This story contains spoilers for Life Is Strange 2.
Bursting onto the scene in early 2015 with its first episode, “Chrysalis,” Life Is Strange quickly became a phenomenon, earning an avid fanbase, plenty of critical acclaim, and a few awards to boot. Speculation about a potential sequel started almost as soon as the last episode was released. While developers Dontnod Entertainment initially played coy, they announced in mid-2017 that the same creative team would return to work on Life Is Strange 2. Deck Nine’s prequel series Before the Storm filled the void for fans when it was released in August 2017, and the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 launched in September 2018. Two more episodes have been released since then, with the next one coming out on Aug. 22.
Boasting new characters, a new power, and a different kind of story, Life Is Strange 2 has the same feeling and texture of the original but doesn’t continue its narrative. It retains the tone and dramatic heft that made the first game so great, while continuing to place emphasis on player choice and consequence.
Writer Christian Divine said the team began working on Life Is Strange 2 about a year before it was officially announced, breaking down episodes and developing the dialogue and narrative storytelling elements. They helped lay the groundwork for the story with the free-to-play prologue The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, which followed a 9-year-old boy and explored how he and his father experienced loss. Life Is Strange 2 is also about how children deal with trauma, with the two young protagonists forced to flee home after their father is shot by a police officer.
“It was a good way to test the waters,” Divine said. “It was fun to just dip into that world. From a writer perspective, it was challenging to write that kind of character who was all of us on a Saturday morning as a kid. When you wake up, and you’re in that age group, you have the whole world ahead of you. Your biggest problem is maybe a little bit of homework, and not the fact that your dad is an abusive alcoholic. That may be part of the template and the landscape, but kids find a way to subsume that and you have to, psychologically.”
While the the vast majority of Life Is Strange is set in Arcadia Bay, which comes to almost feel like a character in itself, Life Is Strange 2 is less about one particular town and more about the spaces in between them.
“I think we all share a love of road trip literature, movies, and music, so that’s a starting point,” Divine said. “There’s something attractive about that wide stretch of road. Also, you get to meet all these different characters along the way.”
Brothers on the Run
Life Is Strange 2 starts on a similar path to the original, introducing players to protagonist Sean Diaz, a 16-year-old Mexican American living in suburban Seattle, and best friend Lyla. But the familiar high school setting is quickly shattered as Sean and his younger brother, Daniel, are sent on a harrowing journey.
“Part of the Life Is Strange universe is to have a heavy, philosophical world of choices, decisions, and consequence, and you balance that out with beautiful moments and characters that hopefully the players relate to and are involved emotionally with,” Divine said. “It’s all about propelling the narrative at the beginning. I’ve always been fascinated by how an immediate tragedy can change your entire life within three seconds. You can be on this course of thinking you’re gonna be doing X, Y, and Z, and suddenly you’re doing A, B, and C, or you’re not doing anything, or you’re in a different world entirely. Life can change that fast. Life is strange; life can change.”
Like Captain Spirit, much of Life Is Strange 2 is focused on how family members relate to each other with Sean suddenly becoming responsible for caring for Daniel. The pivotal scene has an undeniable power, providing a tonal juxtaposition with the safe, familiar feeling of the opening moments of the game and addressing the way immigrant families are treated in modern America. Divine said movies, art, and literature regularly address politics, and he doesn’t see any reason why games shouldn’t do it too.
“You’re trying to tell a story and engage the player in a narrative, so you don’t want to be didactic but you have to be honest about what’s going on, and how characters are treated,” he said.
Divine said he believes America is and always will be a nuanced tapestry of voices and views, which is reflected in the mixed treatment that Sean and Daniel receive over the course of the game.
“We all go through each step very carefully,” he said. “You’re not going for clichés or stereotypes. [What] these two boys on the run are going to encounter is going to include racism and people that don’t approve of who they are, but it will also include people who do approve of who they are and try to help them. That’s the American tapestry, for better or for worse. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking politics in games. Movies do it, art does it, literature does it — it’s just how it’s done and presented.
