking simulators’ and gone back to shooting up ninety-nine strangers for hours on end (not the nicest assumption, but not the most unfair either).
Musings on the nature of art aside, Life is Strange (2015) was a game that tried to marry the subtle emotional dynamics of the average Sundance Film Festival contender with a low-stakes version of a David Cage game. It was the story of Max, a mopey teenager in Seattle, who suddenly finds she can reverse the flow of time. Oh, she also has a vision of a storm destroying her town, and has to find a way to stop it. Also, there’s a murder to solve, and a conspiracy around it. The game, released in five parts, went off the rails towards the end a bit, which you could have guessed, right?
Its main problems were twofold. One, there’s only so much gameplay that can be sustained when you have a low-stakes scenario like… being a teenager in Seattle. There’s only so many scenes of lying around a bedroom with your best friend Chloe that even the most charitable and generous gamer can take before they get bored and move on. There needs to be hooks, and as the five episodes wore on and we got to the twenty hour mark, the Life is Strange hooks got more desperate and more ragged.
The game lost the story it was trying to tell, because it had to be a game. It had to be engaging, and there’s only so much engagement you can get from time-based puzzles and bedroom lying down. And so Life is Strange finished its run with a well-trodden theme – something about the importance of choice and the weight of consequences, which is… not the most groundbreaking focal point for a game that revolves around… choices – and a story that had lost sight of the struggling teenage girl at the centre of it all.
The other problem was the writing. It’s hard to write about an experience you’ve never had, obviously. It’s even harder to write about an experience you have had, but a while ago. Or to simplify it: Writing teenagers is really, really hard and only gets harder the further you get away from your own teenage years. To make matters worse, if you’re not doing it exactly right – even if you’re a little bit off – the entire house of poorly written cards falls down around your ears. Suddenly you’ve got a character with blue hair saying ‘hella cash’ and ‘are you cereal?’
For all fifteen of its hours, Life is Strange was saddled with the very obvious weight of being written by two French adult men trying to capture the life of an American teenage girl. It worked better than you might expect, but the stitches and seams didn’t hold up to much examination.
Despite its flaws, the game had enough success with both critics and audiences to earn itself a prequel and now, a sequel: Life is Strange 2. The title Life is Stranger will remain, unfortunately for us all, unused.
The sequel is more of the same, for better and worse.
The one, fairly vital, point of difference is rather than the mystery-driven plot of the original, Life is Strange 2 focuses on Sean and Daniel, two brothers who are on the run after a simple accident escalates exponentially, leading to the death of their father. It’s a road movie, essentially, which lends itself well to Strange’s episodic structure.
This relationship also manifests in the gameplay. Little actions that you take as Sean will have ripple effects on Daniel’s behaviour. If you tell Daniel a scary story before bed, he’ll have nightmares. If you steal from the gas station, Daniel will believe it’s okay to steal, and steal from a crucial ally later on. It’s a clever way to include player agency, and a lot less heavy-handed than some of the good/bad choices that other games in this vein give you. These feel like real life actions having believable, related real life consequences.
The rest of the game is business as usual. There’s the inexplicable, but clearly metaphorical, supernatural element – your little brother Daniel has devastating, and uncontrollable, telekinetic powers that can level a neighbourhood in an instant. The world-building is solid, the pace is a little bit lackadaisical, and DotNod are ripping out more than a few pages of the Telltale (RIP, give your workers severance pay) playbook. If you were into the original Life is Strange, you’ll find a lot to like here; if you weren’t, there’s little here that will convince you otherwise.
And yes, the writing is still unsubtle. Life is Strange 2 is intent on addressing politics in Trump’s America, and the first episode’s stakes largely come from older, white male characters assuming the worst of our Latinx protagonists. This manifests in two key plot points – the former of which sets Sean and Daniel on the run, and the latter which sees Sean blamed for a convenience store theft and held prisoner.
Unsubtle is not the same as bad, and these moments are bracing and engaging enough to keep us invested in Sean. What remains to be seen is if it’s engaging with these political ideas as a way of genuinely investigating and interrogating them, or if DotNod are just using them as a convenient way to up the stakes in a genre that needs high stakes to maintain player investment. Based on their track record, it could go either way.
Where the game does succeed, and sets itself up as something worth following for the next four episodes, is the relationship between Sean and Daniel. Sean is a believable sixteen year old, largely thanks to Gonzalo Martin’s delicate performance. You feel the tension and fear that underlies each gentle but firm gesture towards his brother – a constant reminder that Sean is the one thing standing between his brother and the cold, cruel world.
Video games are not a subtle art form, and there’s no reason why they have to be. Even as Life is Strange leans towards the plastic bag in American Beauty, the most effective moments in the game are actually when it hits you over the head a bit with a thematic anvil. It’s hard to deny that the image of a cop accidentally shooting a Latino man in 2018 is effective, emotional and immediately galvanising. If the game can continue the chain of moments like this, we’ll have a legitimate winner on our hands. And if DotNod can layer those moments with actual meaning and depth, we’ll have an all-timer.
As Chloe from the first game would say, it’s hella cash.
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