Oh look, this Life is Strange spin-off is due out next week as a freebie. The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a two-hour pretend-em-up in which you play Chris, an imaginative kid who fancies himself a superhero on the weekends, and isn’t afraid to take on evil beings like the powerful Snowmancer (a snowman) and nasty beasts such as the dreaded Water Eater (the water heater). That sounds like fun. Until you discover the real enemies lurking in Chris’ modest bungalow. Grief, alcoholism, and neglect are the underlying villains here, if the demo I saw at E3 is anything to go by. More like the Super Concerning Adventures of Captain Sadness, am I right?
We were shown about 25 minutes of the game, introduced to the superboy as he plays with action figures and a model spaceship in his bedroom. It’s a wintry Saturday, with snow blanketing the garden outside, all of which we can see from the window, which is, of course, adorned with stickers. As the player, you get to move Chris around, interacting with bits of scenery, inspecting his toys and furniture. But when you put on your cape and costume (you get to pick the exact combo of costume parts) the real options show themselves. Holding the left trigger on a game pad will let you interact with the same everyday objects, but in a superhero way. Chris holds out his hand and turns the TV on with the power of his mind, for example.
“It’s just me, Captain Spirit,” he says, “who can bend all matter to his will!”
It’s clear he’s not really doing these things (he’s no Max Caulfield). But his imagination doesn’t make a distinction, and we see things from his perspective as magical powers manifesting in small ways.
Chris picks up a walkie talkie and makes an emergency broadcast to his ally, Sky Pirate. This friend of justice is in the treehouse outside, which we can see from the window. A run-down collection of planks and plywood. It looks like there’s nobody there. But to the young superhero, of course there is. This is all basic childhood stuff, but there’s a hint of pity here, something sad about this kid, alone in his room, talking to an imaginary friend. The reasons for that are about to become clear. Chris’ dad calls him from the kitchen – breakfast is ready.
Dad is in on the joke, humouring his son’s superhero aspirations and making cheery remarks about it as he puts down a plate of eggs. But he’s also drinking a tinny of beer, something even Chris can comment on, if you choose that option in the dialogue menu that appears.
“Dads are allowed to drink early,” says his father defensively. He flashes with impatience. “What am I supposed to do? Go to church like all the other assholes?”
I can tell this is the game. Navigating your childhood with a father who is sometimes likeable and playful, but also sometimes a neglectful, even hurtful, person. As you wander the house and garden, you have a piece of paper with tasks drawn on it in colouring pencil. Defeat the snowmancer, or finish your costume, for example. Your home and its surroundings are your “sandbox”, says Dontnod, but you can also help around the house.
In fact, some of these playful activities are basically chores or household tasks that Chris disguises as a game. At one point he steels himself to enter the dangerous realm of the Water Eater (the heating cupboard) and once inside he finds himself faced off against the beast in a scene that channels that scary basement scene of Home Alone. Of course, beating the heater is just a matter of flicking it from “off” to “on”. When he emerges from this adventure, he tells his dad the heater was left off again, but dad is busy watching American football.
Again, it’s not a straightforward depiction of neglect. At one point Chris fires a Nerf dart at his dad’s head while he watches the game, and his dad lolls in the armchair, pretending to be a “superzombie” for the sake of a smile from Chris. The implication is that this is a complicated family, reduced in size due to some unspoken tragedy, and coping as best it can under the circumstances. It’s just that one of them is coping by getting lost in their own head, and the other is getting lost in an aluminium can.
I was never enamoured with Life is Strange’s teen heroes and their time travel drama. But the pathos delivered in this short demo is enough to get me on board for the spin-off. The dialogue between playful child and struggling adult seems more naturalistic than the teenspeak and teacherspeak of earlier games. Although there are nods to the rest of Life is Strange, found among the clues about your mother’s fate. A letter from principal Ray Wells of Blackwell Academy, for example. But it looks like this can be played without any of that knowledge, which suits me fine.
Our demo ended after a brief foray in the garden, but I’m keen to see how Chris gets through the rest of his Saturday, and equally keen to see his dad lift himself out of his armchair, out of the football, and out of the bottle – if he can. Every superhero needs allies, and Captain Spirit is no different.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is due out June 23. Check out our E3 2018 tag for more announcements, trailers, news, and goodness knows what else.