Life Is Strange 2, Episode 3 – An improvement, a punk romance, and a damaged brotherhood

On May 9, Dontnod released the third episode of Life Is Strange 2, continuing the adventures of Sean and Daniel Diaz. This episode trades the series’ gorgeous vistas for a colorful cast of tourists, outcasts, and criminals living on the fringes of society. Sean and Daniel are growing apart just as the younger brother’s powers are reaching impressive (read: terrifying) heights. He’s getting his Dark Phoenix on, and it’s clear that Sean can’t really control him anymore.
Graphics and sound are good, with kudos for character design. None of the punk characters’ outfits screamed “HOW DO YOU DO, FELLOW KIDS?” which is not an easy thing to do. 

Music is also on point, with some great tracks from Justice, Milk & Bone, and Ben Lee. (Titles not included to avoid potential spoilers – Shazam them when they come up!)

Spoilers follow, so only read on if you’ve played through the episode!

After the tragic events of Episode 2, Sean and Daniel have found a job working at an illegal weed farm in Humboldt County, California. They have fallen in with Cassidy, the charming street busker from E2, and her group of gutter punk transient friends.

They all live together in a hippie camp, and are driven to the farm by Big Joe, the sort of fella who cusses out children while carrying an AR-15. Sweet guy, let me tell ya. It’s a pressure cooker disguised as a hippie camp disguised as a coming of age movie, and the episode revolves around how things reach their breaking point.

Better writing, better acting, more kisses

Dontnod must’ve read my impressions article on E2S2 because they fixed a lot of my issues with that episode. Their environmental storytelling is on point. You can peek into the tents of most of the main characters and examine their things, providing character information as well as Sean’s feelings about each character. You can skip all of this if environmental storytelling isn’t your thing, but the episode is much richer for its inclusion. It’s not Gone Home (what is?) but it’s a welcome return to form for DontNod.

The game starts with a flashback to the Diaz brothers’ lives in better times, when simple sibling shenanigans were their biggest problem. When Sean tries to apologize to Daniel, he fumbles around, searching for the right words and mostly failing. It’s good foreshadowing for the plot to come. My main gripe with the episode’s writing is that I just wish there was more of this.

Gonzalo Martin steps up his game for E3, ditching the weird Shatnerian pausing that marred E2. His performance strikes a fine balance between surrogate father to Daniel and fumbling teenager with Cassidy. He is living in the role much more confidently in this episode.

Speaking of Cassidy, the chemistry between him and Sarah J. Bartholomew’s Cassidy is great. Bartholomew’s worldly yet wistful Southern drawl is as charming as it is slow. She’s the sort of ride-or-die punk girl that I spent all of college looking for. I’m a sucker for teen movies, particularly romances, and Sean/Cassidy is one for the ages.

I like that it isn’t your typical video game romance. The man in the relationship isn’t some conquering hero: he’s a virgin who’s not at all smooth. When the sex is over, Sean feels bad about his performance; it’s hinted at that he didn’t last very long. The woman is worldly and sexually experienced, but the game doesn’t slut shame her for it, nor does it play it for titillation.

The actual sex scene is largely played out via tasteful cutaway montage of the camp itself, to avoid the uncanny valley that digital bodies often fall into when game devs attempt to show on-screen coitus (looking at you, Mass Effect). It’s well done and actually feels romantic – a moment of well-deserved solace for two characters who really need it.

I don’t know if it’s intentional, but the game’s writing is a pretty good example of consent culture in action. During Sean and Cassidy’s love scene, she asks Sean for his consent not once, not twice, but three times as their physical intimacy escalates.

However, in the final choice rundown screens, I saw that there’s a chance that you can piss her off during those scenes, so I’m not sure if she takes “no” well – which would be the opposite of writing that emphasizes consent culture. I try not to replay any episodes until the whole season is released though; I’m sure I’ll have thoughts when this is all over.

You also get a chance to kiss Finn, another punk in camp. Normally, I swing hard for queer romance every chance I get, but Finn is the sort of shitty hippie who spouts simplistic aphorisms like they’re great wisdom. I’m really glad that the game gives you the option to play Sean as a queer character. I just wish your gay romantic option wasn’t such a dirtbag.

Role Models

Life Is Strange belongs to a genre of story games whose main selling point is how the story is shaped by your choices. But this episode is notable for the choices that it denies you. Sean is torn between his new friends and his responsibility for his brother, and you can tell that the strain is wearing on him. It was easy when they were each other’s only friend. But when Sean gets a chance to be a teenager with peers again, he takes it. He has largely run out of patience and gentle explanations, and the game doesn’t allow you to make many to Daniel.

For example, Sean can take a hit off of a joint in front of Daniel, and when he reaches for it, Sean tells him to stop – you have no choice in the matter. No getting your nine year old brother high. When Daniel calls you out for hypocrisy, you don’t have the option to say “You can do it when you’re older,” or “This is bad for you at your age.”

Instead, Sean snaps at his brother: “Because I said so, that’s why!” I found his response so off-putting that I reloaded to the last checkpoint and turned the joint down. I didn’t want to be a “do as I say, not as I do” big brother.

This isn’t to say that I think the writing is bad. Sean is a high schooler shoved into a father role that he never asked for. While unfair, his reactions are understandable and realistic.

Even when you do the best that you can (and lord, I tried), disaster still strikes. You see it coming a mile away, but there’s nothing you can do to avert it. Whereas E2 felt like a story that happened to you, E3 feels like a Greek tragedy that you can’t help but barrel towards.

Choice is always an illusion in games, but the action of E3’s plot feels like a natural outcome of the characters’ attempt to get their needs met, rather than a series of events that just happens to you – a key problem with E2. It’s a subtle but important difference, and Dontnod has managed to perform this particular up-close magic trick well.

The plot leaves Sean and Daniel on a brutal cliffhanger, and I can’t wait to see how it resolves. Episode 4 can’t come soon enough. Nice work, Dontnod, you’ve reeled me back in. At this point, I’m reasonably sure that Season 2 will live up to Season 1. And by that, I mean that it will cause me to cry myself to sleep and feel shaken for days after.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.