Politics ebbs and flows through Life Is Strange 2, whether or not the characters are always aware of it. Unforeseen circumstances upturn the lives of the Diaz brothers, and in typical Life Is Strange fashion, while the supernatural lingers around the edges, it’s ordinary humanity that displays the ugliest sides of this heart-wrenching story. With a narrative that is unashamed to present a mirror to the most uncomfortable realities of the US in 2016, a diverse cast of characters who are fleshed out lovingly and respectfully, and mechanics that reinforce relationships between characters, the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 tells a story that deserves to be heard.
The plot begins a week after the final presidential debate between Trump and Clinton–and before tragedy strikes the Diaz family. You adopt the role of Sean, an artistic, sporty teenager with a tight-knit family supported by his single dad, Esteban. Sean’s life at the beginning of the game is punctuated by his efforts to be a track star, begrudgingly taking care of his nine-year-old brother Daniel, and figuring out whether he should pack condoms for the party he’s attending that evening.
Dontnod continues the pinpoint depiction of the teenage experience that it first displayed in the original Life Is Strange. Occasional unironic uses of words like “emo” and “BFF” rarely dampen the startlingly familiar conversations and texts between the game’s primary characters. The messaging system which appeared previously in the series is back, and it’s a delight to take the time to read each and every one of the dozens of texts in your backlog when the game starts. It informs the relationships between the characters and how they each see their place in the world; Sean’s conversation with his best friend Lyla evolves from entirely believable teenage banter into a grim exchange over watching the final presidential debate, foreshadowing the sociopolitical climate that defines the events to come.
Conversations never occur in a vacuum, devoid of pre-existing relationships between the characters. Whether it’s Sean commentating on how his Dad hates sushi but buys it for them anyway, or Lyla lamenting the price of therapists, Dontnod’s writing makes almost every one of its characters feel like a fully realized person with their own fears, motivations, and intricate web of relationships. It’s this writing, alongside the game’s fierce attention to detail, which supports the strength of its overarching narrative and character development.
Interactions are also more dynamic and free-flowing than before. Changes in the world elicit a reaction from both Sean and those around him, which feels far more realistic and aids in grounding the characters in the world. If Sean switches on his music player he’ll sing along to the cued up track from The Streets, and Lyla will comment on the music playing during their Skype call. Some conversations will even start automatically when you enter the range of a person who has something to say to you.
Small changes to the series’ standard gameplay mechanics and their effects on the story deepen your immersion further. When the journey grows arduous, it’s wonderful that the game lets you join in the boys’ small moments of joy. While the brothers bounce on a motel room bed to Banquet by Bloc Party, the game ties your left mouse button to a camera zoom and mouse motion to bopping the camera up and down so you can jump along with them. The game’s licensed tracks and original score by Syd Matters, who also scored the original, underpin the tone of the game and the internal states of the characters to great effect. There’s a mix of teenage adrenaline, curiosity, and uncertainty in the score during Sean and Daniel’s first foray onto the open road that does a good job of putting you inside Sean’s headspace.
Sean can also observe and draw certain scenes in his sketchbook, an initially charming idea which unfortunately doesn’t work in practice. While the “flick the left joystick about wildly” instruction is somewhat effective with a controller, these sections are almost unplayable with a mouse due to a lack of helpful feedback. There are a few other occasions where the presentation of the game and character reactions don’t quite gel, such as Daniel asking Sean what kind of animals are in the woods after reading a sign that very clearly depicts a bear on it. Fortunately, these moments of disconnect are rare, and more often your interactions with the world are not only sensible but change what unravels later on in the game.
Much like the original game, the decisions you make will impact you and the people around you. This time around, your companion isn’t a pot-smoking, blue-haired rebel, but your little brother, and he is impressionable. At one point you’re given the option to purchase much-needed supplies from a general store. Your choices up to that point will have determined how much money you have and what supplies you already have with you. You can either buy what you can afford or opt to steal, but doing so will change the way your brother perceives you and his actions later in the game. His demeanor and actions will also change based on how you take care of him, how much respect you pay him, and the way you speak to others when he’s in earshot. Scaring Daniel too much in the forest will give him nightmares later, while teaching him to skip rocks and bonding with him over being wolves brings you closer. This adds another layer to the care you put in when making choices.
The most striking and positive difference in Life Is Strange 2 is the diversity of its cast of characters and voice actors and the decision to tell stories from those perspectives. To Sean, who has lived in Seattle all his life, his ethnicity doesn’t define the way he lives. Though, he and Daniel do giggle at a gas station flyer that claims to offer Spanish lessons and occasionally slip into Spanish, particularly when referring to each other. Sean’s voicework, performed by Gonzalo Martin, doubles down on his characterization as a Latino teenager brought up in America. His accent is mostly American but with an occasional Mexican inflection, which is a lovely touch that grounds the character in his ancestry.
It’s Sean’s next-door neighbor that kicks off Sean’s first major confrontation with racism at his doorstep. Esteban explains to Sean early on that “things are scary in this country right now.” Sean’s neighbor tells him to go back to his country, multiple characters say Sean is the reason they need to “build that wall,” and one even threatens to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The tensest moments are heightened further by Martin’s voicework, which shifts dramatically to a desperate, frightened delivery that brought me to tears more than once. It’s wildly uncomfortable and heartbreaking being on the receiving end of confrontations which depict racism and witnessing police brutality.
While going into any more detail would be spoiling the story, Dontnod’s deft and delicate storytelling style lends itself to depicting these important but rarely told perspectives with care, particularly in the face of highly charged and controversial issues. The commentary on a fragile and volatile modern-day America and how it impacts the people within it is a hefty, albeit admirable, undertaking. It will be telling how these issues are handled as the series develops through the episodes ahead. There were also some repercussions to my actions in the first chapter of Life Is Strange 2, but nothing that made me feel as if I couldn’t recover from a bad choice; it remains to be seen what consequences may arise over the four episodes still to come.
As the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 concludes, Sean finds himself driving south, away from Arcadia Bay, the setting of the first game. The references to that town and all that happened within it are few and far between in the sequel, but the excellence in character and worldbuilding remain. Dontnod retains its expertise in depicting a teenager’s unique struggles with their identity, relationships, and the way they fit into their world, while adding new gameplay mechanics that lend a stronger emotional investment to your decision-making. Life Is Strange 2: Episode 1 is a triumphant first chapter, featuring a narrative that fearlessly reflects the lives of two Latino brothers living in our politically-charged climate.