As I make a last-ditch effort to catch up on some of 2021’s most beloved games, there’s no shortage of sights that impress me. Halo Infinite’s open world has a captivating natural beauty. The colorful planets and aliens of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy are refreshingly imaginative and unconventional, revealing how limited the visions of so many other science fiction games can be. But the one video game sight I keep coming back to, the one that’s doing more for me these days than any other, isn’t anything as monumental as those. It’s something subtler, and in my mind, even more remarkable. It’s the wonderfully expressive face of Alex Chen, the protagonist of Life Is Strange: True Colors.
What I find so remarkable about Alex Chen’s face is how it offers a window into the complexity of emotion Alex is experiencing. It both hides and reveals things at the same time. There’s a line in David Mitchell’s novel The Bone Clocks, where one character remarks of another that “her face hides and shows her inner weather.” Alex Chen’s face reminds me of that line.
She’s a very guarded person, out of necessity–her unique abilities mean that there’s a risk of her getting swept up in other people’s emotions, and her experiences in the foster care system have left her wary. But if Alex Chen’s face were an implacable wall of guardedness, that would give us as players no way in. And for all her guardedness, of course she wants to connect with other people.
She’s just arrived in a new town that seems to hold the promise of a better life, a place where she can be part of a community and feel real connection with others. In other words, she’s got a lot going on internally, to put it mildly, with a tendency to be on guard, yet a real desire to be close to others. And though I’ve only played through two of the game’s five chapters so far, I’m absolutely astounded by how, in every scene, Alex’s facial expressions and body language speak volumes about what’s going on inside her.
True Colors is the first game in the series to be made with full performance motion capture, and it absolutely shows in the subtlety of Alex’s reactions. At one point, a character asked my Alex how she was doing, and her eyes darted to the left for a moment, as if she were rapidly calculating just how honest to be about how she’s feeling with this person she doesn’t really know yet. Things like that happen all the time, and they always feel authentic and revealing. They make Alex feel like a real person. Her expressive face gives her so much depth, and makes me feel connected to her in a way I so rarely feel connected to a video game character. And that feeling of connection is what I need right now.
Throughout this pandemic, like a lot of people, I’ve spent a lot of time alone. One side effect of this is that I’ve often gravitated more to movies and less to games in my limited free time, because in films, humanity is always right there on the surface. Of course plenty of games can do this too, but it’s hit or miss. In films, you always have faces to look at, human interactions to observe. Life Is Strange: True Colors isn’t the first game to impress me with the faces of its characters, but what sets it apart from games like The Last of Us Part II is that every scene, every moment, is about characters interacting with each other. The human moments aren’t divided by long stretches of combat or other types of gameplay.
I find myself watching Alex’s face in this game exactly the same way I watch the performance of a great actor in a film who is fully inhabiting their character. I feel like I’m watching a living, feeling person react to things in real time. With a performance like that, the little moments can be as remarkable and revealing as the big ones. That’s what makes every moment in True Colors compelling. Even if it’s just a quiet conversation, Alex’s face and body language are as fascinating to watch as they might be in a high-stakes scene with big emotions.
All the people who worked to bring Alex Chen’s performance to life for this game–from actor Erika Mori to the artists and animators who translated Mori’s work into the game itself–were fully committed at every moment. They understood that a slight pursing of the lips, a tiny tilt of the head, or a quick glance of the eyes can speak volumes. For me, the performance is one of those little video game miracles, a reminder of what this medium can do, and how it can feel just as human as any other art form. Vast worlds to explore and complex gameplay systems to interact with are all well and good, I absolutely love that stuff sometimes. But right now, the most impressive thing happening in video games for me is the face of Alex Chen.