I have something of an odd relationship with Life is Strange. I overall have pretty favourable memories about the first one, which is reflected in my review. I had my niggles, but I thought that the game largely did a lot right with its storytelling. Having said that, I’ve also repeatedly had discussions with Lamios about this and he is unrelentingly enthusiastic about the game. I enjoyed it, but don’t really think it was quite as much of a marvel as he does.
Despite this, I was relatively excited for LiS2, although had some early misgivings generated from the very poor Before the Storm. Before the Storm was a spin-off, by a spin-off studio, this was back to DontNod again and with all the benefits of experience from the original. Naturally, I wanted to do my usual thing of waiting for all episodes of the game to be released before playing it. I’ve been playing these Telltale-esque, episodic, story-driven games for years now. I know how I best enjoy them.
I then put off playing it a bit further because I started to hear negative rumblings. In particular the criticism seemed to point towards the writing (which, y’know, is a fairly central component of a story-based game) and that it was awash with propaganda and politics. The former is bad enough and is enough to kill a game for me on its own, while the latter can be even more inexcusable.
When I eventually sat down to the first episode at the beginning of the year it was with some trepidation and now I can conclusively say… Both complaints are absolutely valid.
Life is Strange 2 is only superficially related to the original in that it is set in the same world and you can even have a brush with characters from it, but on a whole it is a completely separate story. You play as teenager Sean Diaz, through a set of unfortunate circumstances in the early part of the game, you are forced to go on the run from the authorities along with your 10-year-old younger brother Daniel. Your plan is to escape the USA and go to your father’s old hometown of Peurto Lobos in Mexico. Meanwhile Daniel has suddenly developed supernatural powers (in the spirit of the original) and so the game centres around Sean’s struggles to both care for Daniel, to get them to Mexico and also try and guide Daniel in the right direction both as a person and in terms of his powers.
As has become my practice, I will try to create a separate section discussing the politics of the game after the review and also to separate my opinion of the game from the politics. I believe that the best way to approach these things is to view the game as a piece of entertainment first and take politics into account separately, because I think one ought to be able to appreciate a piece of art even if you don’t agree with what it’s trying to say. However, given how blatant it is and how intrinsic it is to the story, I both have to comment on it here and agree with a lot of what the reviews say.
The game is preachy, there’s no two ways about it. As I say, I’ll discuss the actual politics of this at the end, but I think just from a base standpoint, I dislike it when any game is preachy about anything. I say I view games as entertainment/art first, and that is exactly how the creators should be thinking of it too. If your story happens to be political, then that’s fine and dandy, but going out of your way to just make a point first is not. Its impossible to take the story seriously when it just feels like its soapboxing at me, and I hate it when games do that.
The worst part is that its not just limited to taking jabs at Trump and the wall, Evangelical Christians, anti-immigration Americans and guns (I.e. the full spectrum of woes the left complain about in the USA). The worst part is how it affects the story.
Sorry to get into it right here and now, but this is a set of spoilers for the first chapter. As they happen relatively early-on I think this isn’t too bad of a spoiler, but you might still want to avoid it.
Essentially the whole reason for Sean and Daniel’s need for escaping the USA is that Daniel’s powers manifest during a stand-off with a policeman with their father, Esteban. Daniel and Sean get into some trouble with a neighbour (who has to be racist of course) and a cop turns up. Just as Sean is in the process of getting arrested their father comes out of the family home and immediately starts approaching the police officer. Despite repeated warnings (at GUNPOINT) to stop, Esteban keeps approaching the, obviously twitchy and ARMED, police officer. This results in Esteban being shot by the cop and Daniel’s powers manifesting as he kills the cop in retaliation. Sean takes them on the run in order to escape wrongful imprisonment and to protect Daniel from Government investigation into his incredible power.
