The idea of moving somewhere picturesque for a fresh start is fast becoming as common a trope in video games as it is in TV, film and books. In this slice-of-life melodrama from Colorado studio Deck Nine, Alex Chen moves out of the care system and to a mountain town named Haven Springs to reunite with her estranged older brother, Gabe, who has made a comfortable life for himself there among the old miners, young hipsters and calming, snow-capped scenery. Predictably, however, she’s not there long before tragedy strikes, and Alex must use her superpower – reading people’s heightened emotions, arm outstretched like a cartoon psychic – to dig into what happened.
Themes of friendship, loss, owning your feelings and small-town community are set against a backdrop of corporate malfeasance from the mining company that controls the town. Sometimes the insights that Alex gains from her emotional mind-reading are one-line expressions of fear, joy or dissatisfaction that point you towards an easy way to help or an amusing character insight: the owner of an ice-cream store is worried about going out of business; the older chap in the bar turns out to be part of a tontine. When exploring stronger feelings, though, the world transforms around her, and she sees it through the eyes of the sufferer, with the help of some heavy-handed visual metaphor.
This game is – and I say this with love – exceptionally dorky. Alex plays acoustic guitar, and at one point gives a wistful rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. After every deep-dive into someone’s emotional state, she writes song lyrics about it in her journal. Haven Springs is quaint enough to have its own record shop and dispensary. The people here are, generally, sweet and well-meaning and fairly two-dimensional, even after we dive into their emotions to explore their backstories. There’s some darker, thornier stuff here, for sure, especially around Alex and Gabe’s traumatic childhood and the secrets that a couple of the characters are harbouring. It tackles grief and trauma, but in a daytime-TV way that stopped short of shocking or moving me.
If this were a Netflix drama I probably wouldn’t watch it, but because it’s a game, because it invited me to make decisions about these people and this place, I felt a growing connection with it that had me invested by the end. It’s corny and sometimes just adorably uncool – one chapter has everybody in the town participating in a fantasy live-action role-playing game based on a local kid’s homemade comic books – but Life Is Strange: True Colours is so earnest that it got an emotional rise out of me anyway.