Wot I Think: The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit

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It’s Monday, and what better way to start the day than with a crunchy bowl of Honesty covered in ice cold, full fat Admissions of Failure: I have not played much Life Is Strange. I got about fifteen minutes into the first episode, the dialogue started to grate, and I zoned out. Controversial opinion maybe, but if you’re making a game about teenage girls, it can’t hurt to pay someone who is or has previously been an actual teenage girl to help write it for you.

Guess what though? I played through the whole of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, got a bit sad, and then I played it again, and now I’m well up for spending more time in the Life Is Strange universe. Which is great, because it means I don’t have to talk shit about a small child. Yay!

Captain Spirit stars Chris, a ten-year-old with a head full of art, basketball, and superheroes. After a brief introduction spent designing your own costume, Chris stands up from his desk, admires his room, and lets out a triumphant: “Hello Saturday morning! I can do anything I want today.” It’s infectious, and while the world outside Chris’s window is blanketed in snow, his private universe bursts with colour and memory. By the time you’ve finished looking at every book and playing with every toy, you’ll know enough about the way Chris sees the world to genuinely care about his journey.

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Before you get that far, however, you’ll have to decide whether or not to ignore Chris’s dad calling him for breakfast. You can make him wait while you explore the room some more, but he might get impatient if you delay too long. Captain Spirit is pleasantly reactive once you start to poke around a bit. I clocked in around two hours my first time, but I was eager to dive back in to see what else I’d missed.

This is a world shaped by Chris’s imagination, whether it’s fear of a water heater made manifest in a ghostly apparition, or the way he deals with his Dad’s depression. When you’re so young, the lethargy that accompanies adulthood seems cold, and adults themselves almost cruel in their inability to recognise the magic you see around every corner. Chris’s solution to this is boundless optimism, and it’s both inspiring and heartbreaking to watch him navigate a situation beyond his control.

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Captain Spirit makes his armour from cardboard beer boxes while Chris’s dad drinks himself to sleep in front of the television. He’s playful with his son – kind, if distant. But fist-shaped holes in bedroom doors undercut melancholy with menace. It’s subtle, but was enough to scare me when it seemed Chris might drop a glass as he cleaned up the mess from breakfast. It’s not that I thought his dad would lose his temper — it’s that the game conveyed his unstable state so well that I couldn’t tell. Deep down, Chris knows he can defeat the evil snowmancer, or his arch-enemy mantroid, with ease. His dad, who can go from best friend to something Chris doesn’t understand in a heartbeat, isn’t so predictable.

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He’ll still give Chris the warmest smile in the world when you bring him a microwaved pot of Mac n’ Cheese, though. The writing ebbs like this, between warmth and sadness. So much of this is down to Chris himself. After dad drops an accidental F-Bomb over a morning beer, Chris chides him, letting him know that “Superheroes don’t swear”. He’s not off the team just yet though, more “like a rebel”. It’s all part of the game, but I got the feeling that Dad was grateful for the brief moments he got to live in his son’s world, rather than face his own.

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This hopefulness is Captain Spirit’s true superpower. In a threadbare backyard dotted with piles of junk, a gnarled tree becomes a monster. Just across the fence, pine trees glow with christmas lights while his dad’s promises to buy their own tree still ring hollow in his ears. Despite this, you’ll barely walk a few feet around Chris’s house without him finding some new story, adventure, or portal to another world. Make sure you dig deep, by the way, Captain Spirit’s best moments take a bit of exploring, but they’re well worth it.

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That said, I don’t think Life Is Strange has completely overcome the writing problems that turned me off initially. The story has a habit of leaning heavily on Chris’s naïveté as an emotional core, and it’s not always convincing. Both Chris and Dad manage to have plenty of character traits, without ever feeling all that much like characters in themselves. However, it is just a teaser. There’s a tendency to applaud games just for being confident enough to set aside the spectacle and find elegy in the everyday, even if the result feels less honest or well-realised than other media. But Captain Spirit is at least brave enough to let its guard down, to find the silence between the notes, and to be ordinary, and that’s worth a lot.

