Content Warning for talk about child abuse.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, a free teaser-ish game released to generate interest in the upcoming Life Is Strange 2, wastes absolutely no time getting to the point in its short run time. Beer cans litter the house, the father is constantly lamenting the difficult situation they exist in “without mom”, our young main character has suspicious bruises on his arm; you know from the get-go exactly what kind of story is being told. Almost immediately I felt a wave of exhaustion come over me as I tried to make my way through it – it’s not that I don’t want people telling stories about abuse, nor do I particularly hate Captain Spirit itself – it’s just that this narrative is, at this point, a very familiar and very tiring part of the video game narrative landscape. God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and A Way Out (and probably a few more) have all just this year tried to tell stories about fathers acting badly when mom’s gone, and many of them are poorly thought out or downright offensively written. The problems I have with the story told by Captain Spirit are not necessarily unique to Spirit itself, but rather are perpetuated in the environment it exists in.
We’ve already gone over the politics of the father-child relationship in games on the site, and it certainly doesn’t need repeating. The total absence of the mother is important in these narratives in that she is ultimately an expendable plot point, an entity that once existed and magically held the family together (the literal Super-Mom, as Captain Spirit puts it in a small note received from her) until her disappearance from the picture brings out the worst in the father. The father being depicted as in some way not suited to parenthood is something that has some troubling implications; Kratos in God of War being too much of a gruff and violent man to properly show any signs of affection for his son is thematically not far removed from Captain Spirit‘s father who seems incapable of being a loving father without also being frequently aggressive when probed or when he feels it necessary. The only real difference between the two is between the fantasy warring Nordic setting and the mundane modern one, and the framing of adventure and tragedy – both games are, essentially, worried about the same thing (which, in both cases, happens to not really be the child’s feelings).
Exploring the house as 10-year-old Chris is mostly an exercise in uncovering the story behind why his father is how he is, rifling through his belongings and talking to him almost exclusively about how losing the mother makes him feel. Chris’ existence seems to be almost in contradiction to the story itself – you can listen to his mother’s old records, to which Chris says he “loves to do”, but his father will comment that he hasn’t “heard her favourite song in years” (so he doesn’t do it that often then?). In the concluding scene a neighbor will check up on him and comment that he should play outside “like your dad used to”. He’s more of a vessel for things to happen to narrate the father’s story than he is a character in his own right. While he does get to go on his own adventures, he ultimately has very little input himself on the abuse narrative, and even after he runs away crying in the last 10 seconds the story intervenes to give him superpowers in order to cut this moment short.
It’s a major problem with these narratives that they don’t seem to properly consider the feelings of the victim or the long-term repercussions of familial abuse. The focus on immediate and recently begun abuse combined with the focus on the narrated downfall of the abuser themselves is certainly not unique to video games but it’s still a big problem in that the people genuinely affected by it are sidelined in order to tell a traditional tragedy. The repercussions of acts like this don’t stop when it stops, and it’s often a lifelong problem that people have to live with, so why do stories only want to talk about the downfall for the people doing it?
I’ve had some major problems with Life is Strange‘s narrative approach in the past, and the same problems seen in the original game reflects in their newer work. Heavily related to the theme of awful dads is Chloe’s stepfather David, a paranoid, creepy and aggressive security guard at the school, who wants to double down on the surveillance at the school and acts abusive towards Chloe. For some reason completely unbeknownst to me, the narrative decides to paint him as someone who “secretly cares” but is too caught up in being hypermasculine to show it. Perhaps even more stupid is that in the culminating confrontation with Jefferson, David is the one who ends up saving everyone and is proven to have been right all along. This is the same character who obsessively stalked a student and drove her to suicide, by the way, being given the moment to be the hero while also enabling his controlling, manipulative behaviour as being warranted. If someone as shitty as David can be given a heroic moment I have no doubt Charles would too.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the original, for me, is the ending – save your girlfriend and leave the town to be hit by a “magic” storm or let her die to prevent it. The latter ending is clearly the one vastly preferred by the game itself, getting an extended story wrap-up and a licensed song to go with it while the other is a quick montage of the two driving away, and the specifics of “sacrificing Chloe” or “sacrificing Arcadia Bay” as they put it really puts the game as a whole into perspective. This is not even the first time Chloe dies in-game – she’s shot twice already, three times repeating the original instance in order to “save Arcadia Bay” (four if you accidentally shoot her), she’s hit by a train, and in one particularly problematic scene you can euthanise her when in an alternate timeline she is severely disabled after a car crash, simultaneously contributing to a terrible treatment of queer characters and massively undermining and offending the disabled all in one terribly handled scene. So when the finale rolls around and this is the choice they want you to make, if the moral of the story is that you should succumb to fate and let queer women die for it – what kind of moral lesson is that for a game supposedly trying to represent lesbians?
It’s this history that ultimately left me disappointed with Captain Spirit. Well aware that Dontnod had previously pursued tired and troubling conventions of “mature” storytelling, and seeing them do it again, has only left me with even less hope that Life is Strange 2 will be an improvement. Perhaps it also didn’t help that, after hate-watching a Detroit: Become Human Lets Play and seeing the abysmal attempt there at telling an abuse narrative, seeing the exact same tropes and story beats get used again in Captain Spirit, even in a more cohesive and much less aggressively awful story, was just tiring. LiS may have more self-control than famously hamfisted director David Cage, but seeing both Todd from Detroit and Charles from Spirit utter “and if it wasn’t for you…” to their child made it incredibly hard for me to take Dontnod’s attempts at tackling the narrative without some apprehension. I’m certainly not attributing Spirit as being quite the same form of trainwreck as Detroit, but when all these stories are drawing from the same pool of conventions – and especially when Life is Strange as a franchise is winning Games For Change awards – it’s a real concern when all these abuse narratives tend to sound so similar to each other.