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‘Life Is Strange: True Colors’ sidesteps discussion of race, emotional manipulation and sexuality

(Square Enix)

Life Is Strange: True Colors

Available on: PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, Stadia and PC

Developer: Deck Nine, Square Enix | Publisher: Square Enix

Release: Sept. 10, 2021

In “Life Is Strange: True Colors,” you play a queer Asian American woman named Alex Chen who, chewed up and spit out by the foster care system, is searching for a home and community.

That home could be the fictional Haven Springs, Colorado, where her older brother Gabe welcomes her with open arms, a new apartment and a shiny guitar. As Alex and Gabe quickly rekindle the bond they had as children and Alex makes friends with small-town shopkeepers and even Gabe’s girlfriend’s kid, Ethan, it all feels a little too perfect. Then, Alex’s powers are revealed: She can sense people’s emotions and read their memories.

“Life Is Strange: True Colors” tries to do a lot of things at once. It is at times a murder mystery, and at others a live-action role-playing game. Sometimes it’s a music video, other times it’s a therapy session. There’s also no content warning despite the game’s heavy material — an omission that has inspired controversy in the past.

Most glaringly, “True Colors” centers Asian American characters, though its story could be about anyone of any background. The game never talks about race, except for showing an Asian-style shrine that Alex puts up to commemorate Gabe’s life and putting a few rude comments on the game’s version of Facebook or Nextdoor, MyBlock. And so, its diverse casting feel inconsequential. We don’t live in a post-racial society — as nice as that would be — and by avoiding the subject almost entirely, “True Colors” draws in fans who want representation without living up to those fans’ excitement and expectations.

The game starts off slow and takes a while to find its tempo. At first, it waxes poetic about how great Gabe is. Then it kills him off (this isn’t a spoiler: that plot element has been repeatedly shown in trailers). We’re left with a broken, grieving town, and no real sense of where the story goes next.

And yet, for a game that’s about emotions, “True Colors” often doesn’t resonate on an emotional level. First it focuses on a man we don’t get to know enough before he dies; then it pivots to solving the mystery of his death. At some points in the game, Alex just brushes off the fear, anger and sadness she’s been stewing in and acts incredibly nonchalantly in a way that’s quite jarring. “True Colors” is worth playing, though it could stand to be more coherent.

The heart of the story — Gabe and Alex’s family backstory — is buried inside the game. In fact, it’s shown so far in that it almost doesn’t matter anymore when we finally get to it. Our sense of who Gabe is (a nearly perfect man who is gracious with the entire town) has already crystallized. That he’s also flawed, and contributed to the family breaking up, ends up feeling like a footnote.

It’s also not quite clear what “Life Is Strange: True Colors” wants to say about empathy and processing emotions. At two crucial junctures, you can choose to help someone work through an emotion, or leave them alone. Helping them could veer into manipulation, as you’d be using Alex’s powers. But the game never gets into whether that’s right or wrong.

The player’s sense of agency feels weak — as do Alex’s superhuman powers. Her ability to tap into what other people are feeling and see their memories is basically just heightened empathy. Even though her powers evolve and change, empathy as a superpower doesn’t have the same impact as being able to rewind time, as you can in the original “Life Is Strange” games. More importantly, Alex’s choices don’t feel like they matter. In the end, your in-game decisions net nearly identical outcomes.

The game also rarely talks about sexuality. Alex can be played as straight, by choosing her best friend Ryan as a love interest; Steph, another of Alex’s friends, is also a romantic option. But while Alex and Steph have one of the most compelling relationships in the game, their interactions don’t get top billing. It feels like there’s so much more to unpack, but we never see that develop on screen.

Alex’s race and sexuality don’t have to define her story. But those identities never seem to make an impact at all in the ways that they would in real life. As a queer, Asian American woman, I’ve encountered a lot of racism and occasional homophobia just for being who I am, as well as more subtle reactions that note my difference. Alex mostly manages to escape this; she’s met with perfect kindness from pretty much everyone.

The first time I ever realized that being Asian was going to be a point of interest for people, was when I was typing on the Neopets forums while in high school. A girl wanted to draw all of her new friends and asked us to describe how we looked. I said I was Asian, which surprised her. She told me she had never seen an Asian person before, and that she grew up in the Midwest. Still, she drew my portrait, giving me shiny black hair inspired by Disney’s “Mulan.” That stuck with me for a long time. Before that moment, I had only ever thought of myself as exactly the same as everyone else.

From that interaction I realized that, physically, I’d be marked as different, just as soon as people had a glance at my face.

Alex Chen is welcomed by everyone in Haven Springs, Colorado, and treated with absolute kindness. Only at the end do we get some sense from the antagonist and their allies that Alex might be getting ostracized. But if you play your cards right, that won’t happen either.

My favorite moments in the game are the Zen ones: when Alex starts to drift away, the camera pans over the scenery and the music plays. “True Colors” has an excellent soundtrack, including songs like “Creep” by Radiohead and “Thank You” by Dido. But as beautiful as it all sounds, the broader vibe of the game rings a little hollow to me. “True Colors” is worth exploring in its entirety, but it glosses over the rougher parts of life, painting them in a romantic light. It doesn’t sit with the hard questions like it could have.

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