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It’s also hard to tell if the game would be quite as affecting without the Sufjan Stevens soundtrack, since you could score a Go Compare advert with Sufjan and I’d still end up bawling my eyes out. But when the alternative to a game like this is David Cage’s Detroit: Beyond Human, a story like Captain Spirit’s, that can lean into the tragedy of a broken family without turning it into cruel spectacle, feels important. The fact that Dontnod have made it free seems like they’re proud of what they’ve made, and want you to be as excited as they are about what’s to come. They absolutely should be, because there’s some beautiful, delicate moments here. It’s converted me, anyway, even if I’m sure Dontnod are going to reward my newfound interest with emotional devastation at some point in the future.

You can get The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit on Steam for free

51 Comments

  1. Dave Mongoose says:

    I absolutely loved the Life is Strange soundtrack so I’m glad to hear this one has good music too.

  2. Slimham says:

    So we’ve reached the point where we can’t write about things we haven’t personally experienced. That’s a profoundly depressing and regressive ideology.

    • Jac says:

      I must have missed something.

    • klops says:

      I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point in that one sentence. To me it sounded like that the protagonist of Life is Strange didn’t act like a teenage girl in the writer’s mind. There was no evil conspiracy of SJWs or goddamn liberals trying to cage our freedom.

    • wackazoa says:

      Think of it more like this. Say youre white and european, how could you write about the trials and tribulations of a black south african during apartheid without it being cliched? Or maybe you are a male, so how could you write about what its like to be a female who has been raped and make it feel authentic?

      Now not saying you cant do these things if you are white (apartheid) or male (rape). You could interview people, get lots of stories and put them together to make a authentic experience…. or you could hire someone who has been through it. I think that is more what the author is saying. Adults writing teenagers feels like adults trying to think what teenagers think. Just get some teenagers…

      • Slimham says:

        My issue here is that the author did not judge LiS on its own merit, but rather wrote it off after 15 minutes and cited the writer’s genders as the reason. 15 minutes is enough time to determine whether or not something is or is not for you, though I would argue that the first 45 minutes of LiS is almost deliberately off-putting. 15 minutes is not enough time to assess whether or not the writers portrayed female characters well.

      • upupup says:

        As I note below, that treats authenticity as a truth that can only be gleaned through having experienced the related circumstances, which is questionable, and as a prerequisite for good writing, rather than a preference, which is a baffling way of looking at it. Writing is much more than that and hamstringing ourselves by throwing up such limitations would leave us with next to nothing to read.

        • gwathdring says:

          Write what you know is hardly controversial advice unless you take it at it’s most literal and forbid the advisor from adding any further nuance. Broadly speaking, the further you extend from your own experiences, the harder it is to accomplish certain things in the work. This matters more for some works than others.

          I think it’s worth remembering, too, that making this about high concepts like restricting the freedom of writers or leaving us nothing to read is a very silly red herring. Turning writers or their works into hypothetical victims of restriction because of criticism, advice, and frustration that suggests this or that writer should have done something differently and that their cultural background may have played a role in how things disappointed is a rather violent pivot of the conversation. I think it’s good to recognize just how out of proportion it is. Western literary canon isn’t going to collapse into a repressed dilapidation if writers think more carefully about who and how they write.

          (Not least because even as a response to an exaggerated form of the complain it falls apart–plenty of works from our literary canon are written with less distance from their subject matter than Life is Strange seems to have been.)

          Especially when certain stories don’t often get an opportunity to be told in blockbuster video games, it can be frustrating for creators and audiences alike to see those stories told by people who lack a deeper cultural history with those stories. This can be frustrating both because they’re more likely to miss the mark in places and because there are often creators who do have deeper cultural associations with these stories who get passed over.

