You Should Play <i>Life Is Strange 2</i>

You Should Play Life Is Strange 2

The final episode of Life Is Strange 2, “Wolves,” released on December 3 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. When I try to understand why people did not react with an open outpouring of excitement and glee for Life Is Strange 2 after the success of its predecessor, I think of Marvel movies. Superhero films strike me as an exercise in talking about the war on terror: Standing in for the United States is a human being with extraordinary power struggling to reach a conclusion on when and how to wield it. While some of these movies try to grapple with the politics of their worlds, the later movies don’t even try—they’re political if you squint but ultimately more about, for example, Tony Stark’s wonderful toys than his place in geopolitical conflict. Marvel Movies make unimaginable mountains of money, while Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a disillusioned soldier returning from the war in Iraq to appear at the Super Bowl, dies at the box office.

As far as I can tell, the sequel is the better game, but it’s a bit like staring straight into the slow-exploding supernova that is our political reality.

The first Life Is Strange didn’t make you look at our world directly. Players looked at it through the eyes of Max Caulfield, a precocious teenager who stumbles upon a murder mystery and who also has the ability to turn back time. It went through a greatest hits of teen drama television shows: drug deals, teen suicide, the possibility of a LGBT romance. It was a surprise smash hit, and Life Is Strange 2 was always going to have to live in its shadow, even before it was announced that it would be an unrelated story with different characters. But Life Is Strange was always flawed, especially when it came to the moment to moment writing, which was cringe inducing at best, and its ending, which came down to a single binary choice.

Life Is Strange 2 makes good on all the promises of the first game. Where the dialogue in the first was stilted and awkward, here it feels fully human. Where the first game had two endings, Life Is Strange 2 has seven, all of them deeply influenced by the choices you make throughout all the games, and they all feel like a natural narrative ending for whatever story you’ve been telling. The final episode of Life Is Strange 2 felt like a perfect end cap to my version of this story, to the choices that my versions of the characters made.

In the first Life Is Strange, you were just making choices for Max. In this one, the choices you make not only affect Sean Diaz, the protagonist, but also Daniel, his younger brother who you’re raising. After the death of their father, who was shot by a trigger happy cop, and in the ensuing chaos, Daniel developed telekinetic powers, killing the police officer. Now the Diaz brothers are on the run, trying to make it to their father’s ancestral home of the fictional Mexican town Puerto Lobos.

Illustration for article titled You Should Play iLife Is Strange 2/i

Life Is Strange 2 won’t let you not think about divisive, sometimes scary politics of the world we inhabit. This is a story of two children on the run from the law because they simply don’t trust our country’s justice system to not lock them both up and call it a day. The Diaz’s grandparents own a red hat with white writing whose text I couldn’t quite make out but was familiar enough. One of the crust punks they get to know ran away from home because he was going to be forced into conversion therapy. When Sean and Daniel make it closer to the border they’re waylaid by a couple of vigilantes that take it upon themselves to capture illegal immigrants.

Despite how sobering this story can be, it’s the connection to our world that gives Life Is Strange 2 its enormous heart. Every episode practically pleads with you to care about the kinds of people you’d normally overlook. In the panhandling crust punks, Sean and Daniel find allies and friends, and for Sean, maybe even love. The Arizona commune provides a respite for the weary brothers near the end of their journey, and a chance to meditate on what it means to be free. Had Sean and Daniel stayed put in their Pacific Northwest suburb, they would never have met these people, never created such strong connections with them. If there’s anything that Life Is Strange 2 wants to say, it’s that everyone in the world deserves dignity, happiness and love.

The most important thing that the sequel inherited from its predecessor in its writing is its almost embarrassing earnestness. In some cases, I felt like the characters were all but turning to the screen to say, “racism is bad.” At worst, it’s mildly corny. For the most part, it’s refreshing to see such candidness in an industry where getting the developers of military shooters to admit that their games contain politics is like pulling teeth. Life Is Strange 2 doesn’t offer much of an escape from the world, but that’s why it’s worth playing.

Illustration for article titled You Should Play iLife Is Strange 2/i

By the time I reached the end of Life Is Strange 2’s final episode, I had been on the brink of tears for hours. As I’d later discover, each of the seven endings of the game relies not only on the choices you’ve made as Sean but also on what you’ve taught Daniel. If you try to make a choice that runs counter to the morality you’ve shown Daniel through your words and actions, he can disagree with you and take a different tack. The ending I got is reflective of a Sean that taught Daniel to live within society’s rules, and the fate of the Diaz brothers seems appropriate for that story.

Still, I wonder if my ending would have been more satisfying if I had played more selfishly. There is nothing neat or comforting about the endings of these games, nothing so narratively pat as the end of the first game where Arcadia Bay remains relatively unchanged. This isn’t an allegory—this story asks its players to engage fully not just with the game but with the world it draws from. Life Is Strange 2 won’t provide answers, but the question is worth asking.

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DISCUSSION

I think the reason Life is Strange 2 wasn’t quite as popular is honestly fairly simple. The sequel argument brought up in this article is absolutely part of it. However, I also think it’s an issue of relatability and...well...politics.

In the first game, we played as Max, a relatively shy and quiet nerd who had a lot of difficulties fitting in and standing up for herself. Long before screwing the timeline made things way more complicated, her main issues were basically connecting with an old friend who had changed a lot and...well...growing up, really. After that it was mostly a mystery story with its share of drama and a timeline that was rapidly unravelling and making everything stranger and stranger.

In Life is Strange 2, you’ve got the Diaz brothers Sean (16) and Daniel (9). After their father gets shot in an altercation with a cop, during which it turns out Daniel has powers of some sort, they set out for their father’s hometown in Mexico.

While the fact that you fuck with space and time in the first game can make it very confusing at times, at its base level, the story is probably far more relatable to many people. I imagine more people have felt awkward and unsure of how to connect with people...unless there’s a surprisingly large number of people who had to flee to a different nation when one of their parents got shot.

Granted, that does mean Life is Strange 2 has themes of grief and uncertainty to work with and those are fairly universally relatable, but it doesn’t change the fact that its already put its characters in a position that is much harder to relate to for many people with the setting.

As I mentioned, politics comes into it as well. While you could probably find a few political points in the first game, you’d have to dig a lot deeper than a game in which a Mexican man is shot in front of his children by a police officer.

As commentary goes, that’s not exactly subtle.

While I can’t speak for everyone here, that’s something I only rarely enjoy in games. As the article mentions, these are complicated issues and they are a major part of the game.

I deal with those issues at work, I’ll happily debate them in my social life and I try to do my part to support the causes I believe in. I do not play games to be reminded of these issues.

Well...That’s not to say I never do and there are a few games who deal with similar matters very well. However, those are few and far between and I have to be in the right mindset to enjoy them.

Granted, I’m not unbiased here. I loved the first game and the second one just...sounded far less interesting. When made to choose between ‘Nerd with time travel powers investigates mysteries’ and ‘What sounds like a coming of age drama with telekinetics and political commentary’, odds are I’m gonna choose the first option.

That’s partially because of the reasons mentioned above and partially because I really freaking hate coming of age dramas. They never fail to hit the same notes.

...Also, telekinetics is just a far more boring super power than time travel, but I know that’s a pretty petty gripe.

Life is Strange is hardly perfect and I might give the sequel a shot eventually, but there’s a lot of things about it that have made me perfectly happy to wait for a serious price drop before I’ll buy it to see if I was wrong after all.