Over the past three years, Deck Nine Games has been working in partnership with Square Enix to bring us a new adventure set in the Life is Strange universe, designed to take the series into the next generation. Life is Strange: True Colors takes us to a new town, introduces us to a new power, and will put you into the shoes of a brand new protagonist in Alex Chen. And it'll do all of this while looking and feeling better than any Life is Strange that's come before it. True Colors utilizes full motion capture performance technology to deliver the most visually enhanced entry in the franchise to date, breathing new life into the characters that inhabit Haven Springs – a small town in the Colorado Mountains, the setting for Deck Nine's murder mystery.
To bring all of its new faces to life, Deck Nine shot full body and facial performance capture along with VO in-house simultaneously to deliver what game director Zak Garriss believes will be an even richer and more nuanced storytelling experience.
"For this game, we actually shot full-body performance capture, facial performance capture, and final VO all at the same time," he tells GamesRadar, as part of the Future Games Show – Spring Showcase. "It's very rare in games; it's a new phenomenon. It means you're shooting your content like a TV show, or like a film, where you call action and you have to get everything right. It puts a lot more of the burden on the actors and on the director, but it also produces holistically a much more expressive and nuanced performance."
"We learned very quickly that we could write to our lead actress Erika Mori's ability to perform non-verbal communication, and we can express and tell the story within the game space. Every single second of cinematic animation is bespoke for that moment, and we're telling stories through every gesture, every shrug, every movement of the eye. The result is incredibly immersive and compelling; there are no library animations, it's just our actors performing through the narrative."
Once the team understood what it would be able to capture, and how subtle expressions and movements could enhance the storytelling experience, it affected how Deck Nine would go on to approach writing Life is Strange: True Colors. "We realized we could go darker, we could go more nuanced, we could go more comedic, sometimes," Garris explains. "We understood more fully what our actors were capable of. And that, in turn, encouraged us and pushed us to tell a more courageous story."
At the heart of the story is Alex, who you'll be playing in True Colors. As a young woman who's just left the foster care system, you first meet Alex when she reunites with Gabe, her older brother and resident of Haven Springs. The reunion doesn't last for long, though. After Gabe dies under mysterious circumstances, Alex sets out to uncover the truth, and in doing so, tries to build a future for herself. Like the leading characters in previous Life is Strange games, Alex has a unique supernatural power of her own that will play a key part in the story and action that unfolds as a result of it. With a power rooted in empathy, you'll be able to connect with characters by feeling their emotions.
"Alex has a supernatural sensitivity to the emotional states of others. And it's not just the ability to read or be aware of other people's emotions," says Garriss. "If people around her are feeling rage, or grief, or terror, the emotion overwhelms Alex and she feels it too. It gives her an empathic connection with that person and gives her insight into what's motivating whatever that person might be going through."
"Up until this point in her life, this has been a curse. This has alienated her from others. This has led to behavior people around her don't understand and probably mostly condemn," Garriss continues, "but the story that we're about to invite the player into is the story of Alex learning how, through hardship, to take this curse and do something good with it. And in doing that, sort of make her peace with who she is."
The decision to centre the game around empathy, and turn it into a power players could use to connect with other characters, was initially inspired by the work Deck Nine did with 2017's Life is Strange: Before the Storm. As a prequel, the game explored Chloe Price's story before we met her as Max Caulfield in 2015's Life is Strange, giving us the opportunity to better understand Chloe's experiences and how they shaped the person she became in the original game.
"Effectively, what we did was we created an empathic link to Chloe," says Garriss. "We took that character, who for some people was brutal and alienating and made her a fan-favorite, and made her anger something that was incredibly sympathetic. We realized that the mechanism of narrative adventure, as a genre, creates a kind of empathy engine with the character whose shoes you're stepping into. That, more than anything, fascinated me."
"I wanted to push that and explore, 'Well, what happens if we align you with a player character who they themselves are capable of experiencing such empathy?'" adds Garriss. "What if the game itself takes you on a journey, where you're stepping into, as your character, other character's shoes; you're walking with them for a little while, seeing their grief, their anger, and their fear, and then you're getting to do something about it. Life is Strange as a franchise is all about embracing different perspectives – it's something that's important in the kinds of storytelling we do – and this felt like a vibrant, rich, and interesting way to do that with your character in this story."
Unlike Life is Strange and Life is Strange 2, which limited the areas you could explore and the characters you could speak with, True Colors will offer more freedom. "For Life is Strange: True Colors, we wanted to explore having more agency given to the player – in terms of where they go, who they interact with, and the ownership that they can take over the story and over Alex's engagement with that town," says Garriss. "And so we have built out a larger space than you typically see in a Life is Strange game, and we're very excited about the outcome and the result."
Player choice has always been one of the hallmarks of the series, and it will continue in True Colors as you shape Alex's story and the future of the town. The type of interactions you can have with the residents of Haven Springs will differ depending on how you play Alex, utilise her ability to wield empathy, and approach the investigation into the death of her brother. With plenty of relationships to develop, opportunities for romance will also be left up to you, with the chances to deepen your relationship with Ryan, one of Gabe's friends, or Steph Gingrich, a character that was first introduced in Before the Storm.
"When it comes to romance, which is really an important component of the human experience, and when we're telling human stories, it's going to be an important part of those stories," says Garriss. "Life is Strange: True Colors offers players more choice than they've experienced in a Life is Strange game to date, and we're proud of that. I think we're excited about the kinds of relationships that you can develop throughout the whole town, and in particular, the relationships that you can have with both Ryan and Steph, who are integral to the storyline. The shape of how the player chooses to engage with them in that story can become a romantic interest for Alex."
All of Life is Strange games tell standalone stories, but since they're set in the same universe, each game is in some way connected. As Garriss explains it, the Life is Strange franchise is really shifting into more of an anthology series rather than a sequential one, with Garriss adding that the world of Life is Strange is "always willing to go to new places and explore different walks of life, richly and deeply." You can see that reflected in Steph, a fan favourite of Before the Storm because of her artistic side and enthusiasm for Dungeons and Dragons, who left Arcadia Bay behind and relocated to Haven Springs in the years since we last saw her. Deck Nine brought Steph back because it wanted to explore the character further, but she also serves as a welcome reminder that True Colors is a part of the interconnected Life is Strange universe.
"We wanted to take that character and do much more with her, and partly it's a desire to honor the depth and richness of the universe overall," Garriss explains. "Life is Strange: True Colors is a new offering with a lot of new characters, but it's not completely separate from the world of the original Life is Strange, of the wolf brothers' story [in Life is Strange 2], or Before the Storm. Steph is a reminder that this is an interconnected place, and that you're going to see, from time to time, characters from other adventures."
Should any more familiar faces arrive in Haven Springs will be for Deck Nine to decide, as Garriss confirms that True Colors "has not been a collaboration with Dontnod." With the series creators out of the picture, Deck Nine is also taking this as an opportunity to shake up the foundational design of Life is Strange, abandoning the episodic format entirely. Instead, True Colors will be released in full on the day of release, although it will feature chapter breaks should you need a bit of a breather. Deck Nine tells me that the decision to give players the whole experience from the get go gave the studio more freedom, and the opportunity to deliver a better experience overall.
Having worked on the project since 2017, Garris expresses that True Colors has been a real labor of love for Deck Nine. The team is trying to honor the Life is Strange series and also push themselves as storytellers to see just what they can do. The result looks set to take the series in the next-generation, with a more visually enhanced and immersive Life is Strange experience that will explore empathy and human connections. "It's been a project that has been very close to the hearts of everyone at Deck Nine," Garriss says. "Coming off the heels of making Before the Storm, we wanted to explore who we are as storytellers and what the franchise has to offer fans with new characters in a new setting, and we're really excited about it."
Life is Strange: True Colors is set to release in full on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One, and PC on September 10. If you're catching up or want a refresher, here's every announcement during the Future Games Show Spring showcase.