Review – Life is Strange: True Colors doesn’t let mechanics get in the way of emotion
September 9, 2021
There are two things that have characterized DONTNOD’s Life is Strange series.
- A willingness to tackle tough subjects that very few games are willing to.
- A horrendous addiction to infuriating pixel hunts.
Friends, let me tell you the story of Bottle Finder 5000.
There is a scene in the original Life is Strange where Max is trying to convince Chloe that she has time powers. Before anything relevant happens the game makes you find five discarded glass bottles strewn around a junkyard. Finding these bottles is not fun and not mechanically engaging in any way. For some reason, DONTNOD decided to add a scavenger hunt you have to complete before the plot, which is what we were all actually there for, kicked in.
Every single DONTNOD game has had some form of Bottle Finder 5000 in it. Even Remember Me which was ostensibly an action game still fell prey to the dreaded Bottle Finder.
But Life is Strange: True Colors is different. First of all, it wasn’t developed by DONTNOD. Deck Nine took the reigns this time, the same developers behind the prequel Before the Storm.
Second, while they didn’t get rid of Bottle Finder 5000, they have thoroughly examined the narrative purpose of roadblocking scavenger hunts and tried to make it feel like a more natural part of the game. While they don’t have a 100 percent success rate, they certain crafted the best Life is Strange tale to date, one in which the narrative is enjoyable alongside the mechanics, not in spite of them.
A Story of a Girl Without a Family
In True Colors you take the role of Alex Chen. She’s had a pretty rough life. Her mother died when she was young and her father left shortly thereafter, sending her and her brother Gabe into the rough world of foster care.
It wasn’t a happy story. Most families didn’t want anything to do with the duo. Gabe eventually started lashing out and was sent to juvie. Alex, on the other hand, developed an empathic superpower. She could read people’s thoughts and emotions, and see into the past by focusing on emotions left on physical objects. She could even enter the “mental world” of someone, provided their emotions were powerful enough.
And while superpowers should be awesome, the system saw Alex’s powers as a delusion, adding the stress of woefully incompetent mental healthcare on top of her foster care struggles.
That tragic story is all in the past. Our new tragic story picks up after she reconnects with Gabe as an adult, who invites her to live with him in a quiet little mountain town of Haven, Colorado (which was apparently based on the childhood experiences of the Colorado-based design team). Gabe has built a small family there and hopes that Alex can have a family too.
On one hand, True Colors is Alex’s story, but on another, it’s the story of the town. Haven is an old mining town trying to rebrand itself as a tourist destination. However, it also grapples with existence under the thumb of Typhon, a multi-million dollar mining corporation that still scours the mountains for uranium. One night, tragedy strikes when Typhon recklessly sets off explosives despite some people being in the blast zone. The rest of the game is about how the community deals with it.
Allowing Yourself to Feel
The central theme of True Colors is emotion. When are emotions valid? How do you cope with them? What happens if they start ruining your life or hurting people around you? These are all complex questions with difficult answers and the game does a pretty fantastic job addressing them.
This is a “choice matters” narrative game, and so the majority of the gameplay is just having discussions and making dialogue choices. It’s when these decisions interact with Alex’s superpower that things get very interesting.
Alex doesn’t just have the ability to sense thoughts and emotions, but also the ability to absorb them. You can, in effect, stop people from feeling their feelings by feeling them in their stead. While this might seem like a b-list superpower, the game appropriately portrays it as actually somewhat terrifying. It postulates that emotions make us who we are, that our thoughts, feelings, and memories are what form us as people. By tinkering with them, you might be able to easily solve a problem, but will you actually be helping anyone?
There’s no easy answer, and that lack of an answer is the game’s central conflict. It plays into the audience’s most vulnerable moments and genuinely asks “what would you do in Alex’s shoes?” Have you ever had a situation where you just desperately wanted someone to stop being angry at you? What about fear? Have you ever wanted to just cut out your fear like a tumor? Or sadness? Have you ever wanted to just turn off tears like a leaky faucet instead of processing your grief?
Press X to Therapy
Alex can actually do that! She can decide who feels what, and there’s no “right” answer. Sometimes, people’s brains betray them, and using her power (as a metaphor for mental health intervention) will make someone a happier and more capable person. Sometimes, emotional processing, even borderline traumatic emotional processing, is necessary to allow someone to move on. Intervention will make them grow cold, distant, and numb to the world. Sometimes, people are just wildcards, feeling jumbled emotions that they can’t even explain.
