Welcome to The Play-By-Play, a column where I’ll be writing about an episodic game series as I play through the season, sharing my thoughts on the storyline, the game, and generally any other things that I’ve picked up on. Today, we’re starting a new journey with Dontnod’s Life Is Strange 2.
Life Is Strange was a big hit for Dontnod when it originally launched back 2015, riding the wave of episodic releases that had been popularised in the wake of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. While the genre had already started to stagnate a little as other copycats began to flood the market, Life Is Strange managed to stand out and carve out a space for itself in the market. People fell in love with Max and Chloe on their journey to uncover the secrets of Arcadia Bay and the mystery of Chloe’s missing friend. I came to Life Is Strange a little later, but I really enjoyed it when I did – I found myself genuinely playing it like a TV series, popping in every week to play through one more episode and progress the story. It has a great atmosphere, interesting story, and some fascinating characters, which all adds up to create a tense yet somehow relaxing experience. I was therefore very excited to play the sequel, Life Is Strange 2.
Life Is Strange 2 is a much more immediate game than its predecessor – while yes, the first game in the series did feature a fatal gun shot and mysterious time-travelling powers in its first episode, it felt somehow meandering. This time around, things feel more focused, more tightly bound to narrative progression. There’s also the feeling that the creators at Dontnod really believe that they have something to say this time around. Life Is Strange, the original, while a great mystery, one that, yes indeed, dealt with some heavy topics, was happy to remain in the realm of fiction. Things are much different this time around.
Our two protagonists this time around are Sean amd Daniel, two Mexican American brothers raised bytheir single dad in Seattle. The atmosphere this time around is politically charged – you can practically feel the air crackle as Sean gets pulled into a fight with his white next door neighbour. Then, when a policeman arrives at the scene, that sense of dread in the air starts to harden into a pit at the base of your throat. The officer’s panicked behaviour, obvious inability to listen to the brothers as they try to explain the situation, it all builds to dad, Esteban, coming out of the house to try to smooth things over. Things don’t smooth over. In fact, they go terribly, terribly wrong. Shots are fired, latent psychic powers are unleashed, police cars are flipped, and then Sean and Daniel are alone, far from their home, on a journey to who-knows-where.
I’ve seen that reaction to Life is Strange 2‘s political leanings has, of course, been divided. Some call it heavy handed and out of place, others praise Dontnod for what they are trying to accomplish here. While it might still be a little early to give a verdict on how successfully the developers manage to carry out their vision, I currently stand firmly in the supportive side of the discussion. Games as an art form have started to delve deeper into philosophical realms as their audiences continue to mature, but there is still an unwillingness in big name development to deal in politics – especially current political issues. As a developer inhabiting the space that we would’ve previously called AA gaming, Dontnod are inarguably bigger than their indie counterparts, the main home of political discussion in gaming, which makes what they’re aiming for even more valuable in many ways. If games truly want to be taken seriously as an art form, they need to start getting comfortable with discomfort. From what I’ve seen so far, Life Is Strange 2 is a good first step in that direction – one I’m looking forward to following further.
Mechanically, this game is very similar to its predecessor so far, although I’m yet to be able to control any psychic powers – something that, judging from this first episode, we might never be able to do in the same way as we did with Max’s time-rewinding powers. As before, you are able to interact with a number of objects in the environment, possibly pick them up, take them with you, and sometimes you can use them to start a discussion with Daniel. It’s a system that works well for this type of game, where character interactions are the focus. You feel the weight of each decision as you make it – you aren’t sure which ones will have long-lasting effects on the story, but you find yourself treading carefully. At one point, I saw a jar of money on the kitchen counter, and was given the option to take some, or to leave it and ask Esteban for the money up front. I found myself doing the latter, trusting in the relationship that I had seen play out so far. My trust was rewarded, and I was able to get a nice sum of money for what was likely set to be fun night out with friends before everything changed.
I’m a big fan of adventure games like this, and I’m happy to report that based on this first episode, Life Is Strange 2 is pushing all the right buttons. I’m eagerly anticipating playing more and finding out where this road leads me (and yes, that is a pun).