With each decision we make, a new future unfolds. If you go left or right at the proverbial fork, a certain, particular road will unfurl before you. We are in charge of our futures, whether or not we’re clear-headed and cognizant of that in the moment. As such, it can require great effort to remain focused in each move, as you try and take your future by the reigns. This is true whether you’re navigating personal introspection or racing through a new video game level, trying to grab golden rings, or meet and get to know a new character.
Today, no one gets this better than the musician, mxmtoon (aka Maia), who recently finished writing music for a new choose-your-own-adventure-style video game, and is now set to dive back into her own brand of creative world-building.
“It was interesting to work on writing for Alex last year,” mxmtoon tells American Songwriter. “Now I have to figure out how to write for myself again. I’m coming back into the space of personal expression in my lyrics.”
Alex, for those wondering, is Alex Chen, the protagonist in the new video game Life Is Strange: True Colors from Deck Nine Games, which came out in September. The character, mxmtoon says, is a lot like she is. They have similar histories, orientations to the world, and identities. While the character wasn’t necessarily developed as mxmtoon, there are a lot of shared similarities.
In the game, Alex is a 21-year-old Asian American musician who struggles to navigate her own emotions. And that’s what’s beautiful about the new video game: it’s not a typical first-person shooter, it’s not a hunt for gold bullion. Instead, it’s a narrative game where the central character is discovering herself, internally. For the 21-year-old, Oakland-born, mxmtoon, who rose to fame with her subtle bedroom pop music, it’s a perfect fit to write songs to.
“It isn’t like Sonic [the Hedgehog] where you’re trying to get all the rings,” mxmtoon says. “It isn’t like Mario where you’re trying to collect all the stars. All the stakes are emotional. The decisions you’re making aren’t about how do I survive, it’s about am I going to make this [other] person feel this way, and is that okay?”
As a musician, mxmtoon says this process was freeing, even exhilarating. Given that the game is more emotionally charged, that allowed her to explore some artistic depth. While many video games are known for their soundtracks, this one wasn’t going to include loud, rampaging songs. Instead, it was more of a nuanced task. For the game, mxmtoon wrote two original songs and recorded two covers (Radiohead’s “Creep” and Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun). And since the covers, which were chosen by the gaming company, were so different—“Creep” is darker, “Blister in the Sun” is brighter—mxmtoon says she wanted to bridge those two extremes with her tunes while still maintaining the game’s plot integrity.
“Going into the fear Alex experiences was really important to me,” mxmtoon says.
In truth, there is nothing scarier than your own mind. All the terror we believe we feel when we watch a horror movie or play a ruthless video game, that’s all in our own heads, not truly in the film or game itself. In this way, a title like Life Is Strange: True Colors, which explores the depths and range of Alex’s emotions, is as real and emotive, and impactful as any other. So, as Alex evolves in the game, which includes learning to play music and approaching her crush, real hearts race and fingers tremble. And for mxmtoon, who streamed herself playing the game live on Twitch, she realized just how varied and personal it can be. In this way, the game can also teach about the very concept of identity itself.
“Seeing the divergence in what my decisions were compared to my audience members was really interesting,” she says. “In my mind, my choices made perfect sense, but seeing [another’s] choice, it’s like, I never even thought that way.” She adds, “It totally does help us to understand the people around us.”
Life Is Strange: True Colors does not have one path to success. It’s like those adventure books where outcomes are determined by individual decision-making. Now, though, those books have been reimagined and taken to a whole new immersive level. And mxmtoon says she’s been playing these games for years. So, it was a no-brainer for her to agree to the idea when asked. She’s a longtime fan of Deck Nine’s series.
“When they reached out,” she says, “I was like, of course, I would be honored to sing for this character. She looked almost identical to me. She has a similar story to me. It felt like just the most perfect opportunity ever.”
As a kid, mxmtoon says she began to play video games around six years old. Her dad introduced her to a first-person shooter, which mxmtoon laughs at today. But she’s been a fan of gaming ever since, from the early LEGO video games to the title she now stars in. Yet, this side of her is also one slice of her creative, curious life. For the artist, the sheer reality that she gets to follow her interests and indulge in her curiosity, that’s as important as anything else. Now, with the game’s work behind her, there are new songs to write, new mxmtoon projects to dive into. And the more she endeavors, the more she continues to level up, so to speak.
“I feel really glad there are no limits in my mind,” mxmtoon says. “I’m thankful to have the opportunity to be creative and do that for a living. And I’m grateful for not pigeon-holing myself into one thing. I have lots of interests and I’m glad my curiosity seemingly has no limits. So, I’m excited to see what will happen in the future.”