Brushing aside the anti-Tibet review bombs, ACMI's videogames curators Arieh Offman and Jini Maxwell delve into the setting, mechanics and characters of Life is Strange: True Colours. Did this latest instalment live up to the acclaim of its predecessors or was it a flop? Let's find out.
WARNING: This contains spoilers, so stop reading if you're thinking of playing this game. This isn’t a review, it’s a chat.
Arieh Offman: First, I'd like to offer a huge welcome to JM, who is the new assistant curator on our team. Welcome, Jini.
Jini Maxwell: It’s so exciting to be here and it feels very right that I'm kicking things off talking about a Life Is Strange game. I am somewhat obsessed with this series.
AO: Me too. I've been looking forward to it. It seems like this one got quite a bit of press leading up to its release.
JM: Definitely. I was less excited and more cynical in the lead up for this one, particularly after Tell Me Why (2020), which I had a lot of thoughts about but ultimately felt was not a particularly solid addition to the ‘microgenre’ of Life Is Strange, if not the direct series.
AO: I do love that Life Is Strange has become its own genre.
JM: The cinematic universe.
AO: That's exactly it. The LCU. I did play the first episode of Tell Me Why but it didn't really grab me and so I went off and played other things.
Before we kick off talking about Life is Strange: True Colors, what device did you play it on?
JM: I played it on PS4. You?
AO: I am lucky to say that I played it on the PS5. Yes, on a lovely, big 65-inch 4K TV…
JM: Ooh, okay.
AO: I had purchased it for another format before I got the PS5, but you know what, now I'm just re-buying my entire games collection because 4K is just too attractive a proposition not to do so.
JM: Incredible. I love this. You're having a very business class experience of Life Is Strange.
AO: With that said, how did you feel about the art in this game?
JM: I mean, it's a beautiful game. Visually it's stunning in exactly the way that Life Is Strange games are. Plenty of bloom. There are beautiful vistas that combine urban life with a nook of the American wilderness. I feel like that's the space where Life Is Strange games tend to live. Tell Me Why was set in a small town in Alaska. The original Life Is Strange had very classic Midwest vibes.
AO: Yeah. Midwest arcadia.
JM: Life Is Strange 2 took a more rambling route.
AO: You're right. There are connections between the American urban and the American wilderness that I think are beautiful. True Colors is pretty; the setting itself, the town.
I did have a lot of ‘wow’, Zen moments while playing this game which I think are encouraged through some of the game mechanics, used in previous Life Is Strange games; those quiet moments of reflection where you think about what you're doing. I found myself admiring the locations and spending longer walking through them than I tend to do in other Life Is Strange games, which talks to how beautiful the art is.
JM: Totally. Early on (as the protagonist, Alex) you cross a bridge when you're first entering the game and – as you mentioned, this title has introduced this idea of a ‘Zen moment’ which they've been playing with in previous titles, but I think they really nailed this time round, which are basically just opportunities to stop and wait and look at the environment – the music swells and you just get to appreciate the gorgeous art, and I think that was a moment where I thought, “this is special, this is really good”.
AO: That polish to the art extends to the character models and to the animation, and all other aspects as well. I think these are the most polished models we've seen in a Life Is Strange game and they're characters that for the most part I would like to interact with in real life.
JM: Interesting. I largely agree. I really appreciated the character writing. I enjoyed Ryan as a character. I thought his role in the narrative surprised me from the very beginning.
I think it's fair to say the Life Is Strange series has often not been very good at writing men in complex ways (with the exception of Life is Strange 2) – which is kind of a nice problem maybe for a game series to have because the women in the game are so well written, broadly speaking – but I thought Ryan was just a beautiful, warm character. His writing surprised me. I think whether old or young, there were a lot of characters I enjoyed interactions with – which were all too brief, I feel.
AO: True Colors didn't feel like a particularly long experience. But you are right. For the most part, the characters in the world were lovely and well written. I wanted to spend time with them. I liked Ryan as a character.
Speaking of the representation of male characters, Alex spends the first episode of the game building up this relationship with her brother (Gabe) who she’s been estranged from as a character, yet he dies in tragic circumstances. I felt like his character and the way that the rest of the cast remembered him centered him as part of their lives. It made him a real and active part for me throughout the game, even though he was only present for short while.
JM: It’s interesting you say that because I liked the way Gabe was written as well. It’s such a mainstay of the Life is Strange games that there is this central relationship. It's Chloe and Max or it's Chloe and Rachel or it's Sean and Daniel; it's this animating intimacy that propels the narrative. And one of my major criticisms of True Colors is that I felt the absence of that kind of relationship here. Because even though Gabe was really well written and you did get a sense of his relationship with Alex, they hadn't spoken in a decade. Even though there was love between them, that intimacy didn't exist, and it made it harder for me to understand Alex as a character. I didn't feel like the writing gave me another way into seeing the vulnerabilities of that character. But it's interesting that you feel differently.
