We spoke to Mallory Littleton, Senior Narrative Designer at Deck Nine Games, about queer representation in Life is Strange: True Colors and Before the Storm.
Part by part, the Life is Strange series is becoming less and less queercoding oriented. With the premiere of the latest installation, True Colors, the freedom of interpretation and the so-called gay button was completely abandoned in favour of a direct and undeniable queer representation.
We recently had the opportunity to talk about it with Mallory Littleton (she/her), Senior Narrative Designer at Deck Nine Games, who was working on two Life is Strange titles: Life is Strange: Before the Storm and Life is Strange: True Colors. What foundations for True Colors did Before the Storm create? Why is it so important that more queer women of colour appear in video games? And finally, what next queer aspects of life should be portrayed by the next Life is Strange game? You will find the answers to these and other questions below.
Gamereactor: How tough in hindsight was it to construct Rachel Amber's character since she's this larger than life figure?
Littleton: Making Rachel Amber into a flesh and blood character definitely was a challenge! All we knew about Rachel at that point was her reputation, so everything Blackwell students had told Max, and everything that Chloe had told Max. And what was really interesting to us was that many of these things contradicted each other, so that told us that Rachel was something of a chameleon. And when someone who can pull that off, who can be so many different things to different people, shows you something authentic about themselves, that can be really intoxicating. So that's what we were aiming for with Rachel and Chloe's relationship.
What do superpowers mean for the main characters and character creation, what role do they play in the script, do you see any parallels between powers and queer? What do you think about their complete absence in Before the Storm?
The powers in Life is Strange play a huge role in shaping the protagonists, particularly their world view, and strengths and weaknesses. Take Alex for example, we knew she was going to be supernaturally empathic, so she would have a deep understanding of the ways in which people need each other. That's one of her key strengths, her ability to see what others need and provide that. But this strength also bears out her key weakness, a blind spot to her own needs. However, while all these elements of power, character, and plot are deeply connected, it's important to keep in mind that the powers are just a unique way of interacting with the world, and we all have those, especially Chloe. And through that lens, there are strong parallels between Life is Strange powers and queerness; its this unique and deeply personal mode of interfacing with the world that can bring it's own special highs, as well as its own singular challenges and hardships.
Is it important to have openly bisexual characters like Alex and not just mechanically bisexual? Alex was praised for that she is no longer a playersexual, but 100% bisexual character. There is no gay button in True Colors to discover queer content - it is just visible there.
Representation is incredibly important to us, so the decision to make Alex canonically bisexual was a very deliberate one. We knew that players had gotten a lot of value out of being able to choose the sexuality of their protagonist in previous titles, but at the same time we knew there was a hunger to have a protagonist that was canonically queer, and we felt that same hunger. We wanted to take a bold stance with Alex's sexuality, and we couldn't be happier with the positive response!
Are you aware of how many women on the autism spectrum identify with Alex? Was it somehow intentional?
When we were creating Alex, we knew that she was going to be relatable to a wide variety of people. She had a supernatural power that often overwhelms her, and a hard childhood and upbringing. We did a ton of research into different types of neurodivergence and drew from our own experiences to find and select the traits that felt most authentic to Alex and her journey, and that research definitely included autism. So, while we didn't create Alex specifically to be on the spectrum, we're beyond thrilled to see her resonate so well with folks who are.
Games often struggle finding a balance between pausing story flow to advance character relations through slow, meaningful interactions, and moving the story forward, often failing in the former, making character dynamics less impactful. True Colors strikes a very good balance in this regard. Was sacrificing plot-driven flow for other types of narrative advancements or vice versa a choice that came up a lot during development, or did there arrive a way to achieve both without feeling too compact?
The balance between plot-driven moments and those slower, more relationship-based moments was constantly on our minds during production. Alex's story is primarily one about building a home and a community, and the reality of that challenge is that you can't only go to your neighbours when you need something. In order to sell Alex creating a place for herself in Haven, we needed to see her spending time in the community, and connecting with those around her over things that were mutually important, not just seeking out that next piece of information to move the story along. Many of these moments arose quite organically out of the story and setting, which helped us blur the lines between plot content and more personal content to find that right balance.
Previous instalments of Life is Strange were more queercoding and queerreading oriented, without magic words like LGBTQ+, queer, gay, lesbian. In True Colors, they're everywhere and that's a big change, which in some cases even overwrites the characters a bit, I'd say (not that it was done wrong, just a bit out of character). For example, in the Wavelenghts DLC, Chloe criticises rainbow capitalism and pinkwashing and clearly describes herself as a LGBT member, although in the previous parts she never openly said that she was queer, moreover, she was rather not interested in what corporations were doing with the rainbow logo. Can you tell where these changes in the narrative are coming from?
After releasing Before the Storm, we heard from a lot of folks that it was really something special to see a game revolve so centrally around the love between two women. And this is true of Before the Storm, whether you choose to go after Rachel romantically or not. We wanted to make deeper content exploring what it's like the be queer, and rendering those experiences for the player. In True Colors, having a bisexual protagonist in Alex, and then a lesbian protagonist in Steph for Wavelengths, really let us dive deeper into their experiences and render them more poignantly, give them more space to breathe and more time in the spotlight than we could before. Often times, our favourite moments in these games are some of the gayest ones.
There is no criticism of queer relations in Life is Strange series, the games are clearly cheering for them. Why's that? Are you avoiding talking about this subject or is it something else? I don't complain about the lack of homophobia, because a person faces it enough in the real world, but I'm curious about your take on this.
With True Colors, one major aspect we wanted to explore was the ways in which we inadvertently harm those we love, or can be harmed by those who love us. And more specifically with Alex we wanted to look at how interpersonal roles, even those assigned with the best intentions, can cause ripple effects across someone's life. So, while homophobia is very much a real issue, and one we hope to tackle more head on in the future, we felt it didn't have much to contribute to the particular story we wanted to tell about Alex. We wanted to tell the story of a young woman realising her value doesn't come from what she can provide to others, and bigotry just didn't have a place.
Do you predict there will be more protagonists like Alex? Is this the beginning of a trend for new characters, different from all those Nathan Drakes?
I sure hope so! The overwhelmingly positive response to Alex as a bisexual Asian woman in a video game proves that there is a market for these kinds of characters and stories about them. If anyone out there was on the fence about whether or not to make one of their characters queer, I hope that Alex can give them the confidence to make that call. I think we're certain to see more characters like Alex in the future, only time will tell if we see enough of them to call it a trend.
What next queer aspects of life you would like to portray?
We are always looking to create empathy and understanding with our games. To us, this can range from portraying a new aspect of an experience, like seeing Steph's dating app interactions, to portraying experiences we haven't seen often before. Another terribly under-represented group in video games is transgender folks, and we're very keen to have well realised gender diverse characters in future games!