Life is Strange 2

If Life is Strange was DONTNOD successfully experimenting with a new narrative form, then Life is Strange 2 is a veteran team showing off its remarkable capacity for ludic storytelling. The sequel is simultaneously bigger and smaller than its predecessor, and the careful balance shown in knowing where to expand and where to contract ensures the game is meaningful, impactful, and emotionally charged. Life is Strange 2 seems to have been overlooked in the discourse about games across 2019, but this story of Sean and Daniel Diaz is one that deserves to be remembered when thinking about exactly what games can achieve.

Life is Strange 2 is a ludonarrative triumph because it corrects its predecessor’s mistakes and leans on the lessons provided by hundreds of years of storytelling media, rather than just looking at other games. What then are some of the key traits that make the title so powerful?

Side characters

The importance of side stories within the Diaz brothers’ journey across America is not to be overlooked. Indeed, DONTNOD’s first foray into the story highlighted this trait. Life is Strange 2 properly began months before the first episode, shortly after E3 2018 when DONTNOD and Square Enix launched for free The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, a standalone episode that would tie into the later series.

The episode follows a young boy’s play one morning, as he imagines himself as a superhero. While Chris Eriksen/Captain Spirit encounters the Diaz brothers and participates memorably in their journey, he is demoted from protagonist to secondary character, appearing in person only in Life is Strange 2’s second episode. In this new role, Chris acts as a foil for Daniel, allowing the younger Diaz to come out of shell and show a side of his personality that does not appear in his interactions with Sean.

Chris’s role in the game is indicative of how DONTNOD explores the characterisation of Sean and Daniel. In addition to new situations, every episode offers new characters for the pair to bounce off, from Sean’s childhood friend Lyla to members of a hippie commune. Importantly, the writing team is dedicated to ensuring that almost every cast member appears as a fleshed-out person, so the interactions feel real. This approach contrasts with that in the first Life is Strange, where the focus remained firmly upon the relationship between Max and Chloe. Of course, the journey narrative is well suited to a rotating cast (as exampled in classic tales such as The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, as well as contemporary works including Lord of the Rings), and Life is Strange 2 extends its use of the technique repeatedly calling back to characters left behind and sometimes foreshadowing those yet to appear. As a totality, the number of people that the game successfully balances is impressive, but more impressive still is the multifaceted view they provide of Sean and Daniel. The angsty back-and-forth of brothers struggling to get along could have been a trial of attrition for the player, but those tiring battles are broken up by broader musings on human existence, which allows the brothers’ relationship to develop all the more convincingly.

Mundanity and montage

One factor that contributes immensely to both the immersion within and relatability of Life is Strange 2 is the attention paid to the everyday. Many (if not most) games centre on the extraordinary. Such is the nature of an interactive medium wherein the player must feel involved. As such, developers tell stories about soldiers, warriors, fantastic or futuristic lands—anything that facilitates an ability to easily enact (usually violent or highly physical) verbs. According to Professor Sebastian Domsch, the resulting tendency towards repetition devalues the meaningfulness of actions, particularly those that involve killing or harming, rendering them mundane. However, mundanity appears in Life is Strange 2 is the truest sense of the word.

The Diaz brothers walk, talk, look at things, go shopping, play, and much more. The pair engages in the same ordinary activities that everyone must. Of course, these activities are gamified to an extent, but reasonably so through logical skill tests and the application of justified moral choices. In fact, the way that players are asked to think about their actions actually increases the significance of what is occurring in any given moment. In particular, the prominence of mundane experiences within the game juxtaposes against the inclusion of supernatural elements to ground the game in reality, whereas the first Life is Strange struggled by linking Max’s powers and their usage to the unseasonal tornado that threatened Arcadia Bay.

