The age of the superhero is officially upon us, and it’s no longer the exclusive domain of comic books. While the likes of Batman, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and Black Panther dominate the big screen these days, one such champion of liberty who isn’t likely to crack the roster of the Avengers or the Justice League any time soon is the titular character of DONTNOD Entertainment’s The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. And yet its costumed protagonist is no less worthy of a few hours of your time, particularly since it won’t cost you a dime for the privilege. What you’ll soon discover, however, is that this isn’t really a superhero adventure after all, but rather the touching, very human tale of a young boy learning to cope with life under challenging circumstances.
Serving as a spin-off bridge episode between Life Is Strange and the French studio’s upcoming sequel, Captain Spirit tells the tale of ten-year-old Chris Eriksen, who has recently moved with his father to a remote house in the American northwest. It’s a chilly Saturday morning with Christmas fast approaching when we first find Chris playing alone in his room with his action figures. Crucial to this imaginary escapism is his own role as Captain Spirit, whom you get to help define with some early player choice: mask or helmet, light or heavy armour, DC or Marve… sorry, I mean, dark costume or colourful? While these decisions only have a cosmetic impact (literally) on the story to come, others will have you wrestling with moral implications about not only the kind of superhero the Captain is, but the type of person Chris himself should be. Although I only played once, no choice I encountered suggested it might alter the outcome significantly, but invest yourself emotionally in Chris’s plight and you may find them meaningful in a different way.
Gaining control of Chris introduces a standard free-roaming, third-person 3D scheme via keyboard/mouse or gamepad. I much preferred the more relaxed nature of the latter, but zeroing in on hotspots is probably a bit easier with the former when there are several bunched close together. Whenever a nearby interactive object is within your line of sight, a small menu pops up that shows whether you can merely look at the item or manipulate it in some way. On certain occasions, an alternate option allows you to use your special "power" of bending matter to your will, such as making a TV turn on or causing the fire in the wood stove to blaze brighter. Chris walks pretty slowly, but since the entire game takes place inside their two-bedroom house and surrounding yard, there isn’t much need to cover a lot of ground in a hurry (and you can speed up a bit outdoors where there’s a little more room to maneuver).
Before the day gets going in earnest, Chris’s roleplaying is interrupted by his father beckoning him for breakfast. A compliant child would obey right away, and that’s your prerogative, but with a whole room full of neat toys and other fun kid stuff to examine, naturally I lingered and kept goofing around. This defiance resulted in increasingly aggressive bellows from the kitchen, such that eventually I gave in before things got out of hand. The man clearly has anger issues, compounded by the fact that dear ol’ dad is already drinking this early in the day. How deep do these problems run, and what’s the source of all this hostility? You’ll find out over the course of the game, but I wasn’t about to tempt fate right off the bat.
After an illuminating conversation (or confrontation, depending on how pushy you want to be) over eggs that aren’t as good as mom used to make, the old man retires to watch the big basketball game on TV, where Chris knows he always gets drunk and falls asleep. So what’s a ten-year-old with an active imagination, a lack of parental supervision and no friends in this new neighbourhood to do? Why, make his own fun, of course. There’s a costume to piece together, a snowman(cer) to fight, secret maze of doom to penetrate, a dastardly villain and his henchmen to subdue, and a creepy purple water monster to tame in the depths of its own dark lair, among other potential tasks. It’s gonna be a busy day!
While the larger objectives may be fit for a caped crusader, for the most part the game plays out much like Gone Home. In the process of searching for necessary items and clues to puzzles, players must thoroughly scour every inch of the homestead, which uncovers a whole host of background information that fleshes out the story of this troubled family. What happened to mom? You’ll learn that soon enough. Why is dad so angry? Those answers will come too. These details can spring from Chris’s own observations, postcards on the fridge, and numerous other documents stashed away where they were never meant to be found by prying eyes. The reading isn’t extensive and it’s nicely interspersed, so the revelations never feel like info dumps, but rather a gradual unfolding of a tragic story. Though Chris doesn’t recognize him as such, it soon becomes apparent that Captain Spirit is as much a defense mechanism as he is a super-powered hero.
