With the Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit just released and Life is Strange 2 looming on the horizon, I thought it would be prudent of me to talk about Life is Strange itself, what makes my hopes for the sequel so high but more importantly, what makes it unique among modern adventure games from the developers like Quantic Dreams.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, but hopefully I can impart on you some of my excitement for the upcoming game. Let’s get emotional together.
The two stories of Life is Strange.
Before I go into the specifics of the game’s mechanics it’s important to understand that Life is Strange is a story-based adventure game, everything serves the goal of impacting the player with a heartfelt, very whimsical, character-driven story. So naturally, before I go anywhere else, I need to talk about that. It’s also important to understand Life is Strange before I can show you how the Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit connects it with Life is Strange 2.
Life is Strange is a coming of age story in the most pure and innocent form–our main protagonist, Maxine, is a girl from Arcadia Bay, Oregon, she’s a quiet, sort of a nerdy girl who really loves photography. She has a hot photography teacher at her college, her own share of friends and bullies. Ultimately the set-up for the story is so reliant on tropes and clichés it would be painful if it wasn’t all just so genuine, through well-written characters and great attention to the most mundane details of college life.
One day, Max discovers that she has a secret power though–she can rewind time and travel through it, as long as she has a visual representation of it in the form of a photograph. With this power she manages to save a fellow student who turns out to be her childhood friend—Chloe. The two bond, re-acquire their childhood friendship, explore a budding romance and generally do what normal young adult lesbians would do.
And then it gets dark.
But that’s not the good part. The story quickly takes an unexpected turn when Chloe and Max begin to investigate the disappearance of Chloe’s friend Amber. An investigation that, without spoiling too much the story turns into a psychological horror, where Max has to escape and stop a psychopath serial killer.
And all of that is happening to the backdrop of a sudden hurricane threatening to destroy Arcadia Bay. While Max goes into the past time and time again she ultimately realizes that the tornado is her own doing as you can probably guess, through sort of a butterfly effect, and she can’t keep distorting the timeline like that and the only way to stop that is go back to her very first decision and let Chloe get shot.
It seamlessly turns from a cute story about two young girls in love into a Lynchian horror where characters get hurt and killed in the backdrop of supernatural forces they cannot possibly comprehend. They try to do the right thing but only end up screwing up even worse, in the end they are at the whim of cosmic forces. They are a leaf blowing in the raging hurricane.
That exact tonal shift is what we want to see in Life is Strange 2. It may seem jarring but it’s incredibly effective. And we can see the seeds of that in the DLC, more about which I’ll tell you a bit later. And while the punch of it being sudden and unexpected may be gone I would argue that if done right, such a tonal shift can be just as effective a second time. Maybe you can predict it and be gratified with your pattern-recognition skill.
What makes it tick.
Now these two stories, are fundamentally at odds. The crux of any coming of age story is the personal journey of a hero who needs to come to terms between their needs and wants. They need to reconcile their own desires with the desires of people living around them, and having expectations towards them. That is the story of Max choosing never to use her powers and not saving Chloe, in a coming of age story she sacrifices her friend, her lover potentially, to save everyone in Arcadia Bay.
But in a horror story about cosmic forces that’s not the right call. In that story, Max throws caution to the wind and saves Chloe, her decision is the most important here, against the raging hurricane and in spite of the amount of the collateral damage it causes. In that story the protagonist realizes that these supernatural forces are uncaring. A hurricane could blow again any day, if she has the power to save one person, that’s good enough for her. And after screwing up so badly going back “one last time” cannot possibly be a good idea.
Savescumming as a game mechanics.
The thing that allows these two terribly contradictory stories to exist in the same place is the core mechanic of the game—the ability to rewind pretty much each decision you’ve just made. And for a game in the Telltale style this is odd. The very point of a game like this is predicated upon branching story-paths and forcing you to stay with your decision.
But Life is Strange doesn’t do that. Instead it’s making a critique of the concept itself. It blatantly shows the illusion for what it is, that ultimately it comes down to your personal choice, as a player, to decide which of the myriad stories presented you like the most. When in the final scene it presents you with two options, to save the town or to save Chloe, it asks you to erase the entirety of one of the storylines. Do you grow up into an adult, or do you become a protagonist of a horror story? It’s your choice.
Life is Strange lays itself naked and bare before the player. It is honest and sincere to the bones while being incredibly emotionally charged. It escapes the confines of its own story to provide a worthwhile commentary on the nature of storytelling in video games itself.
A shared universe of stories.
So how do we transition from there? How do we go from a complete story of Max and Chloe into Life is Strange 2? Well the answer comes in the form of the Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. It’s a, let’s call it, “free DLC” available to everyone who owns Life is Strange. It’s a short story about Chris, a young boy living only with his dad.
The game uses his comic book obsession to tell a story about a kid who lost his mom, has a shaky relationship with his dad, doesn’t have any friends because they just moved and is just trying to have some semblance of control over his life. Through some clever camera the game implies that Chris, like Max, has some special powers of his own, but I don’t want to spoil too much about that.
The point is that it offers a comprehensive look into what we can expect from LiS 2, that being a story about being at a crossroads, indecision and desperately trying to gain control over the events in one’s life only to find that such power is always dangerous. That perhaps for the sake of everyone involved… It’s better that you don’t have magical powers. That maybe your suffering at the whims of the uncaring universe is the price that needs to be paid for everybody else’s life. Or maybe not, maybe you don’t care actually. Nobody is going to force you to grow up.
The Awesome Adventures or Captain Awesome is meant to be a bridging DLC, while we don’t know who’s gonna be the protagonist of LiS 2 (it almost certainly will not be Chloe), it sets up the characters and events that will be crucial to the plot of that game. Moreover it contains some… Interesting Easter Eggs as it well should. I encourage you to try it, it’s free after all, see for yourself what you can dig up.
Get ready to be emotionally ruined.
While it’s undisputable that Life is Strange worked so good specifically because it was so novel when it comes to the mechanical and meta-narrative approach, Dontnod Entertainment has shown that it can pull off a very heartfelt story as well as a tense drama steeped in investigative mystery.
Wherever they go from here, Life is Strange 2 is sure to be emotionally impactful and hopefully it can be as clever with its mechanics, as sincere with its plot and as crazy with its meta-narrative as Life is Strange 1.