Life is Strange 2 is about two brothers escaping a strange situation. It is also about family, brotherhood, survival, racism, individualism and social conformity in Trump’s America. It is an experience in which the gameplay interactions and narrative are purposefully dissonant. The plot moves forward in the form of in-engine scenes, whereas the verbs the player performs are tightly restricted and functionally mundane.
What makes Life is Strange 2 compelling is that the rewards on offer aren’t the usual upgrade trees or random loot drops, but instead deepening character histories and interactions. When the player does take control, gameplay options are deliberately narrow and often non-essential. You truly do need to behave like a big brother. What you do is equally important as what you say.
(Spoiler warning: this article discusses story beats and mechanics from Episodes 1-5 of Life is Strange 2)
So what do you do in Life is Strange 2? Well, you move Sean, the elder of two brothers, through narrowly-defined spaces, like the interior of a house or the linear path of an empty road. You look at things – objects, paraphernalia, pictures and the like. Sean will have a dry comment for each thing, his perfunctory elaboration attaching new details and backstory to objects. For example, you might find some of Sean’s mother Karen’s poetry, but given the fact she left the family shortly after Daniel’s birth, the object is soured from his perspective. For the player, this makes you curious about Karen’s motivations and the events of the past. These eventually get explored in the form of flashbacks and a meetup with Karen.
Who’s a Good Boy?
Occasionally, you have the option to pick up objects. These are added to your inventory for purposes that may or may not ever present themselves, depending on both where the story goes and if you choose the right actions to bring about related closure. In fact, beyond Episode 1, your inventory becomes vestigial in nature, to the point where the only motivation the player has to delve into Sean’s backpack is to snoop through collected artefacts. This is not a problem. The way Life is Strange 2 dwells on the mundane draws you into the everyday lives of its characters and highlights the value of living in the moment. There is no need for any other reward or keepsake.
Whether you choose to pack beer or soft drink from the fridge for a party Sean is planning to attend, for instance, doesn’t ultimately matter, but you might want Sean to be a good boy and so choose to refrain from alcohol and cigarettes. One decision that does have an impact early on is being either honest or dishonest with Sean’s father when asking for money for the party. Replying honestly will net you more cash, which becomes important when you are on the run with Daniel and needing to buy (or steal) supplies and equipment to survive.
The game quickly makes you aware that your actions will be of a mundane nature. Interactive options are often limited to “Look” or “Take”. Gameplay mirrors those developer commentary runs that are offered as extra features in some titles, moving from point to point, activating them and listening to a spiel. Using this structure, Life is Strange 2 lulls you nicely along its branching pathways, where the journey taken will feel different for each player. You may opt to ignore most of the side stuff and forge through the main path, in which case you might miss some of the game’s serene, beautiful moments.
Sean taking time to sit and sketch different scenes presents wonderful snapshots of the boys’ journey. If you decide to sketch, you must look at the scene through Sean’s eyes, holding a button to focus on the broad details, before looking down at the sketchbook and wriggling the left thumb-stick to sketch shapes across the page. You can leave it there or you can look up and focus again, bringing in extra detail and sketching a more coherent version of the scene. These sketches can be looked at again by entering the inventory screen. You might also completely miss the prompts for Sean to sit or rest and consider his surroundings while he delivers a monologue about how things are going with Daniel. They provide perfect ruminations of a harrowing journey peppered with beauty.
Crunch-time decisions come during action scenes, with most of these offering binary choices. The most common decision-making crux asks the player, as Sean, to decide whether or not to encourage Daniel to use his nascent powers. These pathways add to Daniel’s AI learning, a background process that nurtures the kind of Daniel you prefer through morality and brotherhood. For instance, you might admonish him for cussing, or you might allow him to swear, in which case he’ll swear a lot more. Daniel’s learning even extends to observing the player’s actions, so that it might be worth following your own advice to him to avoid contradictions.
There’s also a brotherly bond component to Daniel’s developing persona, which can bring him back from the brink of selfish decisions if he trusts Sean enough. The way that Daniel reacts at certain key moments is tied directly to this web of decision making moments. This makes it important to deeply consider both your actions and dialogue choices with Daniel, especially If you are the type of player that feels connected to game characters, carrying their legacies with you long past completion.
In today’s world of massive, sprawling RPGs and dialogue trees with more branches than Yggdrasil, the suppression of player choices may feel restrictive. In the context of this intimate game, though, it feels perfectly natural that Sean would see the world in such a way, and that he would feel that his choices are constrained given the Diaz brothers’ circumstances. Then there’s the fact that while your decisions may feel two-sided, the systems in place behind the scenes are complex and result in unpredictable consequences. You often have to sacrifice some of your bond with Daniel in order to be a morally sound big brother, or lose moral ground in order to deepen brotherly trust.
