Life is Strange made a name for itself by focusing on relatable characters dealing with complex, real-life issues. The series has tackled mental health, identity, and even racism in its stories. Along the way, relationships between characters, such as Chloe and Max’s friendship and Sean and Daniel’s sibling bond, have driven each narrative in memorable ways. The games have always centered on our choices and how they shape the people and world around us. As the series goes into its third iteration, it leans into its strength of authentically portraying life’s hardships and complicated emotions.
The latest entry, Life is Strange: True Colors, is a new starting point, starring a new character with a different power: Empathy. It’s also the first mainline entry not being developed by original development studio Dontnod; instead, it is being created by Deck Nine, the team responsible for the outstanding Before the Storm prequel. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at how Alex Chen’s journey came to life and why empathy was always a driving force in its creation.
How Before The Storm Informed True Colors
Deck Nine is intimately familiar with the Life is Strange world and what makes it unique. The team loved bringing to life Chloe and Rachel’s sweet-but-somber story in Life is Strange: Before the Storm and surprised fans and critics alike in how they gave the character of Chloe more layers and allowed players to understand her plight better. One thing that stood out in the team’s mind was the power of empathy in telling Chloe’s story. It stayed with Deck Nine until Square Enix approached the studio to develop the franchise’s third main entry.
“It was very much a period of discovery, where there was no rush to find the right thing,” says narrative director Jon Zimmerman. “We had the time and the freedom to explore all different ideas. And it was actually pretty soon that we came to this notion of empathy; that was the germ that led to everything else …”
“I know that we wanted to embrace the fact that a narrative adventure game is a literal experience of empathy,” adds senior staff writer Felice Kuan. “We loved that aspect of it, and that was there from the start.”
Both Zimmerman and Kuan were new to writing for video games when they worked on Before the Storm. It let them come in with a fresh perspective, and they quickly realized video games had a big advantage when telling stories. “We would talk a lot about big picture things around narrative adventures, and we often came back to this thing of how absolutely unique and spectacular it is to place a player in the perspective of a character that you want to create a dramatic journey for, and how that differentiates games from every other medium,” Zimmerman says.
Deck Nine quickly became immersed in the fan community for Before the Storm. One of the team’s favorite pieces of feedback was that players who previously didn’t love Chloe changed their tune after playing as her in Before the Storm. “A common thread was that someone would say, ‘Hey, I found Chloe a little bit much in the first game, but then after I was in her shoes, I would die for her,’” Kuan says. This revelation helped solidify that something special happens when players embody a character and experience their point of view.
From here, Deck Nine started focusing on creating True Colors’ protagonist: Alex Chen, the first Asian American lead in the series. A big goal was to maintain the complexity of the characters we’ve seen throughout the series and provide somebody completely different from before.
Bringing Alex To Life
True Colors is a story with many layers, and Alex’s journey cannot be summed up in one sentence. We meet Alex when she’s just leaving a group home after eight years. She’s heading to live with her brother in a town called Haven Springs [see sidebar]. She gets along with her brother, but they haven’t connected in some time. “Her background is intentionally a source of mystery,” Zimmerman says. “She comes from a broken family, and she was separated from her brother at a young age. She doesn’t have anyone in the world looking out for her by the time she comes to Haven Springs. We’ll see in her reuniting with her brother how that brings up the specter of their past and how Alex shies away from wanting to engage with it.”
Instead of her introduction to Haven Springs being a joyful one, tragedy soon strikes when Alex’s brother dies in a mysterious accident. Alex is not only on a quest to find out what truly happened, but she’s also searching for her own place in the world, a community of her own. “[We knew] that Alex was going to be someone for whom that was singularly meaningful to her, because of her background in foster care and never having a real home,” Zimmerman says.
Alex is 21 years old, making her more mature than previous Life is Strange protagonists and giving her more adult situations to confront. She’s at an interesting point in her life, where she’s trying to figure out who she wants to be and what she wants to do. Her life in the group home may not have been great, but it was comfortable. Alex is now leaving all of that, but she sees the limitless possibilities in everything.
Erika Mori, who not only lent her voice to Alex but also performed motion capture for the role, describes Alex’s personality and outlook best: “Alex has an almost insatiable curiosity to discover what makes people tick, understanding the ‘why’ behind words or behavior. However, she has lived with the power [or the curse of the power] of empathy her entire life, and its volatility has made life difficult – making her watchful, cautious, and an outsider by circumstance. But she always carries with her this thread of hope that makes her a character of resilience and (ultimately) joy.”
