As much as I loved it, I never want to touch the original Life Is Strange again – or maybe I’m just afraid to. For myself at least, Dontnod Entertainment achieved something that’s rare and difficult to do in a video game: crafted a journey that genuinely felt like my own, where the choices I made were mine. It’s the reason I didn’t touch its prequel, Before the Storm: for me, the story was over.
The ‘interactive drama’ already existed with the Quantic Dream games and post-The Walking Dead Telltale Games releases – the format that Life Is Strange is built on – but Life Is Strange did two things that helped it stand out from the crowd.
First off is the writing, the obvious trait an ‘interactive drama’ lives or dies on (aside from Quantic Dream’s, arguably). Life Is Strange relies on teen stereotypes and although it doesn’t capture the ‘modern teen’ perfectly, there’s a refreshing maturity in its approach that gives the game and its characters unexpected dimension. It takes some time to sink in, for the characters to take root, for the sincerity and heart to break through the surface of its initially awkward dialogue, to stop noticing the word ‘hella’ as much – though once it does, the game flourishes.
Life Is Strange is a game about relationships, loneliness, expression, and all those larger and smaller moments that make up life, and it comes together into such a strong, cohesive title. Even if you can have quibbles with the plot or anything else (it’s been a while so I forget the specific criticisms), it’s still an extremely well-realized game that focuses on the emotional character drama and really delivers.
The time travelling, though. At some point during the first episode, I realised that it’s by far the smartest and most impressive aspect of Life Is Strange, especially when it comes to the young adult genre. It’s a mechanic that iterates on Telltale’s distinct episodic format and improves on it in a totally integrated, contextualized way. Although time travel is arguably just a version of a visual novel’s save system, Life Is Strange gives it new dimension and pushes this ability right to the forefront as both a central theme and mechanic.
By giving you almost total power over the central mechanic of this genre – choice – Life Is Strange gives your decisions incredible weight. With the ability to reverse time if you change your mind and take a different course of action, your choices become far more explicit. It even amplifies the impact of the smaller decisions that snowball into larger conflicts, subtly highlighting your own inattentiveness to those smaller moments you know you had control over.
With this ability, there’s no excuse. You can freely see the realities laid out ahead of you and there’s no middle ground. You can’t say “Oh, I didn’t know that was going to happen” (which is always a cop-out even when it’s true); you have to decide and take ownership. If you don’t like the (immediate) outcome, you can just go check out the other option – but you’ll have to choose one or the other. It’s genius.
Meanwhile, dropped out of nowhere towards the end of June as a demo of the full sequel, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a remarkable little slice-of-Life Is Strange (sorry) that shows off the original title’s more earnest, heartfelt core while also making a powerful contrast.
Captain Spirit follows 9-year-old Chris and his quest around his small snow-bound home as the superhero Captain Spirit, a story that begins somewhere quietly sombre and gradually unravels into heartbreak. It’s very different from the original game – the shift from a teenager to a young child is enough in itself – but it keeps a few hallmarks.
The younger perspective keeps the sense of powerlessness and vulnerability that’s a central point of the young adult genre and even highlights this through Chris’s superhero obsession, while his home (the game’s single location) becomes a story in itself. The home and its snowy surroundings unpack the details and nuances of the broken family carefully over the course of the game, as Chris builds his “super suit” to become Captain Spirit. While environmental storytelling obviously isn’t new in gaming, the small home showcases a new level of detail – things to read or notice – that was rarely present in the original Life Is Strange. Thinking of Life Is Strange 2, this could be an interesting upgrade.
The lack of a straight-forward path is worth noting, too. Captain Spirit has a more open feel to it, giving you the freedom to tackle each objective – each part of your costume – in whichever order you want. Where Life Is Strange was rarely demanding and usually let you dawdle and explore freely (especially when you can just jump back in time anyway), Captain Spirit is a slightly different and new approach that gives the player a more natural role in the world and its story.
Like Life Is Strange, Captain Spirit can sometimes lack subtlety but not impact. Where Life Is Strange gave players frustrating, sometimes harrowing power and choice as a teen, Captain Spirit is about a young boy whose dream for superpowers is a simple solution to a set of far-too-real problems. It’s a story of loneliness, grief and unrealized desperation.
As a demo for the full-fledged Life Is Strange 2, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit feels like an earnest appeal from the developer itself that Life Is Strange wasn’t a ‘fluke’ whose quality can’t be recaptured in a sequel. It shows that Dontnod isn’t going the easy route and instead moving in new directions that can be just as affecting as its last effort, uncovering and approaching new topics and stories with the same impact as the original. Maybe even more so.
From what we’ve seen so far, Life Is Strange 2 is going my favourite route that a sequel can go: experimental, brave and different, and we’ll get into that when we review its first episode, which is set to release on September 27. For now, let’s get our expectations unfairly, uncomfortably high and remember to join us back here for reviews of each episode – they’ll be hella sick (sorry).