Captain Spirit: A New Kind of Video Game Dread

Captain Spirit vs. The Water Eater
Captain Spirit vs. The Water Eater Screencap of The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
There is no game I am more excited about than Life is Strange 2. The first game was a marvel that I’ve played over and over again, and remains one of my favorite titles ever. The second installment featuring an all-new storyline has finally been announced for release on September 27. Details are still very under wraps, but players are getting a look at what’s to come with The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, a free demo connected to Life is Strange 2 that just dropped.

It scared me in ways a game never had before.

I’ve played scary games. Until Dawn is terrifying, and the Moira Asylum bits of Thief are still my gold standard for conventional horror. Captain Spirit is different though.

The game follows Chris, a young boy who lives with his father. His mother has apparently recently died, and the family has moved. Chris’s dad is a former star high school athlete who has turned to alcohol as his life falls apart. Chris takes refuge in his superhero fantasies, including the titular captain.

The mechanics are more or less similar to the first game. Instead of Max’s time travel abilities Chris can activate his superpowers, which thus far in my playthrough are just slightly fancier versions of basic environment interaction. Things do get more phantasmagorical when he takes on his first “supervillain,” the Water Eater. At this stage in the game it’s hard to really tell how this mechanic will measure up to the first game, but so far so good.

The opening involves Chris getting up for breakfast with his dad, who has a Saturday of day drinking and a ballgame planned (and maybe getting a Christmas tree if he doesn’t “fall asleep.”) A tense conversation at the table happens over bruises on Chris’ arm and whether anyone said anything about them at school. After that the game lets you explore.

The scene is set up. Chris’ dad drinks, and while he is clearly a loving father he also clearly gets out of control. Chris has to navigate the world around that fact, and that’s where the dread comes in.

Normally when a game scares you you’re worried about a monster jumping out at you or a grisly death. The first scare for me in Captain Spirit was that table conversation. One of the dialogue tree options about Chris’ arm is “it still hurts.” Or you can say it’s fine.

I went with fine, but I was honestly frightened what would happen if I said it hurt. Would the scene get violent? That colored my whole playthrough thus far. There’s a Nerf gun on a shelf that initially gives you the option to shoot your dad as he drinks and yells at the screen. I left it alone. You can use your superpwoers to try and evaporate the whiskey in the bottle. Your dad glares at you and says he knows what you’re doing, so stop it.

The atmosphere makes you tiptoe around the environment as if it was a beast-ridden haunted castle instead of a shabby two-bedroom home. There have been games that dealt with alcoholism before like Among the Sleep and Papo & Yo, but they used fantasy to make metaphors. Captain Spirit makes the monster completely human, and the result is that walking around a house pretending to be a superhero is a dreadful affair. Chris’ escapism is all the more powerful because the player sees how he uses simple good-vs-evil ideas to make sense of the grey areas of his life. He loves his dad, his dad loves him and terrible things are happening anyway.

The game scared me badly. It’s a game where the antagonist so far is how to work around the emotional landmines put out by a loved one with substance use disorder, and anyone who has been through that can tell you doing that is the tensest game in the world.

The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is out now for Xbox One, Playstation 4 and PC.
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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner