Content Warning: This piece includes allusions to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, suicide and the invasion of Ukraine. Also, spoilers for “Life is Strange: True Colors.”
I had planned for this article to be about the video game “Life is Strange: True Colors.” Released in September 2021, “True Colors” centers on Alex Chen, a latchkey kid who’s re-entering society after finally learning to control her superpowers. Alex is an empath — seriously, she can read other people’s emotions and hear their thoughts. Kinda a neat, if useless superpower, right? Except, Alex can also get overwhelmed by powerful emotions; for example, growing enraged or depressed when someone around her does. What’s brilliant — and terrifying — about Alex’s power is that it doesn’t feel fictional: Everyone claims to be an empath, after all. And being an empath in our modern world is simply exhausting.
It’s hard to talk about these imaginary exploits of Alex within the fictitious town of Haven, Colo. when in reality, Florida has made it dangerous to say the word gay. Queer folk around the country became targets the moment Florida’s House of Representatives passed a law to keep schools from talking about LGBTQIA+ topics within the classroom. In a time when children are presented with more information than ever to help them answer difficult questions of identity and sexuality, the classroom has been turned into a warzone. Parents screech that they are “protecting their children,” that “the gay agenda must be stopped” as if education and compassion turn you queer. School, the one place that may have been a safe haven for students with these identities who have unsupportive parents or dangerous living situations, is now off limits.
Where can these kids go but back into the closet? Because the world shows every sign that it does not love them, that they are an aberration. A mistake. Who they are and who they love does not matter to the Republican Party of Florida. How can you be for the children when, according to The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ youth between the ages of 13 and 24 will attempt suicide every 45 seconds? Everyone outside of the Sunshine State with a heart immediately understood the panic, fury, hopelessness and fear that these children all felt, and that’s without Alex’s empathy superpower.
My original article was going to say that “True Colors” makes it clear that Alex Chen has not had an easy life: Her mother died of cancer, her father abandoned her and her brother Gabe and not long after, Gabe got sent to juvie which separating them for good. Alex was shuffled around the foster care system; her powers made her too volatile to stay with one family or group home for too long. One heartbreaking scene forces Alex to relive these moments, her tele-empathy allowing her to hear every judgmental thought from the rotating gallery of people who make up her teenage years. Alex has seen the absolute worst in people, and yet she still wants to live a happy life and use her powers to help others.
But how can I write about this optimism when I’m not even sure if that’s how I feel? Could I go up to Texas’s Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who recently passed a directive that parents who seek out gender-affirming care for their children are actually abusers, and help him through a bad day? This is a man who believes that helping transgender youth avoid an unwanted puberty is atrocious behavior, and don’t even get him started on letting trans kids play sports. Abbott even wants to enlist the help of the wonderful people of the Lone Star State, asking nicely that if ANYONE even sees a trans child, they must be reported. This passion could have been aimed at keeping the power grid from going out again — instead, he charged everyone the maximum price for the electricity … before it inevitably went out anyway. Is this someone that deserves my empathy?
That’s the complicated part about being empathetic: Does having empathy for someone always mean you have to forgive them? I wanted to argue that no, “Life is Strange: True Colors” is a shining beacon illustrating this false idea. The narrative of the game revolves around Alex investigating the suspicious circumstances around her brother Gabe’s death. It turns out the rockslide that killed him (on the very day he reunites with Alex, no less) was caused by the local mining company covering up a horrific cave-in they’d been hiding from the town of Haven for years. When Alex explains this conspiracy to the town council, she can denounce those involved or forgive them, absolving them of blame and sin. It seems like such an easy choice, but it isn’t.
Many players get swept up in the emotions and offer forgiveness, believing that empathy and niceness mean you have to forgive even the most heinous acts. Characters within the game, whom you have spent hours helping and bonding with, can flat out choose to ignore Alex’s truth and stick to their own narrative. It’s something we see on social media every freaking day: When the narrative of the world doesn’t fit what I believe, then it simply isn’t true. That’s how we end up with people who believe that the presidential election was rigged, invading the Capitol and facing no consequences. That’s how we end up with beloved authors still making money hand over fist despite spreading disinformation about transgender women. These are people who lack empathy, who focus solely on their own needs and beliefs and desires while shunning anything that contradicts them.
I wanted this piece to be about the power of emotion, about how the interactivity of games makes the players feel responsible and that the final decision reminds us that sometimes the right decisions are the hardest to make. But it would be disingenuous because I am not Alex: My empathy isn’t endless. What does my depression mean while Putin literally invades a sovereign nation and kills innocent people and the world just wags its finger? How does my anger help against the onslaught of endless fucking anti-transgender legislation going through state senates? My feelings don’t do anything except pull me deeper into the pits of pessimism and anxiety.
My heart tears itself to shreds trying to help each and every tragedy, leaving nothing but an empty void within. Donate money for trans children in Texas, retweet the right accounts in Ukraine, buy banned books and don’t forget to vote in your local elections because our school boards are being invaded, but also remember to keep foreign nations in mind because our government has been hoarding vaccines. The constant existential dread of the world going to shit around us is demoralizing and draining; the guilt of being safe and supported further weighs me down, crushing me.
Everything going on makes me want to hide away in some dark corner and keep my head down for the rest of my life. It makes me want to be on the front lines, protesting and changing minds with clear action. I want to throw away my laptop and swear to never write again, moments before grabbing a pen to work on the next great revolutionary movie. Art feels equally as silly as important, something that reaches past your ribcage and clutches your heart and begs you to listen. It’s overwhelming.
This was supposed to be a piece about “Life is Strange: True Colors,” and maybe it still can be. For all the shit thrown her way, Alex never gives up, because with each bit of sadness she sops up, each tendril of fear she faces and each ounce of anger she overcomes, there’s also happiness. Empathy doesn’t only mean burdening the negative emotions, it means sharing the good ones too. These are the little moments, like listening to a friend reminisce about simpler times, their joy bubbling over within you until you’re both giggling. Like sharing a beer with your brother, looking down on a world full of opportunity and a future waiting to be written. Like, in “Life is Strange: True Colors,” convincing an entire town to LARP in an effort to cheer up a boy who lost one of his favorite people. In these moments, the edges of the world blur and everything feels lighter. Things suddenly seem a tiny bit easier to manage.
We cannot comprehend every horror in the world and we can’t be soldiers ready for every battle. Being paralyzed by fear or anger helps no one; you inadvertently center yourself within a narrative that is not about you. More often than not, the most you can do is educate yourself on the issue, find the right charities for donation and amplify the voices of those who are being affected. Being an empathetic person means sustaining thousands of tiny cuts across your heart for people whose names you will never know and faces you will never see. It also means understanding that sometimes it’s okay to focus on the good things for a bit.
In our modern world of constant connection and communication, it is easy for empathy to feel more like a curse than a superpower. But thinking of it in this binary manner ignores the complexity at the heart of the issue: You have to take the good with all the bad — and there’s a lot of it. But if you know what you’re looking for, if you can really see the “true colors” of those around you, you might just be on the right track.
Senior Arts Editor M. Deitz can be reached at email@example.com.