Alex Chen had a tough life growing up. She bounced between foster parents and orphanages, but she never found home. She's had a rotating door of psychiatrists check on her since she was a child, and she's always had a hard time controlling her emotions (although, her empathic powers don't exactly help). When you're placed in her shoes in Life is Strange: True Colors, one glance at her text history paints a picture of a young queer woman who's made a lot of mistakes when it comes to friends and romantic partners. She's the Asian-American protagonist of this adventure, but clearly, she's so much more than her racial identity.
This feature contains light spoilers for Life is Strange: True Colors.
Her story brings her to wild places, and the game has a lot to say about the state of the world today. It sharply criticizes large corporations who put profit over life, and it paints a quaint picture of small-town Colorado where queer relationships are the norm. It celebrates the warmth and kindness of found family, while championing the drive to chase ambitious dreams. Perhaps the most striking thing here, however, is how race plays a minor role in Alex's story - in a good, affirming way.
Putting the 'American' in 'Asian American'
The American identity is complex when it comes to race. Apple pie and baseball earned their hallmark status when it comes to describing the national identity, but that certainly doesn't capture everything if you're half-American. When you're Latino American or Asian American, like myself, that modifier before "American" becomes a major focal point. What's easily forgotten, however, is that many of us were likely raised in or around the same American culture. Alex Chen stands as a perfect example of that.
Her Asian heritage isn't hidden, but it also isn't a major part of her story. You see her childhood home in Life is Strange: True Colors, and many Asian Americans might see some things they can relate to (like mom's sewing kit in the butter cookie tin). On the other hand, the plot isn't dictated by her racial identity. Alex never really talks about her thoughts on Chinese culture, and her taste in music doesn't involve K-pop or J-rock. There's a scene where she gets some Chinese takeout with friends, but it isn't positioned in a patronizing way. After all, who doesn't like fried rice?
Anyone can relate to her and her story. She rocks out to Kings of Leon, and she covers "Creep" by Radiohead when she's feeling lonely. She's sarcastic and a little awkward around people, but she gets hyper competitive in fake Mario Kart. She likes to get high and zone out while watching movies. While she's of Asian descent, her ancestry doesn't really factor into her personality or hobbies. Alex could've been any other race, and the story of Life is Strange: True Colors would likely play out just the same.
She goes through some crazy stuff in Haven Springs, but none of it has to do with the blood running through her veins. She's just a girl dealing with her problems, who happens to be Asian.
Yet, it's because of her Asian-American identity that she's a compelling, relatable role model. As a Filipino American, I found it so refreshing to see an Asian-American protagonist lead a story that doesn't make a huge point about her race. Obviously, it's great to see more representation that digs into different heritages and cultures, like the recently released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. On the other hand, it's also really nice to see representation for people of color living their everyday lives, like Alex. I certainly don't make every decision by thinking about my identity as a Filipino American, in the same way Alex doesn't make every one of her decisions by considering her ethnicity.
Life is Strange - and Real
This sort of portrayal goes a long way to normalizing more marginalized identities in America. We're all Americans, after all. But when a person of color stars in some form of media, you'll commonly see their race play a major role in some part of the story. For example, in Life is Strange 2, Sean Diaz, a Latino American, gets assaulted and kidnapped by a racist gas station owner. While unsettling, it's important to show these moments because racism is a real and present problem in the world today. However, if every representation of a minority confronts the hardships of racism, it also tacitly implies that every person of color needs to look at everything through a racial lens.
That moment from Life is Strange 2 strongly stands out because of how real it all felt. The franchise tends to portray a fairly grounded view of the world; it's not bombastic like Grand Theft Auto or larger than life like your favorite military shooter. Despite the superpowers, it's easy for the average person to relate to something in Life is Strange due to its slice-of-life nature. Because of that, it only makes that portrayal of racial violence all the more powerful and real.
By that same reasoning, Alex's journey as a 21-year-old Asian American hits just as authentically. She goes through some crazy stuff in Haven Springs, but none of it has to do with the blood running through her veins. She's just a girl dealing with her problems, who happens to be Asian. She holds her secrets close, she falls in love, she's got a mean anti-authoritarian streak, and she stands up for her beliefs. We can all relate to these virtues, but as an Asian American myself, there was something extra cathartic and relatable about her story.
Those down-to-earth sensibilities in Life is Strange: True Colors help drive the point home. After all, we've already seen some Asian Americans lead video games. Faith Connors from Mirror's Edge is famously one of the first Asian-American game protagonists, and Wei Shen is still waiting for his Sleeping Dogs sequel. However, it's hard to relate to their lives. I've never had to parkour across rooftops in an oppressive surveillance state, and I've only been undercover during tabletop games of Mafia, not around the Chinese mafia.
Alex and I come from different Asian backgrounds, but there's still something deeply compelling about seeing someone like myself star in a AAA game. Of course, being a minority in America isn't easy; violence against Asian Americans has been on the rise, and systemic racism has disadvantaged Black Americans since long before summer 2020. However, our heritage is more than just the tragedies, as Alex's story clearly demonstrates. Non-racial factors impact our lives too, like the loss of loved ones, parental neglect, or that cosmic sense of anxious dread when someone asks, "What do you want to do with your life?" Everything isn't always about race, and the more we see people of color play leading roles in grounded stories, the closer we get to understanding that there's more that ties us together than pulls us apart.
Did you play Life is Strange: True Colors? How did you feel about Alex's story? Let us know in the comments below!