Image credit: Timothy J. Seppala

'Life is Strange 2' prelude proves superpowers aren't just for girls

Tim and Jess break down 'The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit.'

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    Image credit: Timothy J. Seppala

    In The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, the latest installment in the Life is Strange series, developer Dontnod once again taps into a deep and pervasive human emotion: The desire to have superpowers. However, where the first season approaches this feeling from the perspective of a confused teenage girl with the fate of an entire town in her hands, Captain Spirit puts players in the basketball-spotted socks of a 9-year-old boy playing pretend.

    Though the protagonist, Chris, is younger than the star of the original series, his problems are just as mature: His mother recently died in a car wreck, and in the aftermath, his dad is having a rough time creating a stable home life. Meanwhile, Chris attempts to escape his new reality by becoming the superpowered Captain Spirit -- in his imagination and possibly in the real world, too.

    The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is just a few hours long, and it's free to download right now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. It isn't a full episode of Life is Strange 2; instead, it's more of a teaser for the new story. Still, Dontnod manages to pack a lot of emotion into such a short experience, as discussed by Engadget's Jessica Conditt and Timothy J. Seppala.

    Spoilers for the Life is Strange series, including The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, reside below. You've been warned.


    Jessica Conditt

    Jessica Conditt
    Senior Editor

    Earnest. That's the word that keeps ringing in my head as I play The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. Chris is a school-age boy with bright blue eyes, scruffy blond hair and a smattering of freckles across his nose; he enjoys superheroes, playing with action figures, and helping with chores around the house. He dreams of a better life for his broken family. It's as if developers at Dontnod set out to create a contemporary version of A Christmas Carol's Tiny Tim, but with a particular Pacific-Northwest flair. And superpowers, of course.

    However, that's only the surface. As Chris explores his house and the surrounding snow-drenched yard, playing with toys and reading bits of mail, the innocence fades. Chris' dad has a beer while making breakfast and downs a handle of whiskey before noon, making empty promises to pick out a Christmas tree before the day's end. Bruises line Chris' arm and his dad almost apologizes for causing them. Almost.

    The spectre of Chris' mom hangs over the entire house. The first clue that she's no longer around is on Chris' bed -- it's a how-to book on drawing superheroes, and when Chris examines it, he comments on his mom's comic-making skills. Something about his sentence suggests she's gone, and the remaining game makes it abundantly clear: Chris' mom died relatively recently in a car wreck, and things at home have only degraded from that moment.

    This is what Dontnod does best: quickly creating worlds that feel real, deep and complex. Light and dark exist in every scene. Captain Spirit is no different, despite the fact that the entire experience is just a few hours long. The story immediately resonated with me. Was that the case with your playthrough, Tim?


    Timothy J. Seppala

    Timothy J. Seppala
    Reporter

    For the most part, yeah. With the first game from Dontnod and then the prequel from Deck Nine I was seeing teenage angst from a new perspective. Here, I'm reminded of what it's like to walk around the house wearing a makeshift superhero costume as a lonely young boy. I'm not naive enough to think I'm the only one who did that but, for me, it was easier to empathize and make honest choices given that as a kid, I'd done some of the exact things as Chris.

    His love of sharks and dinosaurs, for example, mirrors my own youth (and adulthood), and watching him joyfully play with a plastic T. rex on the coffee table while his dad, Charles, sat in a recliner watching TV gave me flashbacks. The same goes for when Chris inadvertently found his big Christmas present -- a new game console -- in his dad's wardrobe because I was poking around, looking for bits and pieces to complete Chris' Captain Spirit costume. Or just staying in Chris' room too long interacting with everything while Dad's shouts from the kitchen grew increasingly frustrated.

    Jess, throughout our conversations about this series over the years, you've told me how much you identified with protagonists Chloe and Max. Now, I'm finally able to say the same. What had me worried though was that because this stars a young boy and his dad, that there wouldn't be much of a female presence in the game, and would fall into tropes we've seen so much lately. Cough, God of War, cough. Thankfully that doesn't seem to be the case. Chris' mom bought him comic books, played video games with him and passed on her artistic talents. She's a looming presence even though she's not a principal character.

    Despite Charles' blatant flaws, I'm drawn to him.

    Chris' dad isn't a god. He's a human. A fractured, broken human. Whereas once Charles was a star college basketball player engaged to the cutest girl in school, now he's an alcoholic single father trying to cope with the twists and turns life dealt him, his glory days a highlight reel fading beneath a bath of brown liquor.

    I was mostly able to accept his drinking beer for breakfast because it was game day, but once he pulled the fifth of whiskey out of the cabinet and took it into the living room I was taken aback. And then there's the massive hand-shaped bruise on Chris' arm that ended up being a frictional topic of conversation between father and son.

    But despite Charles' blatant flaws, I'm drawn to him. He still wears his wedding ring regardless of the accident and that he's dating someone new, he fully admits his scrambled eggs aren't anywhere as good as his late wife's. There's good in there, it's just drowning under his demons.


