Life Is Strange 2 Episode 4 review and interview – could Max and Chole return?
GameCentral talks to French developer Dontnod about Trump’s America, sex in video games, and a possible comeback for Max and Chole.
Whatever you think of their later output the recent annoucement that Telltale Games are about to rise from the grave is good news for everyone that enjoys narrative-based video games. They’re one of the hardest genres to get right and the list of failures is far longer than the successes. But one of our favourites has always been Life Is Strange, which takes the Telltale formula and tells far less bombastic stories with much more interesting and three-dimensional characters.
The fourth episode of the second season was released last week during Gamescom, so we didn’t have a chance to play it until recently and not before we got to interview co-creator and lead writer Jean-Luc Cano and co-game director and art director Michel Koch. That means we also didn’t have time for a review at launch, but considering the minefield of spoilers, given the season is now only one episode away from completion, perhaps that’s for the best.
But before we get to the interview we did want to offer a mini-review for Episode 4, which we found considerably more engaging than the last two. The story so far involves Hispanic brothers Daniel and Sean, who are forced into hiding after Daniel, the youngest, finds he’s developed telekinetic powers. They first manifest when their father is killed by the police, after which the pair conceive a plan to travel all the way from Seattle to Mexico, to be with their remaining family.
For the last couple of episodes the pair have been laying low and trying to refine Daniel’s control of his powers. Although the real lessons – and the whole thrust of the story – is how the 10-year-old Daniel develops as person, and the influence that you, as Sean, and the other characters have on his personality and sense of morality.
A cliffhanger at the end of the last episode has shifted the status quo though and in Episode 4 the pair are separated and when Sean finally catches up to Daniel he finds him a changed person. Exactly how changed depends on how good a brother you’ve been to him so far, and how violent the ending becomes depends more on your previous decisions in influencing him then anything else.
In that sense the episode justifies some of the more aimless=seeming moments of the season so far, although the whole episode – and the game in general – still has a problem with pacing. There’s almost no traditional gameplay anymore, even less than the first season, and the leaden pacing often leaves you with long sequences where you’re doing literally nothing. They’re clearly meant to be atmospheric, and to a degree they are, but the season has been so languid up to this point that it’s starting to feel like overkill.
There’s also a problem in that the main protagonist of the second half of the episode would’ve been a lot more effective if they’d been built up earlier and in more depth. As it is, they come and go all too quickly and feel more like a caricature than a real person.
And yet there’s some very strong scenes in the game, most obviously a sequence in which Sean is set upon by racist landowners. As a character, the quiet and stoic Sean doesn’t have the intrinsic appeal of Max or Chloe from the first game but in this episode his characterisation is much more sympathetic and you really begin to feel his pain and struggle to protect both himself and his brother.
Life Is Strange 2 is fearless in some of the topics it tackles, with Episode 4 alone dealing not only with racism, but homophobia, overbearing religious doctrine, and the strains of parenthood. The problem is that while it has many good scenes the story itself still feels directionless even at this late stage. Dontnod needed a better vehicle for their characters and themes and without that the game never quite hits the highs of the original and certainly never surpasses it.
Episode 4 is a definite step forward though and the hints about what will happen in the fifth and final episode suggests it may be the most politically charged of all. Unfortunately, that’s not out until December though, and the whole issue of whether the game should be episodic at all is just one of the questions we asked in our interview…
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, and PC
Price: £32.99 (season pass)
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Release Date: 22nd August 2019
Age Rating: 18
GC: I have to say that Life Is Strange 2, so far, is not going in the direction I would’ve expected after the first episode.
JLC: What was the direction you were expecting? [laughs]
GC: Well, after the first episode’s very pointed critique of Trump’s America, with the way it portrayed racism and the police, there’s been very little of that in the subsequent two episodes. It’s just been this kid with Force powers, and his brother, wandering around in the woods.
JLC: I see what you mean.
GC: I don’t want to imply I’m upset because you didn’t do what I thought you would though, because then we start to get into The Last Jedi territory.
JLC: I did read a lot of reviews and player feedback, and after the first episode there was a lot of comments that it was too political and people were saying, ‘I don’t want any politics in my game’ and ‘Why am I forced to play this?’
GC: You went round their house and forced them? No wonder they were upset!
GC: But you weren’t listening to those people were you?
JLC: No, no, we are not. But the story was written a long time ago. A long time before Episode 1 was released we had the five episodes written and we knew where we were going. And we know that it’s a game where we’re talking about hard subjects, with these two Hispanic kids fleeing from the police after the death of their father – after a police incident. So it is politically charged, of course, but it was not our goal to have each episode put that at the centre. Even though that doesn’t mean that it’s not there over the course of the whole story.
