DONTNOD’s latest deals in caricature, and so does our reality.
“So, you’re like, all… political?”
Sean Diaz, the teenage protagonist of Life is Strange 2, poses the question as he rides shotgun next to Brody, a freelance journalist living out of his car, as they travel through a dusky forest. Brody has just informed Sean that, when he isn’t writing articles or selling things on eBay to pay for food and gas, he travels the country and hoists signs at protests; trying to make a difference.
Brody turns and locks eyes with the young runaway in his passenger seat; with us, too. He allows each of his words to carry appropriate weight.
“Everything,” he intones, “is political, Sean.”
Brody’s pronouncement reads like a thesis statement for the new season of developer Dontnod’s breakout Life is Strange series. It also reads as an indictment of state the AAA games industry.
This year’s Far Cry 5 marketed itself as boldly political game. It appeared poised to make a statement about the nature of whiteness and gun violence in the United States. But the finished release ended up sidelining the white supremacist cult we thought we were getting in favor of a multiracial gang of radicals united in a belief that the end times are a-coming, and strung out on hallucinogenic drugs.
The Division 2’s Terry Spier told Polygon’s Charlie Hall that Ubisoft’s shooter, set during a civil war which is ravaging Washington D.C. is “absolutely not” making a political statement. To Hall’s credit, this was received with the proper amount of sputtering incredulity.
The AAA games industry, which pours massive amounts of money into products for a famously reactionary consumer base, is understandably risk-averse. Life is Strange 2, however—set in the last weeks of the 2016 presidential election with a plot set in motion by a white police officer attacking people of color— is not. It’s a ballsy and ambitious shot in the arm that I sincerely hope sticks the landing. As it stands— and let’s be clear, right now the first episode is all that’s available— Life is Strange 2 has the potential to be the year’s most important game.
The series’ previous mainline installment laid a solid foundation for what Life is Strange 2 accomplishes. The story of Chloe and Max was implicitly political, a game about the powerful relationship between a pair of teenage girls who were either queer (in Chloe’s case) or questioning (in Max’s case). Life is Strange 2, though, is explicitly about our current political moment, and not in a metaphorical or satirical way. The game opens nine days after Hillary Clinton’s final debate against Donald Trump and the following phone conversation, between Sean and his Asian-American friend Lyla, is a few texts back on Sean’s phone:
“Did u watch the freak show?…”
“Of course we did. My dad’s so mad he asked me for a puff”
“I’m drowning myself into dank memes”
And then a little later:
“Seriously tho. He’s not actually gonna win, right?”
“I dunno man”
“Fuck. I don’t want to live on this planet anymore”
Frequently, the cringey, tin ear teenspeak of the first Life is Strange made me wonder, “Who actually talks like that?” Scrolling through Sean’s phone I recognize the conversations that I was having in the lead up to Donald Trump’s election presented here in the same form I was having them. Life is Strange 2 has a believable voice, in part, because it was willing to take a side; to tap into a painful, terrifying memory that’s fresh in the American memory, and present that memory from the vantage point of the marginalized people for whom it posed the biggest threat.
I didn’t mention this above but, Brody is a stranger to the Diaz boys. They meet him briefly in a convenience store where they’re looking for cheap food and he’s using the Wi-Fi to write. Shortly after Brody heads out, the store’s co-owner, an angry, old white man, approaches the brothers and accuses them of robbing his store (and, full disclosure, they might have; stealing to get by or paying for necessities is up to the player). Sean and Daniel try to run from him. Daniel succeeds and gets away, but Sean is knocked out, captured and locked up in the man’s office.
When he comes to, he’s handcuffed to a pipe. The man enters the room and confronts him, informing Sean that he recognizes his picture from the news. He knows what Sean and Daniel are running from.
“You’re the reason we need to build that wall,” he says.
Had that line been included in the original Life is Strange it would have served as an example of the series’ penchant for cartoonish characterization and hamfisted dialogue. But, a lot has changed since January of 2015. Dontnod’s writing has gotten better, more subtle, to be sure. However, Life is Strange 2 is working to encapsulate our current American moment; a moment that is largely defined by the cartoonish excesses of our president and the political party and propaganda outlet that further his agenda and insulate him from consequence. Building a wall between the United States and Mexico was a politician’s joke platform when Arrested Development’s fourth season aired in 2013. It’s a legitimate policy proposal now, a plank of the Republican platform. We need to move the goalposts of subtlety to correspond to the cartoonishness of our reality.
This is the first game released by a AAA publisher—props to Square Enix— to attempt to capture the state of America in the lead up to (and I would assume, in future episodes, during) the Trump administration. Life is Strange 2 understands that everything is political. But more importantly, it understands that at a time when politics are soul-crushingly dumb, everything takes on a surreal garishness. Policy wonks fingerpaint proposals on the spit-flecked surfaces of fun house mirrors.
Life is Strange 2 deals in caricature, at times. That’s fine. That’s where we live now.