Content Warning: Discussion and depictions of child abuse appear in this story.
Captain Spirit doesn’t open with an abusive father screaming and hitting his son. Instead, the game depicts Chris’ father as someone who cares deeply about his kid, taking a genuine interest in his thoughts, observations, and superhero antics. But soon, he pours a beer for breakfast. Then, he asks if anyone noticed the “marks” on his arm. He eventually passes out.
Video games have always depicted all manner of violence, but it’s traditionally grotesque and over-the-top, eschewing nuance in favor of fetishized aesthetic hyperbole. Though the Life Is Strange series is known for melodrama—it started by telling stories about teenagers dealing with unexpected sci-fi powers, after all—it worked because it still felt grounded in the kinds of problems anyone could relate to. Life, death, friends, family. Everyone’s been there. Captain Spirit is no different.
“I immediately sensed trouble when the game started,” said Emma, whose name has been changed here to protect her privacy, “because of how much I saw myself in this lonely boy. I would play Chris, and the feeling of walking on eggshells, cleaning and picking up things so that you wouldn't get yelled at and blamed later, was far too familiar. Same with fetching more drinks or doing something I knew as a child was wrong and made me uncomfortable, but being too scared to not do it.”
Emma has a lot of memories of her father, a man who’s floated in and out of her life for the past 21 years, but chief among them is the drinking. He smoked, too, and there was the casual use of crack, but inevitably, her mind wanders back to all the drinking.
“When I was little and he promised me we were going to get toys,” she told me, “but first he ended up stopping at the store to buy beer. It sat in the car cup holder as he drove, and I remember looking at it, trying to not recoil from the smell, and imagining it turning to vapor.”
It never did.
Emma, is one of several folks I’ve spoken to recently about childhood trauma, people who saw part of themselves and their own troubled stories in The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, a short but emotionally-charged prequel to the upcoming Life Is Strange 2. (Critic Holly Green also wrote a terrific piece recently, drawing on similar experiences.) In Captain Spirit, the overactive imagination of a 10-year-old boy named Chris becomes an escape mechanism from the physically and emotionally abusive relationship with his father.
You don’t have to go very far to find comments like this. Fans are even reaching out to the developers, letting them know the impact Captain Spirit has left.
“It's with mixed feelings in all honesty,” said Captain Spirit co-creative directors Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet, who jointly answered questions over email. “From a creative point of view, it means that we succeeded at being realistic and subtle enough to stay true to reality, and to not go into the realm of sensationalism. But from a human point of view, it reinforces the point that too much abuse and conflict are present in our society and we're not sure it is going any better year after year.”
The reason Captain Spirit resonated, fans told me, was its sense of authenticity. This was key to the original Life Is Strange’s success, no matter how over-the-top the storytelling got.
“Captain Spirit does a great job of showing what it’s like to have an alcoholic parent,” said another one, who also asked to remain anonymous to maintain their privacy. “They care about you and tell you they love you. They make promises of better things to come. Sometimes the drink causes them gush about how much they love you. Other times they will say the most hurtful things they can think of. He [my father] would drink until he couldn’t stand. I have a vivid memory of him stumbling up the stairs. Memories of waiting in the car as he went into the liquor store to pick up his daily fifth of Jameson.”
In Captain Spirit, Chris’ father indulges in his son’s superhero fantasies, an interaction Emma could relate to.
Her father was an artist, and like any child, she craved validation from her parents, so she started drawing, too. He’d encourage her to be “the heroine of my dreams,” help build wooden swords, and enact elaborate pretend stories with one another. (She was often a warrior bravely fighting monsters, who, obviously, was a paleontologist on the side.)
These stories didn’t always end well, though. One time, she accidentally kicked him.
“He started screaming and yelling at me and I was crying,” she said, “saying I'm sorry over and over, and he just stormed out and I watched him speed out of the cul-de-sac.”
When she asked her mother for help, blame was deflected back at Emma. In response, she’d return to playing with her dolls. In the world of her dolls, she had a perfect family.
In Captain Spirit, Chris’ mother died in a car accident. Emma’s mother, on the other hand, simply looked the other way. Emma remembers being shuffled between babysitters, and even when she was with her mother, she was distant. The two have since made amends.
The emotional toll became worse, especially during Emma’s teenage years. Her father would enter rehab, only to relapse. Sometimes, he wound up in jail. When her father was around, there was one constant: screaming.
“I didn't have a lot of friends,” she said. “I got bullied in school. I grew meeker as I got older, and I drew more and wrote stories.”
She started cutting herself. (A particularly harrowing episode involved a friend finding out about the cutting, and starting cruel rumors at school.)
