Life is Strange is a series that’s been near and dear to me for a long time. On paper, the games are narrative-driven, graphical adventures in which players make decisions to imprint themselves on a story and a world. Not dissimilar to many point-and-click adventures or Telltale-style choose-your-own-adventure games, but they are a lot more than just that.
Full of heart, Life is Strange games are about finding the moments of calmness and tranquillity in the midst of navigating a chaotic wider world. Starring leads who are profoundly introspective and sensitive (sometimes to a fault), these games have you walking in the shoes and sharing a space with characters, in whom you may find a semblance of yourself.
With Life Is Strange: True Colors, I found that and more. Built entirely around the theme of empathy, True Colors is a one-of-a-kind experience that encapsulates what it feels like to live as someone who feels the emotions of others deeply and the challenges of finding your true self while in those shoes, all through leveraging the power of video games as an empathetic medium.
Setting the Stage
Our guide to the story is Alex Chen (short for Alexandra), an empath who is just coming to terms with her innate ability to read, feel and absorb the emotions of those around her. Having grown up bouncing between orphanages and foster homes, she grew to see her gifts more as curses than blessings.
Constantly surrounded by strong negative emotions like fear, sadness, and anger, she would inadvertently take on and languish in them. Worse yet, sometimes she’d get into fights with other kids because she could not protect herself from being “infected” by anger that wasn’t hers. There’s definitely a conversation to be had here about personal boundaries, but I digress.
As a result, she was branded as too sensitive and was left pathologised by the mental health professionals assigned to help her. Touching on the themes of mental health struggles and processing emotions, Alex’s eventual escape from the system and reunification with her long-lost older brother Gabe in the cosy, communal mountain town of Haven Springs (or Haven for short), sets the stage for a story about recovery, personal growth, and building a home.
True Colors is a game about growing into your own skin and finding yourself amid a world that can feel overwhelming. We follow along on Alex’s journey as she learns to open up, find support in friends and community, and realise the true potential of her unique powers in the face of her brother’s sudden death.
Throughout the five-chapter adventure (roughly 10 hours), you’ll use Alex’s empathy powers (activated by holding R2 and triggered with X when prompted) to solve puzzles and help people navigate their emotional turmoil. On the lighter end, this could include helping a stranger find his lost dog to quell his anxiety, while on the heavier end, this could be holding space for friends to grieve and process a profound loss.
As the story progresses, you’ll be faced with key dialogue options that will alter the course of the game and slowly unravel the mysteries confronting Alex – typical of the genre. However, in between each fork in the road, you’ll be basking in the warmth of Haven as you get to know the townsfolk, experience lively community festivals, and immerse in shared experiences to help one another amidst difficult times.
So much of my playtime was spent feeling feelings, often wandering around town just to listen in to people’s hearts like a fly on the wall. One moment I’d be soaking up their triumphant joy (and feeling happy for them), and the next, I’d smile and aww as I watched two friends freak out over their harboured romantic feelings for one another. It’s incredibly cute.
Connection by connection, Alex weaves her way into the community and begins to build a home of her own, like her brother Gabe did before her. Journeying with Alex as she gradually learns to see the good in her powers (and in herself) was a deeply rewarding emotional voyage that made my heart swell and brought tears to my eyes. You’ll want to bring tissues for this one, trust me.
Life is Still Strange
For those returning to the series, you’ll be welcomed by familiar tentpoles, including a narrative around solving a mystery in a small town, doused with plenty of heart-wrenching story beats, and finding moments of tranquillity every now and then. Indeed, True Colors continues to make use of one of my favourite in-game mechanics where Alex can find spots in town to just sit in the moment, comb through her thoughts, and simply be present.
Life is Strange reminds us that sometimes slowing down and doing absolutely nothing is the greatest gift you can give yourself, especially when the world feels overwhelming.
As with previous entries, the game boasts a typically exquisite Life Is Strange-style soundtrack (headlined by Novo Amor’s Haven) that does a great job at mood-setting and accentuating big emotional sequences. Visually, the game’s blend of realism and a soft colour palette combines well with the gorgeous scenery of the Colorado mountains to evoke a dreamlike atmosphere throughout the adventure.
Strolling around Haven Springs felt like a much-needed respite away from the hustle and bustle of urbanity. Together, these pieces of the game combine to create an experience that feels lightyears away from the bombastic, over-the-top action-adventure games I typically gravitate towards, providing a dash of calmness and serenity that feels grounding and nourishing.
In Her Shoes
From a design perspective, True Colors thoughtfully leverages the power of video games as an empathetic medium, enabling players to walk in Alex’s shoes. A great example of this occurs early in the game when Alex witnesses a confrontation between a furious neighbour and her brother.
As the altercation gets physical and punches start flying, Alex falls to the ground as the player’s screen starts bleeding red while the controller and triggers pulsate intensely. Letting out a desperate scream, we witness Alex drowning in the neighbour’s anger before promptly charging him down and beating him until blood starts running off both sides of his face. With each punch, the controller throbs. As Gabe tries to pull her off, she gives him a good jab in the face too, before snapping out of it, disorientated. Then, we watch as Alex tries to profusely apologise for her actions that we fully understand were beyond both the player’s and her own control.
Recollecting herself in front of the bathroom mirror, Alex looks up and whispers, “I’m okay”, as she washes her bloodstained knuckles. The controller vibrates with each gentle movement, with diminishing intensity. As she whimpers and tells herself, “I’m okay”, the second time, a tear streams down her cheek. Then a tear streams down mine.
Through the use of games technology and design, True Colors places us front and centre in Alex’s reality. To experience first-hand her struggles with her powers, mental health, and what’s it like not to be okay sometimes. While the game is not unique in its intent and design to use video games as a medium to invoke empathy, True Colors does it with an intensity and delicateness that I’ve yet to experience elsewhere.
On a final note, this telling of Alex’s story also feels like a triumph for diversity and representation in video games in a way that is meaningful and matters.
Alex is an openly bisexual woman (yes, there are romance options) of East Asian descent (second-generation) who has spent most of her life growing up orphaned. She’s an empathetic person and struggles with a condition that while incredibly powerful, is often misunderstood. These are not the characteristics of your typical video game hero(ine), especially in such a mainstream release. Seeing a thoughtfully woven narrative that feels informed by lived experiences doing justice to each of these elements and experiences warms my heart. And one day, hopefully, yours too.
Ultimately, True Colors is an adventure about feeling feelings, deeply. It’s a game about empathy starring an empath heroine in an experience built on an empathetic medium. Finely balancing bouts of heavy emotions with glimmers of joy and pockets of serenity, this is a treat that begs to be played.
If you like feeling feelings as much as I do, then this is most certainly a game for you. If not, then I’d like to give you a hug and reassure you that that’s okay too. With the game arriving on Xbox Game Pass (Console and PC) last week, there’s really no excuse not to check it out. So, do it. You won’t regret it. Just make sure you bring tissues.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 5
Screenshots taken on a PlayStation 5. Additional visuals courtesy of Square Enix.