The Only Weapon In ‘Life Is Strange 2’ Is Empathy
In this world-on-fire year of 2018, they say that if you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention. Every day, political leaders wear their bigotry on their sleeve, human rights are being curb-stomped in almost every country, and climate change is coming to kill us all.
When none of these events directly affect you — when they’re not right up in your face — not paying attention is easy. You just get back to work, or keep studying for that exam. You’ve got your own life to lead.
Life is Strange 2‘s Sean Diaz has his own life. He’s 16 years old and lives in the suburbs of Seattle. His best friend Lyla wants him to hurry up and get things ready for a house party tonight. He has to deal with his annoying little brother Daniel. He has to build up the courage to ask his dad, Esteban, for a little bit of spending money.
He’s a typical 2018 kid. Playing online games with his friends, sketching in his art book and worrying about life after graduating from school. Sean is also of Mexican heritage. His dad hails from the town of Puerto Lobos and hopes to return one day with his sons.
It begins with a choice (spoilers)
As Sean is Skyping with Lyla, his 9-year-old brother is accosted by their racist neighbour in the front yard. Sean intervenes to protect Daniel as the neighbour shouts for the Diaz family to “go back to their own country”. The player is given a choice. As a result of self-defence, a passing police officer pulls his gun on the two unarmed brothers. He tells them to get on the ground. Daniel is immediately terrified. Sean is angry.
Esteban comes out to see what’s happening and, with an instant feeling of dread, runs to their aid.
The white cop’s gun goes off, and Esteban is shot in the chest. An unexplained explosion kills both the cop and the racist neighbour. Within these couple of moments, Sean’s life is destroyed. Any concerns about a party or school are gone forever. Hearing sirens in the distance, he is confused and scared. He picks up an unconscious Daniel, grabs a backpack and runs. Here’s where the game truly begins.
Packing an emotional punch
The Life Is Strange series has never been afraid of packing an emotional punch. It places you in the shoes of characters who have relatable fears and dreams and has created a dedicated, diverse fan base across the globe. In the world of video games, this level of appreciation can be almost impossible to achieve in big-budget game franchises, much less a small collection of point-and-click adventures.
Life Is Strange 2 not only places you in the shoes of Sean Diaz, but in his environment. It gives you a window into his consequences and his mind. The question of “How would you react if you were him?” is at the forefront of every choice as Sean tries his best to care for his brother. His own personal denial of grief for his father is necessary as he is instantly thrust into a new life he wasn’t ready for and suddenly, responsibilities start to increase.
Sean has gone from sibling to parent in a matter of minutes. He needs to figure out what the hell they’re going to do — quickly — as they walk along backroads and sleep in the forest, hungry and alone. They’re two young boys on the run from the police. Confused and scared in a world which, in recent years, has become more confused and scared about them.
The real world
In any other fictional story, the choice would be easy: turn yourself into the police and just explain what happened. But Sean and Daniel live in our world.
Sean’s extended text message history reveals what he and Lyla thought when Trump and Hillary had a televised debate. He’s aware enough to have seen dozens of news stories about racist police officers shooting people of colour and the cops not being punished. What police station would believe some Latino kid when there’s a dead white cop in front of his house? They would be more likely to believe the sadistic rural shopkeeper who later says to Sean, “You’re the reason we need to build that wall”.
The ability to experience events through someone else’s eyes is the foundation of video games, but it’s rare that those events leave a lasting emotional impact on a player’s own life. Hundreds of characters with no personality can be killed instantly within a game. When other characters have no reaction to this tsunami of death because they have no personality, nothing really matters by the time you put the controller down.
The details and consequences of Life Is Strange 2 stick with you for days afterwards. You’ve been given a preview of the life of a 16-year-old boy of colour, which you may not be yourself, and you’ve chosen his actions.
Thanks to good writing, three-dimensional characters and decisions that aren’t just black and white, this breeds new feelings. You begin to understand what other people might be going through.
Video games and politics
Any notion of games being ‘not allowed’ to deal with politics or real-world issues immediately begins to crumble away when Sean is freaking out about what to write on his crush’s Facebook page or spends some time singing along to The Streets. He’s just trying to be a teenager. But thanks to the colour of his skin and the state of 2018, his Sunday afternoons might look different from those of Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake or God Of War‘s Kratos.
The player can see how the world is for Sean. It’s the one everyone else lives in but through his specific eyes. A place where Donald Trump’s angry rhetoric has normalised bigotry the world over. Giving the worst kind of humans the confidence to speak their minds whereas, in the past, they may have kept their mouths shut. Like a Bat Signal for scumbags.
Co-workers, the random guy on the street, Youtubers and powerful government leaders around the world hear the message loud and clear. They now know that the personal shame of discriminating against people who look and act differently from them is not as strong or absolute as it once was. Which results in devastating consequences and families being destroyed.
As the boys’ journey begins, Daniel is deeply traumatised. He doesn’t really remember what happened. He’s constantly asking his big brother why they are so far away from home, and when are they going to see their Dad. Sean has no idea how to tell his brother the truth. Couple that with two hungry stomachs and TV reports about a statewide manhunt for the Diaz brothers, and you have a teenager consumed by levels of stress that few of us would ever experience.
All he knows is that they must keep moving.
Instead of shooting countless bullets at faceless enemies in a game, Life Is Strange 2 has weaponised the feeling of empathy and directed it towards the player. It repeatedly fires at your preconceived notions of the world, and you’re left with little defence from the reality of white privilege.
It’s a shield that protects a whole chunk of the population from seeing the real state of the world, and affords them the ability to say things like “Keep your politics out of my video games”.
Holding an emotional trigger
Any art form can convey a range of emotions which make a person rethink their own world. It can be a powerful catalyst. An unexpected release from ignorance and stereotypes to reveal a new appreciation for the people around them. But by actually placing someone within these environments, complete their own personal choices, games can take it one step further. It can give these new feelings a chance at a permanent home.
Life Is Strange 2 shoots indiscriminately from the heart and doesn’t care who’s standing in the way. It rips through any protective barriers that a player’s mind may have built up through years of family influence and schoolyard prejudices. Even difficult questions about ourselves that we refuse to ask.
The heartbreaking — yet hopeful — introduction of Sean and Daniel Diaz holds that emotional trigger firmly down from start to finish. Judging by the rest of the events in the first episode, it has infinite ammunition.
‘Life is Strange 2: Episode One’ is available to play now on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. Episodes 2-5 are coming in 2019.
David Rayfield writes good things in good places like Gamespot, Kotaku, Medium and…elsewhere. Tweet him at @raygunbrown