Video games are often described within the context of escapism, immersing players in wondrous worlds and putting them at the center of epic quests. From that angle, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is relatively mundane; it’s set in a plain house on a regular Saturday morning, and stars a typical kid obsessed with superheroes, robots, and dinosaurs. Even so, the concept of taking refuge in fantasy is the compelling core of this sad and powerful story, which is partially about the places we escape to, but even more about the situations we escape from.
It may not have “Life is Strange” in the title, but The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a new (and free) tale in that universe from series creator Dontnod Entertainment. Players control Chris, a 10-year-old boy who lives alone with his dad. Chris’ mom was killed a few years ago, his dad is an alcoholic, and life in their house is not easy. The situation is painful, but it also paves the way for the game’s best narrative flourish: As a reprieve from his unpleasant reality, Chris often retreats to a fantasy world in which he becomes the heroic Captain Spirit.
You spend most of your time doing chores in the house and yard. The gameplay consists mainly of walking around and examining highlighted objects, but Chris’ wild imagination transforms these interactions into comic-book scenarios that capture an authentic sense of playfulness. Through the eyes of Captain Spirit, a beat-up truck is a spaceship waiting for take-off. A box of mementos is a secret treasure to protect. A water heater is a sinister foe lurking in the dark. These vignettes are creative and interesting, whether they are accompanied by visual transformations, sci-fi sound effects, or simple dialogue. I always looked forward to seeing how the spectacle of these scenes contrasted with Chris’ normal actions in reality.
At the same time, these interludes are also bittersweet, because you can’t separate them from their sad circumstances. Chris’ dad spends the morning drinking whiskey in front of the TV, leaving Chris to tidy up the filthy house, do laundry, and wash dishes. Left with these lonely tasks, it’s no surprise that Chris turns to a superhero alter-ego to make his life more exciting. Sometimes, you even get the option to super-charge your basic interactions, like “irradiating” the mac and cheese you’re microwaving, or turning on a TV with your mind (and a remote control). All of these retreats into imaginary exploits remind me of a less grotesque Pan’s Labyrinth (or a darker Calvin & Hobbes), and are portrayed in a way that feel genuine.
The insidious nature of the dad’s drinking problem is also handled deftly. Alcoholic parents are often shown as screaming and slovenly monsters, but here the menace is more complicated. In one scene, Chris’ dad worriedly asks if anyone has noticed the bruises on Chris’ arm. But minutes later, the two characters are playfully shooting Nerf darts and pretending to be monsters. These interactions are complex and uncomfortable; you see the world from Chris’ perspective, and it emphasizes how difficult it is for children to process bad situations – especially involving the people they love.
Though the general scenario and storytelling prove captivating, the segments that lean into more traditional adventure game mechanics are the weakest. Aligning two images to make a map, or finding a PIN to unlock a phone isn’t fun, and does more to pull you out of the world than draw you in.
Normally, games like this depend on satisfying narrative arcs to keep players engaged, but not this one. Instead of feeling like the first chapter in a multi-part story, The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is more like a snapshot. It only takes a couple hours to finish, and depicts a routine day in the life of Chris and his dad. It has explicit connections to the upcoming Life is Strange 2 that have me excited, but The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit also stands alone as a clever and heartbreaking look at a kid who deserves better.