Life is Strange: True Colors developer Deck Nine revealed more information about the game’s empathy mechanic in a presentation during publisher Square Enix’s E3 presentation Sunday. The next Life is Strange game, which is scheduled to be released on Sept. 10, is about a 21-year-old Asian American woman named Alex Chen who moves to Colorado to reunite with her brother Gabe. When her brother mysteriously dies, Alex uses her supernatural power, Empathy, to find out what happened in the quiet mountain town.
The clip shows that Alex has long struggled with these powers; she calls them a curse rather than a gift, oftentimes becoming overwhelmed by others’ feelings of sadness, anger, and fear. Over the course of the story, she comes to terms with her powers and finds catharsis in unraveling what happened to Gabe, according to the trailer.
“Life is Strange: True Colors, at its core, is about empathy,” Felice Kuan, True Colors senior staff writer, told Polygon. “We were interested in the way that narrative games are kind of empathy engines, because you are literally embodying the experience of another character. We wanted to take that concept even further and make that the premise of the game — and, in fact, give the player a chance to embody a character who then herself embodies the lived experiences of other characters in the game.”
When a character in True Colors experiences a strong emotion, Alex (and the player) will be able to see their whole body glowing with a colorful aura. Alex can hear thoughts and feelings; in the trailer, Alex walks in on another character, Mac, thinking about a secret he’s trying to keep from his girlfriend, Riley. The player, as Alex, will then have to choose how to proceed: Do you tell Riley, or cover for Mac? These moments impact True Colors in ways big and small.
For people experiencing even stronger emotions — illustrated with a brighter, more vibrant aura — Alex can almost inhabit their brain through a mechanic called “Nova.” Producer Rebeccah Bassell told Polygon that these are “bespoke” moments that transform Alex’s reality. She can “see” an intense emotion manifest itself and then explode — literally — in the room.
“There’s a lot of nuance to how people experience emotion,” Bassell said. “We can’t just say that everybody experiences sadness this way, or happiness this way, so each moment is tailor made for the person itself, and the person who’s experiencing that emotion.”
She pointed to a moment from the clip when Alex reaches out to an artist named Charlotte. “When she has a very strong emotion, the paint brushes fall off the wall, grotesque statues begin to emerge, and you can see her hammering away the statue,” Bassell said. “Alex can see those environmental changes as clues to help figure out what Charlotte — or whoever she’s talking to — is feeling.”
Then, players decide how to use that information: Do you help this person through whatever they’re going through? Or do you, potentially, take away that emotion — and what impact does that have on Alex and the other characters?
At its core, True Colors is about human emotion and empathy, about connecting to other people. “Alex’s power serves as an incredible vehicle to get into that, and we try to explore it from every angle imaginable,” Deck Nine writer Jonathan Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said the core tenets of the Life is Strange franchise — typically, these are narrative games with character-driven stories — remain in True Colors. Still, there are some differences. For one, the game has a single release date; Deck Nine is moving away from Dontnod’s chapter-based release schedule. The story, too, is a bit more mature; previous games featured teens, and Alex is slightly older at age 21. The choice to focus on older characters was deliberate, Deck Nine said, and in the course of her story, Alex will be coping with things that are relatable to people closer to her age.
The setting, in the small town of Haven Springs, makes the game stand on its own, separate from the other titles. Haven Springs is set in Colorado, a fictional town inspired by the real-life state, which just happens to be where developer Deck Nine is located. It’s a place that looks fake (because it’s so dang pretty) until you see that it’s actually real, Bassell laughed.
“The forced intimacy of a small town was something we deliberately closed as a place for Alex to cope with a similar kind of issue with her emotional intimacy,” Kuan said. “She comes to know people extremely well. And that can be wonderful and enhance belonging. And that can be a big problem as well.”