AO: I was thinking about that quite a bit and you're right; it's a single, crux relationship that has driven past games. For want of a better term (and with a nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer), True Colors felt like Alex and her Scooby gang, with Ryan and Steph filling this hole within Alex's life at a key point. This friendship, this support, was something different and well explored.
Again, it felt like a short game experience. It only took a couple of nights for me to get through it. It feels shorter than any previous Life Is Strange game that I've played. Perhaps because I spaced those out more, but I don't think so. It definitely felt shorter.
JM: I'm not sure if it's technically shorter, but it felt a little bit join-the-dots for me at times. I thought, “great, of course I'm doing this and next I'm going to do that and then a baddie will arise and then a problem will occur as a result and then that will resolve and then there'll be an emotional moment and then there'll be a big choice and that's the game!”.
AO: Now we're getting to the core of the narrative and the choices you make. I thought the stakes were a lot lower in True Colors than in the previous games. While it does confront some of the social issues, which are at the core of the Life Is Strange series, they felt a bit less weighty – and maybe that was a nice thing because I was surprised by how calm I was by the time I arrived at the third or fourth episode and realised that I hadn't had any of those major confrontational moments that ended each of the previous Life Is Strange episodes.
JM: I agree. I wonder if that’s because the antagonistic force in True Colors to me felt a bit disparate. There were a lot of elements that didn't totally coalesce. It felt a little bit like... there was the mining company, but there was also the foster system. And then there was also the broken family unit and the parental relationship. But I felt like none of those things were explored intimately.
AO: Very much so. The ‘big bad’ – we won't mention plot twists – was lacking. The reveal was supposed to be a big gasp moment, but I felt it was foreshadowed. Also, it wasn't really supported through any of the other character development or scenes that occurred within the game.
JM: Yeah, I agree. I've been playing the original, which you haven't played…
AO: You can do spoilers because I've watched entire playthroughs.
Skip to here if you don’t want to read spoilers for Life is Strange (2015)
JM: Okay, the central plot point of the first game is these two teenage girls Max and Chloe trying to figure out what happened to another girl, Rachel Amber, who went missing. It turns out that she was murdered by their photography teacher, who was someone they had a very positive relationship with, who had been a mentoring, kind figure throughout the entire game. When that turn happens, it's genuinely shocking, but it also quickly and completely makes sense. In the first scene where you encounter that teacher, he's talking about images of suffering and different techniques to capture them in the most horrific way, and everything falls into place. And you think, “of course, this f*cking guy”. I had been so in Max's mindset that I had been thinking of this man's behavior as normal, but he has been acting inappropriately, and he has said a lot of really weird, scary stuff… I didn't get that at all with True Colors.
AO: In True Colors it felt slid in there, to have that moment of shock and surprise without carefully thinking through that character's role within the narrative. What you explained with the first game is the most brilliant foreshadowing – the light bulb moment – and I agree that I didn't have that at all with this.
JM: I don't want to sound negative because I really, really, really enjoyed this game. I had a wonderful time with it.
AO: Me as well. I suppose that speaks to how we feel about the quality of the Life Is Strange series.
Let’s get to the crux of the Life Is Strange formula, which is exploring the human condition through the literal metaphor of superpowers. How did you feel about the superpowers and the choices you had to make in True Colours?
JM: I was extremely skeptical about empathy as a superpower when I first saw bits and pieces of gameplay or was first hearing about True Colors, but I was pleasantly surprised by how it worked in the game early on.
The idea is that Alex has this ability to read people's emotions and she uses that to solve problems or get information. Early on there's a scene where I thought “I don't know… that seems a bit... I'm not sure”. But later there’s another scene where she is around someone violently angry and she absorbs that emotion, to a point where she loses control of herself. I thought that was so good. There's another scene where she's fearful and the same thing happens. I would have loved to have seen that dark side of her power explored a little bit more. What did you think?
AO: I was also skeptical of empathy as a superpower, yet I loved the narrative and thematic intention behind exploring how central emotions are to our actions, to our choices, to our relationships with other people. I think it worked quite well in this game. That said, the impact that the powers had in True Colors seemed minimal compared to previous games.
In Life is Strange 2 (2018–19), the choice to use Daniel's superpowers frequently centred on anger, and as a result, the choices I made were more ethically confronting and had a larger impact on the story. In True Colors, Alex's empathy superpower helped to fill out the world and give me deeper understanding of characters and their place within the narrative, but it didn't feel like the narrative hinged on it as a superpower and I didn’t feel that it impacted my choices significantly in the game.
JM: I agree. In future Life Is Strange titles, I would love to see designers being bolder with switching up the formula. It felt as though they thought, “oh, of course we've got to have a cool superpower; that drives the narrative”, but I don't play Life Is Strange games for the cool superpowers. I play them for the character building and the beautiful worlds. I would have been more than happy if Alex had just been a garden variety person with no powers. I would have still played.
