The Ethics of Empathy in Life is Strange: True Colors

On seeing people as people, not colored auras.

This article contains nonspecific spoilers for Life is Strange: True Colors. Although, it does mention the game’s core mystery, which has been mentioned in the game’s marketing since the beginning.

Life is Strange: True Colors supernatural elements feel a bit different than its predecessors, in that much of protagonist Alex Chen’s superpowers seem like something not far off from how most of us operate anyway. Alex is described as an empath, able to see other people’s feelings as colored auras surrounding them when they have an intense emotional reaction to something. Fear of the unknown manifests as a purple haze emanating from both the person affected and the objects that surround them that symbolize that same fear. Anger at one’s circumstances takes the form of bright red light as one’s blood boils hot. The sunny, yellow gleam that radiates from someone experiencing joy can light up an entire room. 

When it comes to this, Alex’s abilities allow her to read the room with a little more surgical accuracy than your average socially aware individual. But her superpowered empathy goes a few steps further, and it makes the people of Life is Strange: True Colors feel more like puzzles to be solved than people whose own circumstances culminate in the same anger, fear, or happiness Alex sees so clearly as colors cast from their silhouettes.

Alex’s empathic abilities move beyond simply understanding what people think. It’s always about using that knowledge to your advantage; to know someone beyond the mask they wear and to find out how to manipulate it to fit your needs. Seeing the fear oozing off a cop as he interrogates you is an invitation to push the right buttons. It’s not always manipulative in negative ways, though. As feeling someone’s anger and defusing it is the only way to get them to move forward toward a common goal.

But that manipulation comes at a cost. If Alex is too close to intense emotion, it will overwhelm her. It’s why she’s had so much trouble throughout her life in the foster care system. She’d go to a new home, conflict would ensue, and suddenly she was dealing with the rage of two people rather than just her own — often to violent ends. 

The possibility of Alex losing control of her own emotions just by being around someone lingers over much of True Colors’ early episodes. It effectively taps into my own anxieties about comforting people at their lowest. Expressing emotions can be tough for many people, especially when they’re hard to describe in words. In a way, Alex’s ability to see a physical manifestation of emotion gives her insight no one else has. But after you’ve been viewing emotions as colored lights for so long, communicating to others that same precision and clarity is an obligation I felt throughout True Colors.

There’s a young boy in the game’s setting of Haven Springs named Ethan. He’s the son of Charlotte, the girlfriend of Alex’s brother Gabe. As Alex, I took a lot of time to bond with him. We were both in mourning, as Gabe’s death acts as the core mystery of True Colors. It’s a tragedy Ethan feels responsible for in his own way. Something that has always complicated my own relationship with children is trying to explain that sometimes the world is a cruel, uncaring place. It weighs on me when I hear about my nephew dealing with some shitty classmate, or when my niece, who can’t even talk yet, scrapes her knee or falls and bites her lip. Watching a child deal with all the various complex emotions of the human experience has always been difficult for me. 

How can I tell a child, who is feeling so many emotions in their rawest forms, that things will get better when I’m still cut off at the knees by the same sadness in my late 20s? 

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True Colors sits me next to a kid who is feeling the red hot fire of anger at the world and the deep, dark blue sadness that comes with losing a loved one. When True Colors isn’t gamifying the act of supporting one another, it gives shape to what it feels like to be so attuned to other people’s emotions that they can hold a vice grip on you. But as an empath, Alex feels these emotions are her responsibility. She can’t simply let someone say they’re fine and let it go. She’s always reminded that isn’t true by the emotions she can see and feel seeping through the cracks. 

But that responsibility only feels like it’s briefly interrogated, especially considering how invasive Alex’s abilities can be. About midway through, Alex discovers she also has the ability to absorb people’s emotions. There’s a question of what that would do to someone — to take the anger that comes from one’s own grief away from them. It would be so much easier for us to relieve them of that burden and take it upon ourselves. But these emotions are more than just a red light — they’re what make us who we are. In the end, my refusal to remove someone’s anger was rewarded, but taking someone’s fear later was beneficial. 

Perhaps there’s something interesting to be said about how the, er, true colors of the dilemma aren’t black and white, and that Alex is just dealing with everyday issues with an advantage not afforded for anyone else in the room. That is compelling in and of itself. But considering how invasive Alex’s abilities can be, I wanted an acknowledgment of the gravity of knowing the heart and soul of everyone around you. Given the series’ history, it feels like a notable omission.

Life is Strange has done a lot to explore the ethical dilemma that comes from having a superpower in an otherwise normal world. Characters like Alex, Max from the first Life is Strange, and Daniel Diaz from Life is Strange 2 aren’t dealing with otherworldly problems with their otherworldly abilities. They’re just people trying to navigate the world with a secret upper hand. Max wrestles with every ordinary decision she makes even though she has the power to rewind time at will and do it over. Daniel isn’t the playable character of Life is Strange 2, but the knowledge that his telekinesis could wreak havoc makes raising him as his older brother, Sean, a constant struggle between using his gift to solve problems and helping him understand it can’t always be the go-to solution. 

Despite its title, Life is Strange isn’t often dealing with situations that are far from life as we know it. However, the magnitude that strangeness adds has always been paramount to the stories it’s sought to tell. In the first game, Max looks upon a storm that threatens to destroy the town of Arcadia Bay as nature tries to correct her time-manipulating attempts to save her best friend. The end of Life is Strange 2 makes a telekinetic little brother the reflection of your choices — one that could more closely resemble a weapon that tears through obstacles or a shield that protects others. But what it meant for these strange powers to exist in an otherwise normal life was never outside of the player’s vision. 

True Colors never reaches that same level of introspection. Alex’s emotions are seldom expressed by the same colors she sees because the game is always taking time to wrestle with what she’s feeling. The anger she has at the world for her tragic upbringing, the love she can feel for her friends Ryan and Steph, and the sadness when she misses her brother are all communicated outside the confines that True Colors expresses everyone else’s emotions. Her inner conflicts are all the game needs to move her story forward, but it does mean that it becomes easy to depersonalize everyone else around her. Though True Colors wrestles with the broad range of emotions we all feel, I feel like I see those emotions most clearly when they aren’t assigned a color at all.

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Kenneth Shepard

Kenneth is a Staff Writer at Fanbyte. He still periodically cries about the Mass Effect trilogy years after it concluded.

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