Adventure Gamers Awards
Sean’s backpack isn’t a traditional adventure game inventory—you can’t take items out of it and use them at will—but you can gain his insight into the things he carries, keep an eye on his wallet, and experience the passage of time as items are added or removed. For example, at one point the game advances by two days, and you can look at a diner receipt to hear Sean’s take on the meal he and Daniel shared off-screen. The backpack also includes an objectives list in case you’re not sure what to do next.
The running tally of money in Sean’s wallet becomes critical when you get to a gas station convenience store to buy food for the coming days. You may start out with more or less money depending on choices made early in the game, and figuring out the best way to use it becomes a serious concern when you’re not sure where the pair’s next meal will come from. You can spend Sean’s last few dollars on healthy food, splurge on candy, or forego dinner and drop your cash on a claw-drop arcade game to win a prize for Daniel. Shoplifting is also an option with potential repercussions. You can ask a picnicking family for food, get Daniel to do the deed for you, or wait until they’re gone and dig in the trash for their leftovers. Whatever you choose, Daniel’s always hanging around nearby, watching and potentially learning. I often felt like I was deciding not only what kind of character I wanted Sean to be, but also what kind of role model he should be for his little brother. That really mattered to me, a lot more than in past LIS games where the “small” choices felt more superficial.
Roads also has five major choices, with stats displayed at the end of the episode so you can see how your decisions compare to other players’. I always like to play these games twice, the first time following my gut and the second time as if it’s “opposite day”—a practice Life Is Strange 2 makes easy by providing five save slots. While none of the big choices had a significant immediate effect on the story, several did tweak Sean and Daniel’s relationship, and others seem to be setting up for consequences later on. Still, none of the major decisions felt gratuitous, which has sometimes been the case in other LIS episodes.
The game starts in late October 2016, just before the presidential election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and the writers want to make sure you know what that means. An angry letter from a neighbor makes an unsubtle reference to the Diaz family’s immigration status, while “Build a wall” is uttered at least twice. I bristled at these real-world intrusions, if only because they seemed so obvious and self-conscious. Mentions of Skype, Facebook, and Instagram may help ground the game in the here and now, but racist shorthand seemed like a cheap shot, especially considering the developers aren’t American. (Makes me think of the old saying: “I can call my sister ugly, but you can’t.”)
My objection isn’t that the game is set within our current social climate—in fact, it would probably seem unrealistic if a Mexican-American teenager didn’t encounter some racism on a road trip through the United States. But at least in this first episode, the execution seems heavy-handed. Luckily Sean and Daniel feel enough like real people, not caricatures, that I’m willing to put up with it to see what happens. And to be fair, as unsubtle as these references are, there are only a handful in a 3-4 hour episode—much less prevalent than Chloe’s equally grating overuse of “hella.”
Speaking of which, so far LIS2’s dialogue is really good. Sean and Lyla, dishing about their party plans, sound like teenagers. Daniel, blurting non-sequiturs and prattling on about Minecraft or Lord of the Rings (your choice!), sounds like a nine-year-old. The Seth Rogen lookalike (and, funnily enough, soundalike) you meet at the tail end of the episode talks just like I’d expect a softhearted blogger who lives out of his wood-paneled station wagon to talk. The authenticity might have something to do with the assistance of Steve Gaynor and Karla Zimonja, Pacific Northwest residents and developers of teen drama Gone Home, who are credited on the episode as additional writers.
Graphically the new game continues the franchise’s tradition of detailed character models, lush scenery, and artistic lighting and camera angles. While some characters look more realistic than others, I appreciated the diversity among the cast, who vary in ethnicity and body type—just as you’d expect to see in a cross-section of America. The soundtrack is also reminiscent of the past series, but so far skews more toward gentle instrumentals than licensed alternative rock tracks.
By the end of Roads, Sean is fully committed to taking care of Daniel, and seeing the teen’s transformation over the course of the episode endeared him to me. Not only do his responsibilities toward his brother change, but so do his reactions and emotions—a first step toward genuine character growth. At the beginning of the journey I was mainly concerned about Daniel, but by the end I wanted to keep both brothers safe.
The story could go anywhere from here, but the boys’ goal to reach Mexico provides a roadmap for the remaining four episodes. Meanwhile, a teaser after the credits and promised tie-in to the free Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit mini-episode suggest the currently latent superpower will continue to emerge. But I’m most excited about the spark between these two brothers. They’re not Max and Chloe, and their bond is totally different, but Roads has convinced me that Max and Chloe aren’t what make Life Is Strange special. Keep doing what you’re doing, DONTNOD—I can’t wait to continue this journey.