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25 minutes with Life is Strange 2’s brilliantly unexpected free prequel

25 minutes with Life is Strange 2’s brilliantly unexpected free prequel
10 Jun
8:59

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a standalone narrative experience set in the Life is Strange universe that will launch on PS4, Xbox One and PC on the 26th June, and it’s completely free to download – you don’t even have to own any of the previous Life is Strange games to unlock access. It was developed by Dontnod at the same time as Life is Strange 2, and will serve as the first introduction of the Life is Strange 2 universe. I was shown a short demo of the game earlier this week by the game’s co-directors, Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, but I already can’t wait to play.

Dontnod was keen to impress it would be properly revealing Life is Strange 2 “soon,” but until then, Captain Spirit takes place in the same timeline, in the same setting and the same universe of Life is Strange 2, and players “will be able to discover a lot of clues and hints in this game as to what the story and setting of Life is Strange 2 will be.” There are even some choices in Captain Spirit that will carry over and have consequences in Life is Strange 2. According to Dontnod, “it’s a perfect entry point to the games we’ve been creating, but for fans of the games there will of course be nods to LiS1.”

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I asked the team why they decided to make an additional game set in the Life is Strange universe. Koch replied, “Because Life is Strange is not a single set of characters or a single town. It’s not just Max and Chloe. For three years now, we’ve created lots of new characters working on Life is Strange 2, and Captain Spirit is one of them. When we started working on Life is Strange 2, started talking about settings and characters, it was quite a huge story. We saw potential in a lot of characters, to find a bit more about their backstory and their side stories.”

So who is Captain Spirit? It’s the alter ego of Chris, a ten year old boy obsessed with superheroes living with his father in Beaver Creek, Oregon. The game puts players in control of Chris on a typical Saturday morning three years after the events of the original Life is Strange, as he plays around the house and allows his boundless imagination to carry him off to other worlds. You’ll learn more about the location in relation to Arcadia Bay when you play the game. “It’s not directly near Arcadia Bay, but it’s still in Oregon, so not that far,” according to Barbet.

The game is all about seeing the world through Chris’ eyes. “We really wanted to talk about being a kid, and this sort of blending of imagination and reality and how, for the player, we could use this vivid imagination to have fun, but also use it to tell Chris’ story. What are his fears? What is the relationship with his dad like? And so on.”

“We knew the game would be free, so it sort of changed the way we designed and wrote it,” continued Koch. “We were completely free to create this small sandbox of a kid on a Saturday morning. What do you want to do? Do you want to help your father out? Do you want to revel in your own imagination?”

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The game begins with the sparkling, feathery chords of Sufjan Stevens’ Death with Dignity, a beautiful song whose somewhat upbeat tempo masks a much sadder story. We find Chris playing in his room, and one of the first things you do in the game is decide on Captain Spirit’s costume. You’ll start off with a cape (sorry, Edna Mode), but you can then choose the details. A mask or a helmet? Light armour or heavy armour? A dark costume or a colourful one? When you’re ready for battle, you’ll be able to explore the room for a bit, and it’s seriously impressive how many little interactions and prompts are scattered throughout Captain Spirit. Dontnod claim that the game will be between one and two hours long, but Life is Strange fans will no doubt be going over every little extra with a fine tooth comb, so there’s definitely more for those who want to see it. There’s apparently a lot of replay value and plenty of hidden elements you can discover, so you might need to do several different playthroughs to find everything. “Players that want to see everything, it’s definitely more than two hours,” said Barbet. “Something that we learned a lot with Life is Strange is that slow pacing worked a lot with players, they love to explore,” added Koch. “And this kind of setting with Captain Spirit is great for those players, definitely, because there are a lot of ‘gifts’,’ if the player takes time to search everything; try different armour, different combinations of interactions.”

It’s a Saturday morning, you’re a little boy, and the entire world is yours to explore. Bringing up Chris’ hand drawn quest log (his equivalent to Max and Chloe’s diaries) will show you there’s secret treasure buried outside, but Chris must first locate the second part of the map which will unlock new locations to explore. As a superhero, you of course have enemies and allies that you’ll be able to meet in the game, including the evil Snowmancer (a mean-looking snowman), and the Sky Pirate holed up in the Flying Fortress (a teddy bear propped up in Chris’ treehouse). Since Chris pretends he’s a superhero, there are lots of interactions in the game where you can add a bit of a flourish to a normal action by pressing the trigger button to use Chris’ Captain Spirit ‘superpower’. These are quite playful; an example shown was, as Chris approaches the TV, instead of just turning it on he dramatically reaches out his hand and, hey presto, the TV responds, springing to life with just the power of his mind… until he produces the remote from behind his back. The player will often be able to choose whether Chris performs these actions normally, or whether he uses his superpowers to bring a little extra magic to his morning. There’s something about this whole feature that almost feels like a sly commentary on the mysterious role of powers in the Life is Strange universe – will they make a return in Life is Strange 2 in a different form?

Chris is soon called downstairs for breakfast by his father Charles, and this introduces another new mechanic to Captain Spirit – you’ll be given the option to respond to him (or not), while you’re playing, exploring and doing other things – there’s also a time limit to doing this. So, you can call to your dad to tell him you’re coming, or you can ignore him, and each will illicit a different response from him when you finally do make it downstairs. He’ll have a different reaction if you stay in your room playing – perhaps he’ll be more annoyed with you as a result?

