What defines a Life Is Strange game? Is it the relatable characters? The heavy social issues? The hints of the supernatural? The soft-focus cinematography and golden hour lighting? The soundtrack that perfectly captures a moment, creating an instantly nostalgic emotion every time a particular track plays? It is all of the above at any given time. But it is also, and can always be, so much more. Life, after all, is a kaleidoscope of moments, emotions, and people that enter and exit our lives, shaping or reshaping us. The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, Dontnod Entertainment’s mini-prequel to the forthcoming Life Is Strange 2, understands that so well.
Much like the original game, before the game itself even starts you know you’re in for something special; the Unreal engine logo appearing with a papercraft aesthetic that hints at the unexpected choice of protagonist this time around. That protagonist is 10-year-old Chris, an (adorably) awkward kid with a vivid imagination. He lives with his single father in a one-level, log cabin-style house in Beaver Creek, Oregon, which trades the beaches and trucker-packed seaside diners of Arcadia Bay for the slightly-more rural, rugged surroundings of snow-blanketed woodlands.
Despite the change of scenery, there’s a familiarity even as the main menu appears, once again showing an animated loop of the main environment, but instead of music we are treated to the sounds of nature one might expect to hear in a place like Beaver Creek; a soft whistling wind from the nearby mountains, chirping birdsong, and the occasional call of an unidentified rural animal. It eases you into a feeling that permeates throughout Captain Spirit: this is the same, but different. Most importantly, this is still Life Is Strange.
Our first slice of gameplay takes places in Chris’ bedroom. This seems intentional. Bedrooms have become synonymous with Life Is Strange now in all its releases, almost as if it’s a trademark that we can expect to see it all its incarnations, much like another of Square Enix’s franchises; Final Fantasy has its victory music and Cid character. Life Is Strange has its protagonist bedrooms that are, make no mistake, characters in their own right.
Environmental storytelling is one of my favourite things about narrative games and Dontnod are masters at saying so much with so little. Little in detail perhaps, but not in quantity: Chris’ room is positively packed with interactive elements, the wiggly arrows replaced this time with dashed-lines and the controller buttons hand-drawn in a style that only a 10-year-old (or a Dontnod artist impersonating one) could have drawn. The walls are scattered with images of heroes and villains, some as official posters of in-universe characters (Hawt Dawg Man included!) and some drawn by Chris himself. A ninja, dual-wielding katanas and riding a fire-breathing dragon is exactly the kind of thing we would expect to originate from a 10-year-old’s imagination, even if 32-year-old me finds it just as ridiculously cool. The rest of the bedroom sells the nostalgia players will feel as they are reminded of the bedrooms of their own youth: the stickers on the chest of drawers, the crates of mostly-forgotten toys, the quintessential cute stuffed animal that you refused to allow your parents to toss into the loft or another overflowing crate destined for a yard sale.
Besides the usual interactivity to help with worldbuilding, the gameplay becomes more apparent once Chris reveals his ‘Awesome Things To Do’ list, which includes hand-drawn sketches representing each task that will be coloured in, 10-year-old crosshatching style, as you complete them. They range from something as simple as playing with your toys strewn around the bedroom floor, to discovering ‘treasure’ in a secret den outside – a moment by the way that will tug at your heartstrings in a way that will make you think, ‘Oh Dontnod, you did it again.’
Before Chris can set off on his personal quest, his first task is to go and have his breakfast – a task announced by his dad in increasingly angry tones. The longer you ignore him, the more pissed he will get. Once you actually head out to the kitchen to meet him, the game begins to play with your perceptions and the dad’s uneasy edge is offset with a – albeit short-lived – playful, empathetic charisma. This dual personality has a valid reason for existing. It’s quickly suggested, without spelling it out in neon letters, that the dad is an alcoholic and this narrative is built upon the more you explore the surroundings and investigate every scrap of paper and crumpled letter.
The absence of the mother is clearly a cause for the somewhat broken household. The reason for her absence is also only revealed in as much detail as you discover, based on how much you choose to explore. This grief and trauma are perfect explanations for Chris disappearing into his own imagination to avoid dealing with them and this sometimes manifests itself as playable exaggerations of the truth – inanimate objects becoming villains that must be conquered in order to progress; the dreaded ‘basement heater monster’ for example.
Chris is convincing as a 10-year-old because of all of this, but it would only truly work if everything else fell into place. Thankfully, Dontnod knocked it out of the park in this aspect – Chris’ dialogue feels like a 10-year-old would talk, not how a middle-aged adult would interpret it. Even his inner monologues are suitably not life-contemplating a la Max Caulfield, but endearing and trivial. He even makes audible ‘whooshing’ sounds during his idle animations, as if piloting an invisible toy spaceship. It’s all rather-heart-meltingly adorable.
Another key factor is the voice acting. Chandler Mantione as Chris is a revelation. Children in videogames can often border on grating, either because the actor overplays it or it’s clearly an adult imitating a child. Using an actual child actor was the best choice, and interviews with one of the game’s two Directors, Michel Koch, revealed that Chandler came up with some of his own ideas too or adjusted lines based on how he, a real pre-teen, would say them. He has a likeability and infectious enthusiasm that you can’t help but smile at, and the game could have potentially lived or died on that being successful or not.
The visuals are, as expected, sublime. The move to Unreal Engine 4 has allowed a subtle boost in realism, with physically-based textures and global illumination, yet without sacrificing the unique art direction. The lighting is just as atmospheric as the original game, but with a slightly colder hue to reflect the change in environment. There are plenty of direct references to the original game too; some that will make you smile, and others that will make you gasp in horror.
The audio is once again, a central part of the experience, with licensed songs evoking emotions, to the point that one of them, with a strong connection to a particular character, is played within the world of Captain Spirit. Chris listens to it on a vinyl player as he lays down on his dad’s bed in a welcome return of one of the franchise’s iconic ‘moments of calm’.
Despite all this familiarity, there is quite a radical gameplay change. There’s no Rewind feature of course, nor Before the Storm’s Backtalk option. Instead, Chris’ ‘power’ is his imagination. That means the choices you make reflect how he’s feeling in the moment, rather than them being huge life-altering decisions. You occasionally have the option to ‘supersize’ your actions, signified by a comic book style spiky bubble around the words. This might be as simple as turning on the TV using the remote, but with said remote behind your back initially, and Chris reaching out as if turning on the TV with the power of his mind. It might also mean choosing different components to make up your costume for Captain Spirit; Chris’ superhero alter-ego. Tasks can be completed in any order and you’ll get different outcomes based on those choices This sandbox approach, along with some actions being time-sensitive, adds a surprising amount of replay value to an otherwise short experience. Some choices are even said to carry over into the full-fat Life Is Strange 2, if you keep hold of your save file.
Speaking of the forthcoming, long-awaited release of the sequel proper, there are plenty of hints as to the direction that game might be heading, including a shocking twist, right at the end, just before the excruciating but inevitable words, ‘TO BE CONTINUED’, flash up. It’s an exhilarating moment and the perfect final piece of the puzzle that makes Captain Spirit land the home run for Life Is Strange 2 hype we all hoped it would.
Hyped? You have no idea…
Life Is Strange 2’s first episode releases on September 27th.
Our bodies are ready, but our hearts are not.