Action itself is further limited by the fact that you are a surrogate to Daniel, who is the catalyst for change throughout the story. While most games would position you as the one with power, the focus is instead shifted to managing that power. This creates a degree of separation between the player and the action taking place, including the violence. Life is Strange 2 does have quite a lot of violence in it, but it is almost always directed at Sean rather than coming from him. This passiveness is a deliberate play against videogame stereotypes and thus offers a refreshing change to the impact of violence. You feel much more like a bystander or third-party, as opposed to, say, the Doom marine literally tearing things to pieces.
Watch What You Say
Another way Life is Strange 2 encourages a casual, controller-down approach to play is the way in which dialogue choices are handled. You are offered a few reactions during conversations and sometimes one of these is to say nothing. Just as importantly, saying nothing during the game’s rare timed conversation choices, by not reacting in time or withholding input, results in a valid choice. The scene will keep playing out even if you don’t touch the controller and it never feels like you are missing out on much for keeping your clap shut. If anything, it’s in character for Sean to be cautious, because his physical degradation due to injury over the course of the narrative is inversely proportional to Daniel’s growing powers.
In Episode 3, you are camping with other people who are self-proclaimed rejects of society. One of the gameplay gates here is that Sean needs to pull his weight in the camp by completing chores. It takes a few real-time minutes to haul water from a collection tank to the makeshift kitchen and shower. What is interesting about this section is that you can also offer to help Daniel with his kitchen duty, or not. There’s no motivation to extend this slow, tedious moment other than your own ethics and the possibility of incidental dialogue. You’ll also gain brotherhood and morality points with Daniel if you do help him, but this system is hidden in the game and difficult to predict. For example, if you’ve been a crappy brother, Daniel will actually refuse your help in this moment, leading to deeper damage to the brotherhood.
Whatever your moral compass, prolonging gameplay becomes about engaging with seemingly inconsequential moments in the created world. One could argue that these vignettes are in fact the whole point of the game. They ground you in the reality of the situation. By offering such ordinary gameplay tasks, the extraordinary is heightened when it happens.
Full of Character
Between episodes, weeks or months can pass and the brothers will be in a completely different situation than when you left them at the end of the previous episode. Rather than laborious backstory catch-up, new characters enter the player’s field fully-formed, with back stories and motivations that must be absorbed via their appearance, dialogue and any objects relating to them that the camera chooses to dwell on. For instance, when you meet a friendly trucker in Episode 4, the camera immediately focuses on his living compartment, its netted shelves filled with toilet paper, books and personal mementos. Then he shares with Sean a sandwich that his wife made him. The player soon sees him as a family man out on the lonely road willing to take a chance on a young man in need of a lift.
The power of objects is such that they paint the picture of a character more effectively than dialogue. This reliance on visual storytelling reflects the film-like influences on Life is Strange 2’s overall aesthetic. Another example is the fish tank in the home of the boys’ grandparents, Claire and Stephen Reynolds. As you explore the house for the first time in Episode 2, Sean remarks on the empty fish tank, later asking Daniel if he has ever seen fish in it. The implication is that the house is sterile and lifeless. One of the possible endings shows the Reynolds household years later, with Daniel having grown up there, enjoying a new life with his grandparents. Now the tank has fish in it, the house if full of light and life. The camera’s cut to this object is far from an accident. It’s a deliberate artistic choice.
Slow it Down
At every opportunity, Life is Strange 2 applies the brakes. It slows the gameplay down and offers calm, considered spaces in which the player can feel safe and satisfied. It allows you to sift through the game at your own pace. This adds up to some beautiful and subtle moments outside of violence and tragedy, even if by most definitions the gameplay itself is limited or boring. The player comes away with a set of memories tied to these contemplative moments, such as a sunset over a canyon, the way the light shines through Sean’s still bedroom, the sketch-filled interior of the boys’ tent or the mischievous yet unhurried exploration of the Reynolds’ home by the brothers while their grandparents are at church.
Life is Strange 2 succeeds in being unique because of its adherence to the slower aspects of living and surviving. It brings out beauty through calmness and contemplation. Despite its serious subject matter and lack of subtlety when it comes to its racist, xenophobic and religiously fanatic antagonists, Life is Strange 2 is an uplifting experience about family, loyalty, love and belonging. So if you prefer to put the controller down during story scenes, or you find yourself sifting through Sean’s completed sketches multiple times, that’s okay. You are meant to enjoy the quiet moments, the butter between the bread. And when you get to the end, well, let’s just say we hope you have been a good brother to Daniel. He will remember everything.
Dylan Burns is an Australian freelancer who has no superpowers, although he did get a laugh out of Cliffy B once, so… follow him on Twitter.