There were physical incidents, too. Punching legs and arms, albeit without bruises. After he started pulling on hair to get her attention, Emma cut it short enough that he couldn’t grab it.
“When I needed to cry I shoved myself into my closet,” she said, “because small spaces are comforting. But as I got older it was harder and harder to imagine my closet leading to Narnia. It was just a dead end, just a wall.”
She attempted suicide three times.
"Seeing Chris had me bawling even when nothing was really happening, because I not only remembered being that kid, but I still feel like it. I just wanted to hug Chris and say it's okay, he's not alone. I'll be his friend, like how I wished someone would do to me."
Writing these words down over email, she told me, prompted her to cry. Now 21 years old, her father three weeks sober, she’s “holding [her] breath and waiting for the ball to drop.” Precious little has changed—she’s still cleaning, cooking, and tip-toeing around the house.
But like the ending of Captain Spirit, where someone comes to check on Chris, wondering if there’s something going on, Emma has hope. She’s in school right now, and wants to work in animal conservation. Video games, Captain Spirit and otherwise, have also been comfort.
“I daydream and think of elaborate worlds in my head,” she said. “But I still feel like that lonely kiddo, and seeing Chris had me bawling even when nothing was really happening, because I not only remembered being that kid, but I still feel like it. I just wanted to hug Chris and say it's okay, he's not alone. I'll be his friend, like how I wished someone would do to me.”
Captain Spirit came about while Dontnod was sketching out the five-part story for Life Is Strange 2, whose first episode releases in September. They were drawn to Chris because of the way he uses his imagination to escape his own reality. In a way, it was a superpower.
“We all looked at our own childhood experiences and our relationships with our own family,” said the designers. “Even when it's not toxic or tragic like it is with Chris and Charles, we all have memories of difficult moments, anger, bad words, and ultimately, conflict. We could each remember different ways, as a kid, to escape those bad moments, and what were the mechanism and ‘escape pods’ we used to cope and advance.”
Though Koch and Barbet didn’t point to any specific research for writing Captain Spirit’s portrayal of abuse, they said the entire team looked over the script and provided feedback, hoping to avoid cliches, tropes, and trying their best to avoid trivializing their relationship.
“[Charles is] very much shown as an abusive bad father,” they said, “but we tried also to give the player room to discover his grief, and maybe feel sorry for him as much as they feel angry at him. We think that it's interesting if in the end the players alternate between ‘Should I hate him or should I pity him?’ because it brings a moral dilemma which we think is important.”
Remarkably, they pull this off. While playing Captain Spirit, I was reminded of my own fears about what might happen if my wife suddenly disappeared and I became a single parent:
“This nightmare doesn’t happen when I’m sleeping—it seeps into my daily subconscious every so often. I’ll be cleaning the dishes, the darkness creeps in, and I’m paralyzed for a few minutes. My breathing labors, my back stiffens, and I slowly come back to reality. If I’m lucky, the terror passes quickly. Other times, late at night, I stare at the ceiling for too long. I try my best to be a caring father and husband, but it’s not hard to feel like everything is dancing on a knife’s edge, waiting to fall apart the moment someone pulls on the seams, and if my wife was suddenly to exit the picture, I’d suddenly discover I wasn’t up for the moment.”
Charles, as it turns out, isn’t up for the moment.
“Captain Spirit is not a game about an abusive father, or an abused kid,” said the designers. “For us, it is mostly a story about a son and a father escaping their grief, loss and disillusion the only ways they know. Don't misunderstand us, this is still very much abuse and it is not ‘less serious,’ and this is, we think, very much the point: Abuse can come in any form in our society, and it doesn't have to be straight up beating to be important or noteworthy.”
Some of the folks I talked to, who’d experienced their own trauma, backed this up.
“They didn’t make the father into a villainous stereotype, he’s a flawed human being who uses liquor to cope,” said one person who grew up around an alcoholic father, albeit without physical abuse . “The scene with the neighbor coming to investigate is a clue that they experienced something similar. It shows the secret shame you feel at having a parent who can’t control themselves. The feeling that you need to protect the parent from others finding out.”
The developers did not tell me if Captain Spirit drew upon any specific experiences of abuse amongst the developers. As shown above, Dontnod said their pulls were more generalized.
Though Koch and Barbet may not have intended to make a game to help people heal, that’s a power of storytelling: seeing yourself represented. It’s a form of acknowledgement.
“We've received messages from players that explained that this game helped them to accept and realize some of the traumas they might have suffered when they were kids,” they said, “and that it helped them now, as adults. It's deeply touching, but it is also quite frightening to be honest.”