Life is Strange 2

Developed by: Dontnod

Published by: Square Enix

Available on: Mac, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

French developer Dontnod is good at muddying the heroic arcs in which so many traditional games traffic. Their “Life is Strange” series is notably attuned to human shortcomings, including those of people graced with supernatural abilities. Days after I completed “Life is Strange 2,” I found myself still emotionally stung by the ending that resulted from my decisions.

Like the first title in the series, “Life is Strange 2” is a game about loss. In this case, the loss of family, friends and time. At the start, players assume the role of Sean Diaz, a teenager who lives in Seattle with his younger brother Daniel (a pre-adolescent), and his father Esteban. Sean is a good kid, he likes to draw, digs Vonnegut and loves his family, but naturally wants a greater measure of independence; he’d like to spend more time with his friends and get away from his excitable younger brother.

One afternoon, while playing outside by himself, Daniel upsets a neighbor when he accidentally spills fake blood on him. From his bedroom, Sean overhears the neighbor berating his brother. Rushing outside to see what’s going on, he ends up getting into a fight with the other teenager. Sean comes out on top in the brawl but his victory is pyrrhic. A police officer pulls up to the scene and rashly assumes that Sean is a menace so he pulls his gun. The confrontation is meant to be viewed through the prism of race. The police officer and Sean’s antagonist are white and the latter plays up his injuries to amplify the other’s reading of the situation.

Things take a tragic turn after the Diaz brothers’ father comes outside and pleads with the cop to de-escalate the situation. The already anxious cop warns Esteban to stay back, then shoots him. Daniel screams and an instant later the officer is hurtling through the air as though caught in an explosion — the first manifestation of the younger brother’s telekinetic powers.

When Sean, who was knocked unconscious by the blast, comes to, he sees the damage caused by the event: a tipped over power line, a collapsed porch, debris in the street. Upon registering the lifeless bodies of the officer, his neighbor and his father, Sean hears the sound of approaching sirens. After dashing into his house to get a backpack, he picks up his unconscious brother and flees the scene. All of this happens within the first hour of the game which, to me, felt a little rushed. Then again, I felt something similar about the first episode of the first game. So, going into “Life is Strange 2,” I wondered if Dontnod would again be able to use a five-episode format to move me from a state of ambivalence toward its characters to one of attachment and sympathy. The answer is a clear yes. By the time I reached the beginning of episode 4, Sean was my dude. He’d suffered and grown enough that I respected him.

Sean persuades Daniel that they should go to Puerto Lobos, their father’s former hometown, in Mexico. One of the first important decisions players will make is to tell Daniel how free he should be with the use of his powers. Your conversational choices will affect how Daniel interacts with others down the line, and how he decides to use his powers on his own. No matter how consciously you try to steer Daniel in the right direction, consequential mistakes are unavoidable.

The Diaz brothers’ journey takes them on a winding route to Oregon, where they spend time with their maternal grandparents who are devout Christians; Humboldt County, where they fall in with a group of squatters who work on a pot farm; and a commune in Arizona for artists and independent spirits. In keeping with the other entries in the Life is Strange series, moment-to-moment gameplay mostly involves talking to people or walking around looking for objects in the environment for Sean to comment on or draw. Occasionally, the game offers other tasks (I can’t say I ever imagined I’d find myself praying with someone’s grandma and trimming freshly harvested marijuana in a video game.) At the risk of venturing into spoiler territory, the game’s drawing mechanic becomes an evocative indicator of loss by episode 4.

Eventually, the brothers’ trek leads them to a border wall separating the United States and Mexico. “Life is Strange 2” reflects the racist and anti-immigrant tides that have roiled the country in recent years. Statements along the lines of “go back to where you came from” are hurled at Sean at different points in the story. Though I credit the developers for offering up examples of the kinds of hostility that minorities face in this country, I doubt that these examples will lead anyone to behave differently. The two-bit racists one encounters in the game are several leagues beneath contempt.

“Life is Strange 2” shines in its presentation of the characters who help the Diaz brothers along the way. Most of these individuals have glaring character failings, whether they’re narrow-minded, narcissistic, alcoholic, indolent or what have you, they come across as works-in-progress. This game doesn’t celebrate winners but those who persevere and endure.

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

Recent game reviews: