Life is Strange: True Colors is the latest entry in the supernatural-meets-slice-of-life adventure series, and it's the second entry from Colorado-based developer Deck Nine Games. The game follows a young empath named Alex Chen who arrives in a small Colorado town and immediately becomes mixed up in a bevy of personal drama and conspiracy, all while navigating her own trauma and the trauma of those around her.
Alex can feel intense emotions from other characters around her, which helps players solve puzzles and tackle moral quandaries by playing on the thoughts and feelings that other people don't know she knows. It can work in her favor but it also terrifies her.
This is the first Life is Strange game to be published entirely as a complete package, with no episodic releases. The game also features the return of Steph Gingrich a fan-favorite side character from Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Deck Nine's prequel to Dontnod Entertainment's Life is Strange.
Gingrich is also the star of Wavelengths, the first piece of downloadable content for True Colors.
To talk about the emotional and physical development challenges of telling this kind of story, we checked in with Deck Nine Games senior staff writer Felice Kuan, Erika Mori, the voice and mo-cap performer behind Alex Chen, and Katy Bentz, the performer behind Steph Gingrich.
The trio had a lot to share about imbibing True Colors with a consistent, emotional feel, and solving the logistics of physical performance when dealing with a branching narrative.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Game Developer: Whenever I think about Life is Strange I think about an absurd admirably large amount of content. Whenever I walk into a room, I'm struck by the sheer amount of art assets and the sheer amount of writing.
At the top level, for making a game like Life is Strange: True Colors, what has helped each of you manage the quantity of words that you've you've had to produce or act through across this large project?
Kuan: QA. I mean it! Especially with Wavelengths because Steph has all these tasks where she's moving in between different places. The sheer number of permutations of what can happen is so great. The QA team was was incredible [at monitoring those].
Our in-house tools are really good about tracking a lot of that stuff. Also, because so much of the [narrative] branching is of an emotional nature, it might just be that the process of having to think too deeply through that emotional content like imprints a lot of it on us as a writing team.
Of course we had to be careful and track every narrative possibility, but we also internalized a lot of the possible outcomes just through all the discussion that has to happen [among the writers].
Mori: There was a big volume of words to be said. The way that we filmed it was more in line with how film and TV is captured. So [instead of] smaller chunks, it's like an entire scene end-to-end. That really helped in terms of memorization and delivery of unique moments.
And then [motion capture technical director] Webb Pickersgill and the creative team were great about providing that continuity for us so that we didn't have to track everything. We as actors don't always know what makes it into the game and what doesn't!
For a project like Wavelengths, I think it's super neat how you know the team has been able to build this connective tissue between Before the Storm and True Colors to help the character Steph transition from one Deck Nine project to the next.
Whenever I talk to developers they talk about how responding to what players resonate with is something that's both essential to making games, and sometimes impossible because players can respond to something long after the horse left the barn for making new content.
What do you think makes it possible for Deck Nine to be able to do you know, capitalize on fan's reactions to this character?
Kuan: Our production time was quite long, so we had that that huge advantage. Katie mentioned before about how the amount of stuff and content really morphed and changed. And in a way that we were able to make her feel central to the story and not just to bring her in, you know, for the heck of it. I think we just had enough time.
We've also been really fortunate that the fan community seems to respond to the things that we ourselves respond to. There was a parity there that we could capitalize on. If we love it, chances are, the fans are loving it!
Erika and Katy, you have to give performances that respond to different kinds of player inputs. As voice actors, what helps you makes you maintain, clear through-lines in your performance?
Your characters are given chances to respond to choices that the player has made sometimes several hours ago, and I'm always impressed by how the performances feel authentic, even if a whole lot of other content has passed since then.
Bentz: I think what Erika touched on in the last question about having Webb and the writers there with us in the [recording] room to help us be like, "Okay, cool. So this is where we're at now with this character. The player could have made all these choices up until here, this is where you were before, we're going to try and get you back into that same headspace, that same voice."
And that, for me, helped a lot. Erika [dealt with this more often] because of all the different choices that they can make with her character.
Mori: I would often ask audio, or [Pickersgill] for playback. I'd ask "can I just see part of the scene that we were in?" Especially for voiceover.
One moment I can remember is, I had a cold when we did a lot of the internal monologue for Chapter Two. It's a sequence where Alex is having trouble breathing, so it worked! It worked really, well. But then there were pickups months later.
And so thank goodness I asked for that playback because I was like, "Oh, that's right. I was congested." And so then I made my voice congested so that it would match that chapter.
Life is Strange: True Colors deals a lot with 'shades of grey'; emotions as a concept aren't always black and white or straight forward and don't always match a character's outward actions/thoughts, and there are moments in the game where doing the “right thing” might not be the right thing for all parties involved.
How did the team manage making these nuances clear to the player?
Kuan: I really appreciate that! A lot of Life is Strange: True Colors came out of writing process in Before the Storm and asking ourselves "what was that process like for us? What did what did we think was meaningful that we were able to accomplish?"
I think maybe this is similar in that just as a part of writing these characters with rare exceptions, like maybe you know, Damon, or something like that.
No matter how like irritating or boring they are, we do try to have them be very fully human. We're doing that anyway. It seemed natural to forefront that in the actual plot of this game.
Alex's use of her powers changes over the game and mirrors her own emotional state. How did the team balance the neat, game-y feel of these powers while still tying them to Alex's emotional journey?
Kuan: It was an interesting journey. When you give the player a power and the character has mixed feelings about it, you can find yourself in a bind where the character is saying "I shouldn't use my power. it's bad to use my power, like shame on me." But the game is saying "use it. It's interesting. Come on!"
We really did want a character who had mixed feelings about it. But we tried very hard to give her good reasons early on to embrace it. There's the moment she [defends Ethan] for example, and we have people like Gabe and others messaging that she could alter her perspective as early as the beginning of Chapter Two so that we could get the players enjoying the power.
And then later maybe we'd mix in moral implications of a greater sort that maybe Alex hadn't thought of yet. It was it was an interesting process!
Let's have some fun here. Let's say we're back at GDC (in-person), and you get a chance to sit down with some developer friends and throw out the NDAs for a second. What's something you'd tell them if they wanted to make a narrative game like Life is Strange: True Colors, to help them avoid problems you ran into?
Mori: I sort of watched the continuous improvement of the motion capture and the cinematics and animation group figuring out physicality before I got on set, which is great. Like they had it down to a science pretty much by the time we got to the mine scene.
But like I'd say like our first physical hurdle was that stupid backpack and then it ramps up right with the log. The logistics for your performer--what your script is asking them to do, what props or like barriers are in the way--you should run through it before you get talent on set. We weren't wasting time when Katie and I were on set. We weren't trying to figure out like, "oh, well what's the shot that we want? Or what you know, how are we navigating this log?" Because [Pickersgill] and team had already done it before we got there.
Kuan: I think the release has shown me to have faith and maybe relax a bit. It may just be that the Life is Strange community is awesome (and they are).
But there are so many things that like I and others on the team would fret about. "Like, oh, is this gonna come across right" or "ugh that's like a little mistake." But the players have been so receptive and like anything that was like a little thing that I'm like "uuuggghhhhh"--it doesn't matter.
Players were fully bought in to the experience and the emotions of True Colors in a way that would have been very, very soothing to know in the process.