Why you shouldn’t wait: A mid-season reflection on Life Is Strange 2
A few days before Life Is Strange 2 launched last September, Telltale Games abruptly shut down due to lack of funds. While the studio had no hand in Life Is Strange, this is significant for what it symbolizes. Several developers have dabbled in episodic games over the years, but none were as persistent or as (seemingly) successful at it as Telltale—with the emerging exception of DONTNOD, whose first Life Is Strange series sold more than three million copies. For the pioneer of episodic gaming to fall just a few days before their closest successor’s sophomore effort debuted was a daunting omen.
Starting with their first Sam & Max game in 2006 and refining the concept over time, Telltale considered an episodic series not as “one long game” arbitrarily broken up into chunks, but as a serialized story told in regular intervals, like a TV series. DONTNOD mimicked this format with 2015’s Life Is Strange, releasing five episodes on a (somewhat) set schedule, with dramatic cliffhangers between episodes to keep players coming back.
But since Telltale came up with this games-like-TV formula, the way we watch TV has changed. The ubiquity of streaming services, DVRs, and on-demand means we can watch what we want, when we want, no schedule required. At around the same time Telltale was coasting on the success of their breakout hit, The Walking Dead, Netflix popularized “binge watching” by releasing all episodes of their TV series on the same day—a practice that spills over to episodic games when players wait until a full season is released before jumping in.
When a game is designed to be played episodically, waiting until the end changes the experience for players. That’s one reason Adventure Gamers has stopped reviewing episodes individually: a reviewer’s experience with episodes that trickle out is only useful to people who are playing along that way, and aspects of the critique become dated and irrelevant as soon as the full series is available.
What do players lose by waiting for the end of the season? Or put another way: do we really gain anything by playing along one episode at a time? With three episodes of Life Is Strange 2 now available and another six months to go before the series will be complete, now seems like a good time to ask these questions.
First, background: Life Is Strange 2 is a five-part series about teenager Sean Diaz and his little brother Daniel, who are on the run after an altercation with Seattle police resulted in their father’s death. In the first episode, Roads, the two discover that Daniel has telekinetic powers that could get them in trouble if he doesn’t learn how to control them. The debut installment ended with the boys headed to Mexico, with a long road ahead but a new life on the horizon. (Read our full review for more story and gameplay details.)
Initially DONTNOD didn’t publish a release schedule, and the wait for Life Is Strange 2’s second episode stretched out until January. In March, DONTNOD finally announced release dates for the remaining three episodes: May 9, August 22, and December 3. This adds up to fifteen months for the full game—a long wait for a piecemeal story, and seemingly a good argument for waiting until the end to binge play.
But unlike the first Life Is Strange, which took place over five in-game days—a timeline that strained credulity stretched out over ten calendar months—Life Is Strange 2 has a bigger scope that more closely mirrors its episodic runtime. The story opened around Halloween, with the second episode taking place just before Christmas and the third two months later. The Diaz boys are living through the gaps between episodes along with us: their hair gets longer, their clothes rattier, their demeanors more hardened. Loading up an episode after several months’ wait and seeing how the characters have changed ties our experience to theirs in a way that binge players won’t appreciate the same way.
Likewise, each episode’s setting and atmosphere reinforces the passage of time. Roads featured jack-o-lanterns on porches and browning leaves on trees; as Sean and Daniel explored the wooded areas outside Seattle, you could almost feel the crisp autumn air. Episode 2, Rules, takes place in the snow, first in and around a remote cabin where the boys have found shelter, and later in a rural Oregon neighborhood that’s decorated for the holidays. Furthering the boys’ southern migration, Episode 3, Wastelands, is set in Northern California’s Humboldt County—a region infamous for its black market marijuana industry—where it’s warm enough in February to sleep outdoors but still too cold to go swimming in the lake.
Traditionally episodic games reuse sets and character models as a cost-saving measure. DONTNOD is bucking that trend by treating each installment of the second season like a self-contained game, rewarding the wait with completely new surroundings to explore and characters to get to know. At about 3–4 hours apiece, the episodes have leisurely pacing that invites exploration, and the imposed gap between them gives you plenty of time to do this without feeling rushed. Some of us (myself included!) feel the temptation in slow-paced story-driven games to “just get on with it” at the expense of thorough exploration; knowing the next episode is still months away can help us focus on enjoying the journey instead of rushing to the final destination.
If the remaining episodes keep up this pattern, the full game could add up to 15–20 hours—even more if you include the free spin-off episode The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. This is a potentially overwhelming time investment, particularly in a game with such a relaxed pace. Replaying a game doubles that already large commitment, yet these episodes deserve to be replayed. Light story branching means there’s no way you can see everything an episode has to offer the first time through, and certain choices manifest in ways you can’t plan for, with some consequences straddling episodes.