    Jessica Conditt

    Jessica Conditt

    You've given Charles way more respect than I have. The moment I realized he was the reason Chris' arm was covered in bruises, he transformed into a repugnant beast in my mind. Yes, Charles has experienced trauma and heartbreak, but nothing excuses physical (and, later in the game, emotional) abuse. Especially in the case of a father and his young son.

    I wonder if it's easier for me to villainize Charles because I'm playing the game with a little more distance than you. As you noted, this is the first taste of Life is Strange from a male perspective, and while my childhood was also filled with comic books, video games and playing pretend, I was never raised as a boy; the emotional foundation for this relationship is slightly different for me. It's not better or worse from a gameplay perspective, but perhaps my connection to this storyline is slightly less personal than your own. Perhaps it's easier for me to paint things in black and white.

    That said, I still relate to Chris -- and Charles -- deeply on a number of levels. I remember the moment when, as a child, I realized that I didn't understand what was actually going on with the people I loved. I remember feeling like I was trapped in a different world than the adults around me, lacking the ability to comprehend a complex and dire situation, but overhearing conversations, finding notes, opening letters, and putting the pieces together myself. Though instead of dreaming of developing superpowers that could magically solve any situation, I eagerly awaited my Hogwarts letter.

    As an adult, I recognize Charles' competing wills -- he wants to be a good father, a strong human, but he's so tired and life has been devastating recently. Besides, beer is cheap and the bottle is right there. When it feels like things can't get any worse, there's no reason to not drink.

    Still, I have no love for Charles, the abusive father. Meanwhile, I'm deeply curious about Chris' mother and the circumstances of her death. She's more than the deceased wife and mother in this story -- Chris comes across a handful of her comics throughout the game and they infuse her with personality and life.

    It's remarkable that I feel so strongly about these characters after just two hours or so of play time. Captain Spirit isn't a full game; it's a teaser for a larger story, Life is Strange part two, and I'm already invested in it. Plus, this quasi-demo confirms the next game will feature plenty of supernatural goodness, as the worlds of imagination and reality crash in Chris' backyard. Has Captain Spirit renewed or changed your excitement for the next installment in the series, Tim?


    Timothy J. Seppala

    Timothy J. Seppala

    If anything, I'm even more excited. I went into this episode completely blind outside of the trailer that debuted during Microsoft's E3 keynote this year. I wasn't sure how this would connect to the rest of the series until the narrative's final moments, or what all of the foreshadowing would lead to. Watching Captain Spirit transition from being somewhat foreign at the outset to pleasantly familiar the closer I got to the end has me mentally counting the days until Life is Strange 2 is released.

    A lot of what's driving that is my desire to see where Dontnod goes with the relationship between Chris and Charles. What Captain Spirit made clear is that the writing team is just as adept at portraying a believable, layered, unflinching bond between father and son as it is the awkwardness of being an angsty and/or awkward teenage weirdo. Charles feels more like a real human than Chloe's cliched ex-military authoritarian not-step-dad, David, ever did. I'm not saying I love or respect Charles, but, I've witnessed my own dad do and say some very similar things. It made slipping into Captain Spirit's tinfoil helmet uncomfortably easy at times.

    Like you said, it's impressive that in just two hours Dontnod's prologue managed to forge such strong, nuanced characters. I've been thinking about the game since finishing it, imagining the possibilities for Life is Strange 2. Does the neighbor boy have powers as well? Was I actually using mine to make the wood stove burn brighter and hotter? How deep will Charles' resentment for Chris cut?

    I'm probably not going to enjoy the answer to at least one of those questions, but that doesn't mean I want to stay ignorant any longer than I absolutely have to. In that sense, this reminds me a lot of PT, the playable teaser for the Silent Hill reboot we never got. Except this time, barring any unforeseen surprises, we'll actually get to play the finished product.


    Jessica Conditt

    Jessica Conditt

    You just said something that highlights the beauty of Dontnod's approach to video games: "It made slipping into Captain Spirit's tinfoil helmet uncomfortably easy at times." When given the choice between adding a mask or a helmet to Chris' drawing of Captain Spirit early in the game, you picked the helmet -- but I went with the mask, prompting Chris to find some leftover Halloween makeup in the bathroom and draw bright blue raccoon markings around his eyes about halfway through my playthrough. I'm sure there's a small scene that I didn't get to see involving the crafting of the helmet (I didn't even realize it would have been made out of tin foil, which sounds very adorable).

    These small decisions are littered throughout the game, and they stack up to create a unique experience for each player, even as the core narrative remains the same. My perspective on Charles, viewing him as the enemy, will influence my responses to his actions in the full game. I'll probably be more hostile and less open with him than you will be. Maybe my Chris will grow colder and shed his childish naivety faster; maybe he'll transform into a villain, rather than the superhero he wants to be. Discovering how any two playthroughs converge and differ has long added an extra layer of mystery to the Life is Strange series, and Captain Spirit shows the next game will be no different.

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