A reminder of what Life is Strange is really about.
Life is Strange 2 features none of the characters or settings of its predecessor. Its new hero, a 17-year-old Mexican-American boy named Sean Diaz, does not have a decision-reversing time-travel ability like Max Caulfield. But the moment an acoustic guitar begins delicately strumming over the sun-kissed title screen, it is unmistakable what you are playing. This may be an unfamiliar story among fresh faces and unknown locales, but in every other way this is Life is Strange.
This four-hour episode — the first of five — introduces us to a bigger, more complex story than was told by either the original Life is Strange or its prequel Before the Storm. That coming-of-age story concerns the fraught relationship of a pair of high school girls against a backdrop of an impending natural disaster — but its action is confined to the classrooms and bedrooms of small-town Arcadia Bay, Oregon. Life is Strange 2 is in every way a more elaborate affair: its action sprawls out from Seattle to the woods of Oregon and still farther afield, giving it the feel of a road movie in game form. It aspires to realize nothing less than an unsparingly critical portrait of the United States in the era of Donald Trump.
That Life is Strange 2 should grapple with the political so overtly is admirable, but Paris-based developer Dontnod Entertainment’s execution tends to be a bit broad. Washington’s rural xenophobes — who spit bile at our foreign-born protagonists and grouse about “building that wall” — feel almost cartoonishly bigoted. Their acts of violence, often racially motivated, feel sensationalized, and lack much of the nuance and sensitivity of which we know the studio is capable based on its previous work. Once on the road, Sean and Daniel encounter a friendly left-wing podcaster who warns them that “everything is political.” Perhaps. But here some subtlety would have been appropriate.
While Life is Strange 2 doesn’t always reach its lofty goal of illustrating realistically the most insidious aspects of modern-day America, it does succeed when its ambitions are less grandiose. As in previous games, it makes time for small details and moments of candid repose; it invites you to proceed slowly, to linger in environments and soak up the mood. What resonates are not the sweeping condemnations of American prejudice but modest, fleeting glimpses of life at its most banal.
Sean and Daniel have a home life that feels exceptionally lived-in and true.
These glimpses are thankfully plentiful. Early on, Sean and Daniel have a home life that feels exceptionally lived-in and true, rich in familiar color (snacks in the cupboard, drawings and photographs all over the walls) and plausible small-scale hopes and dreams. Two simple conversations shared with the boys’ father before they depart are vivid, realistic, and wonderfully performed and written — they skirt every father-son cliche and strike right at the heart of a real relationship. It’s an indispensable product of Dontnod’s tendency to relish opportunities, however minor, to flesh out life in all possible detail.
Life is Strange 2, above all, is a story of brotherhood and fraternity, and even in its early stages Sean and Daniel’s relationship is enormously touching. On the road, Sean is encouraged to not simply look out for or protect Daniel, but help raise him. That responsibility manifests in ways both obvious – don’t spook the kid with ghost stories before you camp out in the middle of the woods at night — and more opaque. You’re broke and hungry and desperate. Is it worth a crucial dollar to offer him a glimmer of hope in the form of a chocolate bar or a toy?
How your actions as Sean will affect the behaviour of Daniel over time won’t be clear until later episodes; for now, it seems clear enough that your own moral righteousness or turpitude will be Daniel’s to variously adopt or mimic – little brother see, little brother do. Start stealing loaves of bread from gas stations and you’ll soon have your own budding Jean Valjean, and I strongly suspect imitations will grow more extreme in the following instalments. There is a superpower in Life is Strange 2 — so far only hinted at — that makes Daniel’s developing sense of morality especially critical.
I hope whatever power Daniel learns to wield does not become too much the focus in episodes to come.
I hope whatever power Daniel learns to wield does not become too much the focus in episodes to come, because the present game — shorn of the kind of high-concept wizardry that made Life is Strange the first a science-fiction drama with big ideas about time — is at its most satisfying at its quietest. Trying to survive alone in the woods is certainly suspenseful, and the decisions often forced upon you throughout episode one have gravity and weight. But the moments in between the life-and-death stuff is what makes Life is Strange 2 a delightful experience.
Sometimes, as in its predecessors, you’re permitted to just sit down on a bench or on a rock and luxuriate in wherever you are for a few minutes. The music swells; the camera cuts between different angles, and the action is briefly suspended without momentum. The brothers make smalltalk in the shared private language of video game references and jargon from movies and TV. A puppy you adopt in the middle of the episode sometimes rests soundlessly at your feet. One surprising interlude involving a spontaneous dance and an old Bloc Party song is one of the most touching and beautiful things I’ve ever experienced in a video game. It’s in such moments you understand that Life is Strange isn’t about time travel or the end of the world. It’s about real world relationships — it’s about that delicate acoustic guitar.