In Episode 2, the boys seek out their grandparents (their estranged mother’s parents) for help. This brings them into contact with Chris, Captain Spirit’s young protagonist, and puts Sean and Daniel’s newfound family and friend in the crosshairs of both the trouble they’re running from and the powers Daniel is still learning to control. For the most part it’s a quiet, domestic experience, but the ending can be devastating depending on how you’ve played. Most episodic games present binary choices that lead to outcomes you can see coming, but at the end of Rules we start to understand that Sean’s choices (and therefore yours) are not the sole determining factor in this story. Daniel is also a main character—but not one you can control. He may do what Sean says or he may disobey, depending on the strength of the siblings’ relationship, which is determined by numerous choices, big and small, that you’ve made along the way. This season is ostensibly a story about taking care of your little brother, but the emerging theme seems to be that you can’t protect Daniel from himself—a setup that could have dramatic consequences of its own.
By Episode 3, the boys have been welcomed into a makeshift family of runaways working on a pot farm in Humboldt. This provides a new group of people to make alliances with, including potential love interests for Sean. But where the Diaz boys previously only had to worry about themselves as they ran from what happened in Seattle, they now face new external dangers related to the rough and illegal nature of the job they’ve taken on. The stakes are rising, and try as he (and you) might, Sean can’t shield Daniel from this gritty new reality.
In both of these episodes, the gameplay remains focused on environmental exploration and character interaction, with the side tasks of collecting souvenirs and sketching your surroundings available for completionists. But this isn’t an interactive movie posing as a game. Within most scenes you have plenty of control over what to look at and poke at, who to talk to, and how much to say. While you can’t derail the overarching story, you do play an active role in determining how this tale is told.
Wastelands also shows a shift in Daniel, who is breaking away from his brother regardless of how well you cared for him in earlier episodes. This frustrated me at first, but as I came to see where the narrative is heading, I recognized that Daniel’s personality is being shaped as much by the tragedies he’s experienced as by his brother’s influence. Considering the blows he’s been dealt and the situation he and Sean are in, Daniel’s pull toward independence makes sense. In the beginning, I anticipated that Life Is Strange 2 would be the story of two brothers on a road trip to Mexico, with Sean filling in as Daniel’s surrogate father. By the third episode, I see it turning into something else—something heavier and darker, with the potential to be even more heart-wrenching.
And that brings me to the biggest reason I urge those who intend to play Life Is Strange 2 eventually to jump in now instead of waiting: Episode 3 ends with a cliffhanger that simply won’t hit you the same way when you can immediately proceed to the next installment. It’s tragic and unexpected and shocking; it’s inevitable but you won’t see it coming. If my suspicions are right, it has the potential to change the rest of the story in a drastic way, but even if I’m mistaken about where the adventure is going, the wait to find out is something that can never be replicated. Wasteland’s ending made me worry about these fictional characters, Sean and Daniel, with an urgency that games rarely achieve, and I’ll continue to worry about them until Episode 4 comes out in August. If not for the enforced delay between releases, I would have played on and immediately learned the outcome, and the emotional impact surely would have been weaker as a result. I also fear that people who wait to play will have this cliffhanger and resulting story twists inadvertently spoiled for them. (I’ve never watched an episode of Game of Thrones, but thanks to social media, I know how it ends…)
Of course, waiting to binge play an episodic series also has a financial impact. These games are made with the expectation that the early episodes will sell well enough to justify the season’s continued development. But as Telltale’s sudden closure proves, you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. I don’t want to suggest that DONTNOD is in a similar position (I honestly have no idea), but the more subdued reception and longer wait time between episodes hints that Life Is Strange 2 hasn’t taken off like the first game, which had already sold a million copies by this point in its lifecycle. (DONTNOD hasn’t revealed sales numbers for the sequel, but I think we can read between the lines.) People who wait to play do so on the presumption that the game will be available later. Hopefully they’re right, but as Telltale’s games are being de-listed from online stores, maybe we shouldn’t take it for granted.
I do understand the temptation to wait. I was on the fence about Life Is Strange 2 when it first launched last fall, for the sole reason that it starred different characters than the first series. That seems so silly in retrospect. Life Is Strange 2 has equally compelling characters, with a story and scope that are much more ambitious. And it’s here; it’s happening right now. I love the characters and world DONTNOD has created, and so far I’ve loved living Sean and Daniel’s story with them. I want other people to have the same experience—before it’s too late.