Fear is not uncommon in video games. Survival horror, after all, is one of the medium’s defining categories. Many of these games, however, even the best and most metaphorical of them, rely on otherworldly frights.
“Life Is Strange 2" is overrun with fear.
The scares are some of the most disturbing I’ve encountered in the interactive medium. They won’t leave you trembling at what’s around the corner, but they may inspire tears for their ability to create not just a sense of isolation but a feeling of unwantedness, of being out of place in one’s own home. What makes “Life Is Strange 2" so terrifying, as well as one of the best games on the market, is that its horrors are our own, born from our own world and reflective of modern headlines.
The fifth and final chapter of “Life Is Strange 2" was released last month, the culmination of a serialized story that unfolded over the course of a little more than a year and never stopped aiming to reflect life in Trump’s America. We occasionally see people living in comfort — the rich, the white — but most everyone we meet is in a state of unease, overtly conscious of the color of their skin, their gender or simply their distrust in the American dream. The protagonists, Mexican American brothers Sean, 16, and Daniel, 9, possess a heightened awareness of an enveloping, outspoken prejudice.
The game’s intentions were clear from the start, before the police were involved and a series of events led to Sean and Daniel being on the run — the game works overtime to show that every bad decision they make is justified and likely safer than putting their trust in the law. After all, they’re reminded again and again by a multitude of Caucasian faces, “If you weren’t guilty, you wouldn’t have run.”
And then there’s the implied Donald Trump factor: “He’s not actually going to win, right?” texts one of Sean’s friends in the opening moments of the game, in reference to the then-impending 2016 election. An overwhelmed Sean doesn’t want to to think about it, but his classmate replies with fed-up exhaustion: “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”
An unexplainable killing
The game, a refreshingly honest attempt to look at life in America from French video game developer Dontnod Entertainment, manages to avoid caricatures. There is what appears to be a MAGA hat in one scene, but it could be missed, same as a copy of a book whose cover asks if this is “the golden age of exceptionalism.” They’re not standard video game dangers but reminders that Sean and Daniel need to be on high-alert.
Some of the most tension-filled moments come when Sean and Daniel are living with their white grandparents. Not simply because the two boys are suspected of a crime — the accidental and unexplainable killing of a trigger-happy police officer who unjustly shot their unarmed father — but because their grandmother repeatedly stresses that the two must live by her “rules,” an implication that implies assimilation rather than chores and a suspicion of their father’s heritage.
A key reason for the effectiveness of “Life Is Strange 2,” featuring a different cast and setting than its also topical predecessor, is the way in which it handles power. It constantly strips it from the player.
In doing so, the game manages to upend America’s favorite mythic story lines in the process. Young Daniel has superhero-like abilities, a mysterious telekinesis-like power that is largely uncontrollable because the player can’t wield it. While Daniel can reshape environments, almost any use of it reinforces the beliefs of others, be it the need for a border wall or deep religious fanaticism, rather than anything that actually resembles heroism.
“That’s why we gave the power not to the player but to Daniel,” says lead writer Jean-Luc Cano, noting that if magical abilities belonged to the player then the game would be more easily definable along lines of good versus evil. The power too is never explained, as Cano didn’t want the game to get bogged down in elements that ultimately distract them from more human messages. Refreshingly, “Life Is Strange 2" avoids the weight and confusion of elucidating lore, allowing it to stay focused on its politics and themes.
Adds creative director Raoul Barbet, “We want to make sure the story is believable. We add the smallest franchise elements, which make the decisions more difficult. Taking care of a child is important, and it will define Daniel as an adult. But if the child has the power to destroy the world — or ours — it’s more difficult to make a decision.”
Unspoken, but relatively clear from the first episode is that the world for the brothers is likely already destroyed. Subject to racism from neighbors at their Seattle home, the game in its early going tempts players to make what could be perceived as one wrong more, showing their life is one in which success can be achieved but only by forever walking on fragile ground.
Yet even the apparent right choices will set off a string of events in which a bully is punched by Sean and a police officer will come to fear the brothers, resulting in him anxiously firing at their father. The immediate stress and panic of the situation will unlock Daniel’s powers, which erratically lash out at the world he’s been given.
There are quiet moments of bonding between the brothers throughout, but they’re often interrupted. A gas station clerk will accuse them of stealing even when they paid for their goods. A friendly trip out with a neighbor will bring suspicious looks. Even a sign advertising Spanish lessons will insult them, as it reads, “I can have you ordering nachos and cerveza like a pro muy pronto!” When they meet an ally, chances are they’re similarly outcast — a soul on the run, for instance, for parents who subjected them to gay conversion therapy.
‘Everything is political’
While there’s no shortage of political games, mostly from the independent sector, it’s still a relative rarity for mainstream games to so overtly tackle our modern world (“Life Is Strange 2" is published by Square Enix, which also in 2019 released “Kingdom Hearts 3"). And too often, developers say their games aren’t political, as they instead simply present options for the player to explore. Asked about the desire to confront subjects such as racism and Trump’s push for a border wall, “Life Is Strange 2" developers echo a statement said in the game by one its characters: “Everything is political.”
“I don’t think you can create a believable story without talking about the problems of the world,” Barbet says. “We have difficulties in Europe, in France and in the U.S., and the idea was to have characters talk about them. It’s like ‘Life Is Strange 1.’ You cannot create a game about teenagers in high school if you don’t talk about social harassment. It’s part of high school. It’s a reality. So it’s the same for Sean and Daniel. Their father was Mexican, so we talk about racism. It’s a reality.”
It’s a vision of an anxious America, where everyone who looks, feels or thinks differently is viewed as a potential threat. When Sean stands up for him and his brother, the situation risks spiraling out of control.
“You’re the reason we need to build that wall,” a character will say, a statement that regularly hammers home why no one wants to hear them explain why they’re not at fault for the death of a police officer.
While critically acclaimed, the chapters of “Life Is Strange 2" arrived with little fanfare. Now complete, with endings that are honest, tragic and heartbreaking — they will vary based on player choices throughout — it’s clear that one of the 2019’s best interactive texts about America came from France.