Life is Strange: True Colours – A Full Spectrum of Emotion
PC, PS4/5, Xbox One/Series, Switch
Life is Strange is one of my favourite games. When it was released, it was the first game I had ever played that I really felt was specifically for me, and it spoke to me in ways no game ever had before. It wasn’t that games weren’t emotional before that – they were. But it’s Life is Strange that I think of specifically when I think about games that really spoke to my heart. Life is Strange: Before the Storm felt similar. Life is Strange 2 was good, but it didn’t hit me the same way. From the moment I saw the trailer for Life is Strange: True Colours, however, it felt like someone had directly reached into my chest and pulled out my soul and turned it into a video game. So, did I set my expectations high? Absolutely. But, along with the nuanced queer narrative that I’ve come to expect from this series, the striking colour scheme, the promise of mystery and an evocative soundtrack, this game offered me something even more than previous entries: a focus on empathy and the power of emotion.
It’s here that for the second time this month I need to disclose that my background is in psychology. Anything to do with the human experience, exploring the mind (and reasoning behind thoughts and actions), or understanding why people act the way they do and reflecting on the influence of their different perspectives is going to be my jam. I’m a nerd for brains and feelings. So while some people might see this entry in the series as a step back from a protagonist with a proper ‘super power’, I see it as an incredible exercise in why it’s so important to understand and relate to people. Suffice to say, that even though this game wasn’t perfect, it did more than live up to my sky-high expectations.
As is typical for Life is Strange games, a big part of this game’s success lies with the story – which, of course, I won’t go into too much detail about, because the joy is in the journey. But at the centre of the narrative is a protagonist who has instantly become one of my all-time favourites. Right off the bat, we learn that Alex Chen – our heroine – has spent the better part of her teen years bouncing between orphanages, foster homes and youth facilities after being separated from her older brother at a young age. Now in her early twenties, she’s on her way to meet this brother, Gabe, who has established a life in the small town of Haven Springs, Colorado, and who wants her to be a part of that life. Alex is nervous that the amount of time that has passed will mean that they won’t have the same connection they used to, but from the moment she steps off the bus those nerves begin to dissipate. The reunion is awkward, and Alex is shy, but the awkwardness feels so real that it’s hard not to be instantly invested in the relationship between these two siblings as Gabe begins to show Alex around the town he hopes she will soon call home.
Unfortunately, it’s doomed from the start. Every description of the game will tell you that Life is Strange: True Colours is about Alex’s quest to uncover the truth about her brother’s death in a ‘so-called accident’, so every second she spends with Gabe feels incredibly bittersweet. We see him apologising to his girlfriend, his easy interactions with the town’s residents and his role in their lives and we know that these people are all about to suffer a great loss. You aren’t given a lot of time to get to know Gabe Chen before his death (though you learn quite a lot about him after it), but it’s enough for it to feel impactful, and to believe that this is about to be a town wracked with grief. He isn’t perfect, but he is also clearly exactly the person Alex needs, and as they reconnect we get to learn more about her too. She tells her brother about her life over the past few years, which includes disclosing the reason she’s had an extra tough time due to some ‘outbursts’ towards other youths. Alex, since she was young, has had a unique ability – she can sense the emotions of others, and through those emotions, sense the thoughts that are causing them. She’s had some years to grow accustomed to life with this ability, but as we soon see, when the emotions of others are strong, it can overwhelm her, and she can’t always control it. Just as the siblings are beginning to bond over the knowledge of this power and what it might mean, things begin to go downhill quickly – and it’s from there that the story takes off.
At first, the ‘mystery’ at the core of this game felt a little underwhelming, but by the end, it had developed into something which, though not exactly groundbreaking in its twists and turns, was ultimately memorable. But honestly, that mystery almost doesn’t matter – or at least it didn’t for me. From the moment Alex Chen set foot in Haven Springs, the town came alive. Every one of its residents has their own stories, and their own fears and motivations, and their own secrets. Once Gabe is gone, Alex begins to develop her own relationships with these residents, and each of these relationships feels unique and really feeds into who Alex is as a character. They’re influenced by the relationships these people had with Gabe, but not entirely defined by them. Gabe’s friends become Alex’s friends, his colleagues her colleagues, and some of them can develop into romances – depending on the path you choose. This game is about Alex finding out who she is, and the way she relates to other people is integral to that journey.
Of course, she can do that in a way that’s a little different to other people. Alex’s power allows her to sense an emotional aura around someone, and if she focuses, she can hear the thoughts associated with that aura. If she goes one step further and focuses on the emotional energy associated with nearby objects too, the world around her changes slightly to reflect what’s going on in the mind of the other person. In some ways, this can feel a little manipulative. Alex can know things about other people that they don’t want her to know, and the game isn’t always great at addressing why this might be a problem, but her power is also just essentially supercharged empathy. She takes time to understand why someone might be feeling a certain way and uses that understanding to help them work through powerful and often debilitating emotions. For me, it doesn’t feel that different to what someone goes on in a psychologist’s office – though of course, in that situation, the person is consenting to have their thoughts examined that way. But more than any other ‘power’ in any other Life is Strange game – though it could be argued that the others are more ‘powerful’, I wanted to have Alex’s power. And outside of a few key moments, the game only really makes you use it as much as you want to.
