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I love Dontnod Entertainment’s Life Is Strange games because they’re always celebrations of diversity, with interesting characters who are fleshed out with relationships and emotions. And Life Is Strange: True Colors, built by Deck Nine, hits closer to home as it is one of the first high-quality video games where a couple of the lead characters are of Asian descent.
The main character is Alexandra “Alex” Chen, who comes to a small town called Haven Springs in the Colorado mountains to reunite with her brother Gabe for the first time in many years, after she spent eight years in the foster care system. She is striking, but not in the usual wafer-thin sexy female lead character way that we often see in video games. In fact, she is heavier, and she looks pretty normal, as do most of the other characters in the game. They’re all part of a diverse crew, living their lives like normal folks in a small town.
To me, it’s worth dwelling on this because it is such a rare experience to see people like me in games. I’ve seen North American Asians represented on TV (Kim’s Convenience), and film (Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi), but the only other game where I’ve played with Asian American lead characters is Arkane’s Prey, a shooter game from 2017 with the main character Morgan Yu. But Morgan was a speechless first-person shooter hero — someone you almost never saw on the screen. Some of you may also remember Faith in Electronic Arts’ 2007 game Mirror’s Edge. She had the same problem as Morgan. Might as well be invisible.
By contrast, Alex Chen is ever-present throughout True Colors. It’s a third-person adventure game where she is always on screen. A character like this is validating. It seems hard to convey that I feel well represented by an Asian American woman. But it’s akin to how you might feel when any character reflects some part of you. For Asian Americans, it helps us deal with the fact that we’re largely invisible. Can you imagine growing up in a world where no one in the mass market entertainment media looks anything remotely like you do? It’s getting better for all of us who feel marginalized, but I can count such characters who represent me well on one hand among thousands of games.
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And it is a kind of milestone to see a character like this take center stage. Diversity isn’t just about getting an invitation to a party. It’s about getting asked to dance, or being invited to dive in as a full participant, said Asra Rasheed, an executive at Disney, at one of our GamesBeat Summit events. And it’s also nice to see that this representation in True Colors isn’t stereotypical. Alex and her brother aren’t “model minorities.” They’re far from perfect, as products of a broken family.
We have long been cast as “model minorities,” an attitude that surfaced in the 1960s. Proponents of the myth used it to show that America wasn’t racist. If Asian Americans could succeed, the American system was fair, and so Black and Latinx people should be able to succeed too. It was a myth that left behind many Asian Americans who weren’t successful. Alex Chen is pretty normal, and while she has superpowers, she doesn’t have them in the stereotypical way of being super brainy or good at math.
I also liked how the narrative explored the bonds of childhood and the dire consequences that can happen much later in life when those bonds are broken. Alex is forced to confront unpleasant memories that ultimately come full circle as she digs up the ghosts of the past. We learn that Alex got her powers through emotional trauma, and always suffered from the refusal of people to believe that she had them. So she was institutionalized as delusional, when she in fact was the one who could see the mental state of others.
The true individuality of Alex means that Deck Nine, which also made Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, has done a good job in the design of characters. Alex Chen is someone who loses family and grieves. Her uniqueness makes for some interesting gameplay, as she uses her mental powers to solve mysteries. She can magically detect what people are feeling. Alex is a psychic empath who can feel what others are feeling and channel that emotion. Usually, she can help others by taking on their emotions herself. But sometimes this comes at grave risk to her own peace of mind.
She can also detect bullshit. When you come near other characters, you can talk to them. This becomes particularly useful when Alex loses her brother in a tragic accident. Then she detects the emotions of the townspeople and realizes that they’re keeping secrets from Alex. She has to use those superpowers to help people resolve their emotions, for good or bad. And she finds that it’s a combination of both emotional truth and investigative work that can bring her the answers about her brother.
I liked the characters that we met along the way, and how we get to know them beneath the service. One man has so much guilt that it’s easier to extract the fear out of him, while others hide their emotions well. At one point, everyone feels happy at a remembrance moment — except one person who is distressed and behaving suspiciously. When you stumble upon these moments, it feels thrilling to uncover an emotion that would otherwise have been hidden from you.
