How ‘Life is Strange: True Colors’ elicits empathy to do right by the queer community

In rainbows

What would you do if you were walking down the road and you suddenly realised that the barista that’s served you every morning for the past month was having a crisis? You can just tell: something about them is off – they’re on the brink of hurting themselves. You can almost feel their roiling emotions yourself, so much so that it’s affecting you physically. Panic is rising in your chest – a panic attack? – and you know that if you don’t step in to help, you’re both going to suffer.

Is that drive, that almost primal need to help, a blessing or a curse? What if it happened multiple times a day? It’s empathy at a superhuman level, and it’s exhausting. And that’s what Deck Nine wants you to feel when you pick up Life is Strange: True Colors.

“Empathy is really the driving impetus that led to Life is Strange: True Colors,” explains narrative director Jon Zimmerman. “Coming off of Life is Strange: Before the Storm, we were really fascinated by this question of how games can be an engine for creating empathy for players, and how narratives in games have this tremendous potential to put you in the shoes of the protagonist and see the world through their eyes to create a different kind of connection that really any other media can create. That’s something we talked about a lot on Before the Storm, and when it came time to consider our next project, we remained really fixated on this idea.”

After playing around with empathy as a narrative device in its first foray into the Life is Strange series with Life is Strange: Before the Storm (franchise creator Dontnod works on the numbered entries, Deck Nine tackles the subtitled ones), the developer realised that it could actually be fleshed out into full-blown mechanic in its own right.

Life Is Strange: True Colours
Life Is Strange: True Colours. Credit Square Enix

“We started exploring the question of what would happen if a person were to experience overwhelming empathy in their everyday life – what would that mean for their relationships, for their ability to create intimacy with other people?” explains Zimmerman. “What kind of volatility would it create in their lives, to be pushed and pulled between all of these strong emotions and the feelings of others? How would that work with and against their own feelings?”

Life is Strange, as a series, is lauded for its bold and unflinching approach to difficult social issues – abuse, bullying, intergenerational trauma and suicide have all been tackled by the series to date. And more often than not, it’s done delicately and with great sensitivity to the subjects at hand. Playing into player agency – and eliciting as much empathy as possible from the person behind the controller – is a fitting next step for a series so eager to appeal to gamers’ soft skills, and tell intimate, human stories. It was “sort of a North Star” guiding the developer throughout development, per Zimmerman.

But – as anyone that’s been there to help with other people’s trauma will tell you – empathy can be a double-edged sword. It can leave you vulnerable and exposed, taking on the weight of others’ wounds as your own. Gamifying a personality trait that can have far-reaching and permanent effects on a player’s psyche has not been done lightly, and Deck Nine has done a lot of legwork to make sure main character Alex Chen’s innate, amplified empathy isn’t trite – that it’s actually a potent reflection on the strain being empathetic can have on a person’s mental health.

“We are hoping that as many facets as possible of both the pitfalls and benefits of empathy are explored in the game. Alex, the main character, definitely views it as a curse in the beginning of the story and comes to embrace it, perhaps, by the end,” says Felice Kuan, senior staff writer at Deck Nine.

It’s about setting boundaries, then. As in real life, to really embrace the best of the interpersonal relationships you have, you need to know where your own boundaries are in order to safeguard yourself. “Empathy is a power that is so unique to the individual texture of a person’s emotions, and the situations they’re in that it is hard to portray correctly,” continues Kuan. “Yes, Alex does get overwhelmed by emotion, and it is addressed in the story, but the actual gameplay experience of that is very carefully curated and paced out to balance the experience and not have it come off as [trite].”

 

It’s even harder to get the tone and balance right when you’re dealing with issues that can be sensitive to vast swathes of the game’s audience. The original Life is Strange proudly featured Maxine ‘Max’ Caulfield – a bisexual teenager launched into a chaotic and confusing portion of her life. Yes, sometimes there were tonal inconsistencies in how the game dealt with Max and her identity, but for the most part it was some great bisexual representation – something you really don’t see an awful lot of in the media at large.

Life is Strange: True Colours
Life is Strange: True Colours. Credit: Square Enix

This level of representation – and the sensitivity around it – is something Deck Nine is acutely aware of, and staff at the studio are drawing on their own personal experiences to do right by the queer gaming community. “One of the core tenets of any of the games we make here at Deck Nine, and especially in the Life is Strange series, is that we want to authentically draw upon the developers in the studio and share their experiences,” says producer Rebeccah Bassell. “We have a queer dev communiuty within our studio, and if there are any gaps in our knowledge we reach out and make sure that we are speaking authentically and genuinely about any experience portrayed in the game.

“We’re not just putting things in for the sake of flagging it and having it in the game: if we are going to tell a story about an individual and their lived experience, we want to ensure that voice is true.” To that end, the studio is actually working on a DLC episode – Life is Strange: Wavelengths – that puts returning lesbian character, Steph, in the spotlight. “That was an opportunity for us to really showcase a queer point of view, very directly,” explains Kuan.

“It ties into empathy as well,” adds Zimmerman. “We want to put players in a position where they are empathizing with a diverse cast of experiences – and that was something that we loved in having Chloe as a player character in Before the Storm. We loved hearing the fan feedback from every type of person imaginable – all saying how impactful it was to see the world through her eyes – and that’s something that we really focused on for Life is Strange: True Colors.”

The gaming audience has a history of being fairly hostile to progressive, queer characters, and it seems to be Deck Nine’s hope that reaching out to players and leveraging empathy can help people step out of their comfort zones and appreciate a new perspective on things. Given that True Colors seems intent on making players think critically about empathy – and the pros and cons that comes with it – feels very fitting for its characters, and its message.

“It was a big part of our exploration to move beyond the more trite understanding of empathy, which is that it’s purely good,” explains Zimmerman. “Of course, there is a lot of good that comes with being able to emphasize with other people, and there’s a lot of evil that comes from not being able to empathize with other people, too, right? I think we’re all familiar with that. But there are also challenges and dilemmas that are not solved by empathy, and can actually be complicated by it.

Life Is Strange: True Colours Town Shot
Life Is Strange: True Colours. Credit Square Enix

“Just because you empathize with someone doesn’t mean that you agree with their actions or choose to condone them – you may even need to fight against them in some way.”

Deck Nine appears to be pulling no punches with Life is Strange: True Colours. It’s unapologetic in its casting of characters, and it appears to be designed to elicit deep and meaningful conversation between players who want to unpick the complicated and difficult themes that come up in the story. From what we’ve seen so far, it’s a worthy continuation of a series that has – quite rightly – already worked its way deep into a whole generation of gamers’ hearts.

Life is Strange: True Colors will launch September 10 on PC, PS4, PS5, Stadia, Xbox One, and Xbox Series X/S.

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