The Short But Chilling 'Captain Spirit' Weaponizes Empathy Against You

Patrick Klepek

Patrick Klepek

The developers behind 'Life Is Strange' manage to tell a gripping but upsetting story about a father and son in a toxic relationship.

Warning: Spoilers for The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit. If you’re looking for a recommendation on whether it’s worth playing, don’t hesitate. It’s a touching, agonizing story about a father and son. We should get excited for Life Is Strange 2.

The marketing for The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit is a bait-and-switch. Don’t let the catchy twang of Sufjan Steven’s guitar and images of an adorable 10-year-old running around as a fake superhero make you think Dontnod’s free prequel to Life Is Strange 2 is anything but a vehicle for weaponized emotional torment. Captain Spirit is not a happy story, but a tragedy about the moral failings of people who’ve convinced themselves they’re good.

Captain Spirit opens with its main character, Chris, designing the costume for his imaginary superhero, the aforementioned Captain Spirit. Mask or no mask? Heavy or light armor? Shortly after, a voice booms from the other room—Chris’ father, Charles—beckoning Chris to eat breakfast. If you wait, the voice becomes more and more impatient, less and less playful. You notice a collection of too many beer cans next to the stove, and no matter how you react to the meal, the same conclusion is drawn: It’s just not as good as Mom used to make. The woman who tied everything together has been dead for some time, and things are not well.

Charles recognizes he can be a problem—a burden—and repeatedly tell his son how much he loves him, and how it’s okay to wish things used to be the way they were; he does, too. I saw what happened to my mother after my father passed, and how it tore at her very soul.

It’s at this point I knew Captain Spirit was going to be a problem for me.

Ever since becoming a parent, I have this recurring nightmare. Some way or another, my wife passes away surprisingly and unexpectedly, and my life is turned upside down. I’m now a single parent unsure how they’re going to make the mortgage, trying to explain to a child who says “Momma” every five seconds why those words are suddenly full of pain, and how every time she says them, Dada can’t stop putting on (as my daughter puts it) his “sad face.”

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.

I don’t think this is actually true, but the psychological rot lingers, and it whispers.

It’s at this point I found myself guiding Chris around the home, performing mundane tasks like taking out the recycling, cleaning the dishes, and turning on the water heater. Chris doesn’t do these tasks because he’s a good kid (though he is), but because it’s clear his father won’t. Charles appears to have trouble waking up, let alone maintaining a home. The explorable space in Captain Spirit isn’t very large, but it’s dense, and the layout feels more natural. It’s these types of details—including, for example, having the option to respond to people while you’re exploring—showcasing what Dontnod learned from Life Is Strange. It’s about crafting a more believable world, and making the player’s interactions truly convincing. This makes it easier for Dontnod to tell a story, especially one that presses as hard as this.

The whole time, I’m trying not to cry, as I interact with a playable simulation of my own nightmare. (I largely failed at the not crying part, obviously. The Sufjan Stevens musical cues didn’t help.) A father broken by the loss of his better half, who spends foggy days failing to become a better person. This failure isn’t exclusively personal, either; it’s at the expense of their child, too. Children are resilient, but they are not invincible. They are not superheroes.

But as this is still a game about rummaging through things, as you search through closets, boxes, and drawers, Captain Spirit paints an increasingly toxic picture of the relationship between Chris and Charles . Charles was recently arrested after getting into a bar fight. He was fired after drinking on the job. They couldn’t pay the mortgage, and the bank reclaimed their home. It’s not just that Charles is having some rough days (or months), but he’s chronically broken, and increasingly reliant on alcohol as a coping mechanism. But Chris loves his father because a 10-year-old is likely incapable of any other reaction, and approaches each day with the same attitude: I love my Dad, so I’m going to help him.

Microwave him a lunch of macaroni and cheese. Get a beer from the fridge, his fifth or sixth of the day. Peel him off the floor, after he wakes up in a stupor, unable to walk. Lie about the bruises on my arm, which Dad feels sorry about because he didn’t mean for it to happen.

That moment happens early on, and it’s when the simulation broke, where my empathy turned to anger. I was given two ways—”It’s fine” and “It kinda hurts”—to help Chris awkwardly navigate around what the game was explicitly pointing towards: child abuse. You can watch the entire exchange here, courtesy of the YouTube channel MKIceandFire. Content warning: Images of potential child abuse.

“I can give you an ice pack and maybe one of my pills,” remarks Charles . “No pain and no swelling. It makes me sad that I...that, that you got hurt.”

I wept now for a different reason, trying to imagine how someone brings physical harm to their child. I wept, too, over my misguided empathy. Charles had performed all manner of emotional abuse against his son, but in wrapping Charles' actions around the death of his partner, wife, and mother of his child, it was easy to get blinded. Who wouldn’t have a bad day? Who wouldn’t be angry, and find that anger being pointed in the wrong direction?

Critic Holly Green recently wrote an exceptional piece, which I recommend you read the entirety of, about her personal reaction to this sequence in Captain Spirit, where you can choose to mildly confront Charles or give emotional cover. Her words ring deeper than mine:

“As I stared at that screen, several minutes flew by as I remembered all the times I’d been like Chris, doing chores and trying to get ahead of the abuse, searching for the right answer so he wouldn’t hurt me again. Later, I wondered if that scene would have the same effect on people who hadn’t lived it, and felt relief that maybe they’d be spared the grief.”

Even absent personal experience with this sort of trauma, it remained powerful. My reaction was put best by a Twitter user reacting to Holly’s piece: "Captain Spirit was one of the first times where I really really really really didn't want to try some of the options an RPG gave me.” Being forced to linger, having to physically press a button, was excruciating. Like Holly, I spent a long time staring at the screen. And I chose to pretend everything was okay.

Both choices revealed an ugly truth, and while Captain Spirit was already a story wrapped in melancholy, it’s this moment when Chris’ overactive imagination, the way he finds ways to escape, turned vile. This notion of looking for the good in people, of wanting to save people, isn’t just part of Chris’ obsession with superheroes: it fuels the relationship with his father. As players, we can see through the charade, and understand how Charles has taken advantage of Chris’ youthful naivety, a literal punching bag for a father’s inability to rise to the moment.

By the end, I was disgusted, angry, and exhausted. An uncommon set of emotions for a game you’d want to recommend to other people, even if they bounced off Life Is Strange.

Captain Spirit ends with a tiny ray of hope, but no resolution. There’s reason to think Chris’ situation might get better, but we don’t know. When the credits roll, he’s still in that house.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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