Skip to main content

Five Years Later, Remembering the Curious & Confounding Case of ‘Captain Spirit’

A young blonde boy video game character with a blue mask drawn onto his face like a superhero's mask

While recently replaying Life is Strange, I got to a point where I started thinking about how I wanted to tailor my replay experience to make it special. I decided that, while I definitely wanted to replay Life is Strange 2, I wasn’t sure I wanted to play Before the Storm again—especially since the remaster made Rachel look way older than a 15-year-old should. Still, I got the feeling I was missing something, which led me to look up the full series and realize I’d entirely skipped over The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit.

If you don’t know what that title is, it probably sounds like its own standalone series within the larger franchise. But it … isn’t. Released in 2018, it’s a prequel episode, roughly 1.5 hours to complete, and it does little to set up the exposition for Life is Strange 2, which came out a few months later. It had been so long since I’d really thought about this odd little game, I’d forgotten how weird it really was—both within the context of its release, and also considering its content.

A Dispirited Home

**Plot discussion, including spoilers for The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit ahead**

The game opens with Sufjan Steven’s “Death With Dignity,” the opening track to his album “Carrie and Lowell,” which was something of a eulogy for his late mother. This proves to be an apt theme song, as we learn that the protagonist of this game, Chris Eriksen, has lost his mother and is now living alone with his widowed father. He’s an imaginative kid with a bright spirit who’s trying to make the best of it, largely through his superhero persona, “Captain Spirit.” He loves his toys and his coloring supplies, and the game opens with us getting to play with them through Chris. Then, his father calls him down for breakfast, and you can tell something is off by the increasing tenseness in his voice each time he calls for Chris.

The father in question, Charles, is not handling his wife’s death very well at all. He’s an alcoholic mess who’s already drinking by breakfast. This is already something of an uncomfortable scenario to play through, as Charles is also verbally combative, bordering on abusive. Chris, for reference, is nine years old, so he speaks with an innocence that we, as players, can understand. However, also as players, we are forced to help him navigate tough conversations with his father so they don’t escalate into fights. Chris also exhibits signs of physical abuse, with his father expressing concern only about whether or not anyone “mentioned anything at all.”

Throughout the game, you’re basically killing time, finding things to do while your dad finishes the hockey game. The end reward is supposedly going to pick out a Christmas tree once the game is over. So, you putz around the house and learn more about Chris’ life, from some details about his late mother Emily, to some things about his father that he’s probably too young to know about. It’s all designed to feel sort of whimsical and indie-movie-esque, yet as the player, you don’t really know how to feel, for reasons I’ll get into later.

Once you’ve done enough, Charles will have fallen asleep on the couch, at which point you’re supposed to wake him up. But the man can hardly stand and ends up falling and hitting his head on the couch. All the yelling and commotion catch the attention of their neighbor, Claire Reynolds, who was out on a walk and decides to check in. She interrogates Chris and confirms her suspicions that things at the house are NOT copacetic, and promises him that she’ll take action.

This, of course, infuriates Charles, who yells at Chris until he starts to cry, before blaming him for Emily’s death. He realizes far too late that he hass fucked up, but Chris has had enough and will not take his apology. Chris runs outside and climbs up his treehouse, which his father had let fall into disrepair, and as the ladder gives way, Chris hurtles towards the snow … before supernatural forces keep him afloat.

We cut to a shot of two young boys, one Chris’ age, the other his teenager brother. They grin and wave, and Chris does the same. This is where the game ends, and where his role in Life is Strange 2 kicks off.

Tonal & Narrative Confusion

This game was marketed in such a way that led us to believe it’d be much bigger than it was. As seen in the E3 trailer above, the story they were trying to sell us was something much more darling than what it gave us. We think we’re gonna get a touching story about childhood and the joys of being a kid with a big imagination; instead, we’re given an hour of walking on eggshells.

The thing that baffles me now is this game’s relation to both Life is Strange 2, and the series as a whole. When this trailer came out, series fans like myself were excited, since we weren’t sure we’d be getting anything Life is Strange-related after the Arcadia Bay saga ended. We were told that Captain Spirit would be its own standalone adventure, with ties to the next game, but beyond that, we didn’t know how close those ties would be.