Alex is in touch with her emotions since her power is empathy. This led to the decision to make her an artist – a musician, to be specific. “At a certain point, we realized that we were talking about an artist, because [we needed] someone who has that kind of a filter on the world – a sensitivity and vulnerability that they can’t turn off,” Zimmerman says.
Understanding and sharing another person’s feelings is a skill that seems in short supply these days, but Alex has always seen it as more of a curse than a blessing due to its emotional toll. However, if she wants to find answers about her brother’s death, she needs to tap into this ability to see what people are hiding. Discovering how to represent her power wasn’t easy, but it proved an essential part of who Alex is and who she becomes.
Making Empathy Matter
Until this point, Life is Strange characters have possessed supernatural powers, like Max’s ability to rewind time and Daniel’s telekinesis. Alex’s power is based much more in reality, as she can feel the emotions of others, but it comes with a twist as she can also manipulate and absorb these emotions. While Deck Nine was initially intrigued by the concept of empathy, it didn’t prove easy to discover the best way to portray this ability and make it still feel authentic.
As opposed to other Life is Strange protagonists, the writers wanted Alex to have access to her power at the start of the game; she’s been living with this ability, and she’s already formed her own relationship with it. “What was very compelling to us was [her] power starting in foster care, in the brokenness of her family, you could very well imagine that would make an already bad situation worse,” Kuan says. “Therefore, that gives Alex a lot of complexity within herself, an ambivalence about this power … Because we didn’t want to look at empathy just as a gameplay mechanic but as a thing that can be both a wonderful tool and a source of harm or a source of self-doubt. Having her in that spot, both supernaturally and just from the mundane emotional level, was very interesting to us.”
Zimmerman recalls it taking time to figure out how to best represent Alex’s power in the gameplay but says finding the solution is one of his highlights working on the game. Alex’s power of empathy started very simply, with the team using different colored auras to represent specific emotions in others. However, things got exciting when the developers came up with the idea to add “novas.” Novas create a supernatural flare that transforms the world before you, offering a reflection of another person’s psyche. In this highly charged emotional state, Alex sees fragments of thoughts and memories to help her get to the root of the issue.
“I think [novas are] when everything really clicked into place from a story and design marriage standpoint, because we had the freedom to get kind of surreal and abstract in evoking, ‘What does fear feel like?’” Zimmerman explains. The team went beyond just thinking about the emotion itself into how the feeling would be represented in a specific character. Zimmerman uses the example of fear looking very different for a child than it does for an older person, saying the novas allowed the team to dive into all the various nuances of empathy.
When it came to Alex’s power, Mori had to think carefully and experiment for her performance. “It was a really interesting puzzle to figure out how to perform a specific emotion that was going through several different filters before arriving in the world,” she explains. “For example, when another person’s rage would overtake Alex, she would intimately know how that rage was feeling for them, but it would also trigger her own feelings and [memories] of her own rage. Ultimately, Alex was trying to contain the emotional resonance of two people – the other and herself. It was fun to play with the different ways to show this with my face, body, and voice.”
Of course, understanding characters on a deeper level is bound to impact a choice-heavy game. That’s not lost on Deck Nine, as the creative team constantly asked itself what kinds of dilemmas and challenges would occur through the empathic experience. “An obvious one is if you can empathize with a person who is doing something immoral, does that change the way that you feel about the action that they’re taking?” Zimmerman says. “I think that there’s a whole family of questions, not that those are the only things that come up as choices, but things that we felt were exciting territory to explore.”
It’s an interesting choice to put in the player’s hands, as they can decide whether to have Alex experience, absorb, or even manipulate the powerful emotions in those around her. For instance, do you let someone feel the painful emotions, or do you take these feelings away from them? And what toll does that take on Alex? “What the game ultimately says is that it is a balance of understanding where your personal boundaries are,” says producer Rebeccah Bassell. “The player can decide that for Alex, and at the same time, [decide if they should] honor the feelings of those around her, because it is a very precious thing to take away someone’s agency. You may think it will help them, but it may not. And that’s the choice that they have to navigate.”
Navigating emotions is already complicated, but Deck Nine takes it to a new and intriguing level by making players consider the different facets of empathy and its positive and negative parts. Since empathy is the driving force behind the game, it makes sense to challenge the player with its complexities.
For more on Life is Strange: True Colors, you can read our review.