          It’s not exactly a secret in creative writing circles that writing children is difficult and writing POV characters who come from substantially different cultural backgrounds than oneself can be quite intimidating and challenging. The doesn’t make it forbidden, but it doesn’t give you a free pass for getting things a bit wrong, either. When you choose to take on a challenge like that, you’re still expected to rise to it if you want people to enjoy the work.

          • upupup says:

            ‘Write what you know’ is a general writing tip for beginners, while what I’m talking about is how the emphasis put on authenticity today mistakes it for an essential component of good writing. That is also the point of my example, as authenticity when looked at as I’ve lined it out and as has been referred to by others here is so limiting that it would very much disqualify basically everything we consider well-written – the way we use research is by itself already a very modern concept. Treating this as a distant high concept or a red herring is deceptive as this a fundamental distinction that needs to be made when it comes to how we approach the value of writing.

            What writing is and isn’t permissible is also not what I was talking about as it is irrelevant due to the quality of writing not being a matter of ethics. It also isn’t a popularity contest, so what an audience and other authors wanted to see doesn’t matter; whether they’re frustrated or not that you didn’t do something different doesn’t matter, whether certain ideas don’t get into the most popular works doesn’t matter and whether or not they’d have wanted to tell a different story doesn’t matter. This is about the value of art and artistic expression, not mass appeal and economic viability. Authors complaining about what they wanted to see or make is especially disrespectful as they’re not even looking at the work in question for what it is, but projecting their own fantasies onto it – judging it based on a work that doesn’t exist. If that’s what they want to see then they are free to make it themselves, and if they lack the means to do so then that is regrettable but not a flaw of the work itself, but they have no business acting as if the artist has an obligation to do it for them. The same applies to audiences; judge the work for what it is.

            As for different points of view, you’re mistaking a technical skill, skillfully using very different character voices, with there being an objective criteria on how to write it ‘right’ that needs to be met, which there isn’t. There’s nothing forbidden about it, regardless of the subject, nor anything to get wrong. That’s the beauty and far reaching potential of writing, because all that matters is the work itself, not the artist and not all the noise surrounding it; art for the sake of art.

    • gwathdring says:

      Personally I’d say it’s more that especially in a highly collaborative medium with a history of troubling gender politics, it’s probably better to do what you can to immerse the game’s writing in diverse and authentic viewpoints than to take your best guess.

      It’s not that you can’t. You quite obvious can–people do it all the time. But it’s always riskier to write about the experiences of others. It’s a different sort of fantasy, that, from writing of impossible or improbable places or situations. Suggesting otherwise is just obtuse–you’re more likely to miss the mark on authenticity when you step further outside of your own experiences. How important authenticity is to the work then becomes the next question–and in Life is Strange it’s a lot more important than in Mistborn because of the setting and themes involved.

      • gwathdring says:

        P.S. And as mentioned elsewhere, even in a medium that isn’t so collaborative by default, you’ll still have editors and test readers and consultants to rely on to provide experiences beyond your own with more clarity.

        In a video games, hiring more than one writer to expand the experiential scope of the team can also really help. Even if the line were Never Write This Yourself (and, again, it isn’t), there are still lots of options.

      • Slimham says:

        I agree with everything you said. I just feel like it was a low blow from the author to blame them bouncing off the game on the writer’s genders when 15 minutes of play time is hardly enough to conclude that the game is worse off for having been written by two men. The whole thing requires more nuance than a single sentence provides.

        • gwathdring says:

          I don’t think their complaint was about the nuances of the plotting and character arcs, but rather the stilted, inauthentic and/or annoying feel of the dialog. A lot of people seem to have had this response to the game. Personally, I’m not really big on discounting criticisms about the first impression a game leaves based on their being more game further in. Something like dialog doesn’t just go away the way something like a mechanical learning curve does and sitting through hours of something that grates on the assumption that it could, in theory, get better isn’t necessarily a good use of one’s time.

          I liked the game plenty myself, but I don’t think *every* criticism of the game requires having played the whole thing end to end or what-have-you.

          • Slimham says:

            My point is not that you have to play more than 15 minutes to know the game isn’t for you. My point is that you have to play more than 15 minutes to determine that the game would have been better served with a different writing team.