I also liked how I knew how to play this game right from the start. Life Is Strange players will recognize a lot about this game. While made by Deck Nine, the studio feels almost interchangeable with Dontnod — both companies have been doing Life Is Strange work for Square Enix. The images in the game look beautiful, and the human animations and character faces look amazing, as do the environments.
But they come with tradeoffs. The interaction is limited. You’re not going to go blazing down the main street of Haven Springs at 120 frames per second. In fact, all you’re going to see is this single main street of the town and a couple of side streets. While beautiful, the environment is limited.
This is perhaps the first Life Is Strange game where the slower pace of the gameplay bothered me. The gameplay is becoming a bit too familiar, and I was wishing I had more interaction. The tech feels like it is aging. I always try to look around for objects hidden in the scenery, but it takes so long to look at each item. And while the characters look great, their movement can still look robotic rather than human.
This made me not want to explore the landscape as much as I should have, and I occasionally missed something I was supposed to find. I felt like Deck Nine’s game engine (a version of Unreal) really needs an update. That reminds me how I felt a few years back about the 2D Telltale games just as they were superseded by Dontnod’s 3D adventures.
This too-familiar gameplay came back to me in a couple of other ways. I played Dontnod’s Twin Mirror game last fall, where a journalist returns to a small mining town and investigates the death of his best friend. While Alex isn’t a journalist, her investigation of her brother’s death in a small mining town seemed too familiar as well. With an evil company called Typhon and the tension around releasing its secrets to the press, I felt like I had lived through this particular plot before. It feels like either Square Enix or Dontnod could have done a better job of steering two different developers — Dontnod’s own teams and Deck Nine — away from doing stories that were too similar to each other.
Lastly, I also didn’t really like the middle part of the story, where Alex goes on a live-action role-playing experience, or LARP. It felt like a lot of filler. But when one of the bad guys in the LARP turns out to be the bad guy in the real story, I appreciated the Hamlet-like message that Deck Nine was trying to pass along to me. That is, the outcome of the LARP story leads to a similar outcome in the story of Haven Springs. When I figured that part out, I was less annoyed with Deck Nine’s writers. In fact, it was nice to see how this bouncing back between realities — like one story in a child’s comic book, another story behind the LARP, and the story of Alex’s visit to Haven Springs — were all interelated.
I have to remember where Life Is Strange and the developers really excel. Life Is Strange as a franchise isn’t afraid to tackle controversial issues in its games, including teen suicide, immigration, racism, transphobia, alcoholism, and drug abuse. In this case, it focuses on the loss of family members, the travails of foster care, and standing up against a corporate monster. Dontnod and Deck Nine’s games give you difficult choices in their branching stories.
And sometimes you have a play within a play within a play. As Alex, you have to play your part, not just in the LARP, but in the game’s story as it leads you to a logical conclusion.
I made many choices in the game. At one point, I decided not to use my superpowers to help someone, and that actually felt like the right choice. I didn’t want to take someone’s true feelings away from them, so that they could mask their grief. I felt like they needed to feel these feelings. At the end of it, I could see how my choices matched up against those of other players. I learned I was in the minority in that particular choice. In some choices I lined up with the majority of players. In others, I made contrarian choices. And in a few cases, because I didn’t discover some secret areas, I totally missed making a decision. This made me want to reply parts of the game again.
The game lets you choose who you pull close to you in the form of your close friends, Ryan and Steph. You can choose whether you want to have a relationship with either of them, and you can see the consequences of telling them your secrets or failing to tell them. You can see my ending in the video embedded in this post (spoilers).
What comes back to me is that Alex discovers her identity and what is important to her. When she finds herself, it’s a great feeling, and it echoes that feeling I had when I felt represented in a game. I felt that validation, that visibility, that recognition that people like me deserve to have their story told. For a work of interactive fiction to inspire me feel such things about my identity was exhilarating.
While Alex’s story didn’t have the most action in it, it was full of emotion and it was a story worth telling. I give this one five stars out of five when it comes to its narrative, but I drop it down a notch to four stars out of five because of the clunky movement and too-familiar gameplay. I’m looking forward to what Dontnod and Deck Nine can do with next-generation platforms and the future Unreal Engine. But for now, they fell just a little short of what I was hoping for.
Square Enix gave me a copy of the PC game for the purpose of this review.
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