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Sean Diaz walks toward the border wall in Life Is Strange 2 Image: Dontnod Entertainment via Polygon

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My mom crossed the border in real life. I only cross it in a video game.

One video game’s take on American racial tensions

Everything over the last 15 hours has led to this point: my brother and me, standing before a wall. The wall. I wasn’t sure we’d make it here. We are, after all, two kids who hiked our way down to the border, only a few dollars to our name. The odds, and more importantly the law, are against us.

Then again, I’ve heard a lifetime of equally incredible stories like this, from friends and family. My mom was still a teenager the first time she crossed the border.

People risk it all to get to the United States, even if it means they might not make it, even if it means sitting in cages, even if it means taking up harsh, degrading jobs for people who don’t fully see them as human. Anything for a chance at a real life that’s free of violence and extreme poverty.

I grew up around these stories, but my experience is different. I’m fortunate enough to have been born in the States, which means I’ve never had to sneak my way across the border — until playing a video game. In this case, the goal is not to enter the U.S. as an immigrant, but to leave the country as two full-blooded American boys.

I was never fully sure that Life is Strange 2 would actually take players to the border, as it proposed near the end of its first episode. Too political, I thought, as I waited for the game to eventually pull its punch.

Back in 2018, the first episode of Life Is Strange 2 introduced players to Daniel, a young boy who loses his father to police violence. Daniel then accidentally kills the cop using his mysterious magical powers. I play as Sean Diaz, Daniel’s older brother, who faces an impossible choice. The boys have no caretakers. Their father is dead. Their mom walked out on the family years ago, for reasons that are never fully explained. The only family the Diaz brothers have left at that point are their white grandparents, who aren’t in the same state, and may not be able to harbor a grandson wanted for murder.

Sean and Daniel Diaz in Life is Strange 2. Image: Dontnod Entertainment via Polygon

In a moment of panic, the high schooler, Sean, recalls that his dad has a plot of land in a place called Los Lobos, where the rest of his Mexican family also resides. Maybe the siblings could run from the law?

It’s a jump, and one that may be hard to understand … unless you’re brown. White people in this country can shoot up a church, only to have police buy them Burger King a few hours later. People with actual melanin in their skin, though? The system feels stacked against us. We worry the cops will shoot first. And if we make it out of a confrontation with the police alive, black and brown people have to fear a legal system that has unfairly framed them for crimes they didn’t commit. It’s no accident that a recent work in a different medium, Queen and Slim, also proposes the same exact solution (to run) after its characters kill a policeman in self-defense. To trust in the law’s willingness to treat you fairly is to have privilege. Black and brown people don’t always have that luxury.

Confrontational, yet clumsy

Life is Strange has, as a franchise, never been subtle, digging into topical teenager stories with a well-intended mix of sincerity and bluntness. The results have been a grab-bag. The first game was a mix of tender moments between two girls and increasingly traumatic scenes where they have to watch each other die repeatedly — only to have the next episode undo it all. You could say that the first Life is Strange dives into complex subjects like rape, euthanasia, and suicide, but it often comes across more as attempts to titillate the player, rather than make them reflect.

Life is Strange 2’s primary concern is race. The initial tragedy that kicks everything into motion happens after Sean’s neighbor yells that he should go back to “his country,” despite Sean being born in the United States. Later, there’s a big moment where Sean is stopped by two men who threaten to hurt him if he doesn’t sing and dance in Spanish. The more the player refuses, the more they watch Sean get beat down.

Creative director Raoul Barbet tells Polygon that it was a “difficult” yet important scene to write. Where most games give players the reins to a power fantasy, Life is Strange 2 posits a dead end where pain and humiliation are the only way out.

Based on my experience, this approach feels crass. The literalness highlights how video games have the same finesse as a punch to the face, as those are the specific verbs at play here. For me, racism isn’t always a direct confrontation where a bigot threatens me with violence (or even outright mentions my background); it’s often way more Knives Out in nature. Personal, precise, and intimate betrayals where things are implied but maybe not outright said.

Ana de Armas and Daniel Craig puzzle over the clues in Knives Out Photo: Claire Folger/Lionsgate

It’s having memories of helping my aunt’s boss, the same one who always called us her “family,” throw a party — only to be hidden away in the kitchen, our existence too embarrassing. It’s noticing the slight alarm in a rich white person’s voice when I tell them I got into the same private school as their child. It’s being asked if I’m some white boy’s nanny. It’s being the single brown person in a room. It’s the perpetual feeling that well-meaning white people are smiling to my face as they stab me with a toothpick. And I’ve got it good, relatively speaking.

The other day, one of my closest friends, the one who’s got “dreamer” tattooed on her chest, told me she regularly thinks about suicide. It is, among other things, a matter of documents that say whether she can belong. It’s in part due to a torrent of headlines like “Woman Ran Over Girl Because She Was ‘a Mexican,’ Police Say” and “El Paso Suspect Confessed to Targeting Mexicans.” It’s not knowing what laws or executive orders might be erected without warning. It’s knowing that, regardless of what the government might say, what it actually does has nothing to do with the law — even when you’re an actual citizen. It is a lifetime of toothpicks.

