The first season of Life Is Strange leaned on melodrama to give some stakes to its story of a time-traveling queer girl and a potentially destructive tornado. This season’s first episode also leans into schlock, but this time, the story is about racism in America. Sometimes, that melodrama made me groan. When it works, though, it really works.
Near the beginning of the game, the character you play as, Sean Diaz, talks to his dad about getting older, and his dad makes an offhand reference to how “things are kinda scary out there in this country right now.” Soon afterward, you find out exactly what he was referring to. When Sean gets in a fight with his neighbor Brett, Brett yells, “Go back to your own country.” The Diazes are Mexican, Brett is white, and the game takes place in 2016. When I first got to this sequence, I groaned. There are people who are racist in that way, by yelling explicitly racist things at people of other races, but in my life, my experience of racism is more subtle.
Later in the game, other characters express racism in more subtle ways that rang more true to me, such as in a scene when Sean and his younger brother Daniel are on the run and stop at a gas station where they get a cold reception. There isn’t an explicit antagonist in Life Is Strange 2, like there was in the first game, in which the main characters were trying to solve a murder. There’s just an air of unease. In my first go around at this episode, I was trying to put a finger on what made me so uncomfortable as I played it. I realized on my second playthrough that the actual antagonist, the force that the players are running from, is the constant spectre of racially motivated violence.
The plot is kicked off by that kind of violent incident. Sean gets into a fight with Brett, and in the course of it, Brett falls and lands on a rock, injuring himself badly. A cop who was passing by leaves his car and takes out his gun. Sean’s dad, who came out to diffuse the situation, ends up getting shot by the cop. He had his hands up and he was unarmed.
For a split second, I thought to myself, Well, that would never happen. Then I remembered the murder of Tamir Rice, a twelve year old boy playing with an airsoft rifle on a playground. The police shot him dead. I remembered Trayvon Martin, a seventeen year old walking home from the store with candy and a drink, who was killed by George Zimmerman. It does happen. People do look at brown and black bodies, especially brown and black men, and just assume that violence is necessary.
The murder of Sean’s father is shocking, but the later sequence in the gas station more clearly illustrates the fear of random interactions escalating into violence. This is the first time Sean and Daniel have interacted with other people since they’ve been on the run, and once you start talking to people, you realize how uneasy they are around you. You’re in rural Washington, and you’re two Mexican kids without a guardian. When you go into the store and speak to the woman at the register, she says to you, “You don’t look like you’re from around here.”
Sean and Daniel have lived in Washington state for their entire lives. Their father grew up in Mexico, but his two kids are as American as they can possibly be. But their otherness is ever present. In that gas station, they are the only two people of color. It reminded me of what it was like to drive to college with my dad. We’d always stop once in rural Pennsylvania, grab gas, food and go to the bathroom. Every time I went to a Burger King in some anonymous town, I would realize quickly how out of place we looked, a black man and his daughter in a sea of white people. Like Sean, I tried to make myself as small and unnoticeable as possible, not wanting to incite uncomfortable questioning.
New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples wrote in his 1986 essay for Harper’s Bazaar, “Black Men and Public Space,” about the time when he understood out that his mere presence on the street made white women afraid. “It was in the echo of that terrified woman’s footfalls that I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I’d come into—the ability to alter public space in ugly ways,” he wrote. “Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny. It also made it clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto. That first encounter, and those that followed, signified that a vast, unnerving gulf lay between nighttime pedestrians—particularly women—and me.”
Later in the essay, Staples describes a self-conscious impulse to change the way he presented himself so as to dispel the fear he elicited just by being a black man in the world. “I move about with care, particularly late in the evening,” he wrote. “And on late-evening constitutionals I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers. … Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.”
Part of these conscious tension-reducing measures come from the fear that your presence as a racial other in a public space will eventually mean that violence is enacted on you. Staples also recounts a story of another black journalist going to the scene of a murder to investigate and then being mistaken for the killer. The journalist was hauled to a police car at gunpoint and was almost arrested until he presented his press credentials. In Life Is Strange 2, that violence is not just an unfounded fear. It happens to you.
Later, when Sean and Daniel are eating lunch on a picnic bench, a man comes up to them and accuses them of stealing. You have an option to run, start a fight, or try to talk to him. All three options will have the same result; this man will always mark you as fugitives and will tie you to a pipe in his office. Both times I played, I opted to talk to him, trying to diffuse the situation. I didn’t want to justify the violence I knew was coming by starting a fight, didn’t want to look guilty by running. So, I made Sean do the closest option to whistling Vivaldi. I knew it was futile, but that is the delicate dance you have to play when you’re in a strange place and people look at you a little too long. How can I show them that I, too, am a person? How do I stop the fear of my black body from turning into violence enacted upon it?
Being a person of color means always being aware of your otherness. You’re aware of it when you walk through a room, by the way that people eye you, cross the street to get away from you, follow you around a convenience store to make sure you aren’t stealing. It’s also impossible to ignore in Life Is Strange 2, in part because they lay it on thick. Occasional corniness aside, that’s just how I perceive my own reality. It might feel hackneyed to some players, and at times it is. But other times, Life Is Strange 2 rings uncomfortably true.