No joke, I think the latest episode of Life Is Strange has one of the most relatable sex scenes I’ve ever seen in a big budget video game. It’s a sequence so uncomfortable because of its honesty, yet so earnestly touching in the myriad ways it handles the situation in question. I briefly forgot all of this was happening in a series about characters with unexplained superpowers, even as it was giving me stressful flashbacks to moments from my own youth.
Warning: Spoilers for Life Is Strange ahead.
This isn’t the most exciting recommendation, but if you’ve ever wanted to faithfully re-experience the palm-sweating weirdness of your first sexual encounters through a game, complete with someone playfully calling you out for not expressing feelings you CLEARLY have but won’t act on because your nerves are totally fried, Life Is Strange 2 has you covered!!!
But it’s this very specific brand of uncomfortable that’s also part of Life Is Strange’s DNA. For every forced “hella” in the first season of Life Is Strange, there was another moment, like when Max and Chloe wake up next to one another and quietly gaze at the ceiling, that was able to capture something pure and true about the lived experiences of so many people.
One of the biggest reasons that first season of Life Is Strange struck such an emotional cord, helping it become enough the kind of unexpected phenomenon to justify a series instead of a one-off story, is because of the romantic relationship—first implied, then explicit—between Chloe and Max. While there are technically options for Max to become romantically involved with a guy, Life Is Strange is popularly read as a slowly blossoming romance between two queer women. By the end of the game, Max and Chloe kiss, but that’s as far as things go.
The new season takes place in the same universe as Max and Chloe’s story, but it’s entirely disconnected from their adventures. Instead, developer Dontnod turned their focus to two brothers, 16-year-old Sean and 9-year-old Daniel Diaz, who leave behind everything they know after the younger Diaz’s powers suddenly manifest during a confrontation with a cop. The startled cop shoots their father. Sean, realizing the police are likely to be suspicious of two Mexican kids in such mysterious circumstances, decides running off is the best option.
For my money, this season has been nearly as revelatory as the first, thanks to sharper writing demonstrating a firmer grasp of the topics it’s playing with, allowing the story to more confidently tread into complicated questions about politics, identity, and family. And while that’s great, it’s also worlds away from what attracted many to Life Is Strange originally: romance.
In that regard, this episode, where Daniel and Sean are trying to make ends meet on a hidden weed farm, is a trip; it attempts (mostly successfully, I think) to condense the early, awkward phases of a romance into a few hours. Until this point, Sean has spent most of his time struggling to embrace a new role as a father figure. There hasn’t been much downtime for either of them; inevitably, something goes wrong and they’re forced to move on. But here, Sean re-encounters a minor character from the previous episode, a woman named Cassidy. She’s seems a little older and more world-experienced, and the two strike up a rapport—playful, teasing, easy. These are two people that don’t know each other very well, but if given the time, you could see that changing awfully quickly. This episode grants such an opportunity.
Towards the end of the episode, the cycle begins again: Daniel and Sean need to leave. But finality also means confronting what’s been left unsaid, knowing you might not see people you care about again. This means Sean can spend a lot more time with Cassidy—if he chooses. There’s a moment where it clearly transitions from flirting to something more, and the game provides several opportunities to stop everything, whether it’s the moment Cassidy takes off her clothes for a late night skinny dip, or when he’s invited to spend time in her tent. Sean is young, naive, and more importantly, nervous as hell, so the game offering a million very understandable exits from an escalating situation feels a lot more natural than investing enough conversation points with someone to kick off a cutscene.
But for my playthrough, this seemed like an important moment Sean, and Cassidy’s affection felt genuine and safe. His life has been a wreck, with precious little time to spend on his own growth. He’s tasked with acting like an adult, but he is very much not an adult. (A big reason why: he’s only 16 years old! Which means this is a scene involving teenagers having sex, but it’s not written or shot with Cassidy or Sean as sex objects. They’re whole people.)
What follows inside the tent is not two people banging each other's brains out. It’s Cassidy quickly realizing Sean doesn’t know what to do—or if he even wants to do anything with her.
Cassidy: You cool?
Sean: [bouncing knee nervously, avoiding eye contact] Uh...totally. I’m...I’m just nervous...Kinda bummed we waited ‘till now.
Cassidy: No shit...you’re kind of a slow player, dude.
[Cassidy kisses Sean, after which he briefly smiles]
Cassidy: Now we’re all cozy, right?
Sean: Yeah, uh. Hey listen, I...I think you should know that I’m...uh…
Cassidy: I know. Don’t worry about it, okay?
[Sean kisses Cassidy]
And lo, my heart did melt for Sean, whose post-coital reaction was also just as relatable, after Cassidy realizes Sean has gone extremely quiet after the two finished having sex:
Sean: Sorry I uh...Sorry it sucked.
Cassidy: Sean, this is your first time. I won’t give you a bad review online, promise.
Sean: That’s sweet, but you don’t have to be like that.
Cassidy: Hey, I mean it, Sean. Just take it easy and you’ll have time to practice, okay? [short pause] Okay, we need some fresh air. Let’s get dressed—until we fuck again.
Most mainstream video games encounter avoid the topic of sex. The end of the world? Sure. Physical intimacy? Gosh, no. It’s a different story in the indie gaming scene, but that’s not what most players encounter. AAA gaming’s prudishly paradoxal preference for depicting mass violence over even a hint of sexual activity is part of the reason games like Mass Effect, where characters can have sexual partners and relationships, so memorable. It’s less that BioWare’s approach to depicting sex is the gold standard insomuch as it exists at all.
Sex is often awkward, especially among new partners—a form of communication and bonding that grows over time. We don’t usually see that part because it runs contrast to the way sex is typically depicted in media, games or otherwise, where people are immediately super good at sex and everyone goes home happy. At its best, Life Is Strange recognizes and highlights how often life is exactly the opposite for most, and this scene epitomized it.
One aside: It wasn’t until I did a search on YouTube that I realized it was possible to kiss another character, a dude named Finn. Maybe it was the choices I made, maybe it’s my life as a straight person being unable to pick up on any vibes Finn was sending. I dunno! (It doesn’t help that hooking up with Finn is only possible if you agree to the awful heist he’s proposing.) Either way, it’s a bummer because I essentially stumbled into hooking up with Cassidy because it seemed the only option on the table, rather than a role-playing decision?
Still, what happened between Cassidy and Sean felt true to my story, to the journey Sean is on as a person. It’s entirely possible Cassidy has exited the picture, based on how the episode came to an end. Nonetheless, he’s a fuller person for having this experience with someone who was so caring and understanding. That’s going to help him, whatever’s next.
Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've noticed anything cool happening in games, reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org. He's also available privately on Signal.