All this added detail layers in some welcome depth to the family dynamic. On the surface, Chris’s dad is anything but a pleasant man. He’s an abusive alcoholic with impulse control problems who has torpedoed his own career and sometimes hurt his undeserving son along the way, either through neglect or more direct means. And yet he’s not a monster. He’s a broken man wrestling with his own demons, and there are clear signs that he’s trying his best to be a good father to Chris. It’s not enough, and obviously this isn’t meant to excuse any unforgivable behaviour, but it’s important to empathize not just with Chris, but his father as well if we’re to understand the boy’s obvious devotion to him, even to his own detriment.
Uncomfortably, there are subtle signs that the father's pattern of behaviour is beginning to rub off on the son, as such things often do. Fortunately, the damage isn’t irreparable just yet, as Chris is clearly a very sweet kid even amidst all the turmoil. You can choose just how kind-hearted to make him – does he clean up the dishes after breakfast? Make his drunken dad some lunch? Do laundry? And will you be compassionate or ruthless with pint-sized plastic foes? – but no matter how irresponsible you choose to be, Chris is still a great kid at heart and a thoroughly charming protagonist. Thankfully, he’s also capably voiced (including play-acting roles of his own), unlike so many games that fail to achieve this properly with young characters. The pre-pubescent Chris sounds entirely age-appropriate, innocent about the ways of the world and yet not naïve about his own troubling circumstances. He misses mom, misses his friends, is worried about dad, but still wants a new game console for Christmas. And nobody messes with Captain Spirit!
The Captain does make an appearance several times, not merely in the guise of Chris’s ever-expanding real-world costume choices, but with a few short “adventures” of his own. I sort of lied about the game taking place totally in and around the house (and sort of didn’t), as on two separate occasions we’re whisked off to fantastical environments to brave enemies and confront our fears. These short but memorable excursions make for a nice change of pace from the familiar guy-house interior and beautifully designed wintry outdoor environment.
Often the action takes place in silence, but the Captain Spirit sequences are accompanied by eerie music befitting the tense situations, with the exception of one hilarious western theme playing in a high-noon-style showdown against a most unlikely opponent. Elsewhere, DONTNOD makes great use of some licensed songs from Sufjan Stevens and Bat for Lashes during reflective montages to create a real sense of heart-tugging melancholy.
You can tackle your various objectives in any order that you like, though depending on which areas you explore first, chances are you’ll complete them as much by accident as intentional design. Many interactions exist solely for interest, some of which are delightfully amusing when Chris encounters tastefully but suggestively risqué things his ten years on earth haven’t quite prepared him for. There are some puzzles to solve along the way, but the mandatory tasks generally require simple inventory collection and use. You don’t even need to select the right item yourself; so long as it’s in your possession at the time, its use will present itself as one of the available hotspot interactions.
The tougher puzzles are completely optional, as it’s possible to finish the game with only some of the items on your nifty hand-drawn to-do diagram checked off. There’s a combination lock to crack and a small labyrinth that really requires proper direction (or dumb luck and a lot of persistence) to navigate, both of which will at least require a degree of thought and effort to overcome. And then there’s one preposterously difficult code to decipher, which would take the power of telepathy to read the developer’s minds to figure out. (I cheated and looked the solution up online.) And that’s too bad, because there’s actually a very whimsical little side-scrolling platform minigame awaiting at the end. If you happen to unwittingly cue the credits without doing everything you want, fortunately you can simply restore your autosaved game to the point just before the finale to pursue any further goals.
You’re not playing The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit for its puzzles, mind you. It’s great to see that not every developer focusing on narrative-driven, choice-based experiences has completely abandoned gameplay in their, y’know, games (the others know who they are), but make no mistake: this is still largely a story-centric 2-3 hour experience. But its title is also somewhat misleading, as ideally (if not quite as marketable) it should be called “The Awesome Alter Ego of Captain Spirit.” Approach this title as a fantastical superhero adventure and you may be left feeling defeated; take your time to embrace it as a poignant family drama conveyed largely through environmental storytelling and you’ll find it a triumph. And hey, it’s free. Take that, evil forces of commercialism!