Early in development, before the team at Deck Nine Games had settled on a main character or even a story for the next Life is Strange game, they knew the general theme they wanted to tackle. “We did know early on that we wanted to explore empathy,” says Felice Kuan, senior staff writer on Life is Strange: True Colors. “We were particularly interested in pushing that concept as far as we could.”
The result was Alex Chen, a new protagonist who has the power to see, experience, and manipulate the emotions of those around her. At the outset of the game — which launches in September — Alex moves back home to live with her brother, who then dies in an accident. She’s forced to use her powers to find out exactly what happened.
“We were looking for a protagonist who would have some vulnerability around this topic; around empathy and around emotion,” says Kuan. “Somebody who had some growing to do, who maybe had a relationship with an emotion that wasn’t entirely healthy, that we could spend the course of the game exploring, giving her a path to greater self-acceptance and greater trust in her own abilities.”
Life is Strange has become something of an anthology series. While all of the titles are choice-driven adventure games that play out like an interactive drama, each entry stars new characters with unique powers. The original game featured Max, who could rewind time, while Life is Strange 2 starred a pair of brothers, one of whom had Force-like telekinetic abilities. According to Kuan, what connects all of these characters — including Alex — is how their powers reflect their lives and experiences.
“The powers in Life is Strange are a certain flavor of power, it’s not necessarily superheroes,” she says. “They’re all meditations on real experiences that regular people go through. So with Alex, her empathy is a supernatural version of something that many feel all the time. Because of that, the powers are used to solve problems but, just as importantly, are a way for the main character to explore their own past, what they’re dealing with right now, and to grow from there. We very, very much wanted to make sure that the plot of the story, and Alex’s own relationship with her power, were intertwined.”
Despite the supernatural abilities, the Life is Strange games have become notable for exploring serious, real-world issues with depth and tact; Life is Strange 2, in particular, was a story defined in part by racism, made all the more powerful because players were active participants. While we don’t know all of the details yet, True Colors, which is the first game in the series to feature an Asian American lead, will similarly tackle difficult subjects.
This kind of interactive storytelling is something that was completely new to Erika Mori, the actress who plays Alex in True Colors. “I wasn’t very knowledgeable about games or narrative adventure games in general,” she says. “I got a very quick lesson in what this world was, and was — and still am — in awe that this genre exists and all of the different ways that it connects with players and allows immersive storytelling is really cool.”
We haven’t seen much of the game beyond a single trailer, but fans seem to already be connecting to Alex as a character, much as they’ve done with past Life is Strange heroes. You don’t have to look too far to find some amazing fan art. Mori believes that one of the reasons the character is so relatable is because, despite her circumstances, she maintains an aura of hope and positivity.
“It’s so nice to see that people already love her as much as we love her,” she explains. “Part of what makes Alex so endearing or relatable, at least for me, is that she doesn’t fall victim to seeing herself as a victim. There’s this buoyancy of hope that she carries with her, and given her past and the death of her brother, that doesn’t go away. She doesn’t let that part of herself be diminished. So I think that makes her very easy to love and to root for.” Kuan has a more straightforward answer for why Alex has struck such a cord already: “Her character design is just adorable and really appealing, and Erika is coming through a lot, even in the little bit that we’ve seen, so it all makes sense why she’s being so welcomed,” she says.
True Colors launches on September 10th, and it comes at a particularly challenging time, with a frightening level of violence and harassment targeted at the Asian American community. The timing is coincidental — video games take years to develop — but Mori believes that “it’s always a good time” to have more diverse characters at the forefront.
“I remember growing up I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me,” she says, “and what I think is really powerful about Life is Strange, and narrative adventure games, is that people of all backgrounds, all types of diversity, are able to find commonality and connection with the characters. I think that’s a testament to the strength of the teams that work on it, from Deck Nine to [publisher Square Enix]. I’m so delighted that we have an Asian American woman leading the charge on this game, especially now. My hope is that people will see that Alex’s ethnicity is probably the least interesting thing about her.”