Life Is Strange surprised a lot of people. On the surface, it looked like a Telltale game with a more modern engine: a game of walking around, talking to people, and looking at environmental details. But its story - involving time travel, sexual exploitation, teenage friendship, and the end of the world - not only provided mystery and thrills, but reduced many (myself included) to tears. It wore its heart on its sleeve, and though a little dorky and clunky at times, it was a truly captivating and original game.
Life Is Strange 2 isn’t a sequel to the first game, but another instalment in an anthology, taking place in the same Twilight Zoney universe. Both games are episodic, story-driven games centred on young people in an increasingly-weird America. Both meld their supernatural elements to character - Max Caulfield’s time travel ability reflects her desire to fix the past, and here, telekinesis is linked to raw emotional pain. The first episode “Roads,” takes a slow approach to introducing its story - but it's every bit as hooky as its predecessor.
In this Life Is Strange, you play Sean Diaz, a high-schooler living just outside Seattle with his brother Daniel and their dad Esteban. He skates, he runs track, he’s got ambitions as an artist, he worries about romance and parties and getting caught smoking. Aside from day-to-day issues, all’s pretty quiet in his life. But when his dad gets shot by a police officer and his neighbourhood is hit by a strange, unexplainable force, his life gets flip turned upside down.
After the inciting incident, we cut forward to Sean and Daniel on the run, scavenging, stealing, and begging for whatever food they can get. The structure takes after road movies, and appears as though it will continue to do so. Sometimes they’re forced to sleep under rocky riverside overhangs. Sometimes a kindly stranger takes pity. And all of the time, Sean is accompanied by Daniel.
Gamers complain about escort missions a lot, but I’d contend that escort missions - where the player must protect or transport another character - are not an ill in and of themselves. Rather, most games just don’t make us care about the digital companions we’re forced to babysit. Life Is Strange 2, on the other hand, makes establishing that emotional core its primary mission. Much like the teenage girl friendship in its predecessor, the interplay between Sean and Daniel is the meat of the game, and Dontnod has gone to great lengths to flesh out their relationship. Daniel bugs Sean to play with him; they share moments of camaraderie, humour, and reminiscence; nearly every choice you make must factor in Sean’s newfound role as a surrogate parent. And that role only becomes more difficult as Daniel begins to exhibit strange abilities.
Once again, Dontnod utterly nails its details. Every scene is packed with art direction (with a slightly softer look to that of the first game) that establishes a sense of place and who occupies it. Sean and Daniel bond over Lord of the Rings, Minecraft, and The Last Of Us. As you play, the in-game menu populates Sean’s phone and sketchbook with yet more narrative material - some of which you’re active in generating. And just like the first season, Life Is Strange 2 uses pop music to create astonishingly effective emotional moments. I never thought Bloc Party would make me cry, but well...let's just say context is important. When the relevant scene comes up, you'll want Sean and Daniel to dance forever - and you'll be crushed when you inevitably have to stop them.
The first Life Is Strange dealt with Americana like Twin Peaks: examining it from an exterior perspective, infusing it with the supernatural, flipping it over to reveal its dark side. But even in the few years since that game, the meaning of “Americana” has changed a lot. Life is Strange 2 does not shy away from the current state of the nation - in fact, it embraces it, using the country’s racial and political divisions to inform something in nearly every scene. The story is set at Halloween 2016, with everyone talking about the shitshow that is the leadup to the election. It kicks off with an act of racially-tinged police violence. One character tells Sean to “go back to [his] own country," talks about building "that wall," and threatens to call ICE on the two young fugitives. Trump isn't mentioned by name, but his shadow hangs over the game's story and characters in a powerful way.
And in case you're one of those gamers who hates games getting political, I can only quote one of this game's characters, delivering the harsh lesson that “everything is political.” Given the back-and-forth in gaming discourse, it feels like a developer talking directly to their audience about the video-game artform.
Life Is Strange 2 isn’t as, well, strange as its predecessor. Its supernatural elements feel cribbed from Carrie or Looper, rather than the 2015 game’s more original awe-inspiring prophesying. But its character work is just as intimate: by the end of “Roads,” you’ll understand exactly who the characters were and are, and you’ll be invested in what they’ll eventually become. There’s pain here, and joy, and everything in between - all communicated with Dontnod’s beautiful, open-hearted storytelling. Bring on the rest of the series.