When DONTNOD’s The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit was announced at E3 last month, I scoffed at it. Like many others out there, I have grown seriously tired of child actors and characters who are portrayed as wise beyond their years. Whilst these larger than life kids often produce incredibly funny moments, and help provoke growth in the characters that surround them, ultimately, the unrelatable nature of their personality pulls me out of the game.
Kids are more complicated than the extreme level of wit most appropriately witnessed in an Aaron Sorkin TV show, or the petulant bickering of a self-obsessed six-year-old. However, Chris is not like this, in fact, in a less developed way, he’s essentially a bad Michael Keaton.
Now, this comparison is not one-to-one, and it’s worth noting that if you haven’t already seen the movie Birdman from a few years back, you MAY want to stop reading. That being said, the ending of that film is definitely a side note to the larger direction and message of it, so I don’t think you’d be missing out regardless.
Chris has experienced tremendous loss in the past couple of years; his mother was killed, and his dad continues to circle the drain, incapable of effectively moving on from his own trauma of losing the woman he so deeply loved. Interestingly, what makes Chris’ character special is not his loss, his naivety, or his attempts to shield himself from reality, but his ability to connect with the player with at least one of these aspects.
I’ve had a fortunate life, with no unexpected loss, and a level of stability that a tremendous amount of people would kill for. I came into The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit not expecting to take anything out of it, but I still saw pieces of myself in Chris’ character. Periods when I dressed up as Luke Skywalker and scaled the floor of the living room which represented Jabba’s Tatooine flagship; efforts to establish a command centre in my bedroom using a blanket fort and my mum’s Zenith Minisport. Even the hours I spent with LEGO, constructing and playing out elaborate action set-pieces. I’m sure most of us have those memories, but whereas I played simply to have fun, Chris’ story speaks to an attempt to empower himself in the face of a reality that scares him.
The nature of our reality has been explored A LOT in films, from the Matrix, to Inception, and yes, Birdman. What each of these movies tries to ask in one way or another is: Does the true nature of reality actually matter? Is the more important point, what our own truth is? These are questions that require quite a bit more discussion than I am going to go through here, the point is that The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit tackles these questions in the 11th hour, in a way that disrespects the game.
Herein lies my problem: Its ending felt like a cheap riff of a technique that other media, for instance, Birdman, justifies with cinematography and direction from the beginning of the piece.
Throughout Birdman, the extended cuts, the acting and dialogue of Michael Keaton, along with the interlaced nature of his ‘hallucinations’, builds the character’s persona as someone struggling to cope with reality. It heightens suspense as we’re made unsure whether or not he actually has superpowers. The entire film culminates with the end scene where Keaton jumps out of a window, and his daughter smiles happily at the sky, as if he was actually flying, rather than falling to his death. The value in Birdman’s ambivalent ending is that it forces the audience to consider whether knowing ‘the truth’ is actually relevant. The film explored a broken man, and helped the audience interpret his psyche.
Now, maybe I’m being overly critical, but The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit had me, it truly did! Until the end, when he dramatically falls out of the treehouse and levitates above the ground. There are a few different ways you can look at it:
A) It’s a satisfying, if not hopeful end to a story which has been writhe with fairly upsetting subject matter.
B) The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a prequel to Life is Strange 2, and a successor to Life is Strange, which boasted a time-travel mechanic, so who cares?
C) It is a cop-out ending which contradicts the overall message and relatability of the episode.
The ending just wasn’t earned. Throughout the episode, the developers carefully crafted a story which resonated with the memories of my childhood. It displayed characters who represented more than just the extreme ends of the good and bad spectrum. It ACTUALLY made me feel afraid for Chris, but care for his father at the same time. I could see the anguish, love, fear, and hate in both characters. One particular moment brought back memories of being afraid to ask my Dad for something while he napped on the lounge, in fear of upsetting him. However, all of this is rendered irrelevant in the end, because Chris actually has superpowers.
There’s a couple of messages I’ve taken out of this finale. On one hand, it’s almost as if the developers are suggesting that simply by avoiding the reality of a situation and burying your head in the sand, eventually, everything will magically come good. On the other, it’s a basic twist incorporated at the end of the episode which disconnects the game from the REAL message it conveys. Part of childhood is coming to terms with reality; it’s growing up while at the same time struggling to hold onto fantasy. If we all suddenly developed superpowers, it’d prevent any real personal development, and set us on a fast-track to accidentally murdering our families in a fit of childhood tantrums.
The twist felt like an over-abused shock-tactic that wants us to question whether or not what we saw was REAL. Though, throughout the whole game, we’ve connected to a character who has drawn us in purely because we could reach out and feel his reality. The sole point of Birdman is to make us question Michael Keaton’s sanity, but that’s not the case with Chris. It isn’t justified in the context of this contained story, and ultimately, I believe it does a great disservice to its overall quality.
Maybe all of this will be rectified with Life is Strange 2 comes out, who knows?