AO: I wish those powers had broken out of the box a little more. You mentioned those moments when Alex’s empathy overwhelms her and I expected it to be a key mechanic within the game, that I would have to make some difficult choices about whether to interact or not. But after those first couple of times where she gets overwhelmed, you can pretty much interact with anyone.
We couldn’t finish without talking about the sound design and the soundtrack.
JM: Just beautiful, always.
AO: Absolute indie bliss.
JM: Honestly, is there anything that this series does better than putting together the compilation album that you’ll be listening to for the next few months? It's nice to see some Australians on there as well.
AO: All the original songs were by Angus and Julia Stone.
AO: Let’s talk about Steph’s DLC, Wavelengths.
JM: I haven't played it yet, but I think you should talk about it because I have some stuff to say about Steph as well.
AO: We need to talk about Steph… Who was your romance option?
JM: I went with Ryan because I'm a very defiant kind of player. This is a problem I have in every game: if I feel like I'm being channeled towards one choice I'll just do the other choice.
AO: It’s interesting because Steph first appeared as part of the Life is Strange: Before the Storm DLC. I think players formed a real relationship with her as a character. I haven't played Before the Storm, but I can say it totally spoke to the nineties kid in me, with a Dungeons & Dragons-playing Seattle DJ.
JM: Oh my God. She's a dream girl...
AO: Minus the manic pixie? I don't know, maybe.
A lot of what you do in Wavelengths is play Steph as a DJ. In fact, that's pretty much the entire DLC; playing as a DJ in her record store, exploring her character before the True Colors story begins. There were those gorgeous moments where you're just walking around a record store, and you pick up a vinyl and choose what music you want to slate up on the playlist. I found myself flicking between Alt-J and Pixies... it was just a lovely musical moment within the game for me. I felt quite at home with that soundtrack.
JM: I really loved the music in True Colors. I think I need to play Wavelengths because it sounds like there is so much more of that. I think I listened to an entire Franz Ferdinand track in the record shop. There is a listening station where you can direct Alex to just put on the headphones and just listen to a song, and as soon as it came on, I thought, “I live here now”.
AO: It ties back to what we were talking about earlier with those Zen moments. I always love the soundtracks for Life Is Strange, but this one [True Colors] was so engaging. I would often sit there for four or five minutes. I found those Zen moments bleeding through into my own life where I'd put the controller down, and with my headphones on, just immerse myself in that world and my thoughts. I think that was effective audio design and gameplay, by allowing you to do nothing but immersing yourself in the world.
JM: I need to pick it up again to think more deeply about why those Zen moments feel so amazing. It might partly be because an animating part of Alex's character is that she finds being around people overwhelming. She reads other people's emotions and absorbs them – she literally has bad emotional boundaries. Those moments where she pulled back to be on her own and just experience an environment felt so believable to me. Taking that time for herself due to her intimate superpower made a lot of emotional sense.
JM: Before we wrap up, can I talk briefly about Steph?
AO: Please do.
JM: Something I loved so much about True Colors is that it avoided a game design pitfall that I call ‘bisexual if you are’, where love interests or the protagonist only develops same sex attraction or heterosexual attraction based on what the character does. I loved that Steph was just gay, it made me so happy. There was a moment where Steph grills Alex on whether she’s attracted to men, and you’re given these options: yes, I date women; I date men and women; or I've mostly dated men. Which are still pretty bisexual answers.
It's very, very rare to see a romanceable character in a game who’s just out and proud, and that's just part of their character and you can engage with that or not, but it's not deniable.
AO: Definitely. Life Is Strange is probably one of the best series for accurately and empathetically representing the great diversity of romance and queer romance. It's not put in there as an outlier, but as a natural part of life, which is lovely. The characters’ narrative journeys aren't centered specifically on their sexuality. It's just a natural part of their character.
JM: It's just there.
We didn’t mention the the live action role play (LARP) scene. I think it's one of the most charming scenes in any Life Is Strange game.
AO: It's just such a beautiful representation of that immersive-ness in role playing. I played that part first thing in the morning before work one day and I had a sunbeam smile for the rest of the day… even though that episode does end quite traumatically from memory… but we won't talk about that part.
So, would you recommend Life is Strange: True Colors?
JM: I would recommend. If you’re a Life is Strange fan, I would unequivocally recommend. If you are looking for a great indie mixtape to take you into spring and summer, I also would recommend. If you are looking for an adrenaline pumping experience, perhaps give it a miss. What do you think, Arieh?
AO: I really enjoyed my time with the game, but I wanted it to be a bit longer. If you're a fan of the series, it's a must play, but I also think it could be a good entry point for those who haven't played before and hopefully lead them to play the rest of the series.
JM: That's Life Is Strange: True Colors, baby. I feel like that chapter brings together what is so amazing about the game: great character writing and beautiful, beautiful environments. A perfect showcase, I think.