An evolution in empathy games


Life is Strange has always been a video game series that not only sees the best in people but, also, in its own medium. More than any installment before it, though, True Colors is a mature, nuanced exploration of embodied empathy, both as an IRL phenomenon and a staple of video game narratives.

Released on Sept. 10, the third game in the series ditches the episodic release format, allowing you to play all the chapters of 21-year-old Alex Chen’s story at once. After surviving years in the foster care system, she arrives in idyllic Haven Springs, Colorado to reunite with the older brother she lost contact with after he was sent to juvie. Soon after arriving, though, her brother Gabe dies, and Alex finds herself thrown into an Erin Brockovich-type situation where she must uncover the corporate corruption that’s been plaguing the small town for decades.

Like every Life is Strange game, Alex also possesses a superpower, but it’s not of the MCU variety, This one, like others we’ve seen throughout the series, serves more as a storytelling device or extended metaphor for the character’s lived experiences.

In the first Life if Strange, the retro-obsessed Max can rewind time, adding interesting new layers to the traditional mechanics of narrative games where your moral choices impact the story. (Does choosing the right thing even matter if you can just rewind and erase bad decisions?) Life is Strange 2 featured telekinesis, the most run-of-the-mill superhero ability in the series. But unlike every other game where the player gets all the strongest powers, here it’s your little brother who can move objects with his mind. It’s your job instead to help him navigate the moral questions of how to wield that power ethically as the two Mexican-American immigrant siblings face xenophobic persecution near the U.S. border.

In True Colors, Alex’s superpower is empathy — like a hypersensitive vibe check detector allowing her to tap into the strong emotional states emanating from people’s colorful auras. She can glean more about what’s behind their anger, sadness, fear, guilt, etc. through objects that give us glimpses of their inner thoughts. In an early scene, you use the superpower to become everyone’s favorite waitress at the local tavern, intuiting exactly which song a stressed-out student wants someone to play from the jukebox.


In True Colors, Alex’s superpower is empathy — like a hypersensitive vibe check detector.

It’s a brilliant narrative device for a medium that struggles so much with finding organic ways to explore characters’ interiority, and it’s much more engaging than the diary or journals that often try to fill this same role in other games. As Alex learns to control her power, her ability evolves into literally seeing what the other person sees. She enters their mind’s eye to help them confront whatever personal demons or mental struggles they’re facing, like the comic book-style imaginary monster terrorizing a little boy or the terrifyingly foggy, deteriorating memory palace of someone suffering from Alzheimer’s.

I’ll be honest: I rolled my eyes when I first heard that empathy was your superpower in Life is Strange: True Colors. I love the series, but it’s always had a predisposition to cloying, corny sentimentality that isn’t necessarily earned.

I worried Alex might be reduced to the stereotype of Troubled Young Girl character, unable to control her emotions cuz gay, or daddy issues, or whatever. This concern was exacerbated by the fact that True Colors was heavily marketed to be as LGBTQ-friendly as Target’s annual Pride section. (By the way you can play Alex as hetero instead of bi or lesbian — a narrative option that feels like a hate crime against her very obviously gay undercut and fashion aesthetic).

I worried the game would play to the worst of Life is Strange‘s lineage, as a series that launched in 2015 during the height of buzzy discourse around so-called “empathy games.” At the time, waves of narrative games, from That Dragon, Cancer to Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, were trying to capitalize on gaming’s unique ability to immerse players in someone else’s perspective. The design theory saw video games as literal empathy machines, able to teach players some sort of lesson in compassion by having them virtually inhabit painful, othered, or marginalized lived experiences.

But queer critics rebuffed the concept of empathy simulators, seeing as neither empathy nor video games really work like that. The empathy you can instill through a game is limited by mainstream gaming audience’s desire or capacity to empathize with the struggles of folks who are different from them. And anyway, it misses the point of why representation even matters, since games with marginalized protagonists designed to help straight cis white men empathize with them are, well, still games made for straight cis white men.

What does true empathy look like?
Credit: square enix / life is strange

Luckily, True Colors avoids all that noise to deliver a true evolution in what you might call an “empathy game.” Because first and foremost: this isn’t a game about inspiring empathy in players at all. Rather, it’s an exploration of how one young girl learns to cope with being an empath, not only by harnessing its power but also by setting boundaries for its limitations.