However, for all the benefits that the inclusion of the mundane has for relatable storytelling, it is boring. Imagine having to perform every step of the journey from Seattle to Mexico; the game would be an unmitigated disaster. Enter montage, a continuity editing technique borrowed from film that allows the filmmaker to show the passage of time or a series of events without heavy exposition or other lengthy scenes. Although montage has been used in films for almost a century, it appears far less commonly in games. As a result, players must often participate in lengthy walking sessions or other tedious activities that add little (if anything) of value to the overall experience. In contrast, Life is Strange 2 is in love with the technique, deploying it in every episode to show that the journey always continues without boring the player.

Audience surrogacy

Another way that this sequel differs from its predecessor is by shifting the frame ever so slightly. Games (including Life is Strange) often have players acting as the extraordinary individual: Lara Croft, Kratos, Master Chief, Samus Aran, and the list just goes on. However, many stories in other media ease the reader or viewer in by showing events from the perspective of a (relatively) normal person. The companions in Doctor Who, Marlow from Heart of Darkness, and Harry Potter are prime examples. In Life is Strange 2, the player character is Sean, but his younger brother, Daniel, is the one with the telekinetic powers. Sean’s role is to come to terms with Daniel’s ability and to guide and protect him as the pair travels southward.

As a result, access to Daniel’s power is contextual. This avoids an issue from the first game, where Max’s time manipulation was sometimes arbitrarily locked away because scenes had to play out in a certain way. Importantly, the absence of constant access increases the gravity of the game, as it enforces a sense of responsibility. Control may have been recognised for its strong narrative in 2019, but players are free to spend endless hours in mindless destruction, blasting apart the décor of the Oldest House without consequence or reason. The freedom to do so contrasts against and detracts from Jesse Faden’s quest in a way that the on-rails nature of the narrative adventure does not brook. Narrative takes precedence at all times in Life is Strange 2.

Moreover, the decision to focus on Sean rather than Daniel further increases the human drama. Forced to take responsibility for his younger brother, Sean has to grow up quickly—from a self-absorbed teen to a father figure. Furthermore, the technique adds dynamism to the story. Tornado aside, Max was usually in control of her power and therefore the situation. In contrast, Daniel is his own person, prone to reactions that cannot always be prevented by Sean, which means that the story does not rely as heavily on the unrealistic drama that threatened to unbalance the first series.

Dynamic characterisation

So far, this article has explored the ways that DONTNOD has deployed the lessons of precursor media forms, but Life is Strange 2 also incorporates a narrative technique that (at the present time) is only possible in video games: dynamic characterisation. Much has been made of how AI advancements create ‘living, breathing worlds’ by giving NPCs routines or responsiveness to player actions, as in Bethesda’s Radiant AI or Monolith’s Nemesis System. The system in Life is Strange 2 is not as all-encompassing as those efforts, but it is tailored instead to delivering a logical narrative.

The system is built into Daniel, who derives his moral compass from his older brother’s actions. In some instances, the learning process involved are apparent, but the game also makes smaller actions matter as well. With knowledge of the algorithm, players can game it to determine how Daniel reacts, but it otherwise ticks away in the background making many of Daniel’s action feel entirely justified by the context. The continued deployment of binary outcomes is disappointing, but every innovation needs a starting point. Now that the system has been tested, it could be improved and expanded upon in future projects. Moreover, the technical realities of game development must be taken into consideration, and the processes involved in writing and coding for a suite of outcomes and reactions that account for a wider array of moral possibilities is impossible without significant improvements in automation.

Everything is political

The final trait to be discussed at this point is one that is contentious in gaming circles. During the first episode of Life is Strange 2, a character says to Sean that “everything is political,” and that sets the agenda for the game. The journey invites players to muse upon some of the most pressing concerns affecting contemporary society, including immigration, discrimination, sexuality, family, and religion. Moreover, the development team shows the courage to take a stance in support of progressiveness, thus distancing itself from the hedge-betting hemming and hawing of Ubisoft and Activision. The approach has been criticised by bigoted outlets, but this boldness is one of the reasons why the game’s story resonates so powerfully.