          • gwathdring says:

            It isn’t dishonest, it isn’t unclear, and it doesn’t form the basis of a long-form review. I really don’t see what the fuss is about especially since it’s quite likely that 15 minutes is not an especially accurate time judgement one way or the other.

            I guess I just don’t see the point of acknowledging that an experience is valid but saying someone can’t express that experience or motivate it in text. Especially since it’s a criticism that has come from people who very much did play the entire game through and even who liked it quite a bit on the whole.

    • Wednesday says:

      Are we rushing to be offended that people might be rushing to be offended.

      It was a simple and fairly common sense statement. You’re probably going to want at least a few women on the writing team if your game is primarily about teenage girls. You don’t have to, just maybe a good idea.

      • Slimham says:

        My issue is that the author is critiquing the process before the product. The author has not played enough of the game to develop an opinion on how well it portrays its female characters, and therefore the author should withhold judgement on whether or not the game’s writing process was flawed.

      • noodlecake says:

        Maybe, although there are male writers who write excellent female characters, and female writers who write excellent male characters. I wouldn’t be the least bit put off by playing a game mostly about male characters where the dialogue was written by women, just so long as they did a somewhat decent job.

        I think when Life is Strange gets going the female characters are pretty believable. I bought in. I did find the first episode a little bit of a chore to get through but when the story got going I loved it, and there were some moments that tore me apart. I can’t even bring myself to touch the prequel because the original game made me feel so sad in all the ways it was meant to.

    • woodsey says:

      It’s fine if you do it well.

  3. Kefren says:

    I went straight to Steam and was surprised to see the red warning that it includes Denuvo. Why pay to add dodgy copy protection to something that is free? Makes no sense to me. (Also means I can’t play it without opening up the security of my PC, which I refuse to do when I already have more games than I’ll ever play).

    • upupup says:

      I didn’t even notice that. It feels a bit unpleasant that you can’t blindly trust a free game to not have something like Denuvo attached.

  4. upupup says:

    Regarding your opening, writers don’t need need to have experienced the things that they write about; there’d be very little left to read if they did. Looking at writing in such a way is rather baffling in how extremely limiting it is.

    That aside, I had a very different experience with the game as it felt way too heavy-handed and busy at trying to get a grip on my emotional strings, rather than gradually letting me get invested – sort of the gaming equivalent of Oscar bait. It relies very much on the style hitting home, which if it doesn’t will you leave with little to enjoy.

    • Kefren says:

      You’re correct that writers can obviously write about things they’ve not experienced – characters of another sex, different ages, etc. I think the implication is just that, if the writer isn’t quite getting it right, then they may need to seek some further input. I make my living as an author, and often have to write about things that I’ve not experienced. In those cases it requires a mixture of research and imagination. The research may be practical, or book-based, or from interviews. I didn’t dare write about the experience of giving birth without first discussing it with lots of women that were willing to share their experiences; and then getting a different group of women to read the finished product and advise on whether it was accurate, and captured some of the experiences. Likewise if one of my books focussed mainly on a teenage girl and I wasn’t quite getting the voice, I’d want to get some more input at the editorial stage. That’s how I interpreted the comment in this blog post, anyway – that people can write about anything, but if you go far beyond your own experience then it requires research, and if the feedback is that it isn’t quite authentic (as some people say of Life Is Strange’s dialogue in the first parts), then you do a bit more.

      • upupup says:

        Like you say, research is one of the tools a writer has to find the right voice in their writing. To me though, the blog reminded of a tendency I’ve seen where people mistake preferences of the times for rules on how writing should be done, such as the way “show, don’t tell” is presented in a lot of Creative Writing classes. Being authentic is in a similar place right now where it is not just treated as a preference but as part of what makes a good thing good, in acting as well, and where research is not just a potential source of inspiration but a requirement that needs to be met.