“The game’s primary focus is on how its two main characters learn from and are affected by the world around them. The way they react to each other and the people they meet makes Sean and Daniel feel very different from their Life Is Strange counterparts, Max and Chloe.
“With Sean, you’re dealing with somebody who is not as self-aware as Max,” Divine said. “Part of the game is to bring that out of him. Max is a media baby and has all these artistic interests. Sean has those too, but he’s all over the place. Max had an opinion on everything. Sean doesn’t, necessarily. He’s sussing it out, and he’s more quiet in his takes. That’s all deliberate. You want to separate the voices.”
After the initial shock of their father’s death in episode 1, episode 2 brings a feeling of tranquility for the brothers as they manage to find and get help from their grandparents. This respite is short-lived, but the episode lets the characters experience a sense of normal family life once more.
“You get this little oasis, but even then you know that it won’t last very long,” Divine said. “You know that something is going to happen to shift the situation, and you get the sense of how nice it would be for the kids just to have that situation. When you’re writing it, you feel genuinely bad for both of them, but especially for Daniel. Little kids shouldn’t have to go through this.”
The second episode also emphasizes the franchise’s tendency to encourage players to pause and just take in their surroundings, whether that means just sitting in the house or enjoying the ambiance at the market. Those breaks provide an antidote to the hectic drama of the rest of the game, contrast that Divine said is common in anime and classic cinema but is rarely seen in gaming outside big RPGs.
“People can just hang out in their world, walk around, and experience that kind of zen feeling of chilling out and not needing to go accomplish anything major,” he said. “It is interesting that it hasn’t been pulled more into games, but I get why. The medium is more motion-based, and it tends to be focused on that, but it’s only because the industry is relatively young.”
After they are forced to again leave a comfortable and loving home life and continue their escape, the story of Life Is Strange 2 becomes about finding a new family on the road. The brothers end up working on a marijuana farm and living with a plethora of both new and familiar people. Divine said the whole team worked together to come up with a cast of new characters that would maintain the right tone for the game.
“The trick and the challenge is to give them a voice and then make the player feel that they want to know more about these people, that they like them,” he said.
This chapter also offers multiple romantic options for Sean, leaving the choice of which he should pursue up to the player. Divine said he wanted this aspect of the game to feel as realistic as possible.
“You’re trying to make it naturalistic and believable in the context of what’s going on,” he said. “Sean has an exploratory nature, so the player can reflect that also in the choices. You want to present these emotions as valid and show Sean’s mindset of how he might think.”
These relationships affect the way that Sean and Daniel relate to each other too, producing strains that test the limits of their commitment. They also understand that their found family could prove transient.
“Even in this family there’s still dysfunction,” Divine said. “But they also would just like to be kids, to be teenagers who don’t give a fuck. Sean would just like to smoke weed and party with his friends, and Daniel would like just to play with his toys, but they can’t. It’s a quest for them to become a normal family and be kids, but then they’ve also got all this other stuff they’ve got to deal with and take on. I love seeing the arc of characters. Getting it right is part of the challenge of writing them.”
The Lasting Impact of Life Is Strange
Divine said he loves reading fan reactions to Life Is Strange 2 on forums and Twitter and seeing people get invested in the characters and story.
“The greatest thing about the fandom to me is when I get letters and emails from people about how the game’s affected them,” he said. “That’s the thing that means the most to me, if it’s made anybody change their life in a positive way or made them feel or do something or given them any hope.”
He’s also amazed by how much of a cultural impact the original Life Is Strange has had.
“When I walk by Hot Topic stores in the mall and I see my dialogue on a T-shirt, it’s kind of mind-blowing,” he said. “I do a silent fist pump. I’m sure everybody in our team feels that way, with the art and the cosplay, and everything else.”
That success is especially meaningful for a team as small as Dontnod.
“We didn’t have the big AAA budget, but we do have a unique story with unique characters and a unique art style that doesn’t need that budget to sustain itself and have an impact,” Divine said. “I feel like the game will be a touchstone for a certain kind of narrative experience.”