The first Life is Strange tackled issues like cyberbullying, suicide, and assault through the eyes of its teenage protagonist Max and her friendships. Life is Strange 2 is far more ambitious. While set up to be a story about a family through the eyes of two Hispanic brothers, the game quickly wades into more political, timely topics. The first episode is set quite obviously in October 2016, just weeks before the election of Donald Trump. Characters yell about “building walls” and fret about what will happen if Trump wins. One of the game’s less subtle moments includes a character declaring “everything is political.”
Here, games editor Andrew Webster and reporter Megan Farokhmanesh discuss the first episode, “Roads,” of Dontnod’s sequel to its award-winning series. Light spoilers follow.
Megan Farokhmanesh: I should be clear about something up front: I was skeptical going into Life is Strange 2. I loved a lot about the first game — its setting, its heroine, its handling of real-life issues — but it still veered off the rails a few times and felt messy on some of the beats it hit the hardest. But I walked away from it feeling grateful it existed and that it tried to talk about topics that most games avoid like a plague.
With Life is Strange 2, I was doubtful that it could be as relevant or poignant as some of LiS 1’s most powerful moments. I am thrilled to say I was very wrong. It still shares the same messy DNA as its older sibling, but Life is Strange 2 feels like a powerful statement about American politics during a very tense time.
Andrew Webster: Yeah, what’s really remarkable to me about the second season, at least so far, is how it is capable of both of those things. Initially, it’s very much a story about a teenage kid going through all of the messy moments that being a teenager entails. Sean, the main character, starts out the episode worried about a date. He talks his dad into lending him weed money and Skypes with his best friend so she can give him advice on how to talk at a party. The dialogue is awkward and feels like it was run through a teen translator, but there are moments that feel authentic. If you turn on music in Sean’s room, he’ll sing along while he does other things. When his younger brother Daniel interrupts a phone call, Sean is a total dick to him.
But then things go bad. There’s a twist I won’t spoil that results in Sean and Daniel being forced to go on the road, with a plan that is not very well thought-out: they’re going to find a way from Washington to Mexico where their dad owns a plot of land. There are some racist undertones when the boys are still in Seattle — like when a neighbor questions if their dad understands how things are done in America — but things become much more overt once they’re out of the big city. The kids are called slurs while shopping and questioned about stealing items they paid for. These two are already going through some terrible stuff, having been separated from their father while also dealing with Daniel’s burgeoning psychic powers. It just gets worse because of the time and place in which the game is set. And Life is Strange 2 doesn’t shy away from any of that.
MF: It’s refreshing to see a developer toss aside the idea that games shouldn’t be political. Indie devs already do this (think: Papers, Please, among others), but Life is Strange is a Square Enix-published title. Developers today will play footsie with political topics, but they will ultimately shy away from getting too serious. Dontnod, on the other hand, is really going all in. We like to talk a lot about how games are a medium that allows you to do fantastical things, but the most important part of Life is Strange is far more mundane than that. It’s offering people the chance to play in someone else’s shoes.
The first game was a nostalgia-drenched examination of old friendships and family scars. It captured the spirit of adolescence and innocence. LiS 2, on the other hand, is forward-facing. It doesn’t want to talk about the past. Instead, it’s asking you to consider very present problems. Now, we’ll call it “timely,” but years from now, it will stand as a piece of pop culture created as a reflection of its time, which is… kind of terrifying, honestly.
AW: I should also note that, despite tackling much bigger themes this time and having a completely new story, season 2 still feels like Life is Strange. That was a big worry of mine. The first season had such a distinct flavor that we rarely see in games, sort of like an indie movie about high school, and that tone is largely still in place for Life is Strange 2.
For a game that can be about making really tough decisions, it’s also filled with lots of beautiful, quiet moments. One of my favorite scenes in the first Life is Strange came early on when heroine Max walked through a crowded hall at her school, headphones in, quietly monitoring the world around her. Daniel, meanwhile, is an artist, and his best contemplative moments involve sketching what he sees, whether it’s his bedroom or a lush park. And yes, the soundtrack is still amazing.
Another important point: you can totally enjoy Life is Strange 2 even if you haven’t played previous entries in the series (which includes the first season as well as the Before the Storm prequel and a one-off teaser episode). Aside from the setting and a few Easter eggs, the stories aren’t really connected in any way. I mean, you should play the original Life is Strange, but you don’t have to.
There are still four episodes to go, so it’s impossible to say whether Life is Strange 2’s blend of teen drama and timely politics will hold up for a full season. But it’s off to a solid start, and it shows that the format can tell all kinds of different stories.
Life is Strange 2’s first episode, “Roads,” is available now on PS4, Xbox One, and PC.