For us, before everything, it’s a story about two brothers, about education, and about this journey where Sean, as a teenager, is becoming an adult and where Daniel, as a kid, is getting educated and becoming his own person. So that’s what’s most important. And the other themes, the racism, the police brutality, it’s things that are really important for them as characters but they are not the centre of the story.
One of the big themes of the whole game for us is exclusion in its many forms, which can be racism, but it can also be exclusion because of your gender, because of your way of life – that’s something we show with Episode 3 with the drifters, with really a different way of living and the people that are living on the on the margins of society. So we are talking a lot about exclusion in this game, over the course of the five episodes, and we’re showing a lot of different ways to be excluded.
GC: One of my favourite bits in Episode 2, I think it was, was that brand of middle class prejudice against the drifters, which is a kind of classism that you just don’t usually see touched upon in a video game.
MK: Yes, yes.
GC: But I remember when I first saw the scene in Episode 1, with the death of their father… I think it was here at Gamescom, but it was with a group of people and you could see how shocked they all were by it, how powerful the scene was. Did it end up working better than you expected – to the point where you might now regret not putting more of that kind of thing in the other episodes?
MK: I think we knew from the beginning that this scene was extremely important to get right, because of how sensitive it is from a political point of view. And when I say it was important for us to get it right it was not us being overly cautious. We knew that we would have criticism from the people who would object to it.
GC: Did many people complain?
MK: Yeah, I mean, people said that we were pushing an agenda…
GC: ‘They’re suggesting we be nice to each other! Those bastards!’
MK: So we knew that this scene would be controversial and we knew that it would create a reaction. But our goal was not to have all the game exactly like that. It’s the beginning of their journey and that journey is also a journey about finding yourself. Just how those two brothers decide to evolve and, first and foremost, how do you educate your little brother?
JLC: When we are dealing with social themes or society issues like this, we don’t do so lightly. We do a lot of research. We try to be as accurate as possible because we know that it’s a dense, complicated subject. But our goal as developers, and as creators, is not to give lessons to people to say, ‘Okay, you have to think this way. This is good or this is bad’.
We want to put the player in front of a situation and to maybe make them rethink their point of view, to question whether they may have misjudged themselves and to see a situation with new eyes. That’s what we want to achieve when dealing with these social themes.
GC: I always say that video games are perfect for, literally, putting you in someone else’s shoes, but they so rarely do. So when you get a scene like that it’s a case of, ‘Well, how would you like it if people treated you that way?’
MK: And there is a difference between it and when you see police abuse in the news. It’s very easy to get used to the constant stories, not matter how bad they are, but when you are facing it when playing a video game, and you have the time to bond with your virtual dad, it has a different impact on you.
You know, for example, in the first Life Is Strange, the theme of euthanasia… we had a lot of feedback from people who said to us, ‘I was against euthanasia, but when I’m playing Max, who has to deal with her best friend who asked her to ‘Please kill me’, it’s very different.
GC: Definitely. When you’re playing the role it’s essentially happening to you and the game’s able to separate you from your preconceptions and you see the complexity of the issue.
MK: Exactly, that’s why we always try to say when you have a difficult subject like this, it’s not a black and white issue. It’s not a yes or no answer. You have always a grey area. For example, the cop in Life Is Strange 2. Of course it’s awful because he shoots someone, an innocent guy, but we also show in the second episode, I think, that this guy was a young cop, a rookie, and his partner wasn’t there because of the budget cuts in the police, made by the government. So he’s not a bad guy.
He’s also just a victim and he killed himself after this incident. So we’re not trying to make the statement that all policemen are bad, but there is a reason for everything.
GC: Where was that revealed?
JLC: If you read the newspaper when you’re in the abandoned house you can see an interview from the sister of the dead cop, where she complains about the police system in Seattle for letting her brother go alone without a partner in his car, being just a rookie. She’s not excusing what happened, but she is highlighting the effects of the budget cuts that put an inexperienced cop in a stressful situation where they can easily make mistakes.
GC: One complaint I have seen from others is that you’re dealing with issues that I assume nobody on the team has any direct experience of. How would you counter that?
JLC: I think, as a writer, if we forbid ourselves from talking about particular kinds of characters or subjects we would be limiting our creativity. It’s not our intention to be political or create controversy, our goal is to tell good stories and, yeah… I’m obviously not an American teenager but my job as a writer is to do good research and to be as accurate as I can on every topic. And we do have an American writer working with us, so we have his point of view as an American guy who lives within that society.
MK: I think what’s most important, like Jean-Luc said, is that we do a lot of research. We went for a few weeks travelling, almost the same path as the two boys are taking on the West Coast. And we did try to meet as many people as possible, just to talk to them, to interview them. And, for example, Brody’s character in Episode 1 is based on someone we did meet. He explained how hard it was to live on the road, what kind of people he was meeting, and he was also writing some articles on the side. So we took a lot of ideas for the character of Brody based on that guy.
