Today, Dontnod Entertainment finally dropped the official reveal trailer for Life Is Strange 2 – the long-awaited sequel to the breakout 2015 adventure game.
The trailer itself was much longer than the brief tease fans were given a month ago, finally introducing the game’s new protagonists. Replacing Life is Strange’s beloved Max Caulfield in the central role are deuteragonists Sean and Daniel Diaz, two brothers, who, after being caught in what Dontnod’s blog post describes as a “tragic event”, make the decision to uproot their lives in Seattle to seek peace and safety across the southern border in Mexico.
The blog post itself was fairly innocuous, attempting to convey as much detail about Sean and Daniel’s journey without spoiling the slightest of plot elements. Describing their journey as one that would test the “bonds of their brotherhood”, Dontnod’s language regarding the narrative very much evoked shades of Telltale’s current season of The Walking Dead, specifically regarding “…the need to guide and educate your younger brother while also coming of age yourself.” They also committed to the existence of a new power, only vaguely shown within the trailer itself, but refused to commit to explaining what the power was or what effect it would have on the gameplay. All in all, it sounds like another Life is Strange: strong character dynamics grounded in a narrative-driven adventure game.
Whereas the blog post only alluded to a “tragic event”, however, the trailer very much spells it out for the viewer – and the moment I saw it, I was overcome with an ever-consuming sense of dread:
At some point at the start of Life is Strange 2, an incident goes horribly wrong, and Sean accidentally ends up killing a police officer.
Immediately, this lends a sense of political urgency to Life is Strange 2’s narrative, and the depth of Dontnod’s ambitions becomes readily apparent. We have no indication as to what circumstances lead to the police officer’s death, but my worst fears tell me that it’ll probably end up being a result of some form of racial profiling. Combining that with a quest to immigrate across the border leads me to infer that Life is Strange 2’s attempt to reckon with some of the most divisive issues of America’s current political landscape.
Here’s the thing: while I have faith in Dontnod to craft compelling characters that one can relate to and empathize with, I don’t necessarily have faith in them to articulate “deeper” themes with a manner that anyone could reasonably consider to be deft or tactful.
Life is Strange’s greatest strengths came from its treatment of character development: Max and Chloe were two of the most likable protagonists to grace a new IP in recent years, and the supporting characters that surrounded them were multi-layered, even if they could occasionally verge into the realm of stereotype when the plot demanded it. Where Life is Strange struggled, however, was in the execution of said plot, and in the delivery of its central themes.
The critical narrative surrounding Life is Strange has retroactively grown more positive in the years since its release, but back when the game launched, it was met with equal parts praise and skepticism. The praise stemmed largely from the game’s inclusive nature and its willingness to tackle complex issues such as domestic abuse and mental illness. However, there was plenty of criticism over the heavy-handed manner in which it addressed these issues. For example, this was a game that ended its second episode by gamifying a character’s suicide attempt: the player’s ability to talk Max’s classmate Kate off a ledge ended up coming down only to the strategic use of pieces of information garnered throughout the course of the episode.
It was also a game that attempted to tackle the subject of abuse of power in institutions through the lens of a murder mystery – in which the game’s central villain essentially announces that he’s the murderer from what was practically his very first line.
That villain would later go on to be carefully developed as one of the few decent teachers – and decent human beings - at Blackwell Academy, only to have him turn into a mustache-twirling archetypical villain the moment that his true intentions were revealed, stripping all nuance from his characterization in the name of rambling diatribes about how his crimes resulted in the preservation of innocence through “art”.
And Life is Strange also seemed to abandon most of its themes at the very end in the name of concluding a stereotypical time travel plotline, with the arc of Max and Chloe’s relationship coming down to a binary choice of whether or not to sacrifice Chloe or the town of Arcadia Bay. If one sacrifices Chloe, they get a touching montage of the girl’s funeral set to an indie soundtrack strategically designed to make you cry. If one sacrifices the town, they drive off into the sunset, seemingly unaffected by the colossal loss of life. What do either of these endings tell us about their dynamic? Nothing new. They love each other– that’s about it.
When considering the original Life is Strange’s tendency to wield plot and narrative like a blunt instrument, I become scared for what form Life is Strange 2 could take. It would be easy for Dontnod’s depiction of racist power structures in America to boil down into a series of clumsy stereotypes – especially when coming from a studio based primarily in France.
However, if I have any degree of hope regarding Life is Strange 2’s ability to juggle its many themes, it comes from the game’s prequel, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. That free-to-play single-episode experience, released back in June, was one of Dontnod’s finest releases to date, following a boy named Chris and his attempts at escapism whilst living with an abusive father. Captain Spirit handled its subject matter with an appropriate degree of nuance, allowing Chris’ father, Charles, to exist as more than just a caricature: the same man who lovingly cooked Chris breakfast and swore to take him to buy a Christmas Tree is also the man who leaves bruises on his son’s arm and blames the boy for his wife’s death in a fit of rage. He isn’t just a monster; Captain Spirit is able to humanize Charles without condoning his actions, holding his actions in contempt while also placing them in context.
If Life is Strange 2 can apply that same level of narrative precision to the larger issues it seems to be tackling, I’ll eat my words. However, pursuing a single theme through the context of a single relationship within the span of a single episode is one thing; consistently sustaining the pursuit of multiple themes throughout a narrative spanning multiple episodes is another. My hope is that Dontnod is aware that this project, thematically, is unlike anything they’ve ever attempted before, and that they’ve leaned on consultants familiar with various cultures and fields of study to help better articulate the game’s message.
I say all of this as someone who loved Life is Strange despite its many glaring flaws, and as someone who can’t wait to see where Dontnod takes it from here. Hopefully they’re playing to their strengths – character development and relationship-building – and compensating for their weaknesses.