The following contains spoilers for Life is Strange: True Colors.
Remember how, about a week before Life is Strange: True Colors came out, I said I was excited to have a boring boyfriend who wasn’t toxic like all my previous love interests were in the series? Well, that’s over. It’s canceled. Ryan Lucan is toxic, actually, and he nearly threw away our relationship over me not telling him to pick a red wire in the game’s first chapter.
I’m kidding. Mostly. Not about the red wire part, though. (We’ll get to that). But despite how unassuming, kind, and maybe even a little bland Ryan might have come off in True Colors’ first chapter, my boy scout boyfriend managed to break my heart worse than anyone else in Deck Nine’s depiction of small-town Colorado. Now that I’ve had time to sit with the turn he takes at the tail end of the game, I think I’ve come around on what happened between us because it was good for the plot. And I’ll continue to tell myself that every time a man disappoints me.
For almost all of True Colors, Ryan is delightfully predictable as protagonist Alex Chen’s potential love interest. He is supportive, soft-spoken, awkward, but never one to say no to a grand gesture of love between friends, and maybe more. If you spend a series (and most of your 20s) dealing with various forms of toxic romantic relationships, you, too, will be satisfied when someone is simply as good and caring as they appear to be. We cried together over the death of Alex’s brother, Gabe. We investigated Typhon, the mining company we believed responsible for it. And when things weren’t as heavy, we played a LARP to help Gabe’s stepson of sorts, Ethan, come out of his shell.
I was expecting to rely on all that support as I headed into the game’s final chapter. At the end of chapter four, it’s revealed that Ryan’s father Jed, who has essentially been your caretaker since Gabe’s death, is at the center of the game’s mystery. He shoots Alex in an effort to kill her and cover up the truth. As she falls into the mines, presumably to never be heard from again, that chapter ends and the finale begins. Alex survives, and the final chapter explores her past in the form of acted-out flashbacks between her, Gabe, and her father John. This includes the passing of her mother Wendy, her father’s abandoning her, and her time in the foster care system. All of it culminates in finding a locket with pictures of her and Gabe belonging to her father, who had died in the same mines years prior. Jed, who led the mining operation that ended in tragedy, and Typhon covered up this death for years; Gabe’s death came as an extension of that cover-up. Yet, in the process, Jed had painted himself as a hero.
Armed with the truth, I escaped the mines and made my way back to Jed’s bar, where a city council meeting was being held. Alex was in a great deal of pain, limping into the meeting with blood on her clothes. But none of those wounds cut half as deep as the final check of the relationships I’d built between Alex and the citizens of Haven Springs. Would they believe the truth I’d found, or would I be left hung out to dry by the people I’d grown close to?
In the end, my first playthrough had about half the room siding with me, including the absolute ride or die Steph. But Ryan didn’t believe me. He sided with his father, accusing me of looking for someone to blame for Gabe’s death since we couldn’t get the police to implicate Typhon in the accident.
Friends, I was fucking devastated.
It’s not outwardly made clear to you, but Ryan has a bit of a relationship point system going on in the background throughout all of Life is Strange: True Colors. Through an assortment of decisions you make through each chapter, Ryan is apparently keeping track of how close he feels to Alex, and that closeness is put to the test in this scene.
As a person who was pursuing a romantic relationship with Ryan, I naturally did everything I thought would strengthen our relationship. I supported him, hugged him when it felt right, gave him a rose, and kissed him on a rooftop as we imagined our future together. I thought we were absolutely fine. But, in True Colors’ first chapter, there was a point where he asked me about wires on a circuit board while we were looking for Ethan, who had gone missing. I told him not to ask me which wire to mess with because I had just walked into the room and had no clue what any of those wires would do. This was a timed dialogue choice not at all framed as having any weight, and ultimately irrelevant to finding a solution for the problem at hand.
And according to some guides, my boyfriend sold me out because of it.
I’ve been hearing conflicting accounts of Ryan’s behavior in the end from players who didn’t even romance him that got a different outcome than I did. Mechanically, it’s ridiculous. After all the trust that had grown between us across True Colors’ five chapters, Ryan didn’t believe me when I stumbled into a bar battered and bruised because, four chapters ago, I didn’t tell him to mess with a red wire? These kinds of systems of gaining trust gradually over the course of a game can work, but not if everything is weighed equally.
