THE AWESOME ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN SPIRIT REVIEW – OFFERS A TOUCHING PRELUDE TO THE MAIN EVENT
Strong characters and environmental storytelling make The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit enjoyable overall. Despite the main objectives being underwhelming and the decisions seeming weightless, I became invested in the outcome of the story thanks to Chris’ lovable sense of wonder against a well-painted dreary backdrop. Captain Spirit makes me optimistic about what's to come in Life is Strange 2.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a must play for fans of story games, and no experience with the original Life Is Strange is necessary. This free little parsley sprig of a story game will take you no more than an hour or so to play, but all of us who lived through imperfect childhoods will surely be moved. Spoilers ahead.
You play as Chris Eriksen, a young boy with a very active imagination, living in a small house with Charles, his alcoholic, abusive father, a former small town basketball star and walking embodiment of the Bruce Springsteen song Glory Days. In the wake of his mother’s death, his father took to the bottle, lost his job at the local school, and defaulted on his mortgage. Meanwhile, Chris slips into a beautiful fantasy world of his own creation, where he is the super powerful Captain Spirit, and he lives up to the name. Despite personal tragedy, his optimism and warmth are unmarred.
This is the first point and click story game that I’ve ever played from the perspective of a small child, and it made me realize how these games are designed for childlike-interaction. We look at everything. We touch everything. We want to try everything and see every possible path. We transform an environment into our playground, seeking the freedom to do whatever we want and have exciting adventures. Every game hopes that the player will identify with the protagonist, but Dontnod takes it to a different level: Chris is meant to mirror all of us gamers who have escaped our pain via digital fantasy worlds.
In a brilliant example of “show, don’t tell”, Dontnod lets you decide how Chris plays with his toys. He has built up an elaborate fantasy world of good guys versus bad guys, and you can choose whether Chris (as Captain Spirit) acts with forgiveness or harshness towards his enemies. This choice doesn’t change anything in the plot of the game; no path branches based on this choice. But it tells you something about who Chris is.
Is he forgiving towards those who trespass against him, or does he demand that evildoers be smitten? Do you forgive and protect because you were not forgiven nor protected? Or do you destroy your enemies to add some justice to the world? I can’t help but feel this simple decision about action figures resonates with the plot of the game. Chris talks a lot about searching for his imaginary big bad, but his real big bad, his father, is right in front of him. I shot a whole lot of people and made a whole lot of decisions in Mass Effect and never dealt with ethics this complicated or personal.
Captain Spirit shows me that Dontnod understands what worked about the last season of Life Is Strange. It’s the story of an unforgettable, painful transition from innocence to experience, with a touch of the supernatural. These transitions are always about needing something you can’t have: your mother’s presence, a responsible father, or (in the case of the original LIS) your volatile best friend’s safety.
My heart broke for Chris as I moved him around the house, cleaning up dishes, taking out the garbage, and doing all the adult things that his father wouldn’t. Early on, I decided that Chris was the adult in the house, and this is how he was going to handle things. Making matters worse, Chris does it all with a smile, even bringing his dad a tub of microwavable mac and cheese as he gets pass-out drunk while watching a basketball game. Because if dad is going to drink, he should also have something to eat too, right? A child should never have to be a parent at this age, and by making most of your early in-game actions chores, Dontnod makes you feel the injustice.
Throughout the game, Chris pretends to have powers. Dontnod controls the camera in such a way that you can believe, if only for a moment, that he is doing something extraordinary. I hesitate to say that this softly-told story had me on the edge of my seat, but Dontnod faked me out pretty well once using its core mechanic of “press E to use your powers”.
As Chris’ home situation degenerates and tension escalates, his powers manifest, mirroring the classic superhero origin story. If he believes hard enough, maybe Chris’ imaginary world will save him in the end – a wish many of us remember from our childhoods. This is something I’ve always loved about LIS: it takes a fantastical situation and pins it to the earth, where we can touch it, hope for it, and project ourselves onto it. Dontnod makes the magical mundane and the mundane magical.
What are superpowers, really, other than a hope to affect a situation that is out of our control? There’s a certain painful futility in many superhero origin stories. Spiderman, no matter how responsible he is, can’t bring back his Uncle Ben. Batman can concuss a million criminals, but he can’t save his parents. Chris’ superpowers don’t seem like the kind that can break his father’s alcohol addiction or bring his mother back. Or are they? I’m sure we’ll find out in Season 2.
Speaking of Chris’ mom, in a portrayal of grief that feels painfully accurate, you can wander through Chris’ small house, finding tiny mementos of his mother, from her vinyl records to this heartbreaking note.
Like the original Life Is Strange, Captain Spirit has the “oil paint” smeary look meant to convey a sense of idealized memory. In the original LIS, this felt nostalgic and charming, but in the context of Chris’ troubled childhood, it takes on a tragic tone. Tragedy comes near the end of the original LIS, whereas when Captain Spirit begins, Chris and his dad are already living in the wake of one. As the series progresses, I’d love to see the graphics change as Chris either slips into or out of his fantasy world.
While you could argue that Captain Spirit’s graphics look a little dated in 2018, I would contend that high end graphics aren’t necessary in a game like this. The writing, characterization, story, and music are they key elements, and Captain Spirit nails all of them.
This might seem like a little thing, but Captain Spirit’s environmental sound and foley effects are mixed and edited in such a way that that everything feels close and very real. This is a subtle, small thing, but it adds to the overall immersion of the experience.
Also, Dontnod is also doubling down on the soundtrack (one of the best parts of the original LIS). The music is on point. Bat for Lashes’ Moon for Moon and Sufjan Stevens’ Death With Dignity from his devastating Carrie and Lowell album play at key moments. I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that this album includes references to family trips to Oregon, the setting of this season’s LIS.
Captain Spirit, for all of its narrative excellence and artistic merit, is part of a larger marketing strategy for the next season of Life Is Strange. You can’t rightly call it a game demo; it’s complete in and of itself, in the same way that the pilot episode of an exciting new TV series is complete. Maybe “playable teaser” is a better way to describe it – and this really works for story games in a way that would not work for mechanically intensive franchises like, say, The Last of Us or God of War. Gameplay in action titles needs to feel pitch perfect in a way while story games only need to deliver just enough plot to get us excited.
In the future, I hope other game devs follow suit here and give us little playable preludes in anticipation of the main event. Life Is Strange didn’t seem like a series that would’ve benefited from a second season, but Captain Spirit has proved me wrong. Dontnod clearly has a lot more heart to share and story to tell.
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