Life is Strange 2 Episode 5

The political juxtaposes with the personal throughout the game, and the player has to manoeuvre through the racism that the brothers experience. At the heart of the story is the question of what being a good person entails, and that comes to the fore through Daniel’s development. The exploration of such significant ideas is the central point of art, and the strongest stories are always those that bother to engage their reader, viewer, or player on the human level—those that invite thought about issues bigger than those faced in workaday lives. Life is Strange 2 taps into that tradition when most games do not even try. The title is more than just another blustery, excessive power fantasy, and the combination of story and storytelling makes it one of the most important and powerful video games to release in 2019.


Next week’s chapter will dive deeper into ideas of the mundane in video games, so be sure to come back.

Damien Lawardorn
Damien Lawardorn is an aspiring novelist, journalist, and essayist. His goal in writing is to inspire readers to engage and think, rather than simply consume and enjoy. With broad interests ranging from literature and video games to fringe science and social movements, his work tends to touch on the unexpected. Damien is the former Editor-in-Chief of OnlySP. More of his work can be found at https://open.abc.net.au/people/21767

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16 Comments

  1. I loved LiS and Before the Storm, but I’m sorry to say, I found LiS-2 to be absolutely wretched and I could not uninstall it fast enough after Chapter 5. The strength of the original series was spending the entire game in the same location and really getting know the characters well. The side characters of LiS-2 stay with you for at most 2 episodes, and in comparison completely lack in personality, reduced to cringe worthy tropes, like that Swedish hippie couple. I will not remember any of these characters, at least not for positive reasons.

    The writing has taken a turn for worse as well. The internal logic of the plot is absolutely dumb. Just one example is the overarching plan to escape to Mexico, which is something I called in question as a strange and terrible idea right away, but the characters actually only pose this question of ‘what actually awaits us in Mexico’ at the very end of Ch.5 while driving towards the border. I know they’re kids and all, but surely they would have thought of that earlier? And it’s the younger brother who brings it up!

    I am not one of those who stupidly shout to keep politics out of my entertainment. Disco Elysium is one of my favorite games and it is extremely political, hell, my character bought into communism when I played it. But the politics of Disco Elysium do not hit you smack on the nose with a sledgehammer. LiS-2 tackles serious issues incredibly ham-fisted. Chapter 5 is especially strange and mixes very contradictory messages, because on the one side the game places so much emphasis on familial blood ties of the brothers, and on the other side, characters who abandon their families to seek the Road to Self-Discovery are lauded as examples – and I do not mean Karen, but rather the other characters of Away, most of whom have escaped responsibilities of their earlier life by hiding in a hippie commune. That’s… praiseworthy? I can’t cope with my situation so I’m just going to run away? Perhaps if the game was actually socially responsible, it would place more emphasis on receiving proper mental help and support in such situations, instead of running away to hippie camps.

    1. Before getting into anything, I just want to make it clear that story =/= storytelling. They’re related things, but one is what’s being told and the other is how it’s being told; you’re criticisms target the former while my praise (primarily) targets the latter.

      In some ways, I totally agree with you, though I have a better impression of the story than you do. I think the biggest thing is that it’s different from the first game. DONTNOD really shook things up, but the whole journey did seem a bit like a solution looking for a problem, and the problem it settled on was a pretty glaring issue. I do think, though, that Sean’s reaction wasn’t entirely unjustified. Fear of persecution and trauma can lead to bad decisions, and then you can quite easily settle on following through with those without really thinking about the long-term consequences. That said, there definitely should have been more discussion of they whys and wherefores early on, particularly with the grandparents who should have been wise enough to say definitively “hey, this is a bloody terrible idea.” So, yeah, I don’t mean to imply that the story is flawless because it ain’t. That said, I still think the premise hangs together better than ‘here’s a tornado that’s going to destroy the town because some random girl has the ability to rewind time and if she doesn’t use that power the town is safe.’