This left fans scrounging for anything that could give us clues. One big easter egg that fans clung onto was the fact that Emily went to Blackwell, the main school setting in the previous series. Knowing this, many assumed that Chris would be the protagonist of the next series. After all, that made sense, since we’d gotten such a raw look into his personal life—right?

Well, no, actually. Chris barely gets more than an hour of screen time in the main game, which instead focuses on the Diaz brothers, Sean and Daniel, whom we see at the end of Captain Spirit. And the way their story, which is already narratively all over the place, coalesces with Chris’ has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Daniel, who’s Chris’ age, actually does have powers, but Chris fully believes that he summoned the telekinetic blast that kept him from falling. However, Daniel’s fine to play along, because he and Sean have been on the run, and he’s desperate for the normalcy that a new friendship can bring. We play as Sean, the elder Diaz, who can further investigate into what’s going on in Chris’ life. Charles walks in and somehow doesn’t flip out at the fact that there are two strangers in his house, and is suddenly very cool with the whole Christmas Tree thing. Then, on the way back, you can have a dialogue with him and convince him as a game mechanic to be nicer to his son.

And it all just feels so … weird? We spend such an emotionally intense couple of hours trying to keep Chris from facing his father’s abuse, only to turn it around and say, “Actually it’s not so bad, Chris has a friend now, and everyone is happy! Yay!” There’s a distinct lack of exposition and introduction surrounding Chris because the game assumes we played his own episode, but then in the same breath it takes the emotional power of that episode down several notches.

The real kicker here is the fact that you can PUT CHRIS IN THE HOSPITAL if you don’t make the “right decisions.” In other words, if you let this poor kid run wild with his delusions of grandeur, and you don’t make an effort to correct him, he will attempt to stop the police from chasing you and in the process gets hit by a car.

No, he doesn’t die, but still, it was one of the first times in playing this series that I felt dumb playing it. I even started laughing, so in disbelief that after everything they’ve put this poor kid through, they had to do this to him as well. And for what? To teach a lesson on morality to Daniel?? We never see Chris again, only hearing about him in letters and brief conversations. So why did he need an entire game? What was the point of exploring his broken home?

What was it all for?

Creators should never be afraid to delve into dark topics, but they should also be wary of making trauma porn for the sake of “artistry.” In this case, Life is Strange was already no stranger to dark subject matter, yet it previously presented those subjects within contexts that justified its narrative value. With Captain Spirit, I cannot help but feel like this game didn’t need to exist, and the only reason it did is that the developers wanted to get more creative with their promotional material.

It’s a shame, because the game itself isn’t bad, per se. It tells its story very effectively and leaves us truly caring about, and worrying for, this fictional little kid. We want to see him get better, we want to see him have a happier life, yet it just goes nowhere. We instead get a weird second episode in the second game, where Chris’ involvement feels awkward and uninteresting BECAUSE we already played through his entire terrible afternoon. I honestly can’t even think of a way they could have written this better, because truly, there’s just no reason for us to care about Chris that much, right off the bat, when we’re playing as Sean.

The Life is Strange series never quite seemed to regain a solid sense of identity following Arcadia Bay, largely because of its insistence on catering to fanservice. In revisiting the series, I can’t think of a stronger representation of those missteps than Captain Spirit, which truly exists in a null space. I don’t write all this to denounce the game, or the series, or the devs—I have no real “problem” with any of this. It just baffles me.

Child neglect and abuse are not topics to be taken lightly, and Captain Spirit is often highly regarded among fans for handling these subjects in ways that felt knowing and cathartic. But the way it got shoehorned into the second game will always strike me as reckless and Icarian.

(featured image: Square Enix)

Have a tip we should know? [email protected]

Filed Under:

Follow The Mary Sue:

Madeline (she/her) is a staff writer with a focus on AANHPI and mixed-race representation. She enjoys covering a wide variety of topics, but her primary beats are music and gaming. Her journey into digital media began in college, primarily regarding audio: in 2018, she started producing her own music, which helped her secure a radio show and co-produce a local history podcast through 2019 and 2020. After graduating from UC Santa Cruz summa cum laude, her focus shifted to digital writing, where she's happy to say her History degree has certainly come in handy! When she's not working, she enjoys taking long walks, playing the guitar, and writing her own little stories (which may or may not ever see the light of day).