videogame reviews

Life is Strange 2

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Now we’re talking.

After the tedious indulgence of Life is Strange and the dreadful continuity of Before The Storm, I had many reasons to be skeptical of, if not downright repelled by, Life is Strange 2. And I was, believe me. You couldn’t squeeze more patience out of me to entertain yet another bastardization of The Walking Dead’s first season; yet another futile, cowardly tale about fake teens. And, well, I have no idea why I gave this one a try, but I did. And oh boy, it was one hell of a ride.

Life Is Strange 2 follows the journey of two siblings, Sean and Daniel, who escape their home after the murder of their father at the hands of a police officer unveils Daniel’s supernatural powers. It is our duty as Sean, the big brother, to take care of Daniel and help him manage his new abilities.

The premise here resembles that of The Walking Dead in many aspects. The inexperienced caretaker as a protagonist, the balance between doing what’s right and doing what’s safe, the idyllic house that becomes dangerous, their separation, the conflictive objectives of each other. I could go on, but you get the idea. There are, however, two big differences: Daniel is not as docile as Clementine is, and this tale is more hopeful than Lee’s.

Life is Strange 2’s story, just as its protagonists, proceeds in a rash, urgent manner. With little time to linger on liminal periods, to grow organically. We don’t follow Daniel as he becomes stronger, or Sean as he falls for his crush; those things are shown to us once they’ve already happened. We’re there to see them explode, but see them explode without giving up an ounce of hope.

The Walking Dead often painted trust, solidarity or sincerity—traits that define humanity—as naïve, or used cynical sensationalism to stress that you can’t help everyone. Life is Strange 2 portrays the worst of this world—often channeled through racism and police violence—but doesn’t let it sink in spiritually. You’re never punished for trusting those who want to help you. None of them end up tying you up in a dark room—and the ones who do, you see them coming from a mile away. Call me idealistic, but I appreciate this narrative. In the face of adversity, I believe people come together and not the other way around. Imagine a tale about brotherhood and injustice that encouraged isolation and extreme wariness. There’s no truth or power to a tale like that.

This story has been overwhelming to me unlike any other I remember. You can thank my little brother, with whom I share an age difference and relationship very similar to Sean and Daniel’s. This conditioned my experience, of course, but let’s give credit where credit is due because the game does pull its own weight and a lot more in this regard. The way their brotherhood is written is just delightful. By far, the most inspiring part of the adventure and a single-handed reason for me to cherish the whole work.

It also made me realize something: the best choices aren’t the ones that emphasize the act of making a choice, the prospect of its consequences, or the impact it will have in the game world. The best choices are those you don’t realize you’re making. When I chose to hang out with Cassidy and Finn instead of going to sleep with Daniel, I didn’t give it much importance until I found out about Daniel’s loneliness. And to be honest, I would make that mistake again, because Sean is young, and he wants to socialize and have fun as any teenager should be able to.

And let’s not forget about the ending. In Life is Strange, the last choice was not a real choice. It served nothing. It was crude and trivial, even though its consequences were huge. Then there’s The Walking Dead, with another fake choice. This time for good. You didn’t have to decide over anything since the conclusion was the same no matter what you chose. The single choice there was to accept the situation as is. To move on.

This time, the choice was both real and resounding. The relationship between the brothers crystallizes here as a promise for the future, now that the journey is over. Neither of the outcomes feel quite right or wrong, although one is more unfair than the other. That’s the one I chose. And I did because, for me, there wasn’t a choice. It wasn’t worth it, but it was the natural course of action, considering how I had been playing the game and my personal baggage. I’ve never felt more disempowered in a videogame about choice. Refreshing? Well, for sure. But I’m still not satisfied.

Turns out there are two more endings. You get them by having a low morality score—ah shit, here we go again. Life is Strange 2 centers Daniel’s education. You’ve got to teach him how to tell right from wrong, be compassionate, responsible, etc. At certain points, his responsiveness to your commands depends on your previous behavior; your influence is huge and his temper is short, so you can imagine how tumultuous the dynamic between the two can get. However, was it necessary to reiterate it with an extra pair of endings? Nope. No, it wasn’t. It renders the theme of education utilitarian. The mere existence of these endings bugs me, but don’t even get me started on their content. Let’s just say they speculate about why juvenile crime exists with embarrassing conclusions. But alas, that’s far from the worst.

