The following contains spoilers for Life is Strange: True Colors and its DLC Wavelengths.
The moment I knew Life is Strange: Wavelengths had its hooks in me was when I opened up the dating app protagonist Steph Gingrich was using on her phone. It had all the makings of a Tinder-like, with the swiping left or right on potential ladies for Steph to express interest in. But in its first use, this app shows a sight not unfamiliar to queer people who are trying to date in rural areas like Haven Springs, Colorado: “Sorry! There’s no one else in your area right now. Try again later!”
As someone who felt the base Life is Strange: True Colors game didn’t have the same overtly political bite of previous entries in the series, it was refreshing that the DLC would touch on what this microcosm of rural queer life meant for Steph, and how living in these spaces can have a lasting impact on queer people who find themselves in similar situations.
I’m a gay man who has lived in a small town I affectionately refer to as Bumfuck Nowhere for the entirety of my life. As such, queer stories in rural settings hit home for me, and my lived experience means I’m pretty sensitive to when I feel like it’s missing the mark. A recent example is Schitt’s Creek. That show’s idealism felt so detached from the uncomfortable realities of small-town life as a queer man that the conclusion of main character David Rose’s story soured that show for me in ways that probably seem extreme to anyone who finds the silver lining the writers were probably going for. By acknowledging most of Steph’s possible love interests were far out of her reach distance-wise, I was already assured Wavelengths understood the small ways the world would communicate to her that she was isolated from where she wanted to be.
I remember one time listening to a podcast where a straight host mentioned he had a 30-mile radius set on his Tinder account, which baffled his co-hosts. But as a person who’s frequently had to set my own dating profiles to 50 or more miles to find almost any men looking for men, it was surprising to me that 30 seemed so inconceivable. It wasn’t until I heard people who never had to use that number reacting so unexpectedly that I understood just how far away I appeared to anyone who saw me on one of these apps.
And I felt that same sentiment echoed in the text conversations I had Steph go through in Wavelengths after she increased the distance her dating app profile would reach. Genuine connections would go through a bit of back and forth, then followed by a girl hours away saying, “I wish you were closer. You should come visit,” which I would inevitably follow up with a “yeah, sure. I’m busy this weekend, but maybe sometime next month?”
There are time skips in Wavelengths that show some of these dating app connections go somewhere. Not anything with a label or long term, but enough that there’s clearly some history with the people Steph’s been messaging. But one of the most significant time skips in the DLC shows Steph at the end of June, the record store she’s working at adorned with Pride flags and memorabilia. The Progress flag is hanging from the front door, meaning everyone who walks inside will have to see and accept it. There are handmade signs bunched up in the corner that look like they came from a pro-queer protest. And at the front desk there’s a bowl of pins bearing rainbows, taglines like, “be gay, do crimes,” and a friendly reminder that, “Pride was a riot.”
But it’s the last day of June. And thus, the rainbow must go back in the box until next year. As I put these away, Steph reminisced about her first time attending a Pride festival, feeling like she didn’t belong there and that everyone could see that she wasn’t dressed for the occasion. Her friend reassured her that she looks like everyone attending their first Pride, and that’s perfectly okay.
As Steph reminisces on how she missed the last Pride event in Colorado during an earlier conversation on the app, I thought about just how stranded she feels in Haven Springs. While she puts the pins away, she remarks how the record store patrons have looked at them sitting at the front desk and responded with some variation of “good for you,” rather than actually taking one for themselves. There’s support in this small town, but next to nothing that looks like a real, tangible connection to a queer culture that isn’t one she’s made for herself in this record store. In places where you’re one of the only queer people in a 30-mile radius, being queer often feels like simply being known as queer by the locals, rather than engaging in the culture or connections someone can do if they live in a city several hours of driving distance away. It makes the love and life you want feel like something abstract you can only aspire to, as there’s not a chance in Hell you’ll find it here.
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In my original playthrough of Life is Strange: True Colors, I didn’t initiate a romantic relationship between Steph and protagonist Alex Chen. I went with Ryan Lucan because sometimes you’re so gay you go for the straight man in a video game. And don’t worry; I paid for it. But as a result, I felt like I only scratched the surface of who Steph was compared to those who pursued her relationship further. If I take nothing else from Wavelengths, it’s that I did know Steph. I knew her intimately well, actually, because she’s me. She’s gay, wears beanies, and has spent large swaths of her life feeling like the connections she wants are just beyond her reach.
I understand why she ends up leaving Haven Springs at the end of the main game. Hell, as Alex, I did, too. But that was coming from wanting to leave the pain of everything that happened in True Colors behind. That was my reasoning when playing as Alex. More than anything else, True Colors is about how home is where you make it. And for some of us, much of our lives are defined by the feeling that “home” is elsewhere.
At the end of the main game, Steph and I parted ways when she got on a bus to leave the small town and record store behind. I hope, both for her present and for my future, she finds something better the next time she steps off that bus. Because as of this moment, she’s searching for hope for both of us.