Now, the issue with this whole scenario is how many contrivances there are. Obviously, the point the writers were trying to make here was about systematic racism in America by the police (which is pretty fucking topical right now). Unfortunately the way they go about it is so ham-handed and forced that at best it just seems contrived writing and at worst could be argued to be against the whole stance they were even trying to take.
It’s one of those situations in which you are supposed to immediately think “cops bad, booo!” but there’s no nuance to it and it also, quite frankly, doesn’t make sense. It feels like the absolute definition of an idiot plot in which when the plot demands it, nobody uses their brain and any problems that could be solved in 30 seconds of talking are never solved that way.
Because the game starts in such an unsatisfactory way, it poisons a lot of the initial hours playing and story. In fact, it continues to poison more or less each episode along the way because of how it used to drive the plot forward. In each chapter there always comes a point where the boys need to be moved on and so, obviously the cops appear. Despite having had time to process the initial shock, they still refuse to go and set the story straight. So they just have to go and run away for a not particularly great reason again.
This is actually a shame because in some ways a lot of the characterisation, particularly of Sean and Daniel, is great. The quality of the voice acting is top-notch, and in fact there are a lot of decent and memorable moments in the story as the game goes on. It also has some excellent decision making where small decisions pile up alongside big ones and overall shape the sort of person Daniel is. Does he lie, use his powers for his own good ostentatiously? Or does he become more moral and more secretive about them? You also meet a lot of other well-written characters with interesting subplots, that at least raise the plot up at a few points.
In fact I’d say that the branching-decisions felt like the best aspect of this game. While 95% of the decisions were very easy for me, which isn’t a great sign, I do like how it seemed like so many small choices could add up to how things ended. It had that ever-vital illusion of choice which is the lifeblood of these games and is also really the only reason I kept playing, because I wanted to see what would happen next.
Its just unfortunate that again and again it feels like the writers felt compelled to make a point rather than tell a story. Another example includes a shopkeeper who immediately assumes Sean is stealing things, because of his race (immediately after the racist cop too) just to hammer that home.
Worse, an incident where you encounter some homeless people with a dog. One guy from the town approaches the homeless people insisting that the dog be put on a leash and gets irate with them when the two refuse (because free spirits maaan). Again, like at the very start, you are clearly supposed to go “boooo white-man making rules!” In reality, I think that anyone not putting their dog on a leash in an area they’re supposed to is just failing at Dog-ownership 101. And failing at being a good person along with that! It’s just… Gah! So, so, so dumb!
While clearly the game is trying to make some “liberal” points here it also sometimes seems to be either have no idea what its trying to say or is taking some very weird stances about things. For example when you meet a guy who knows you are fugitives but encourages you to stay on the road, despite being children, because the road is the way or something… Or when you get taken in with a hippie commune working on an illegal weed farm and the game rages at criminals taking advantage of desperate people to work on the farm, even though the only reason they work there is for “freedom” and to escape the system. I didn’t get it…
Actually come to think of it, there’s a lot of “escaping the system” going on in LiS2. To the point where libertarianism and dislike of Government might even have BEEN the point…? But if so then it’s a fucking mixed message.
In short, story-wise, it’s a fucking mess. It’s too political and preachy, often times events happen only because of massive contrivances and occasionally weird shifts in character. Drama for the sake of plot. Despite some good moments between episodes 3 to 5, where gradually it felt like the game started dialling down the politics (or at least became somewhat more nuanced), overall the writing was just rough. I mean, why the fuck was there a bit in the game where you sit around a campfire and literally share “your most depressing story”. Who the fuck does that? Its just so bloody melodramatic… All of those lows just ruin the occasional high.
It’s an odd thing, but I actually was disappointed there was not more teen drama. Despite my hatred for that kind of thing in the original, I was relatively excited for a party that was getting set-up in the first 15 minutes of the game. And as with so many of these games, I feel like its at its strongest when you are interacting with characters, so it’s bloody stupid that other than you and Daniel, there are no consistent characters between episodes, so no chance to form decent relationships.
