Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Life is Strange: True Colors portrayal of Alex Chen is uplifting for Asian representation

In 2021, Life is Strange: True Colors broke new ground by having the series’ first Asian American protagonist, Alex Chen. While her Asian identity wasn’t a focal point within the story, it was a comfort to see a protagonist that I could relate to in that way. It also helps normalise that Asian people can be the main characters in stories, even when that story isn’t focused on race. Plus, the ability to see an Asian woman be bisexual in one of my favourite game franchises means so much to me, and would have been life-changing for me to see when I was a kid. 

But one aspect of Alex’s character really struck me in a way I wasn’t expecting: her relationship with her own emotions.  

Alex, for most of the game, is not allowed to feel her own emotions. She doesn’t cry at her own brother’s funeral. I don’t believe she cries until the last act, during the dream sequence. The only time when she lets her emotion get the better of her is when she’s defending Gabe from Mac and she scolds herself for it, even going so far as to call herself a freak. She only really finds her empathy useful when she realises she can help other people with them, but she doesn’t turn this attention inward. I’ve seen this before, countless times. 

Alex exhibits the quiet strength that I’m used to seeing in a lot of Asian women that I grew up with. It’s something that’s expected of us. The scene where Alex talks to her mom on her deathbed encapsulates that. Her mom praises her for her bravery and says that her not crying as a baby was a sign of strength. She even tells Alex to stop crying during her visit to the hospital, saying, “no tears, my strong girl”. Before passing her mom asks her to remain strong for her brother and dad, which is why, at eleven years old, Alex took on the responsibility of keeping her family together.  

At its core, True Colors is a story about family and belonging somewhere. Alex was assigned a role in her family as the mediator between her father and Gabe. We learn through the dream sequence that after her family was separated, she never allowed herself to grieve the hardships of her life and tamped all that emotion down, even blaming herself and saying she was too damaged to serve as an emotional caretaker to anyone. 

All of this might feel relatable to a lot of Asian Americans. There is a big mental health stigma within immigrant families. When I first started lashing out due to mental illness I was told that depression wasn’t ‘a thing in the Philippines’ and that back there ‘you just had to deal with it.’ Growing up like that makes a lot of kids feel they need to hide their sadness, I know I used to be ashamed to feel depression. Watching Alex’s own struggle with mental illness and the overpowering emotions that came with her empathic powers was new for me. These kinds of nuanced portrayals of trauma and mental illness aren’t usually reserved for Asian characters in western media, so it felt important to see it with my own eyes. As the protagonist, we got to interact with the world through Alex as the lens. We were able to really know and empathise with an Asian woman, one who isn’t perfectly strong or stoic, but more like an actual human being.  

Life is Strange Alex Chen
Alex lives for her friends and family, but never herself

In the end, it’s Alex’s “mutant empathy” that saves her in the mines. It isn’t stoicism or the ability to hide emotions that makes her strong, she survives because she comes to terms with them and the effect they’ve had on her entire life. It was hard, she didn’t deserve it, and she’s allowed to be sad –  that’s how the healing starts.

The final confrontation with Jed, a significant character in Alex’s emotional journey, is actually what sealed the deal for me. I think it is very important that you have the option to condemn Jed for his actions as opposed to forgiving him. After everything he’s done to her, Alex doesn’t have to be so noble and it doesn’t make her less of a ‘good’ character to not forgive Jed, because Alex deserves to be angry. That moment marked the completion of her character arc, from a caregiver to a fully-fleshed person with their own emotions. It makes her feel real. 

In the end, I’m grateful for Alex as a character. The first Life is Strange game meant a lot to me because of Kate’s storyline with depression. But if I had Alex’s story as a kid I would have felt truly seen. Just by virtue of existing she tells a story that a lot of Asian kids need to hear. Maybe we don’t have to be emotional caretakers; we don’t have to be sweet and strong and forgiving. We can just be, in all our messiness, and still be accepted.

This article was first published in April 2022

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