DontNod scored something of a cult hit with its time-bending sojourn into teen angst, Life Is Strange, back in 2015. While its story stumbled a bit over its five episodes and its dialogue was frequently clunkingly bad, the game captured the essence of what it felt like (and probably still feels) to be a teenager better than most other games of this generation.
Players took on the role of a teenage girl with very teenage problems including troubled mates, school bullies, overbearing authority figures and absent parents. There was a plot involving a missing girl that served a thread to pull the player along and some rather nifty mechanics (time travel, important choices), but really this game was all about putting players in the headspace of an adolescent trying to navigate the space that tons of kids are faced with every day.
Going on that, Life Is Strange 2 takes that core experience and mixes in politics and the realities faced by racial minorities in the USA.
The story centres on a kid of Hispanic descent called Sean Diaz who lives in Seattle and right out of the gate, Life Is Strange 2 hits beats that with anyone acquainted with the first game will recognise. As was the case with Max Caulfield (the protagonist from Life Is Strange), Sean is an awkward teen who’s hardly popular at school, boasting achingly hip taste in music and artistic aspirations. His angst is somewhat compounded by his crush on a girl at school – whom his best friend Lyla teases him mercilessly about -and the fact that he lives next door to the local bully. Players also spend an inordinate amount of time looking at things – and hearing Sean’s inner monologue comment on them – and they’ll run into dialogue choices that they’re informed will have an impact on events later down the line.
So far so familiar, but it soon becomes clear that Life Is Strange 2 is moving in a very different direction to its predecessor. The episode’s first act takes time to establish the emotional and social minutiae of Sean’s life – he has a part-time job, a precocious younger brother named Daniel and dad who genuinely loves him – before bringing the hammer down hard, smashing this serene set up into tiny pieces. It confounds player expectations and is likely to leave one with a raw hollow ache in the pit of their stomach. The fact that it plays on one of today’s most ardent socio-political fears – both here and in the USA – adds extra weight to the gut-punch.
The only downside to the episode’s strong opening is the slow burn pacing of what follows it. Without giving too much away, Sean and Daniel go on the run and land up in the forests of the Pacific North West. This section of the game lays out their rather desperate situation – they basically have no food and they’re on their own – and the fact that Sean is keeping the truth of their situation from Daniel. This is played out with the pair finding a place to camp, gathering firewood and Sean humouring his brother who wants to play games. While it goes some way to providing some levity, there are no puzzles to solve or much for the player to engage with and the pacing is positively glacial.
Thankfully, once Sean and Daniel out of the woods (literally rather than metaphorically), gears shift again and it’s here DontNod start to address not just the plight of their young protagonists, but also the socio-political climate they find themselves.
While politically speaking Seattle is a blue city, the surrounding areas are red, and it’s not too long before the Diaz brothers find themselves running up against prejudices that run the gamut from snide condescension to racial profiling to outright racism; “you’re the reason we need to build that wall!” one character growls at Sean after battering both him and his brother. Life Is Strange 2 isn’t afraid to push buttons; some players may feel it’s quite heavy-handed while others will inevitably fill with righteous ire. Players from the ‘keep-politics-out-of-my-games’ brigade needn’t apply.
But politics don’t take centre-stage, by any means. Rather they’re just a reality the boys have to deal with. The focus – at least in this episode – is on the relationship between Sean and Daniel. Once again, without wandering into spoiler territory, an unspoken truth exists between the brothers throughout the episode and as events progress, it grows into a gulf of tension that builds to a white hot boil. When it finally blows, the payoff rivals the events in the first act and it’s likely to leave most feeling drained by the time the credits roll.
Last Updated: February 15, 2019