Here’s Why ‘Life Is Strange 2’ Is The Best Game Of 2019
The five-episode story of the Diaz brothers is triumphant and brutal.
Daniel Diaz is a 10 year-old boy staring up at the American government’s wall on the US/Mexico border. His older brother Sean is with him. The two boys have travelled thousands of miles from Seattle and endured months of unimaginable trauma. They’re both of Mexican heritage and their destination is Puerto Lobos — their father’s childhood home.
Daniel looks at the wall towering above him in the desert sun and asks “Is there a wall like this up north?”.
His older brother has no answer, because no such barrier exists to separate the US from Canada. It is a shattering moment of childlike innocence which occurs towards the end of an extraordinary tale of family, heartache and humanity inside a modern-day America which is spiralling out of control.
As human beings, we never get the luxury of choosing when things go wrong in our lives. It’s extremely rare that our days are completely within our grasp and we don’t have a bunch of things to worry about. Sometimes it can take years for a person to realise these simple truths.
We’re all just trying to do our best.
When something bad happens, we’re never prepared for it. The death of a parent, an influx of sudden, overwhelming responsibilities or the end of your old life as you wanted it to be. We’re not invincible or overpowered. There’s no special inventory of magical items that we can use to make things better.
But when these events occur, we get the chance to reflect the kind of person we want to be in the way we respond. We discover who our friends are, what kind of strengths and weaknesses we possess and if we’re lucky, get a vague sense of the next chapter in our lives. When we’re forced to make choices in terrible situations which may result in long-term consequences, the one thing that helps us live with our decisions is the support of people we love.
This is what lies at the heart of Life Is Strange 2, the remarkable five-episode story of the Diaz brothers.
Life IS Strange, Too
Since 2015, Paris-based studio Dontnod Entertainment have carved out their own piece of video game history.
The Life Is Strange series is their character-driven episodic franchise which has generated a staggering amount of fan devotion across the world. Their mastery of telling stories about young love, underlying agony, and maddening discrimination has reverberated throughout popular culture and left its mark on people’s hearts in ways that few pieces of fiction can achieve, let alone video games.
Whereas the first game told the story of queer women freeing themselves from the hidden horrors of their small town, Life Is Strange 2 concerns a road trip from Seattle to Mexico by two brothers in mourning. Sean and Daniel’s journey is caused by a family tragedy which forces them to grow up way too fast in a country that seems to want them around less and less with every encounter. Not only because of the colour of their skin but primarily because of the current state of America itself.
23 year-old actor Gonzalo Martin tells me how crucial it was to get into the headspace of the character of Sean Diaz.
“It’s really exciting to be part of a game that touches on these subjects. Because I think it’s important that we’re talking about these things in order to de-stigmatise them, and break the taboo so that way we can change. I definitely pulled from personal experiences of going through such hatred and racism, especially for the scene in Episode Four where Sean is trying to sleep in the car and meets the two racists. That was probably one of the hardest scenes to shoot. Not because it was super emotional but it was so humiliating. I put myself where I’d been many times and I was pulling from one hundred percent realness.”
The Real America
In any creative medium, when an outsider’s view is created to give perspective on a culture or social landscape, it can be a delicate balancing act.
If you go too far, art can become parody and as a result, any truth becomes lost or begins to work against what you were trying to say in the first place. This has never been the case with Life Is Strange. Dontnod’s history of portraying certain corners of America through the eyes of their characters is endlessly refreshing and always feels earned enough for the player to fall deep into the story, no matter the nationality of its authors.
Jean-Luc Cano, the writer of both seasons of the game, says this was always their intention from the beginning.
“We never wanted to give our point of view. Our job is to put the player in the shoes of Sean. I feel video games are the best media to show this and maybe make people change their minds about some subjects. While you’re playing as the main character, you feel for him. When you’re watching a movie or watching news or reading, you are a little bit passive. When it’s a video game, what happens to your character happens to you. You have a link and this link is called empathy.”
The Long Road
Not only do the characters of Life Is Strange 2 set it apart from most creative projects, but its release structure meant it could settle into a long timeframe.
With the first episode releasing in September 2018 and the fifth and final instalment in December 2019, it mirrored the brother’s timeline almost exactly. Staggered release dates in video games can typically mean that something has gone wrong with development but here, it was intentional.
Further than that, each episode’s release date succeeds in adding another compelling layer to the game itself. The long road taken by the characters is documented in Sean’s sketchbook and diary — an in-game feature object which fills up as their journey progresses.
At the beginning of each release, Sean’s journal details the events that have occurred in the space between each episode (displayed with beautiful sketches by artist Alysianne Bui d’Armagnac) and every page brilliantly adds to the texture and context of wherever the two brothers find themselves.
The game’s co-director, Raoul Barbet, explains the plan for the game’s release.
“We decided to have this release structure where the game takes place over one year. In Life Is Strange 1, it was one week. So for us, the length of time between each episode was really important because it’s allowed us to make characters evolve more and it’s the same amount of time for the brothers. We know that for some players it’s restricting because it’s a long time, so you may forget people and names and stuff but sometimes it works very well and it allows you to think about this journey more.”
Throughout the emotional rollercoaster of the Diaz brother’s adventure, the one constant is the bond between the two boys.
It is tested, pulled apart and strengthened depending on the choices you make. The younger of the brothers deals with an extraordinary amount of stress and manipulation to discover what kind of person he is at his pre-teen age.
Roman George, the young actor playing the 10 year-old Daniel, realised quickly what kind of performance he needed to bring to the role. “From start to finish, it was pretty emotional and hard. Personally, in the beginning I wasn’t ready. When I started, I was a happy kid and I was just used to that. Then we went straight into evil and dark and it was hard to bring that out of myself.”