True Colors isn’t asking you to be a perfect therapist. It is, however, asking you to play around in the mind space. Like most Life is Strange titles, there are only a few endings and the story hits the same beats no matter what decisions you make. But by the end of True Colors, no two Havens will look the same, even if the endings are. You may form a powerful found family, while someone else might end up with a deserted town whose residents left to find better lives. You might find someone to spend the rest of your life with, or you might feel like the tragedy and trauma present in the town is not worth it. Your choices matter in a deeper way than just being a roadmap to the ending you want. They consistently affect the world around you.
Progressive and Proud of It
Another thing that has characterized the Life is Strange series is its devotion to progressive themes and topics. For example, this is the queerest mountain town in existence. Alex can have whatever sexuality you like, but there are tons of different NPCs with different sexualities and gender identities as well. It’s great to see but it also kind of undermines the oft-reused plot hook of not wanting to be the only queer person in a small mountain town. Heck, by ratio there are more queer people here than there are in some big cities!
True Colors is also blatantly anti-capitalist. The small mountain town is established to be an alternative to capitalism, a place where money means little and support means everything. Even the worst off in the town are provided for, simply because everyone cares about everyone else. Typhon, the big corporation, is clearly the bad guy, prioritizing money over human life and covering up their misdeeds in the process. They are also established to be a force too big to fail, something that the town just has to grapple with, and something that, like it or not, provides for the livelihoods of several residents. It’s not as simple as just getting rid of the bad guys. Capitalism is so entrenched in society that the best you can hope for is weathering the storm while trying to make whatever difference you can.
Luckily, superpowers level the playing field a bit.
Finally, it has a very liberal view on the idea of family. It posits that the people related to you by blood aren’t anything special. They can be a good, bad, or even just neutral force in your life, just like anyone else. Family isn’t even who you choose. It’s who you help and who helps you back.
The Dreaded Bottle Finder 5000
This review has mostly talked about the story because True Colors is a game primarily focused on story. If you are reading this, you’ve been around the block before, and you know what a choice matters narrative game is. This is an interactive movie and you are in the driver’s seat. Walk around, talk to people, make decisions. You know the drill.
At the start, you do unfortunately see Deck Nine falling into the Bottle Finder habit. You’ll be stuck in points where you have to clean up dishes or find a key before the story progresses, arbitrary roadblocks that don’t really tie into the plot much.
Luckily, Deck Nine figured out how to use Bottle Finder to their advantage. They took these opportunities to scatter lots of interactable elements around the map. Each element reveals a little bit more about the town, its characters, and its backstory. As you search for the object that pushes the plot forward, you end up learning important info that may help you make important decisions later.
Even more, luckily, Deck Nine seems to break the habit by Chapter 3.
From that point on there is actually, GASP, gameplay! Chapter 3, for example, takes place during a LARP (Live-Action Roleplay for those of you who actually had friends in high school). The standard “choice matters” gameplay suddenly gets converted into an RPG, complete with puzzles, an inventory, and a battle system. It’s a delight! Chapters 4 and 5 become more mystery-oriented, which means you actually have to solve puzzles that are more than “talk to the right person to proceed.” You feel rewarded when you solve some of the harder brain twisters the game has to offer, and your reward is deeper story revelations.
The Best Life is Strange Yet
It’s clear that Deck Nine understand the formula created by DONTNOD better than they do. This was the first Life is Strange title to come out all at once, instead of episodically, and it is very easy to binge in the span of a day. The story is unbelievably compelling, the characters are fantastically written, the emotional beats will make you cry, and the gameplay is not only existent, it cleverly smooths the spans between major story beats. There’s nothing to complain about other than some unfortunate returns of Bottle Finder 5000 and some plot elements that don’t interact well.
This is a great game and an even greater story. We highly recommend checking it out, even if you weren’t a fan of the original. It makes enough intelligent changes that it just might win you over.
If you are a fan of the original, or a fan of narrative games in general, or even just a fan of indie movies, then this is a must-buy. It’s a game for people who want to feel, and who want to explore what those emotions even mean.
It makes you feel and it makes you think. It’s one of the best examples of it’s genre yet.
(Also, if you ever get tired of the story, there’s a fully playable version of the arcade classic Arkanoid. Nice!)
- Fantastic story
- Incredible soundtrack
- Indie-movie styled presentation
- Focus on gameplay in a franchise that normally doesn't have much
- Complete dedication to progressive ideas and topics
- Arcade mini-games
- The return of the dreaded Bottle Finder 5000
- It's progressive plot points sometimes undercut themselves