Image credit: Dontnod

The importance of sitting in 'Life is Strange 2'

The first episode tells a powerful, relevant story.

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    Image credit: Dontnod

    Where is dad?

    The question rings in my head. I'm roughly 15 minutes into the first episode of Life is Strange 2 and I've just realized the real stakes at play for the two main characters, Daniel and Sean Diaz. Daniel is 9 and Sean is 16, and the two brothers are wandering alongside an empty highway on the Pacific Northwest coast, dense trees to their right and asphalt to their left. Their clothes and faces are dusted in dirt.

    This article contains spoilers for the first episode of Life is Strange 2

    It's been two in-game days since Sean and Daniel were forced to flee their comfortable home in suburban Washington, leaving destruction and death at their doorstep: Two bodies on the front lawn and another crumpled beneath an overturned police cruiser. One of them is Sean and Daniel's father, a Mexican man shot dead by a white police officer.

    "Where is dad?"

    Back on the road, it's just become clear that Daniel doesn't know his dad is dead. The realization hits me like a truck as Sean provides a noncommittal response to his young brother's question. This is where the tension of Life is Strange lives, in the minuscule moments between sentences. Internal distress is just as important as high-stakes action and supernatural activity. Life is Strange 2 builds on this foundation beautifully, thriving on the drama, love and vulnerability between two young brothers trying to survive on the road. Deciding what the tell Sean, and when, and how, is just as heart-pounding as running from the authorities or fighting off old, racist, violent store owners -- which Sean also does.

    Sean's secret eats at him as he guides Daniel to camping sites and small-town gas stations, trying to keep the younger Diaz's spirits up with stories of adventure.

    When Sean was exploring his own house just two days ago, chatting with his best friend Lyla about a girl he liked and what they would do at a party that night, I had him pause at a shelf stacked with DVDs. His internal dialogue filled me in: The Diaz boys would watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy every Christmas, at their dad's insistence, and even Sean, the sulking teenager, thought it was pretty cool tradition.

    Walking down a forest trail to an illegal camp site by a river, Sean distracts Daniel from his hunger and aching feet by telling him they're just like Sam and Frodo embarking on exciting new adventures. It works, for a while.

    Sean's heartbreak over his dad's death feels powerful and real, rather than melodramatic and stale, as it easily could have been. Dontnod, the developer of the Life is Strange series, has proven once again it has a deft hand in establishing visceral, realistic, relatable worlds, and building tension from there. In the first 15 minutes of Life is Strange 2, Sean, Daniel and their dad are a happy, banter-filled family unit. Sean sneaks cigarettes with Lyla on the back porch and they plan for the party, discussing the snacks, drugs and booze they'll need to bring. Their problems are those of everyday, middle-class teenagers in the US, and it's fascinating how quickly Dontnod can bring older players back to that time, making things like party supplies feel just as important as saving the world or defeating a final boss.

    Part of this is done through dialogue. As proven in the first season of Life is Strange, Dontnod's characters are often witty and sassy, and developers have smoothly transferred that proven teenage-edged banter onto the Diaz family. Sean teases his brother; Daniel tries to get his brother's attention; their dad provides good-natured wisdom and a steady hand. Lyla is outgoing and direct, pushing her best friend to let loose and have fun.

    Dontnod spends the introduction allowing these characters to settle into themselves, offering plenty of conversation opportunities while Sean searches his house for supplies. The sun is setting; the party is about to begin. Sean has a heart-to-heart with his dad in the garage. Daniel is working on a secret project in his room. Sean and Lyla finalize their plans over Skype -- and then, in an instant, everything changes.

    Daniel gets into a scuffle with the neighborhood bully in the front yard and Sean rushes to intervene. There's fake blood involved -- it's nearly Halloween -- and a cop pulls up just as the bully hits the ground hard, landing on a sharp rock. The cop, an anxious white man, draws his gun on the Diaz boys. Their dad rushes out of the house. Gunshots ring out. Instantly, the neighborhood is ravaged by intense wind and swirling anti-gravity fields.

    When he comes to, Sean scans the scene, taking in his dead dad and the remaining bodies among the wreckage. He scoops up Daniel, grabs the backpack he's filled with party snacks, and runs.

    Everything that happens after this moment is made powerful because of these first 15 minutes. Dontnod takes the time to ground its characters before setting them loose and allowing players to make their own decisions. This character-driven theme is carried throughout the episode, in classic Dontnod fashion -- much of the story is told through the power of sitting.

    "Where is dad?"

    Sean is putting on a brave face for his younger brother. He's torn between telling him the soul-crushing truth and allowing the lie to linger, and he's barely had time to process everything himself. Dontnod gives Sean, and players, a reprieve in a series of quiet and largely voluntary moments, where he can sit on a bench or on the edge of a cliff and contemplate his own thoughts, expressing his intense sadness over losing his dad and home. Everything reminds Sean of his dad, from hiking trails to candy bars to his sketchbook. Every now and then, he needs a moment to take it all in, and Dontnod provides this space in cinematic sitting moments, allowing soft music to swell around Sean as the camera pans around gorgeous forest scenes.

    When you play Life is Strange 2, take every opportunity to sit that you can. Not only is the internal dialogue in these moments rich and revelatory, but it fills the story with heart. It is the story, in a sense. Life is Strange, on the surface, is a series about young people discovering they have supernatural abilities -- the power to destroy entire cities. The power to kill. Yet still, its most memorable scenes are motionless and calm. Supernatural abilities can't hold a candle to the internal turmoil that Dontnod expertly infuses into these quiet moments.

    Life is Strange 2 immediately and consistently deals with intense, real-life issues of racism, political turmoil and gun violence, particularly at the hands of authority. Its first episode demonstrates the best and worst elements of humanity clearly and with no remorse. At one point, a friendly Seth Rogen-style character named Brody turns to Sean and says, "Everything is political," and it feels like developers are staring through the screen, talking directly to players.

    Sitting, allowing Sean and Daniel to find moments of peace within themselves during a wild and depressing journey, is essential to the pacing of Life is Strange 2. Even more than in the first game, the sequel taps into real-world scenarios and fears, and players need the space to quietly contemplate everything that's going on -- just as much as Sean and Daniel do.

    Images: Dontnod Entertainment

    Jessica earned her BA in journalism from ASU's Walter Cronkite School in 2011, and she's written for online outlets since 2008, with four years as senior reporter at Joystiq. She specializes in covering independent video games and esports, and she strives to tell human stories within the broader tech industry. Jessica is also a sci-fi novelist with a completed manuscript floating through the mysterious ether of potential publishers.

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