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?
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.
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.
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.
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.