I also think that it is a mistake that the supernatural elements were given to Daniel. While they do still have a part in “gameplay” it feels more separated than the time travel aspect did in LiS1, it is not something that you really can do much with. I do feel that the supernatural stuff was handled a little bit better this time around, people were less blasé about it but also it never spent time trying to justify how it happened. Actually as the game went on I even began to understand Sean’s desire to keep it hidden from the Government. It did feel like they failed to wrap up the plot surrounding those elements properly, but for the most part at least I had no complaints there (for once).
The game also did keep the hallmark of the original in that Sean’s internal monologue could be just a tad too cringe for my tastes. It had that same breathless, on the verge of tears, thing that Max’s did in the original, which began to grate on my nerves once more. The voice actor also punctuated all of his lines weirdly.
“He would talk…
And then pause in the middle of sentences…
All the time…”
It was super weird and it got to the point where I was starting to wonder if it was even some kind of sound editing that was responsible for it, rather than how the lines were read.
In terms of positives, there aren’t many. Visually the game is very pretty, just a straight upgrade from the original, and I enjoyed the aesthetic in a lot of places. It’s also not exactly going to win any prizes for that even in spite of it. The soundtrack was also great… If you like that sort of sad, hipster twangy guitar of the first. At the very least it was atmospheric though.
On the whole though, there is no way that the game could ever recover from its abysmal story. Regardless of how well dialogue flowed and how good the branching decisions were this time around, nothing could really save the game from the constant barrage of terrible decisions that have to be made by every character at so many points throughout.
Let’s talk politics
So, there’s two points to today’s political rant.
The first point is on forcing a political opinion into a game. This was an opinion I had to analyse myself to figure out why exactly I dislike it so-much.
I’ve always been a proponent that video games are art. Well, it has been argued that art is inherently political so it should make sense that if a video game is political then that’s just unavoidable. With that in mind it shouldn’t be right to critique a video game for being political, even if you disagree with the points its making.
However, I feel that sometimes its possible to start taking these things just a tad too seriously. Let us not forget that they are called games after all… And nobody wants things to get too serious when trying to have fun.
That’s one side of it. The other argument, that I favour, is that while it shouldn’t be problematic if a game is political. The issue will always be how it shares its politics. If the game is trying to make a point through its story then that’s fine, the problem comes when it forces the story to make a point even when it seemingly doesn’t make sense (like it does here).
In essence, the story should come first, NOT the politics.
The second point is more specifically on the actual content of the politics of the game, specifically the shooting of Esteban at the very start.
Now, I’m going to try and be careful here to avoid a lynching given how topical and sensitive this issue is currently.
I think that regardless of which side of the debate you stand on here, DontNod’s portrayal of the systematic racism in the USA police is terrible and possibly even detrimental.
The whole point of the absolutely disgusting killing of unarmed black men over the past few years is that they did nothing to deserve their treatment and murder. But here in Life is Strange 2 you have Esteban ignoring police warnings, approaching an armed officer (despite repeated commands) during a tense and possibly hostile environment. In short, this is a manuscript in “how to get shot by the police in the USA”.
I don’t live in the States, but if a cop pointed a gun at me and told me to stand still, you’d best believe I’m not moving a muscle.
You could argue that this is part of the problem, that the point here is poor training, police attitudes or even an anti-gun message. However, I think its very clear that its trying to draw a connection with the game and unjust killings.
Except here in the game Esteban’s killing is unjust, but he also essentially instigates it. Callous as it may be, Esteban’s death was his own fault…
Now, this is a big part of why I was so annoyed by the game, but I think that this is actually terrible politics as well. Essentially it could be taken to be implying that those killed by the police were at fault as well and in my mind if I were someone preaching this cause on Facebook, I would be saying that this game makes a mockery of the victims by suggesting that they could have behaved differently and not been killed.
How’s that for politics…