Mass Effect 3 has a similar system in place for Commander Shepard’s human squadmates Kaidan Alenko and Ashley Williams, whose trust the player has to gradually regain across the game. This is done on a point system, with each choice and consequence being assigned a number value that has to reach a certain threshold for the character to trust Shepard when it counts most. But it isn’t a collection of “right” choices; both the detractions and additions are weighed appropriately, so losing one point doesn’t invalidate everything positive you’ve done. If the game actually acknowledged that I didn’t tell Ryan to pick a red wire in the first chapter as the breaking point for our relationship, I would have laughed True Colors out of my PlayStation 5.
Narratively, however, there’s part of me that finds this compelling, and even appropriate, given the themes of the final episode. As painful as it is in the moment (and as livid as I was when the choice stats at the end of the episode told me Ryan could side with Alex), Ryan being weak, scared, and hurt feels like a reaffirmation of a recurring theme for True Colors’ finale.
Through Alex’s flashbacks, we see how her family unraveled after her mother’s death. John wasn’t able to hold down a job, much less deal with the responsibility of two kids. He eventually abandoned his children, which ended up tearing them apart as Alex became lost in the foster care system. Finding his locket and the memories attached to it in the mines allows Alex to use her empathic powers to hear his cries of remorse in his final moments. He shouted he was sorry not to anyone in the room, but to the children he’d left behind. In his final moments, he thought of Alex and Gabe. There’s no decision to outright forgive him, but there are opportunities in dialogue options to describe him in a sympathetic light. I took them. John was a coward, weak, and just as broken as any of us.
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Following this, I had to confront Jed. I used Alex’s powers of empathy and manipulation to pick apart why he became the man he did. In the end, you’re offered a chance to either condemn him for what he’s done or forgive him. Over at TheGamer, Stacey Henley makes salient points about why you shouldn’t forgive Jed (there’s an extremely long, valid laundry list of reasons). But, for me, this moment — and this chapter in general — feels like it’s about forgiveness. It might not read that way to anyone who rightfully denounces John for his actions, but I had already been walking into this fight with forgiveness in my heart.
Life is Strange: True Colors distills emotions into colored auras that Alex can see and manipulate. As such, it becomes easy to depersonalize those around her and view them as puzzles to be solved — and the game doesn’t always do a great job of interrogating that. But what makes the game’s final chapter the most compelling to me is how it’s so willing to let me engage with how complicated these people are. I can lash out at Jed in red hot rage, break down on the floor in deep blue sadness — or I can be overcome by the purple fear I felt when the room wasn’t immediately on my side.
When I looked at Jed, I stopped seeing all these emotions and circumstances as flashes of colored light. In front of me, I saw a man who was probably good once. But he was too scared to own up to what he’d done; to be seen as anything other than a hero in his son’s eyes and to go against a corporation with a vice grip on his town. In the end, I chose to forgive him for what he’d done. He would still face justice, but in acknowledging those complications, I gave Alex a path to move forward. I didn’t have to forgive Jed for his sake, but I wanted to for Alex’s.
After forgiving the father who left her behind and the man who took what was left of her broken family, Alex faces an apologetic Ryan at her doorstep.
Now that I know the actual mechanics under the hood, the entire conflict True Colors threw into my relationship with him feels a bit silly. But if I choose to not get caught up in the minutiae, what am I left with? A guy I cared a great deal for has had to see the truth of who his father really is. That’s not easy for anyone to contend with, much less someone who thought his dad could do no wrong. And while we had grown close, Alex had only been in Haven Springs for a little more than a month. It’s a lot to take in when a relative stranger tells you everything you’ve ever known about your father was a lie. After posthumously forgiving John for his failures as a father and forgiving Jed for being too weak to fight against Typhon, it wouldn’t have felt fair to offer Ryan any less. So, as Alex, I chose to forgive him, too.
In the end, Life is Strange: True Colors is about uncovering painful truths not just for satisfaction or vengeance, but for peace. That peace allowed me to leave Haven Springs without regret in the end. Ryan and Alex left the small town so she could play music, knowing they were leaving behind a piece of their hearts as they moved on to bigger, better things. Moving geographically is one thing, but moving past the pain of what happened there is another. And I think that, had I not had it in my heart to forgive the ones who had wronged Alex, I wouldn’t have truly pushed onward at all.