Contains big spoilers.
Monstrous. The second episode of Life Is Strange 2 came out last week, and it is barbaric. It sees the Diaz boyz trudging through snow and trying to get over winter by hanging out in a terrible cabin. Alice B and I will soon talk about the lads and their snowy escapades, like we did for our Episode 1 verdict-o-chat. But for now, I’ve played through the snowy episode and all I have to say is: DONTNOD, HOW COULD YOU?
She was so young. She loved everyone and everything. But you just couldn’t bear for the Diaz brothers to have a single, fluffy crumb of goodness in their lives, could you Dontnod? Oh no, you had to stoop to the low act of canine character-murder. Despicable. Cruel, even. After all, you were the ones who brought Mushroom into this world at the end of episode one. A tiny, vulnerable pup. And then you simply changed your minds, like some Caligulan prince of narrative. You set her up to fall, you ripped our hearts asunder, Dontnod, you went out of your way to kill her. She had a neckerchief, you heartless bastards.
Okay, emotional response over. Thoughtful mode: engaged.
As far as I’m aware, there is no way to avoid the death of Mushroom at the paws of a hungry puma. All you can do is witness the bloody tragedy and choose to take psychic revenge or to let the big cat run away. It is a bloody scene, both shocking and transparently manipulative of the players emotions (I only mean this as an observation, not in a judgmental way – you can’t tell a story without murdering a few puppies). As tropes go, however, the soon-to-be-dead animal companion is common. The near-instantaneous cougaring of a defenseless puppy is maybe one of the rarer examples. That Mushroom died is not a shock, but the way in which she died was. It’s so extreme that it makes Dontnod’s emotional string-pulling characteristically obvious.
All this leads to a weird state of mind. As a player, I’m both keenly aware I’m being led down a big path marked “sad feelings”. But I’m still quite satisfied and determined to saunter down that muddy path, sniffing and frowning like a lost toddler. I can see the strings, but I also kinda don’t care. Shroom's death, as brutal as it was, didn't knock me off the story.
In terms of that story, the real misfire is that we didn’t get a lot of time to get to know Mushroom. She was an innocent, harmless ball of cuteness. But she didn’t really have a personality. In giving little Shroomy the Newt treatment, the writers were probably simply freeing themselves of a voiceless character for whom they didn’t have any real plan. But my suspicion is that they also wanted to cash-in on those dead dog feels earlier than otherwise expected, to catch the player unaware. Your dad died, huh? Well, now your dog died too. Life is hard, cupcake. Now walk 20 miles through the snow.
My expectation would have been for little Mushy to die in the fifth or sixth episode, after having grown into a more complex dog-character. In this case, she still would have fulfilled her trope-role as dead-dog-to-be. But you might feel a more complex emotion than “sad the puppy died” if that puppy had grown into a more difficult dog in intervening episodes. If she’d become hard to discipline, rebellious, lovable but troubled. A problem dog, or simply a hindrance to your fugitive lifestyle. Kill the puppy and you make me feel sad. Kill the problem dog and you make me feel sad and relieved. And wait, what’s this bonus emotion? Aha, guilt. Excellent.
Dontnod haven’t done that, they’ve opted for a more straightforward approach. A blunter puppy murder. I mean, it works, sure. It was more sudden than I expected. And I am sad. You got me, Dontnod, you got me.
But maybe you didn’t really need to. She had a neckerchief, guys.
A little neckerchief.