The game gives you ample time to wander through the world and engage with its residents at your own pace, and in your own way, but you have to make the choice to do it. There were a few key moments where I thought I was going to have to use Alex’s power in a way that I absolutely wasn’t comfortable with, in order to get a ‘good’ ending to the game. But that wasn’t the case. I made the choice not to do what it was asking and was thrilled to find that staying true to myself and taking a step back was an absolutely valid solution in these scenarios. This game encourages you to make choices that make sense for you, and for who you want Alex to be, and while the character clearly has a core set of values, I can definitely see how I injected a huge part of myself into who she ended up being, and how her story developed. By the end, I trusted this game completely to allow me to do all the things I wanted to do, and it didn’t really let me down.
One of those choices, of course, is the romance aspect. You can choose not to pursue a romantic relationship with either of your options and instead develop strong friendships, which I really appreciate as an option. I didn’t take that option, because it took me all of about two seconds to fall entirely in love with one of your romantic prospects, but I like that it was there. Alex is canonically queer, and she has two suitors of two different genders – one is Ryan, a park ranger who grew up in Haven Springs and who has a passion for all things nature. He has a kind of sexy hipster lumberjack vibe going for him, and under different circumstances, I might have been all about him. But the other option, Steph, instantly won my heart. To be fair, she’d already won it during her appearances in Life is Strange: Before the Storm, where her passion for Dungeons and Dragons and huge heart made me want to know more about her – so she had a head start. But when she first appears in Alex’s life she’s dancing like a dork while doing her textbook-cool job as a radio station DJ, shortly before having an intense and passionate discussion about her D&D campaign, and that’s the energy she carries through the whole game. I am wholeheartedly in love with Steph Gingrich, and her relationship with Alex is one of the most authentic, compelling relationships I’ve ever seen in a game. My only criticism is that I wanted more of it. The three characters – Alex, Steph, and Ryan – are friends, and you get to see the relationships with both develop a little as the story goes on, but a lot of it is happening in the background, and I wish it hadn’t been.
That said, this game actually does a great job of showing that background development. Throughout the story, you’ll get notifications from a social messaging service that’s essentially a neighbourhood-wide Facebook, and this gives you insight into the dynamics at play between the town’s residents. Sometimes they’ll post about in-game events you’ve experienced, and you’ll get to see their reactions to your choices, but sometimes they’ll just talk about things like whether or not there’s someone around who can fix their computer, or do some manual labour for them. It all adds to the depth of Haven Springs, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I experienced a game world that felt this real. It’s beautiful – graphically, this game is a huge improvement from the others, and it makes me excited for what we might see from the Remastered Collection due out later this month – but it also just feels alive.
It’s very clear that Life is Strange: True Colours is not a game to be rushed. It wants you to take it slowly and experience every bit of it at your own pace, and at times it even gives you extra encouragement. In each chapter, there are opportunities for ‘zen moments’ – moments where Alex will sit down in a quiet place to just reflect, with this break doubling as a chance to show off this game’s perfectly paired soundtrack. This game deals with some huge, incredibly heavy themes, so moments like this can be a good chance to take a break yourself too. The soundtracks have always been a highlight of this series, and even though it isn’t even necessarily the sort of music I’d seek out on my own, it’s so inherently tied to the feeling of this game that I’ve now been listening to this soundtrack on repeat for days. Some of the songs are beautiful, yes, but mostly I just want to feel what this game made me feel over and over again. Outside of the ‘zen moments’, you can also take a break by looking through Alex’s messages, which shed more light on her relationships, or her journal, which she uses to jot down particularly intense emotions from others that have inspired song lyrics or themes. This is also a good way to learn about Alex’s past, especially at the beginning of the game when she talks about incidents that occurred before she left for Haven Springs.
In many ways, this game is more mature than its predecessors. You can see it in the characters, the dialogue, the polish – technically, while Life is Strange will always hold a very special place in my heart that cannot be erased, True Colours is a better game. The themes are still dark and confronting, but the approach it takes to them allows for more nuanced exploration. Maybe not everyone will agree. It’s important to go into this game knowing that it doesn’t hold back – the characters face some really difficult, confronting emotions, and the fact that Alex is helping them deal with those emotions is also confronting in its own way. But it’s worth the confrontation. Or at least, it was for me.
There’s just so much about this game to love. There are a few little issues – sometimes it can be difficult to see the prompts available to you when you’re walking around the world, for example, because Alex is standing in the way of where the options are hovering. Or one particular gameplay mechanic which felt a little irritating for a large portion of its relevant chapter, but which ultimately had a super cool payoff that kind of made it worth it. Or a few scenes where I wish participation in alcohol and drug culture wasn’t so casually assumed to be the norm. But I also recognise that this game is in many ways for me. Me, a queer woman whose wardrobe is essentially a way less fashionable version of Alex’s (honestly, I need some of her jackets/sweaters immediately). A person who is deeply invested in the idea that getting to the root of someone’s emotions can tell you so much about who they are, and who thinks that empathy is one of the most powerful traits a person can possess. A person who really just loves vibrant rainbow colours, and wishes I could see more of them in the world. I have a lot of feelings about this game, and I’m not even sure that I’m finished processing them yet. I’m going to need to play it again. But for now, I do know that this game is powerful, and it’s going to hold its own special place in my heart for a long time. Thanks, Alex Chen.
Life is Strange: True Colors was reviewed on PC with code kindly supplied by the Publisher
Jess is a writer and researcher who loves games with good puzzles, good stories, and a tendency to punch you straight in your feelings. She is one of the directors of not-for-profit organisation Queerly Represent Me and is particularly interested in games told from unique perspectives that highlight themes or characters from groups that are often underrepresented. She also just really loves coffee, hot chips, and terrible superhero TV shows, and is always secretly hoping that one day the world will give her a good Sherlock Holmes game.