        That sort of thinking worries me as it gives people limiting preconceptions on what good writing can be. In that sense, I still wouldn’t be able to agree with it if what you say about research only being required if the writer goes far beyond their own experiences was what the article meant, because it presumes certain rules about writing that do not exist. It’s a bit nitpicky, but as a departing point for how we look at writing I feel that to be something quite important as it puts the writing itself front and center, not those asides.

        • Kefren says:

          I don’t disagree with you – you make good points. For example: “show don’t tell” is generally good advice, especially for new writers, but – like all rules of something as subjective as writing – the rule can be ignored IF THE END RESULT WORKS. :-)

          • upupup says:

            Hey now, I can’t very well go and endlessly needle you if you up and go agree with me. I won’t forget this!

          • Kefren says:

            Damn these polite conversations where people listen to each other online. :-)

  5. sairas says:

    I got about four lines into the first paragraph, the monologue started to grate, and I zoned out.

  6. Von Uber says:

    I loved Life is Strange and am looking forward to the sequel.

    I always find the complaints about some of the dialogue being off as a bit strange, especially when it comes from people who aren’t 18 year old girls. It seems what people mean is that ‘my interpretation of what an 18 year old girl should sound like isn’t the same as theirs’.

    It also completely misses things like the overall themes and story of the game – you know, the actual important stuff – not how often someone says ‘hella’.

    • Someoldguy says:

      I agree, it feels bizarre when one apparently middle aged white male starts criticising another pair of middle aged white males (who may, or may not, have done extensive research) for their portrayal of teenage girls raised in fictional small-town Oregon in the 21st Century.

    • gwathdring says:

      As a northwest local myself, it didn’t strike me as jarring to the point of it being a problem, but it didn’t really remind me of how my peers talked when I was a teenager either, nor did it sound much like the incoming class at the community college my program shares a campus with.

      It didn’t bug me, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say the dialog is a bit all over the place in terms of both how well it reflects its chosen setting and in terms of how well it handles some of its themes–the plot throws some real curve balls at both its characters and its audience that present challenges in terms of presenting a smooth, believable experience and there are some notable missteps.

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        Malarious says:

        For what it’s worth, I played LiS when I was 18 and attending a rural high school and the dialogue was all pretty much stuff I could imagine someone my age saying. Some bits were a little iffy, but for the most part, it was fine. That said, the journal entries were not written well at all.

  7. Umberto Bongo says:

    Is this standalone or do I have to own Life is Strange to play it? Because while this really interests me, Life is Strange really doesn’t.

  8. Demiath says:

    Life is strange, but Nic zoned out 15 minutes after conception and failed to notice.

  9. Phantom_Renegade says:

    I wonder why, after all these years, the log in system of the RPS comment section is still garbage. Current theory is sentient mice hijacking all the good log-in systems so they can build a rocket to Mars.

    I thought LiS did teenagers rather well. Incredibly selfabsorbed/important, silly slang, I thought it encapsulated it all pretty good. The one thing that it absolutely mucked up is the final section. It’s where it suddenly goes from conversational adventure game to splinter cell stealth, but without the controls that make such games work. After the third game-over I rage quit the entire thing. And as such, have no interest in any follow-ups or sequels. If you can make such an awful gameplay fuck-up, you’re not worth further time/money.

    • gwathdring says:

      I’ll admit I have some trouble sorting out what of my issues with the dialog came from some of the radical tonal shifts in the game and which came from inconsistency in presenting the characters and the setting authentically. I really liked the game, but the voice of the writing came across very, very weirdly to me on the whole.

  10. Someoldguy says:

    I’ve now played through and enjoyed most of the experience, having enjoyed most of LiS & LiS:BtS. I will be intrigued to see how LiS2 shapes up, although I won’t be preordering.

    The things I didn’t enjoy were:
    – the same painful control system that sees you contorting the camera to look past your own head and highlight the thing you want to highlight when there are several in close proximity. I missed answering the phone, not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t slow-walk across the room and highlight the phone in time when the game wanted to give focus to the note and bowl instead. When you’re in a time-limited sequence the slow glide walking is a pain in the ass.
    – the phone PIN puzzle was bloody ridiculous. The code is a completely gamey solution that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Chris’ dad would never have used that code. I wasted far too much time trying to crack it with all the meaningful dates scattered around the house.