It is by far the most refined and rich iteration of Life is Strange’s superpower-as-metaphor conceit, precisely because of how it speaks to the darker realities of being an empath IRL. Because despite popular misconceptions of empathy as an unequivocal good or positive gift, a truly successful empathy game remains mindful of the challenges the genre has faced and digs into how extreme sensitivity to others’ feelings too often causes painful lifelong struggles too.

From the beginning, Alex’s extraordinary capacity for empathy is pathologized by a therapist as a variety of mental illnesses, a reality many actual empaths face that media rarely depicts. The more I learned about Alex’s upbringing and the origins of her power, the more I also thought about how real-world empaths are often born out of the wounds of a difficult childhood. High sensitivity to others’ emotions can be a trauma response from growing up in unsafe environments, where being hypervigilant to the feelings of adults is a necessary survival strategy for avoiding further abuse.

True Colors never shrinks away from portraying the costs of excessive empathy, which can mutate into self-harm, self-sabotage, and even manipulation of others if left unchecked. Unlike the empathy games of old, it understands that empathy doesn’t automatically transform people into paragons of selfless kindness, either.

Alex must first learn to overcome a tendency to lose her own sense of self when she takes on too much of other people’s emotions, like when her power escalates a fight between her brother and a jealous boyfriend. She is kind and means well, yes. But she’s also sensitive to the point of explosiveness and resentful of a world that doesn’t protect her from embodying the worst parts of humanity. She wrestles with a history of acting out, depriving herself of feeling, and cutting herself off from people all together just to cope.

When the tragic loss of Gabe reverberates through Haven Springs, though, she finally learns how to break from this pattern of avoidance. Instead of receding, Alex seeks to continue Gabe’s journey of healing from their shared childhood traumas by meeting the challenge of grief’s messy, conflicting emotions — not only in herself but the people who loved him most.

I'd like one ticket to Haven Springs, please.

I’d like one ticket to Haven Springs, please.
Credit: square enix / life is strange: true colors

The narrative choices in True Colors are not the typical moralizing right-or-wrong, black-or-white binaries that too often flatten the genre of empathy games. Like grief itself, there is no guidebook for how to feel, no simple answers for what one should do with the angry sadness, or loving guilt, or joyous hopelessness of having loved, then lost. The best Alex can do in her attempts to help others is dare to reach out a hand, and inevitably fail sometimes.

Similar to its more nuanced portrayal of empathy, True Colors is emotionally honest in a way few video games are, allowing its characters to feel the ugliest parts of grief that we’re often too ashamed to admit to. Rarer still for a piece of popular fiction, it gives a mother character permission to express some of the most taboo emotions about her child imaginable, and it doesn’t demonize her for being human.


Home, you learn alongside Alex, is wherever chosen family lies.

Aside from using embodied empathy to explore characters’ interior worlds, True Colors taps into the other unique power of video games to ground us in a sense of place. Haven Springs is a beautiful small-town setting that’s visually tactile and sonically vibrant. I mean, you can practically smell that high-grade Colorado weed while visiting the local dispensary.

It’s this grounded sense of place that helps drive home the other major theme of the game: Home, you learn alongside Alex, is wherever chosen family lies. Home is not the walls of a house, nor the place you come from. Home is something you build with other people, through relationships and memories that allow you to take root like one of Haven Springs’ tall, ancient fir trees. By the end of the game, I felt myself actually feeling nostalgic for the quiet moments I’d shared with townsfolk by the dock, or at the record store, or in the apartment above the local tavern, which was the first space Alex ever truly got to call her own.

As touchy-feely as True Colors’ premise sounds, this isn’t a very “safe” story. It takes risks, dares to be morally ambiguous, wades into debated issues around representation in games, and raises provocative questions that (depending on your narrative path) might not always land perfectly.

But swinging big and missing sometimes is exactly what has turned Life is Strange into such a vital force in games. The series is clearly dedicated to bringing more humanity and emotional complexity to a medium that too often squanders its unique storytelling powers on superficial bullshit with no relevance to the real world. To the credit of the series’ creators, Dontnod Entertainment and True Colors lead developer, Deck Nine, they keep getting better and better at pulling it off with every new title.

I’m just happy a game like Life is Strange: True Colors exists. As we continue to wrestle with the ongoing, collective grief of a global pandemic, we need art that reflects the brutal reality of not only loss but of feeling way too much all the time. Maybe, just maybe, we can even learn a thing or two from Alex about how it really does take a village to recover from shared traumas.

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