      As for politics, I’m happy to agree to disagree. 😋 Subtlety is great, but in this medium where so many creators want to just wash their hands of responsibility for the content or claim to be apolitical solely because they’re maintaining the status quo, I want more sledgehammers. Can’t really disagree about the mixed messaging of Away though, and I say that as a big supporter of the idea of escaping from society (if only I had the means…)

      1. Upon further thought, I concede that I actually have nothing against a sledgehammer approach, provided it is wielded skillfully, which I don’t think it is. For example, I’ve seen praise that this game examines racism. But it really doesn’t, though. It just introduces us to some people who are incredibly racist, some beat our protagonist up, some we can take vengeance upon. But it doesn’t actually go deeper into examining the roots of this racism.

        It is an undeniable fact that many Mexican immigrants, illegal or not, are taking away jobs from American citizens, simply because they are willing to work for much less. It’s a similar situation to what I witnessed about 15 years ago, when an invasion of Eastern Europeans migrated to the UK and completely uprooted the job market here. To this day, many Brits have a deep dislike for Polish, Romanians, and other fellow white people, rooted largely in economical factors. Isn’t it worth examining how much this factor plays into the tensions of the border states?

        Also, how about examining the responsibility of the ‘job creators’, those who are willing to pay these meager salaries, 3-4 times below living wage, benefiting from all this human misery and deepening it. The insane wealth inequality plaguing the US is directly contributing and worsening any racism issues that may already be present. At least LiS-1 provided some commentary on class warfare through the Prescotts and their poisonous influence on Arcadia Bay. LiS-2 doesn’t even touch the issue that is at the root of almost every other societal ill. We just run into some horrible people, and that’s it. What does it really teach or examine? Regrettably, the handling of these issues in LiS-2 is simply too shallow for my tastes.

        1. Again, I agree. It’s the same issue I had with The Sinking City’s disclaimer about its representation of racism. It shows characters being racist but doesn’t really explore the underlying factors to any great degree.
          I’m from Australia and the debate is different here because we have mandated minimum wages nationwide, so people can’t be hired on the basis that they are willing to accept lower wages. The racism here is predicated on fears of terrorism and Victorian-era beliefs of white superiority. I think it’s important to start somewhere, but a deeper consideration of where the issues come from and how they can be resolved would be nice to see more often. Too bad almost all of what we see is just ‘here’s our tokenistic representation of racism/sexism/whateverism’

          1. I had not heard of LiS before today and I’m intrigued to check out both now. Thanks for the interesting discussion on LiS2 and that you didn’t (I hope at least) do too many spoilers.

          2. Happy I could bring it to your attention! I tried to keep spoilers to an absolute minimum, so I apologise if I did let anything slip through. 😬
            Enjoy the series! All three entries (definitely don’t sleep on Before the Storm) are amazing, IMO.

          3. No worries mate and Happy New Year

  2. Progressivism will be the downfall and destruction of western society. And supporting it isn’t courageous, it’s the most cowardly thing you could do; bowing down before the progressive overlords for fear of being othered from society and lauded as an evil racist Nazi for committing the grand crime of having a different opinion and thinking that maybe there are better ways to run things than the progressive mob claims.

    1. Wow, very insightful and not hyperbolic at all! Downfall and destruction of western society… yeah, you’ve got it figured out, dude, I’m sure a bunch of blue-haired activists on Twitter are the real threat and have the power to cause downfall of society.

      You provide a compelling example how the powers that be have skillfully managed to sow division between real people on the ground. Instead of fighting the corporations that have undermined and usurped our very basic democratic principles, we choose to fight one another over transgender bathrooms, or whatever else is the outrage topic of the week. Good job, humanity, keep being dense.

    2. Because trying to ensure that everyone has the same rights, freedoms, and opportunities is so dangerous to the established order, right?

      1. That would be fine and dandy if that’s what progressives were actually doing. The only person doing any of that right now is Donald Trump and the Republicans that support him. The idea that the left are the ones fighting for the people is a convenient lie told by power hungry politicians who want to take your freedoms away.