    • sillythings says:

      Yeah, the solution to the phone PIN was just upsetting. I could see that making sense in an old school point-and-click type game with a bunch of puzzles, but in something as character-driven as this? How did this get through testing?

      The thing is, I enjoyed the game! Small visual touches like the melting snow or even just having the snow fall off of Chris’ boots as he got back into the house were really wonderful and helped make this place feel real and special. I enjoyed finding out more about Chris’ mom and her work – probably my favourite part to the whole experience.

      At the same time, the plot felt very uneventful if not inexistant. I get that it’s just supposed to be a teaser and a glimpse into these character’s lifes, and I did enjoy discovering the backstory, but there wasn’t a whole lot of depth to it, especially compared to what you already saw in the trailer.

      So having an ending that felt completely unconnected to everything else (at least viewed as a standalone experience rather than as something set in the Life is Strange universe) and having the horrible PIN puzzle be one of my last experiences with the game (trying everything, giving up and being negatively surprised at how stupid the solution was) kinda soured my opinion on the whole thing despite the things I DID enjoy about it…

  11. -Alligator- says:

    If you’re going to write a review for what is basically an introduction to LiS2, it can’t hurt to play the first game first, or to get someone who has already played LiS1 to write the review.

    So guess what, I went to read some Steam reviews instead.

    • gwathdring says:

      It’s not a sequel in any straightforward sense. This has been made clear in preview materials and interviews, if you’re interested. It’s not a continuation of that story and is not intended to rely on you having played the first game.

    • Shinard says:

      To a point, but you could argue that people who liked Life is Strange already know they’re going to like this, if it is that similar, and if it’s not there’s no reason to get someone who has played a game it’s different to over one that hasn’t. Regardless, I think “yeah, I didn’t like Life is Strange, but I did like this and let me explain why” is a pretty good review.

  12. zaldar1978 says:

    How old is the kid supposed to be in this? He looks 9 or 10. He should be beyond such things as this by that time focusing on school and real life *shrug*. But then having taught teen age girls (several who were like Chloe) the speech in life is strange didn’t bother me. Here in the states people talk like that quite often.

    • Someoldguy says:

      Pretty sure I didn’t concentrate on school and real life on a Saturday, pretty much ever until I left uni and got a job. Distractions changed over the years, but it was always a time for fun.

  13. _bikoo_ says:

    There’s a link in the game to the previous life is strange. Chris’ mom had a magazine(2nd slide) (you can find it on the upper shelf of the cupboard which is next to the desk on which laptops is kept) depicted kinda dark photo captured in the ‘dark room’ we saw in LIS. At the bottom of the magazine, the name “Mark Jefferson”, the low key main villain of LIS. The woman in the magazine maybe is one of the cases that the red files in the dark room recorded. And the magazine is from Seattle, where max went.
    I’m pretty sure that max and chloe would return in life is strange 2.

  14. HeinzHarald says:

    Ashly Burch did consultation on the dialog in LiS didn’t she?

    I liked the writing in any case, but then I like that Veronica Mars and Joss Whedon type writing.

  15. Thulsa Hex says:

    I played Captain Spirit today and enjoyed it a lot. Despite being set in Oregon, it felt so similar to a typical Minnesota winter morning that I got incredibly wistful. I live in CA right now, and am incredibly impressed how transported I felt, despite it being 31 Celsius (88 F) outside while I played.

    This is what I enjoy most about games like Life Is Strange. There’s a bit of fantasy, but the settings feel so grounded and convincing, to me. I love hanging out in those spaces.

    P.S. Despite “never” jumping into comment threads with grammar woes, Life Is Strange draws out the beast within (me) every time. Life Is Strange. LIS. “Is” is a verb. Thank you x

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