The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit review

A surprisingly affecting vignette from the studio behind Life is Strange.

There's a brilliant gameplay moment at the beginning The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit -- the latest graphic adventure game from Life is Strange studio DontNod Entertainment. We play as Chris, a nine-year-old boy who spends his morning pretending to be a superhero.

When he uses his "superpower" for the first time -- to land his toy spaceship safely on his desk-- the PS4 controller begins to vibrate, softly at first, and then more insistently. The camera frames the shot from Chris' perspective. But then, the camera pulls back. We can see Chris at a further, less intimate distance. And suddenly, the controller stops vibrating.

In what amounts to less than a minute, the game tells us everything we need to know about it. First, it celebrates the importance of imagination, which can be more powerful than, or even an escape from, reality. And second, it highlights how much we adults take kids' insight, intelligence, and inner life for granted. They hear everything and they see everything -- even the worst parts of adults -- especially if we try to hide them.

Captain Spirit is a mid-quel between 2015's Life is Strange and the upcoming Life is Strange 2; the first episode of the latter is due out on this September. Like its predecessor, Captain Spirit's challenge is not in its challenging gameplay. This is a game you "win," if such a thing is possible by exploring your surroundings, being observant, remembering what's been told to you, and applying it in later situations. Chris has compiled a list of "awesome" things that he can do in the context of his fantasy world, like put together his superhero costume out of old clothes and junk, or battle the snowman in his backyard, or search for hidden treasure. But these tasks are largely directionless (as kids' pretend worlds often are), and the game's narrative will progress, regardless of whether you complete the tasks or not. I only completed one of them, and I still technically "beat" the game and saw the end credits.

Minor spoilers ahead.

The more important goal of the game -- one that is handled extremely well -- is to learn about the horrors of Chris' home life through the lens of his inner life. Examine and observe enough objects lying around the house, and a tragic portrait emerges. We learn Chris' mother is dead. We learn his Dad is an alcoholic; it's morning, and he's already four beers deep.

There are marks on Chris' arm, and the father asks concerned questions about who saw the bruises at school, and if anyone asked questions about them. He stops right short of apologizing for inflicting them, but the implications of abuse are unmistakably there.

Chris is constantly trying to win his father's attention and affection by washing the dishes, doing the laundry, taking out the recycling, and getting him a beer, thus enabling his addictive behavior. At one point, Chris has the option to fix the boiler, a task too dangerous for a kid like him. But he frames these and other acts as part of his superhero narrative, which helps him rationalize the inappropriate, adult responsibilities in his life.

When he can't get his dad to respond to him through positive attention, he can resort to getting it through negative attention. Or at least, I did. I spent a couple of minutes calling his name over and over again, trying to annoy him into loving me. But that only got Chris' dad angrier and more aggressive. I had the option of shooting him with my toy gun, but I didn't dare. He was already angry that I didn't like his scrambled eggs. Would this be the breaking point that might lead to more marks on my arm?

I was quickly learning the perils of being nine years old, trapped in a household with an adult who was unpredictable. The game does a great job of showing how abused kids must navigate minefields -- between being loving and distant, between wanting attention and wanting to be ignored -- as a means of self-protection. When a concerned neighbor asked prying questions, do I tell the truth or put up a front? Could my dad be listening from the other room, ready to punish me in some terrible way?

Chris' father is not a stock trope, which makes his character more affecting. We see he is trying, however failingly, to be a good father, and he is wrestling with guilt over the man he has become. If you go snooping in his closet, you'll discover he bought Chris a  Christmas present that he can't afford. He promises, sincerely, that he and Chris will go shopping for a Christmas tree after the game, though we can tell he's made similar, magnanimous pronouncements before. He tries, at least at first, to hide his whiskey from Chris, but of course, Chris sees the bottle despite this. As always, kids see everything.

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, available for free on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC (Steam), is nothing if not narratively rich, and it is recommended. Despite its short, approximately 2-hour playtime, we learn a lot about its characters and their vulnerabilities. And, in a twist I wasn't expecting, it caused me to reflect about my own role as a father.

I work as a English teacher, but I also have a writing career I'm trying to grow. And because I work so much, both at school and after I come home, I don't get to play with my three-year-old son Michael as much as I'd like. On one hand, that's the price of having a middle class life with all the extra things, like putting Michael in the best possible daycare or paying a mortgage in a good school district. On the other hand, these are father-son moments I won't get back. And as several of my friends have told me, no one lies on their deathbed wishing they had spent more time at work.

I spent part of yesterday evening playing a board game with my son. And when my wife comes home from work today, we're going to take Michael to a bookstore and read stories to him. I need to be in his life, more than I already am.

Because I'm real. And I don't want Michael to have to imagine me.