Life is Strange 2 doesn’t have the range to capture experiences like that, instead opting for flashy, dramatic moments. There’s a part in the final episode, for example, where Sean asks Daniel to use his powers so they can literally dismantle the border wall. But the wall only covers a small section of the border. Nobody seriously trying to cross the border would take the route that Sean and Daniel choose in the game. And yet.

The border wall gets destroyed in Life is Strange 2. Image: Dontnod Entertainment via Polygon

Life is Strange 2 may be clumsy sometimes, in that way video games often are, but it’s also doing me the courtesy of reflecting that what I know is true is in fact real. Sometimes, that’s enough.

As Joshua Rivera noted last year at Kotaku, there’s a Latinx void at the heart of video games. This is probably the most visible video game tackling the immigration crisis in the U.S. head on, rather than abstracting it to some mealy-mouthed nonsense involving elves, orcs, or aliens who are likely just as bad as their oppressors somehow.

Most of the time, though, gaming companies are out here insisting that they’re not political at all. That spineless erasure often gives me whiplash when I step back into the real world, which, more and more, reminds me how it may not want brown people around.

The developers at Dontnod did plenty of research, they say, including visiting the border firsthand and interviewing people who lived near the area. That’s how the game’s creative directors, Michel Koch and Raoul Barbet, learned about heavily armed vigilantes who believe they’re “help[ing] the country” when they try capturing immigrants themselves, a phenomenon that also makes an appearance in the game.

Life is Strange 2’s creative directors tell Polygon that some Latinx players have informed the French studio that they’ve legitimately been in violent situations like the one where Sean is threatened by racists. Nevermind all the far-right movements, like Brexit and the alt-right, that are sprouting up around the world in response to immigration concerns.

The Diaz brothers in Life is Strange 2. Image: Dontnod Entertainment via Polygon

It wasn’t always so fraught and so violent, according to my mom. Crossing used to be easier, she says, because the country knew that it needed cheap workers. To wit, when she came over, she was captured by immigration and actually let go, something that she says would probably never happen now.

Maybe Life is Strange 2 didn’t have to do more than to let me stand at the border and give me a decision — any decision — over this imaginary line that has nonetheless cast a shadow over my entire life. To be a first-generation kid is to carry the weight of a family who has given everything up so I can have a chance. It is becoming alien to those same people as I slowly forget my native tongue. It is being terrified to ask my mom what career she dreamed of when she was a child, before she was pulled out of school to work full time. It’s suffocating under the knowledge she’s crossed the border not once, not twice, but three times — including one time to save me from abduction. I’m not sure she knew if she’d be able to make it back safely when she took that risk for me. We don’t really talk about these things. Some stories, I’m afraid to know in full. The scraps that I know of — civil war, trauma, country-shattering earthquakes — have been enough.

In the fourth episode, Sean and Daniel finally get to reunite with their absent mother, Karen, who at this point has heard all about the cross-country run on the lam. After years of abandonment, the player gets to decide how they’ll treat a familial specter. As it turns out, speaking to a digital mom is way easier for me. (Her being not real probably helps.) Apparently, I’m not alone in this. The creative directors muse that players often want to be the heroes, which may explain why the end-of-game statistics show the vast majority of fans made amends with Karen despite the real hurt she’s caused characters in the game.

”I’m not sure in real life, this kind of [high] percentage would be the same,” says Barbet, noting that society is often harsh on absent mothers. I know this firsthand. When my mom first came to this country, she left behind two toddlers who were too young to make the journey across the border. You could say she did it for them; the whole point was to make enough money to send back and ensure they’d have full bellies while getting a proper education. But years later, when my brothers were able to come here legally, the resentment of being left behind, even for arguably “good reasons,” was palpable. The border is a series of fractures.

By the end of the game, Sean doesn’t have many choices left: Either spend years in prison over a series of misunderstandings, or start a new life in Mexico. So, I sent him over the border. They’d come all this way, I reasoned, and suffered too much, to just go back now.

In my game, Daniel took stock of all my choices up to that point, and then decided to separate from Sean to stay in the U.S. — even if it meant facing charges. It’s an excruciating scene that left me in tears, though I’m told all the endings are at least a little bittersweet. You see the entire game unfold through Sean’s eyes, only to have the final decision shift the viewpoint to Daniel, who is now grown enough to have his own say on whether or not he wants to cross the border.

After the credits rolled, I decided to call my mom. I was reeling — from the game, from increasingly lucid therapy sessions about my past, and from recently finishing Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, an intense novel about the unique trauma that comes with being a child of immigrants in America.

“Monarchs that fly south will not make it back north,” Vuong writes, reflecting on the migration patterns of butterflies. “Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past.”

My mom told me how 20 years ago, the entire family pooled money together for her to make the big journey out of the jungle. How she still remembers those long nights where she made beds out of wild grass. She told me how she slipped under barbed wire to cross the border, how she felt when she stepped foot on new soil. Her first days in America, she spent largely pulling lice out of her hair. She can laugh about that now. Maybe she’ll go back and live there again when she’s old and tired, she says. One day, one day.

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