A lot of these videogames are so insecure about their alleged lack of gameplay that they introduce small doses of interactivity here and there. Sometimes in the shape of quick-time events, other times in the shape of sterile puzzles. Life is Strange 2 has both. I remember the first one appearing when you try to convince Daniel to come with you. You have to win this microgame multiple times for him to do so as if you “kept trying no matter what”. And look, that’s the problem with this videogame imposter syndrome: it always leads to puerile ludic metaphors.

If a situation appears gamifiable enough, they’ll go for it. Have to get in locked a room? Let’s hide a key in the house and let the player look for it just because. Your brother is in danger? I’m sure you want to play this stealth minigame before advancing the plot. And the peak of absurdity: morality puzzles. That’s right. You can escape from here using brute force, but that would be bad (and Daniel would remember). Instead, you can solve this real-time puzzle about moving furniture to harm zero cops and be a good brother.

I get that you do whatever it takes to produce a deep connection between the player’s situation and the avatar’s. I get how simulating physical and psychological states might seem like the way to go when it comes to empathetic design. Yet, this blatant assumption of distance, these loud maneuvers of seduction, and the game dynamics that emerge as a result prove how desperate Life is Strange 2 is to reach a target audience that has little in common with these two Latinx kids.

Though the game is sensible and well-informed for the most part, some choices are questionable in the purpose they serve. When Sean is pulled out of a car by two bigots, you get to choose between something that’s racist and humiliating but safe and something that’s combative and dignifying but dangerous. They intended this choice for white people. Anyone with a similar background and/or experience would choose to keep Sean safe, or at least, wouldn’t read this scene as a moral dilemma. Here the game says “What is worse, doing A Racism to this brown kid as a white player or putting him in harm’s way, again, as a white player?” If empathy is built upon the exclusion of the people whose voice you want to reproduce, then something’s not working as it should. Now, let me guess what that is.

Life is Strange 2’s simulationist approach to the unresolved narrative, aesthetic, and ideological spaces points to the unwillingness of this project to let go of the Life is Strange brand; to the risks the series isn’t going to take. I guess, for some, holding on to a sinking ship is worth it, even if your achievements get watered down as a result.

— calei2copi0

Hypnospace Outlaw

★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆

It’s not a secret I’m fascinated by the old web. This enthusiasm isn’t powered by nostalgia since I was born after the fact, but I can’t deny I orbit anything related, including videogames. After falling in love with the internet of the early twenty-first century in works like Lost Memories Dot Net or Secret Little Haven, it figures I had to give Hypnospace Outlaw a try, if not to get a fresh outlook.

Now, imagine a rendition of the old web as seen through contemporary eyes, with contemporary sensibilities. For instance, in this videogame, you don’t use social media as we know it, but the philosophy behind it—hyper-vigilance, centralization, inescapable corporate ownership and control of user-generated content—is the basis of this world. Hypnospace might look like the past, but it speaks like the present.

In Hypnospace Outlaw you’re an internet cop whose job is to navigate a fictional GeoCities, looking for infractions that you can then report to make some coin. Infractions go from using copyrighted material to harassment or distribution of malware. But see, there’s a twist: your job makes the internet worse because your tools are made to strike users, not to help them. Who would’ve thought?

Hypnospace is ambivalent about the implications of this role. In the first chapters, you punish users’ online faux pas or juvenile antics. However, at a certain point in the game, when your role as an enforcer is no longer useful to the corporation behind you, Hypnospace resignifies the game mechanics to give you a much more benign task. Before, navigating Hypnospace was a means of policing: you tracked down the suspect and flagged them, no matter the context, the way the community handles conflict, or even the culprit! You crept into this world only to leech off and erode it from the outside. But in this last chapter, you browse Hypnospace in order to archive it and use your enforcement tools to dismantle the evil corporation’s crimes. The mechanics don’t change, but their framework does. As an enforcer, your work destroys the game world. As an archivist, your work preserves it. This hopeful gesture is a nice conclusion, but it’s not enough to hold the nebulous vision of the game.

One would think its visual influences or the anachronistic elements it injects into them would point to a commentary on either the past or the present of the web, but I’m afraid representation doesn’t entail insight. Thus, whether the personal web pages are meant as satire, nostalgia bait, or sincere character studies is irrelevant. They build an environment, but such an environment doesn’t allow itself to be; it’s there in the service of something else that came afterward. Let’s keep the slow loading times and the quixotic navigating system, but put some juiciness into it. Let’s use the personal site format to tell stories, but the actual story is incidental to them. This swerve turns the lore into the story and vice versa, illustrating the work’s lack of direction and purpose. It is as if Hypnospace Outlaw looked only through its heart, not deeming it enough.

— calei2copi0

Bury Me, My Love

★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆

Beware, for in this game, your choices have real consequences. Yup, it’s one of those. But this time, you have to save your girlfriend not from a storm created by time travel, but from a very real threat: war.

At least, compared to other videogames of its kind, its treatment of this humanitarian crisis isn’t as obtuse or insensitive as I’ve learned to expect. Bury Me features a detail-rich context, but it’s not condescendingly didactic; it is familiar, yet sober—which in this case is only appropriate. At least, on a superficial level—but the problems of this work run deep.

I’m tired of this videoludic ego, of this savior mentality, and of this exceptionality attributed to something that’s not meaningful for the reasons we’re often told it is. No, videogames are not “the perfect medium” to build empathetic narratives (this idea isn’t just incorrect; it’s also easy to exploit) because the potential bonds they can create with the player through interactivity (don’t get me started) are unprecedented (people should consider diversifying their cultural horizons). Like, come on, let’s stop pretending these illusive truisms aren’t the indie alternative of “This videogame makes you feel like Spider-man”.

Bury Me, My Love’s creators wanted to give a voice to Syrian refugees through the character of Nour while placing ourselves—players presumed to be living in western countries oblivious to her position—in the role of her husband, Majd, who guides and counsels her throughout her journey. To give off the impression that Nour isn’t the avatar of the avatar—a collateral object of our whims and fantasies, instead of an autonomous subject—, the game will make her disagree with and even ignore our instructions sometimes. On paper, this decision strips us of our agency, so we can experience what her husband, texting her from a different country, would go through in that situation. But they couldn’t commit to a decision like that, now could they?

I mean, it’s a videogame. That’s why they offer you 19 different endings and encourage you to get them all, right? Well, this renders the power dynamic between the presumed agent (Nour) and the actual agent (us) very conflicting. Bury Me might want to implicate me in its politics, but willingly sabotages its premise to the point of turning itself into a collectionist game. Oh, and it wants me to accept that Nour has agency of her own, engendering the same issue: she seems to do, but doesn’t, for the sake of the game experience.

Sure, videogames have an inherent proficiency in broadcasting these messages, but they have to stick to crass conventionality and revere player agency in that pursuit somehow. How strange! It’s almost as if empathy was a marketing buzzword at this point and videogames had a lot to offer, not because of generic innate virtues, but because of their artists’ vision. However art is defined I don’t know, but I’m sure of this much: art isn’t just there, art is created.

As harsh as this might sound, I don’t think the creators of Bury Me, My Love thought they were making art first and foremost—although yes, they were, and no, there’s nothing wrong with not doing so. This videogame’s vision is journalistic to the quick: it wants to inform, to archive, to be faithful to reality at all costs, and to encompass a wide range of circumstances, albeit channeled by the same character, because they don’t want to miss the full scope of this (his)story.

Said fixation with accuracy is the core of the experience in every other sense. From the uncanny similarity the interface has with your messaging app of reference, to the focus on telling the story in a hyper-realistic chronological order, Bury Me makes its tone, ambitions, and narrative devices clear-cut.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Bury Me, My Love is a work of art out of convenience. For example, if you want to humanize a marginalized group of people, turn them into defined characters! We are all weak to the charms of drama, after all. That would be counterproductive in a journalistic setting for several reasons, but might work to an extent in a fictional narrative. No matter; Bury Me doesn’t show a lasting interest in that sort of expression, and that’s a wound the game can’t heal from.

The narration is devoid of spirit and can get ridiculous when its obsession with fidelity and player options get out of hand (replying to people’s suffering with emojis is gimmicky, to say the least). As advocacy journalism turned into fiction, it lacks earnest execution, while as a personal/universal narrative, it lacks a heart. Bury Me, My Love isn’t exploitative, but is for sure a palatable gamification of a conflict that doesn’t want to confront me, either aesthetically or ideologically.

— calei2copi0