Review: Life is Strange 2 – Episode 4 ends in a bust

Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Life Is Strange 2 – Episode 4: Faith aspires to great heights and twists an ankle on the way there. Dontnod’s writers don’t seem to understand that their best moments are also their smallest and most personal. Faith provides some excellent pay off for some of this season’s slow-burning tensions, but its main plotline was a bust, which involves a cult leader, her fanatical followers, and Jacob.

Spoilers follow. 

Sleight of hand and the illusion of choice

“Jacob who?” you might ask, and so did I. He’s the boiled potato of Episode 3 whose defining trait was his very clean tent. He mentioned, in passing, that he grew up in a religious community, but it had no real impact on the episode’s plot, and thus I barely remembered it.

And this gets to the root of what bothers me about this season. Sean and Daniel’s story is a (cold, hungry, desperate) road trip. Its narrative structure allows Dontnod’s writers to minimize the impact of your choices; almost nothing I did in Roads seems to change what happens in Faith. Supporting characters disappear each episode, never to return. They write you; you never get a chance to write back. It’s not enough. 

Choice in video games is always an illusion, but Season 1 pulled off that sleight of hand much better. Max and Chloe were stuck in Arcadia Bay; each choice felt like it built on the previous one. Did you save Kate or did she die? Did Warren kick Nathan’s ass? Your fellow students at Blackwell Academy always had something to say about your actions. Max Caulfield lived in a world that felt reactive and real.

But because Sean and Daniel are always moving on, your supporting cast has no arc. You never see Brody, Merrill, or the Eriksens again. Even Daniel is a yo-yo – he drifts away from Sean, but always returns.

Episode 3’s memorable punks – Cassidy, Penny, and Hannah – do not appear in Faith. Finn, that aphorism-spouting walking disaster does appear, and I’m in the tiny but proud minority (7%) that told him to shove it. For everyone who cut him a break, I encourage you to call Finn selfish. His response boils down to “At least I chased my dream!” and if Sean still had two eyes, I’m sure he’d weep with sympathy.

My issues with your issues

Just like LIS 1 refused to say “sexual assault” out loud, LIS 2 won’t say “racism” out loud. But both seasons have no problem using both as major plot points. LIS 1’s plotline revolved around a boy and his mentor drugging, killing, and sexually abusing girls, but the game couldn’t seem to call this sexual assault or rape. LIS 2’s entire plotline happens because of anti-Latinx racist aggression and includes racist violence, kidnapping, and psychological abuse, but refuses to say the word “racism” out loud.

At one point, a Latinx female FBI officer interrogates Sean about his father’s shooting in Seattle. She asks if his father attacked the police officer and Sean insists his father is innocent and that the cop assumed he was “guilty of being… who knows?!”

Why isn’t Sean allowed to say that racism is why this shooting happened? The game begins because a racist neighbor attacks Daniel, a police officer shows up, immediately takes the white neighbor’s side, and shoots a Latinx man trying to protect his children.

S2 flirts with progressive politics, but refuses to call out the systemic racism that set this story in motion. This is the sort of well-meaning, but shallow narrative that damages social justice struggles. When it portrays racism as the result of the actions of individual bigots rather than a racist system, it lets players think “We should get rid of those bad apples,” rather than questioning the social systems that created them. If you’re going to try to handle American racism (which has become an even deeper crisis since the series started) in a game, you should do so in a way that’s complicated and nuanced. 

The game’s unwillingness to do so makes Faith’s latest, and perhaps most humiliating episode of racist violence feel unnecessary. Sean escapes a hospital by stealing a car. He drives all night to Nevada, trying to reach Daniel. He falls asleep by the side of the road and is attacked by two racist brothers, who manhandle him, assault him, demand that he teach them Spanish, and then insist that he sing in Spanish or suffer a beating. This is real. Things like this and far worse happen every day in America. But why is this here? Why subject the player to racist violence while saying nothing about the underlying system?

I’ve lived through things like this. It’s gross, painful, and unforgettable. But it’s not enough to portray racism as bad. While America apparently needs that reminder every so often, a game should be doing more than that.

Small, personal moments still shine

And despite its shortcomings, Faith still moved me to tears. At the end of E3, Jacob scooped up Daniel and brought him back to the tiny Nevada town where he grew up, which is run by a cult. Sean tries to rescue Daniel, but is rebuffed and beaten.

This is when the Diaz boys’ mother, Karen, finally appears. She is the mother who abandoned them, the ghost who haunts their lives. She takes Sean back to a roadside motel room and you can finally interrogate her reasons for leaving you. They’re shallow – she felt trapped and unhappy as a mother and wife, so she left. She was selfish. She has no excuse and doesn’t try to make one. Her apology felt empty and the game let me reject it.

This is where Faith showed its greatest narrative and thematic strength. Sean has endured immense suffering for Daniel; Karen couldn’t even live a normal life for children she claims to love. Karen is childish and immature, while Sean can and has moved heaven and earth for his brother.

Maternal abandonment almost never appears in narratives of any kind. This makes sense; it is much rarer than the deadbeat dad story. But broken, absent moms also exist; I had one. And I almost never get to see my life experience reflected in a book, movie, or game. Sean gets to have a conversation I never did. It was painful. It was real. And it was a healing experience for me. All of LIS’s painful nuance and depth showed up here, and it tore me to shreds.

Life Is Strange is at its best in beautiful, tiny human moments: sneaking into the school pool after hours with your best friend. Comforting that friend through the nightmare of grief. Losing your virginity to a beautiful girl. Telling your brother that you love him. Confronting the mother that abandoned you. These are the indelible threads that compose the tapestry of a life. S2 isn’t about a boy with telekinesis. It’s about the love between two brothers. It’s about family, when it works and when it fails.

Faith tries so hard to be dramatic. It indoctrinates Daniel into a cult. It invokes Scripture. It imperils a little girl. It makes a cross fly. It burns a church. And it forgets that the core of drama is real people trying to get their emotional needs met. Lisbeth Fischer, the cult leader, is a cardboard cutout, not a person. I’ve cared more about bosses in Remnant: From the Ashes than I did about her. Thus the episode’s climax is left feeling like the ending of a b-movie.

The final episode of any multi-part narrative experience always promises earth shattering events, but I hope Dontnod remembers that narrative climaxes don’t need telekinetic explosions to be emotionally devastating. Sometimes a conversation with your mom is enough.