Life is Strange: True Colors is inseparable from its predecessors and that relationship between them runs deep. It’s more than just Steph returning as a central character from Before the Storm, it’s about the human element that makes the series as a whole so captivating.
In the six years since its inception, Life is Strange has changed hands between original creators Dontnod and Deck Nine, each bringing their own brand of storytelling. With four entries (five if you count Captain Spirit) and two development studios, the series has broached upon different topics ranging from bullying to familial relationships to social anxiety to racism through different lenses. Whereas Dontnod found their foothold in using supernatural elements as a means of pushing these messages and incorporating consequence through the real and surreal, Deck Nine takes a more grounded approach which eschews high concept consequences in favor of mundanity. Life is Strange: Before the Storm may have stumbled, but Life is Strange: True Colors proves the brand’s future is in good hands.
Life is Strange: True Colors and Insight
Life is Strange: True Colors stars Alex Chen, a victim of the foster care system, shuffled around so many families and group homes across her adolescence it damaged her sense of self-efficacy. It’s not just the families she’s been around; Alex’s warped sense of belonging is far-reaching, incapable of forming true friendships or romantic relationships. Taking a look at her texts and journal says a lot about the hardships she’s been through—both a victim and perpetrator on many accounts.
Communication is difficult for Alex—those formative years being shaped by constant discouragement and social ineptitude. This is why Life is Strange: True Colors succeeds in its bland use-case of the “supernatural.” She has the power of empathy, allowing her to not only feel what others are feeling, but also hearing the exact thoughts that triggered those feelings. No doubt onset by her troubled childhood, this power to empathize becomes a curse.
A source of conflict and negative feelings towards oneself, players feel Alex’s inadequacies through her actions and mannerisms. She’s a kind soul that wants to help people, but there’s always this sense of apprehension—one which could only be achieved thanks to Deck Nine’s radical overhaul of its underlying rendering.
The franchise has always had a complicated relationship with technology—the first game suffered from horrendous lip syncing and Before the Storm‘s more accurate lip flaps were outweighed by an overall visual experience that was a downgrade. Life is Strange 2 was better, but still couldn’t hold a candle to its contemporaries. With Deck Nine moving from Unity to Unreal Engine, focusing their efforts on improving character models, Life is Strange: True Colors is the most effective entry in the series with regard to expressing subtlety.
It’s far from the most nuanced game out there. Some animations and character models are even downright awkward (I’m looking at you, Ethan), but it’s a massive leap over previous titles. No longer having to rely as extensively on dialogue and performances, the faces and bodies are now able to pull their own weight, leading to a more mature narrative approach.
Not Just a Slice of Life
This mundane power is able to be used so effectively because of its humdrum setting—small town Colorado where everybody knows everybody and they even have their own social network and radio station. People can walk into a store without even working there and peruse through employee sections/belongings without it being a cause for concern because it’s such a tight-knit community.
This cozy setting is the perfect host to Alex’s sometimes invasive and sometimes helpful empathetic powers. She’s able to be around people without constantly being set off because of the lack of hustle and bustle and conflict, creating a greater sense of belonging. Strong emotions come few and far between, making those moments during which the player must navigate around someone’s fear, anger, or regret more meaningful.
Previous entries feature their fair share of high-stakes decisions, with Life is Strange: True Colors going the opposite route. Most decisions are mundane and even most major empathetic moments are largely inconsequential. It’s a refreshing change of pace from a series whose past entries include a first episode where a dude pulls a gun on a girl in a school bathroom—enabling Max’s time manipulation powers—or burning down a cult with the help of your estranged mother.
Over the course of the narrative, because of this reigned in setting, True Colors is able to remain entertaining between major beats. Life is Strange 2‘s slow moments weren’t helped by the fact that it was mostly Sean and Daniel on their own. True Colors is filled with enough faces and frivolities to sidestep the truly humdrum while simultaneously being focused enough that you’re able to connect with its denizens. Even if you don’t spend a lot of time with certain characters, it’s hard not to feel like you belong there as you map faces to personality quirks as if they were always a part of Alex’s life.
With so much going for it, Deck Nine still seems so averse to player agency. The first Life is Strange still features the most involved puzzles, with that cerebral element being reduced with each subsequent entry to the point it doesn’t exist here.
Sure, there are optional “puzzles” in which Alex can choose to help NPCs, but as far as the main plot is concerned, you’re funneled from plot point to plot point with no room to think for yourself. With emotions being such a complex beast, even if Alex is capable of empathy, simply feeling those feelings isn’t all there is to it. She still needs to wade through those emotions to come to an understanding and then use that understanding to make decisions. It’s here where Life is Strange: True Colors drops the ball.
Adding some sort of puzzle element or involved gameplay mechanic to the act of invading people’s thoughts would have strengthened the association between the player and the game’s characters and themes. With such a detached approach to gameplay, you’re more or less able to kick back and relax even during the most intense moments. The added pressure of navigating someone’s emotions would have also made Alex’s moments of awkwardness and self doubt even more impactful. Instead, the game does all the heavy lifting for the player.
These narrative adventure games could be so much more if they utilized the medium’s interactivity, but more and more of the recent entrants to this genre seem to take this detached approach to game design. Perhaps it’s an attempt to make it more appealing to more casual and non-gamers. In the act of chasing that audience, however, they’re limiting the emotional impact through this constrained interactivity.
Life is Strange: True Colors Redeems Deck Nine
Life is Strange: True Colors is a fantastic, grounded narrative wrapped up in a video game that’s too afraid to be a video game and give players the precise agency that makes the medium limitless. Deck Nine should be commended for effectively utilizing its mundane setting and power to pull at players’ heart strings. Add in a plot that goes in surprising directions, and you have a recipe for success.