And it’s the same for the pot farm, we stayed a bit in Humboldt County and we went to talk a lot to the guys – they’re called trimmigrants – waiting to find a spot at the pot farm, working there for two or three weeks then just using the money they get for traveling.
So we based the character of Cassidy and Finn and the other guys on a lot of stuff we learnt from those guys we talked to. In Episode 3 we talk a lot about missing persons and that’s something that happens a lot in that area. Those workers, every year there are dozens of workers that just disappear, that are either murdered or disappear within those bigger farms.
So we try a lot to really talk to people and understand their mindset and that’s something that we really wanted to do with this game, to somehow give a voice to those people we did meet that are never talked about or never really showcased in a video game. So maybe we could have our players discover those kinds of persons and learn about their situation.
GC: I remember in my younger days me and my friends always had a particular interest in French-made video games, as we knew that, whatever the context, it would have nudity in it.
GC: It’s so frustrating how the American ratings system defines how the entire world approaches video game content. Because that sex scene you had in Episode 3 was really well done. It wasn’t in the least bit titillating, it just felt very real and honest. Did you have any trouble getting it approved? Because if you get an Adults Only rating in America you can’t really sell the game there.
JLC: Square Enix has been really supportive of our vision for those difficult subjects. And you’re right, that the ratings system is complicated. So it was… complicated to get this scene to stay in the game but in the end it worked so we managed to push for it. We showed the scenes to the ESRB [the U.S. age rating board – GC] and the other various ratings agencies and it worked because I think we did show it in a way that was never forced or exploitative.
GC: Was there even nudity in it? I can’t remember, because that wasn’t the point.
JLC: There was nudity. Just a bit, but there was nudity.
GC: What did I tell you about the French!
JLC: What we wanted for this was something that felt just natural and normal. To talk about sex, and nudity, within this kind of setting. I mean, Sean is a teenager, he’s discovering himself, he’s with a group of people who have a freer point of view about the world.
GC: The woman was the experienced one as well, he was very unsure of himself throughout the whole situation, which is also rare.
MK: What we also wanted to achieve is to tell people that sex is normal. But in our game you can have sex with Cassidy but you also can, if you want, flirt with Finn or you can also do nothing. We didn’t want to push the player to have sex. It’s do whatever you want. Be free. That’s the message behind the whole episode.
GC: The one genuine complaint I have about the game is does it really need to be episodic anymore? I didn’t think Episode 2 was very strong. I didn’t hate it or anything but if that had just been part of a complete game it wouldn’t have stood out so much. But having it as a whole separate episode, with months to go till the next one, really highlights the flaws.
MK: The first season of Life Is Strange worked really well because I think it’s more like a TV show and we made Life Is Strange 2 more like a movie. And I totally get your point about Episode 2 but when you see the whole of Life Is Strange 2, when you have the fifth episode as well, it’s like a movie.
GC: But surely that’s all the more reason to just release it all in one, as a normal game?
JLC: Maybe you’re right…
GC: So why do you do it? I imagine at the beginning it was because you needed the money to be coming in as quickly as possible. But the franchise is a hit now, you’ve got Square Enix behind you…
MK: It’s not really something we discussed. The first Life Is Strange worked well as an episodic. Square Enix asked us to work on the second game…
GC: Couldn’t you have least finished it first and then just release them once a month or something?
MK: There is publisher constraints there’s… I dunno, maybe it’s just become a habit that could change. And maybe we need to change it. But for this game it was like, ‘Let’s do it again like the first one’. So maybe we should just… you’re right. But what’s good is that Episode 4 is tomorrow and we are close to Episode 5 and hopefully soon everyone will be able to enjoy everything as they want.
GC: And just finally. And because I’m sure everyone you speak to always brings up the subject, but you are going to be asked about bringing back Max and Chloe till the end of time.
GC: It was very brave to have a completely new cast for this game, but people are still never going to stop asking.
MK: I know, I know…
GC: Is there a solution to that? Do you make a spin-off or something?
JLC: For now, we are really dedicated to finishing the game. We have ideas for the next project. To be honest, in my mind, I don’t really have plans for Max and Chole. I think they’re happy wherever they are and there is no plan for us.
MK: My answer is that we really love those characters and we can never say never, but it takes a long time to create a game and we have to think very carefully about what story do we want to create? How do we want to dedicate our next three years? And if at that point we think the best way to dedicate those next three years is to write a story about Max and Chole, why not? But it’s not something we planned for.
JLC: To be honest, I’m not really sure if we are going back to Max and Chole, even if we have a good story. Because it will divide a lot of fans.
MK: There is also the fear that we will not do them justice, that we will lessen the characters if we keep bringing them back. They exist now in everybody’s minds and it’s almost like we’d be interfering with that now. But who knows?
GC: I understand. Well, thank you very much.
JLC: Thank you.
MK: Thanks so much, that was really cool.
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