        I fully support equal rights, equal freedoms, and equal opportunity, however, the modern day left wants none of those things, the modern day right does.

        1. So… actively preventing immigration based on the rhetoric that Mexicans are rapists and murderers, the at-scale separation of children from their parents, the failure to do anything about systemic racism within the police force (admittedly a problem for all sides), refusing to enshrine women the right of body autonomy are all about equal rights and equal opportunity? In Australia, refusing asylum seekers adequate medical care, rejecting outright without debate the idea of a constitutionally enshrined Voice to parliament so that Indigenous Australians can have a say on issues affecting them, and trying to force through a bill that allows religious people to discriminate against everyone else because of their beliefs is ensuring equal rights and opportunities?

          1. No one (who is worth paying attention to) is against immigration, only illegal immigration. Now obviously not all Mexicans are rapists and murderers, and in fact no one (again, worth listening to) claims them to be, but think about how you would feel if an illegal immigrant who shouldn’t have been there in the first place raped and murdered one of your family members or friends, regardless of whether or not he’s in the minority of Mexicans doing that. When it comes to children, if their parents didn’t bring them along on their law-breaking escapade into the country there would be no issue. We also have to consider the child’s safety and whether or not they were kidnapped for the purpose of getting the kidnapper across the border.

            Systemic racism no longer exists in current times (Article: https://www.dailywire.com/news/7-statistics-show-systemic-racism-doesnt-exist-aaron-bandler ) (Study: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290437363_The_Reverse_Racism_Effect_Are_Cops_More_Hesitant_to_Shoot_Black_Than_White_Suspects ). Pretty much every situation is more complicated than “evil racist police officer shoots man for literally no reason other than their skin color”. As for the right to murder a child (I’m assuming you’re referring to abortion, apologies and please correct me if I’m wrong) that is their own, entirely independent person, that should never be allowed in any civilized society, in my opinion.

            Now I don’t know much about Australian politics and my opinions are primarily US based, so I won’t comment on stuff I don’t know about. My opinion of the left and right is also in reference to the US so I can’t speak to the Australian right or left. Your right wing very well could have some bad ideas, I wouldn’t know. When it comes to the US left, though, I don’t find much to agree on with them, and generally find myself agreeing with the right on almost all issues.

            We clearly disagree and I doubt either of us will convince the other so I’m fine just agreeing to disagree, though I’m open to elaborating on my positions if you want to hone in on, and discuss, anything specific.

            Politics aside, however, I would like to say I did enjoy the rest of the article and appreciated reading thoughts from someone else who enjoyed the game. Lots of people on the Life is Strange reddit seem to have disliked the game, albeit that was 2 months ago and the reddit’s gotten better since Episode 5 came out, so it’s nice to see that there’s people out there who also found it to be an enjoyable experience.

          2. I definitely don’t think we’ll agree because our differences seem pretty fundamental, but I’m very glad that you took the time to respond in such a reasonable and thought out manner. Too often the debate is grounded in divisiveness and shout-down tactics in an attempt to silence the opposition (on both sides, to be sure).

            I really appreciate the response, and thank you so much for engaging!

  3. Steam has chapter 1 free of Live is Strange 1, the previous game. I’m planning on buying both LiS1 and 2 this week.

  4. I loved the writing of this game, liked the characters, enjoyed the Daniel mechanic, was wowed by the visuals and LOVED the politics. None of that saved it from being, for myself, a very often boring slog that only manged to move me to tears (twice) in the fifth and final episode (in season one I cried at *least* once per installment). It is that final payoff that has at LAST justified the effort. Often and throughout my play-through it felt like a chore simply to overcome my inertia and hit “start” whenever I returned to the Wolf Brothers’ cross-country trek. Player mileage may vary but for me it was truly the destination that counted, not the journey. Despite its accomplishments and polish I can’t imagine revisiting this game again. Comparatively, I can be found in Arcadia Bay on a regular basis (thinking of getting a time-share!). ;-)

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