Daniel is thrust into horrific situations of bigotry, violence and hatred that you wouldn’t wish on anyone, much less a ten year-old boy. The actor’s emotional range is equally touching and heartbreaking and lays the groundwork early to tie the player to this character in the same way Sean is tied to his brother.
Roman tells me the response to his performance has been worth it. “Meeting fans is extremely fun. It’s awesome. When I first started acting, I never thought that I would have fans. They want pictures with me and they want me to sign stuff. It’s crazy but it’s super dope.”
After playing the role of Sean with an incredible sense of truth and purpose, Gonzalo Martin has been similarly welcomed by fans.
“This is my first voice-over gig and my first video game and I’ve been very surprised at the fan’s reactions to the whole game. With the fanart, it’s been way different from fans of film and theatre. Life Is Strange already has a huge fandom from the first one so it was good that they like the Wolf Brothers and I’m really grateful for all of their messages and drawings. I get really impressed with some of them and I respect their work a lot. It’s amazing.”
Pulling dramatic and real performances from young actors is no easy task, especially when it relates so closely to the current state of the country they live in. Philip Bache, the voice director, tells me that natural talent goes a long way.
“It’s one thing to direct a project that is poorly written, it’s another to have good writing and good actors. Is it difficult to direct younger actors? Yes. Is it difficult to direct younger actors who are good? Not as much. They were both really great and they both allowed me to push them.”
Bache also had to direct the flip side of that coin. Alongside the main characters, the worst kind of people inhabit the story of Life Is Strange 2. The two brothers encounter all kinds of monstrous racists and deranged zealots on their road trip, weaving a tapestry of hate within the western half of the United States.
Bache says that it’s all about knowing yourself, both for him and the actors. “One of the things that happens all the time is that an actor will come in and they’ll know exactly what part they’re playing. They’ve read the lines, they completely understand what the scene is and they’ll start. That’s when I can hear when someone’s lying to me. They’ll be angry but I don’t hear the truth to it. So when we have actors playing the bad guys in our story, I’ll tell them ‘Look I get it, you’re a nice person. Your family and friends know that. Today, you’re an asshole.’ We are inherently who we are, so to get them there, the visual things that I tell them is a lot rougher. I have to talk about the most ruthless things on the planet and I have to make them go so dark that it makes me uncomfortable.”
When playing any of the Life Is Strange games, there are certain choices that the player needs to make to progress the story.
Key events occur and depending on what you choose, the story can branch in different ways and generate various surprising outcomes. This typically comes in the form of response to stressful scenarios – you’re given a few seconds whether you want to escalate a confrontation or try to quell the disturbance. Either way results in choices you are required to come to terms with and then try your best to accept the type of person you’ve become.
Barbet talks about the structure of the choices.
“When you design a game, every day you try to think about the mind of the players. Whether they will respect your design or find a solution too quickly, it’s always difficult thinking about what the player is going to do. The principle of the first Life Is Strange is that it’s difficult to make a choice and keep it because the main theme was that growing up mainly is to live with your choices. Even in Life Is Strange 2, a lot of players tell me they love to not choose to reload because they want to make their choices and live with it.”
Life Is Strange 3?
The team at Dontnod tell me there are no current plans for a Life Is Strange 3 but they want to continue working with each other. I hope they do.
This is a series that stands alone in the world of video games for its compelling characters and rare conviction when it comes to tackling crucial issues many of us face every day, whether we know it or not. There’s plenty of artforms that has fans but the stories created by these writers, directors and actors have earned passionate lifelong followers who feel a real, brutal connection to Chloe, Max, Rachel, Sean and Daniel.
The Life Is Strange series continues to cut through people’s hearts in shocking and refreshing ways. Shattering reminders of people we lost and celebration towards those we love are human traits that are all somewhere within us. Even if we think we’ve somehow moved on from ever feeling these emotions again, they still exist. Laying dormant until someone new and wonderful presents us with the possibility of a new life.
The story of Sean and Daniel Diaz is, at its essence, a story of hope. When the connection we make with other people feels real and unbreakable, it supersedes any stress in our daily life and helps to put it in perspective. Because in our bones, we just want to be loved and understood for who we really are. Whether it is by close family members or the very best of friends, this desire is instantly compelling, no matter where we come from.
This is a harrowing journey into the heart of 21st century America but there’s no border limits on how emotionally relatable it is. It’s an adventure bursting at the seams with wonderful, fully-realised characters who overwhelm the player with the crucial importance of friendship and family, whatever form they take, in the face of fear and ignorance. Over the course of a year, each episode shows us that empathy is the rope we desperately cling to when we need to tell ourselves that not all hope is lost.
From Seattle to Mexico, the core relationships and interactions created by the developers and writers at Dontnod remind us of a simple truth: unconditional love for the people who love us back is the most powerful thing we possess as human beings. It supports us through the hardest times in our lives and terrifies us when we think that it might get taken away. It can convince us that our personal future will be filled with good things or it can permanently destroy the capacity to allow anyone into our hearts.
Sean and Daniel are forced to endure hell to discover just how much they mean to each other and by spending months in their shoes, Dontnod have overwhelmingly succeeded in giving the player the opportunity to discover the same vital element within themselves.
Through a year-long journey full of rewarding experiences, shared emotional trauma and rejuvenating human connection, it is this reminder which makes Life Is Strange 2 a shining triumph of modern storytelling and the best game I played in 2019.
David Rayfield writes good things in good places like Junkee. Tweet him at @raygunbrown