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Chris’ father clearly loves him, but he’s quietly struggling. He chugs a beer with breakfast before quickly graduating to whiskey on the couch before Chris even finishes his meal, and you can decide whether or not to comment on it. “It was interesting to us to tackle those more difficult themes from the perspective of a child,” said Koch. It’s never explicitly said, but it’s heavily implied that the reason they are both struggling is the recent death of Chris’ mother. This is bolstered by the choice of song in Death with Dignity, which Barbet says ties in strongly with the theme of the game, and that “Sufjan Stevens’ personal story parallels Chris’ story”. Interestingly, the song will return at various key points throughout your playthrough, and some of the lyrics, depending on your actions, will play in certain scenes – almost like you’re unlocking the lyrics as you explore. The title of the song refers to the Death with Dignity Act, enacted in Oregon on October 27, 1997, which allows terminally-ill Oregonians to end their lives through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications. The song was the first track on a deeply personal album dealing with the relationship and death of Stevens’ troubled mother, reflections on his childhood with her, and how he moved forward into new beginnings, but it remains to be seen how much of that will parallel with the story of Captain Spirit.

After breakfast, you can take Chris on a number of new adventures. You can explore his room, where there are toys, comics and drawings galore to pore over, or you can take on a more exciting mission. The one we saw was Chris dealing with the “Water Heater Monster,” a scary foe located in a dark abyss just beyond the laundry room. Essentially, the heating has conked out, Charles is too preoccupied to deal with it and so it falls to Chris, but, like a lot of kids, Chris is afraid of the noisy machine hidden away in a dark corner of the house and so must put on his costume to become Captain Spirit before he can pretend he isn’t afraid any more – and find the courage to face the monster. Heading into the room, you’re stepping into another world, where kids use the power of imagination to cope with difficult realities, where they turn their own houses into places of wonder. The water heater monster is truly a frightening foe – a perfect example of the fears you have as a kid causing things to become more than they are – but similarly, accomplishing even the smallest of tasks can feel like the greatest of victories, and once you tame the foul beast you’re back in the real world after conquering a formidable enemy.

Captain Spirit was developed by pretty much the same team that worked on Life is Strange, with Barbet and Koch once again as co-directors and Jean-Luc Cano returning as writer. The three of them worked together on story and characters. “Chris was here when we were working on Life is Strange 2,” said Koch. “Little by little, we talked about specific things about him, and we thought it’d be great to have him as an entry point into this universe. In the beginning [Captain Spirit] was really something from Life is Strange 2, but afterwards of course, we created this game as its own thing, focusing on the biggest stuff about Chris, like the relationship with his father – something we really wanted to talk about.” There are lots of instances where you can choose to do little tasks to help your clearly struggling father around the house, like loading laundry or tidying things as you go. You can also play with him a little bit, shoot him from behind with a nerf gun and he’ll proclaim that “you can’t kill the zombie jock!”

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But you also have other important tasks to attend to, like completing your costume. Depending on what customisations you chose that the beginning of the game, you’ll have to go hunting for different items, and as you search the house, garden and garage for costume ideas you’ll find a wealth of other little treasures, not including the mystery magazine stashed behind your dad’s gym kit. It all looks very much improved upon from LiS1, too, as Captain Spirit was developed using the Unreal 4 engine; upgraded tech but very much the same DNA as Life is Strange with regards to cinematography, artistic direction and music. Aside from Death with Dignity, there are two other songs featured in the game, one is an electronic song by a French artist.

As you explore, the garage will be one important place to find out more about Chris’ mother and the family’s background – it’s here you’ll find a letter from Principal Wells and discover that Chris’ mother went to Blackwell before the family moved to Beaver Creek. Though Dontnod wouldn’t tell us much about the family’s connections to Life is Strange or whether any Life is Strange characters would make a cameo in Captain Spirit, it’s clear there will be plenty of clues for those players keeping their eyes peeled.

Once you assemble Chris’ full costume, you’ll gain access to new areas of the map. Maybe you’ll head out on a quest to kill the snowmancer, or even visit a new planet to defeat Captain Spirit’s arch nemesis Mantroid, but it’s seriously surprising how much content has gone into Captain Spirit, everywhere you looked there were interactions begging to be explored. But how will your experiences there carry forward into Life is Strange 2? “We’ll take into account the final save of the player in Captain Spirit, and there will be some consequences in Life is Strange 2. We cannot say much more about it but there will be some consequences, some changes, and the players who played Captain Spirit will understand things and see more links in their playthrough,” said Barbet.

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“You can play Captain Spirit on its own, and also you can play Life is Strange 2 without playing Captain Spirit, but for us the best way will be to play this before LiS2 because, as we said, there are some consequences, but the player will also have some interesting information to go into Life is Strange 2 with,” Koch continued.

That said, Captain Spirit won’t necessarily have multiple endings. “It’s more the actions you do during the game that will be saved,” Koch said. “There are variations in the playthrough, but it’s more about the way you spend your morning rather than how the morning ends. You’ll have to play to see the ending, but I’m sure you will love it.”

In all honesty it feels odd to be in the Life is Strange universe playing as a ten year old boy instead of a teenage girl, but it’s also odd how well it works, tonally as well as gameplay-wise. Life is Strange was all about snatching a moment, capturing a feeling in time – like lying in bed listening to music after a night out that changed your perspective on everything. For Captain Spirit, it’s those Saturday mornings that stretched on forever, in which you felt you could do anything or be anyone. It’s a fresh perspective, but it taps into the same nostalgia. “I think when we started to work on this game and the project as a whole, we wanted to start fresh,” said Koch when I asked whether they wondered what fans would think. “We had some new ideas, new characters, new themes that we wanted to tackle – so it’s a bit of knowing what the players like but also trying new directions.

“We try not to think too much about what the player wants and just try to find the ideas and characters that feel really strong for us. We hope that the players will feel the same way about it. Hopefully players will end up loving Chris as much as Max and Chloe.” Honestly, given how charming this first introduction has been, I think I already might.

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