Life is Strange 2 is a game about familial bonds, power dynamics, adulthood, and an intolerant, hypocritical America.
The first Life is Strange was excellent, but I’ve been putting off getting stuck into the second because of the wait between episodes. Now they’re all out, I’ve binged my way through it and I’ve come to a conclusion: there isn’t a single game released this year that’s more relevant or thematically important as this. There will be spoilers ahead.
Trauma can be transformative. Whenever humans inflict violence upon each other, it can change a person’s life: their inner lives, their outer lives, and how they are perceived. Victims of trauma – physical and psychological – can be mentally scarred for life, and even the perpetrators of such violence don’t come out clean.
You start Life is Strange 2 as Sean Diaz, a 16-year-old kid whose only worry is whether or not a girl is into him. He lives with his dad, Estaban, and his brother, Daniel. Your very first quest is to gather some party produce – getting cash from your dad, rifling through your drawers for a weed pipe, and stuffing snacks and drinks into your backpack. Once you’re all set for the big night, you call your best friend on Skype. Then there’s a noise outside – Daniel is being confronted by your asshole neighbour.
If you read through the letters in Sean’s house before this kicks off, you can find a complaint from your neighbour’s dad. He wants Esteban to create a barrier – a fence, but really a wall – between the two properties. It’s a metaphor for the prejudices of modern America, where anyone of Mexican descent is considered an outsider to the modern bigot, fuelled by promises of a bigger barrier at the border by a hateful president.
Daniel’s encounter with the neighbour turns physical and Sean steps in, throwing a punch and knocking the neighbour to the floor. His head hits a rock just as a police officer turns up. Esteban runs out to defuse the situation and is shot dead by the cop, reflecting modern America in a narrative gut punch.
The trauma of the shooting manifests within Daniel as a telekinetic power, surging out of him until it topples the patrol car, kills the cop, and sends every inanimate object in the street careening. Those party supplies you gathered up earlier are now your survival kit as you and your brother become fugitives on the run. Man makes plans, God laughs.
Eventually the brothers decide that they’re heading to their father’s homeland across the Mexican border in a long, perilous road trip all the way from their home in Seattle. Along the way you meet people who will help you, people who are indifferent, and people who hate you because of the colour of your skin. Some folks make assumptions about you when you’re a pair of child vagrants of Mexican descent.
There are lots of games about parental responsibility, but Life is Strange 2 is built around choice and that makes its interpretation more powerful. If you didn’t manage to secure enough money before your life is turned around, you might be tempted to steal to keep Daniel fed. If you go down that path, perhaps Daniel will think it’s OK to steal. If you hurt people and lie, you might see those traits reflected in his personality too. Children are like sponges, soaking up the lessons they’re taught by whatever role model they have – in this case a teenage big brother who’s doing his best.
Where most games give you the superpowers and allow you to wreak havoc with no consequence, here your ‘super’ power is maturity and, in your brother’s eyes, the ability to know right from wrong – even when right and wrong are constantly moving targets. Daniel has the powers, but it’s your responsibility to suppress them and only deploy them if you’re backed into a corner. It’s an affecting portrayal of how one bit of bad luck can spiral into chaos, snowballing as desperation forces you to make bad choices, with those choices rippling out to an impressionable young mind.
The season is structured in a clever way, too. When you reach Episode 3, a lot of time has passed since the events in Seattle. Daniel and Sean have settled with a group of teenage nomads who live in the woods, working on a pot farm for some local gangsters. It’s not the kind of life a nine-year-old should be living and it’s taken a toll on his personality. He begins to rebel against Sean’s authority, but Daniel’s temper tantrums can be devastating. It’s here that Sean learns that he needs to be careful about how he displays his authority over Daniel – he needs to treat him more like a peer.
In Episode 4, you’re reminded once again that he’s actually an impressionable young boy, not a peer at all. Here you’re forced to think back to every seemingly innocuous decision you made. Perhaps you told him his pet dog that died is in heaven with your dad. Maybe you prayed together with your grandmother. Now Daniel has been indoctrinated by a Christian cult and he’s being manipulated by an insidious religious leader. Those small decisions you made helped to open him up to such manipulation and you’re reminded, once again, that your decisions are moulding this susceptible sprog.
It’s a game that’s not afraid of showing the darker side of America, from religion to immigration and even the impact of different drug laws across state boundaries. It’s an experience we need, holding up a broken mirror to our world and our place in it, reflecting how our choices now shape our planet for future generations. It’s about being dealt a shit hand and trying to prove everyone wrong, even at your own expense. It’s about sacrifice and brotherly bonds. It’s about us, humans, no matter where our parents are from.
Video games are full of stark, memorable imagery, but I can’t think of anything that has come close to the Diaz brothers standing at the Mexican border, the border blown apart by young Daniel’s power. Some say we’re all a product of our environments, living our lives based on whatever luck the universe bestowed on us at birth. Life is Strange 2 makes a strong case for this, because this game could only exist here and now, in this world of political turmoil and needless hate, where kindness exists in the places you don’t always expect.