Editorial: Alex Chen of Life is Strange: True Colors’ Power Goes Beyond Empathy

By Joel DeWitte

**This piece contains story spoilers for Life is Strange: True Colors.  Additional content warning for violence, drug abuse, & assault.**

Life is Strange: True Colors, the latest in the series developed by Deck Nine & Square-Enix, starts with a simple premise.  Alex Chen, an orphan who survived eight grueling years in foster care, has taken an offer from brother Gabe to an extended visit in the sleepy town of Haven Springs, CO.  Shortly after planting roots, the player is slowly introduced to Alex’s powers of being an Empah.  In this case, the power to feel others emotions like they were her own and the ability to see auras of icy cold nervousness, scalding hot anger, or a bright joyful ray of light.  Her powers also manifest in the ability to step into the mind of other people to pick at the root cause of their emotion and bring it into the actual conversation.  She can even absorb emotions, for example deliberately siphoning Charlotte’s anger to blunt the pain that comes from regret, or drawing out the poison of Pike’s fear so he can make an important decision without being driven by it.  

Alex’s background as an orphan is a tragic backdrop to what makes her.  Passed around from home to home, ample fights, suicidal tendencies, a sense of helplessness, and a therapist that seemingly wants to diagnose and medicate rather than attempt to truly hear and understand her lived experience.  Think of a time where you didn’t feel heard, something small like your child not following directions, an older brother refusing to let go of an arm while horsing around, or maybe a parent brushing off their kid being on the receiving end of bullying.  How did it make them feel?  Disrespected?  Neglected?  Like your feelings didn’t matter?  Now extrapolate that to Alex’s experience of failures from the orphanages and mental health care systems, and how that can shape a person’s character.  Under the best circumstances, those traumas warp the mind, leaving cuts and bruises that leave a mark forever.  A tree who contorts itself to reach for a ray of sunlight while stuck in the shadows.

In spite (or because) of this traumatic upbringing, Alex persistently struggles to control the wild swings in emotion, that sharp pang of others’ anger and sorrow becoming almost paralyzing.  Upon arriving in Colorado where her brother had invited her, Alex is quickly pushed into confrontation when Gabe engages in a fight with Mac – a hot headed man insecure over his relationship, and ready to throw hands with anyone he suspects can “steal” his girl.  This moment becomes a trigger for Alex.  Each yell a booming drumbeat, flashes of pain with every scream and scuffle.  The entire scene filtered through a hazy red hue, obscuring her vision and thoughts.  A loss of control as she channels that anger by pouncing on her brother’s assailant and clobbering him relentlessly.  But it’s in the moments after she’s alone where Alex takes agency in the situation.  Ruminating on her history of outbursts and how it affected her life became a change agent, a catalyst to controlling her empathic powers instead of them controlling her.  

It’d be understandable, possibly even expected if Alex had succumbed to her abilities in a fit of unbridled emotion.  She had little guidance, no mentors to teach her, and obstacles that many of us can’t fathom.  Instead, she took agency and decided empathy wouldn’t consume her, and leaned into experiencing others feelings.  The proceeding tragic event of losing her brother in a seemingly freak accident becomes the harbinger of truly, firmly grasping her powers.  She’s given a firm purpose and resolve to solve the riddle of who caused her brother’s death and why.  

Alex’s superpower of empathy is a misnomer in Life is Strange: True Colors.  Yes, she’s able to visually see colored auras based on others’ emotions.  She can peer into people’s heads or interact with items that reverberate a profile of who she’s speaking with.  And with a touch of the hand she can share those feelings she’s holding onto with others.  But where her true power lies is in her ability to be present, have awareness, showing restraint, and most importantly, listening.  Her Empath abilities are an important tool in her kit, but it is a hammer, and not all problems are nails.

It’s proven time and again how inherently true this is.  Alex might use her powers to peer into Officer Pike’s mind to get his inner dialogue, but it’s truly hearing his thoughts married with what was actually said that lays bare how she should engage with him.  When she’s twisting Ethan’s arm to participate in a city-wide LARP after Gabe’s death, she might be able to see his fluctuating anger and sadness, but it’s her understanding that Ethan’s feelings of helplessness and guilt that need to be respected by not treating him like a child.  Jed was a steel trap, and couldn’t be revealed as guilty unless Alex had the knowledge of his background and history to break through his emotional barriers and bring him to his knees.

Alex’s journey is one of self-discovery, stepping into her power, and taking control of her destiny, but it’s narrow to stop at that lesson.  It’s a story of learning how to find emotional balance.  The value of compassion and patience even if you don’t agree with that person.  The importance of restraint in reaction until you’ve seen the whole story, even if your heart tells you you’re right.  The knowledge you gain by focusing not just on hearing what a person says, but listening to truly understand them fully.  Alex’s fantastical superpowers in Life is Strange: True Colors are impressive and flashy, but it’s those mundane attributes and fundamental human traits that shine through.

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