The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a prequel to Life is Strange Series 2, and it’s out now for free, and well worth downloading
When The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit was shown off at this year’s E3, it bore the strapline, “an original story in the Life is Strange universe.” They needn’t have bothered. It was easy to tell what universe we were in from the folkish fingerpicking on the soundtrack, the Saturday morning drift, and the setting: that treed corner of cool, bright America, of humble houses and preoccupied kids.
But scrape off that enamelling and you’ll find deeper constants with Life is Strange. Dontnod has returned, after leaving the prequel series to Deck Nine, and writer Christian Divine is back at the helm with his partner, Jean-Luc Cano. We have strayed from Arcadia Bay but not far; we’re still in Oregon. Ten-year-old Chris Eriksen lives with his widowed father, Charles, a college basketball star, and burnout, who is haunted by grief and the dimming of past glories. He drinks cans of beer with breakfast, and there’s a bruise on Chris’s arm.
That its treacly title belies an inner darkness should come as no surprise; the series has always been about human frailty, as well as courage. An everyday crisis calls for an everyday hero, and Chris has a cape for the occasion. More than that, in fact: his eponymous alter-ego is an assemblage of cereal box suave, adorned with coloured hand-wraps, Halloween face paint, and rub-on tattoos. We get the sense that the armour isn’t for Captain Spirit, though; it’s for Chris.
Most of what falls to you in this two-hour taster episode consists of small acts of heroism: doing the dishes after Charles makes breakfast, recycling beer cans as he feels asleep in his armchair, and getting the water heater back on. It’s long been the case in Life is Strange that play comes down on the side of busywork too often; that combination locks and significant birthdays have dominated the puzzles for too long; and that a firmer leaning on its challenging adventure game heritage would be refreshing. It seems churlish to complain at the games ease when that’s never been the point, but there is a pang of restlessness in Dontnod’s formula that’s starting to rear its head.
Young Chris obviously feels our frustration, as he injects these acts with as much imagination as he can muster. An icon flashes over certain objects, giving you the chance to unleash Captain Spirit’s powers: in a neat bit of symmetry, Chris extends his hand similarly to Max – a ‘stop’ gesture mixed with a ‘don’t go’ grasp. There’s some cute teasing at play too: he’ll seemingly will a TV to life, only for us to see the remote in his other hand; he’ll raise the garage door like a Jedi, after pressing the keys in his pocket.
Dontnod, in creating a new series with new characters, is faced with a refreshing blank page. It’s fitting then, that the game’s setting, Beaver Creek, is a papery place: the snow as white, and the sky as thin – a pale blue jagged against the firs. It isn’t the Beavercreek you’ll find in Oregon; it’s closer, with its higher climes, to the Beaver Creek in Colorado. It’s a frosted mirror for Chris, whose head is in the cirrus, and for his father, whose alpine moods betray crevasses of bitterness.
It also allows for some striking environmental details. Behold The Snowmancer, one of Captain Spirit’s nemeses, a mean-looking snowman, of Chris’s construction, in the back garden. It’s adorned with the objects of his fear: bottle cap eyes, beer can nose, and plugs of cigarette-stub hair. It’s a perfect show of Divine’s writing, which is less baroque than that of Zak Garriss, who write Before the Storm. Garriss filled his work with nods to Shakespeare, and constructed a marvellously meta ‘play-within-a-game’ set piece. Divine settles for restraint, blanketing his metaphors in the snowy setting for you to uncover quietly as you play. For Divine, the Game’s the Thing.
The same is true for Chris, who escapes his reality with play. He’s a soft presence, unlike Chloe Price, and more easily readable than Max Caulfield. In contrast to his father, who’s clouded over with anger and pain, Chris’s limpid innocence and heart give him the toughness of one of his hard-wearing plastic toys. Both boys live in a house that’s greying with absence, as if its heart has been ripped out. The mother, Emily, is everywhere: her music (vinyl, of course), her clutter, her photographs. Our ears ring with a silent howl.
And what about that ending? It’s no surprise really, but it does bring us back to that trailer, to this Life is Strange ‘universe,’ and to the notion of heroes. The one thing that kept coming back to my mind was this little snippet from one of Kurt Cobain’s interviews, from the film About a Son:
Maye that’s where we’re heading. Maybe at the end of Season 2 all the world’s – or maybe just Oregon’s – freaks and aliens and everyday heroes will all assemble, like the polaroids on Max’s wall.