Life is Strange 2’s first episode begins as one story and ends as another.
Compared to the opening act of the first season, which involved time-traveling powers, the intro of Dontnod Entertainment’s latest teen adventure seems domestic, even quaint. Sean Diaz is a 16-year-old boy whose biggest concerns include hookups, booze and college applications. His best friend is Lyla, whom he’s tethered to by snarky texts and Skype calls.
When we meet his younger brother, Daniel, and his dad, Esteban, everyone is loving, if not a bit humdrum. Daniel is obsessed with chocolate; Esteban is a nonjudgmental, proud dad; the Diaz boys are a happy group, a relatable trio in suburban Seattle.
And then, 30 minutes into the episode, called “Roads,” the trio is ripped apart. Perhaps it’s no shock that Life is Strange 2 is not the good-natured, low-stakes story it initially feigns to to be. To discuss the story is, in some part, to spoil it, so consider yourself warned.
The Diaz family’s lives change when Sean takes on a bigoted neighborhood teen who’s bullying Daniel. A cop arrives on the scene, and Sean and Daniel’s father is shot in the commotion. Sean’s little brother unleashes an inexplicable torrent of psychic energy, killing the officer in the process.
The game is pointedly set in October 2016, with direct references made to the mounting anxiety of the U.S. presidential election. Sean and Lyla vent over text about the anti-immigrant stances of one particular candidate while watching the debates. Sean spies a strongly worded letter from another hateful neighbor on the kitchen counter. Esteban becoming the victim of a situation he was trying to mediate is a tragic, familiar result, reflecting the United States’ disturbing and ongoing inability to prevent police shootings of unarmed people of color.
Dontnod emphasizes the racial politics at play in Sean and Daniel’s situation, and how they mirror the traumas and challenges of the real world. The struggles that come with their identity are hurdles we rarely see in video games — because most video games star white men who don’t face these problems.
Their race and their deceased father’s immigration status aren’t the entirety of their story, but they are part of it. Life is Strange 2’s first episode quickly jolts in fantastical directions, all the while grounded by the non-fantastical realities of its leads.
The antagonism experienced by the Diaz family isn’t limited to singular life-changing moments. It’s captured in a constant rhythm of discomfort, one experienced by Mexican-Americans who live with daily hostility from white neighbors, co-workers and strangers. The bulk of episode one involves Sean guiding Daniel out of their hometown, traveling throughout the Pacific Northwest as they head south toward Mexico. There, they’ll find peace and safety, Sean thinks. Because in the idealized version of Mexico that he’s hoping to escape to, no one is hissing at him about how excited they are for a president who will put up a wall along the border.
The political divide forces almost every crucial moment of “Roads,” but Life is Strange 2 is still, like its predecessor, built upon player choice. As Sean, the player can decide whether or not to steal from a gas station, which will only give the white owners an even worse impression of him and his brother. They can also accept help and safety from a friendly white face, a traveling, boho blogger named Brody, with gratitude or consternation. Yet it’s sometimes futile to make what feels like the right choice. No matter which path we want to guide Sean down — ideally an honest one, in which we protect Daniel as a replacement father figure, not a selfish older brother — we can’t change how he’s seen by the myopic people around him, who judge his accent, skin color and last name.
It doesn’t matter if the player decides not to have Sean steal anything from inside or outside the gas station. The owner still beats up Sean after pegging him for that Seattle murder suspect; he still uses slurs and threatens to call ICE if Sean doesn’t stay quiet and comply until the cops come, so that the owner can collect his bounty. The creators leverage the limitations of story-driven games — that choice is often illusory, that there is often no right way out of a situation — to portray the daily challenges of the Diaz family in America.
This battle against bigotry is a far cry from the elder Life is Strange’s beautiful, if less believable story. The young women at the heart of season one explored their sexuality and reckoned with their tragic pasts. Impactful as it was to assume the role of a young woman looking for self-actualization, their story existed in a version of our world unconcerned with some of our biggest problems.
The Life is Strange universe in 2018 — or fall 2016, where Sean’s story begins — has moved forward, reflecting a society we immediately recognize. Life is Strange 2 asserts that games are ready to expose and interrogate the wounds left on our country by institutional racism, a contentious government and steadfast ideological differences. One episode in, season two seems ready for the job.