REVIEW / Life is Strange: Episode 4 – The Dark Room

 

Sometimes getting what you want is the worst. Fans of Life is Strange have been waiting months for DONTNOD to resolve the cliffhanger ending of Episode 3 – Chaos Theory. Some spent this time spamming DONTNOD on twitter, while others pined more constructively in the way of posting well researched theories on youtube. Either way, the thirst was strong in this fanbase. And that thirst was supposed to be satiated with Episode 4 – The Dark Room: at least that’s what we all hoped.

Instead, what we got was the bleakest episode yet. The Dark Room represents a stylistic jump from the ‘daydream’ tone of the previous three episodes. Instead of warm oranges and purples, instead of scenic vistas resplendent with wistful nostalgia, players are lowered by Episode 4 into the depths of steadily worsening paranoia, anxiety, and dread. It’s an aesthetic move that has turned off some people, who were initially drawn to the series for its more plaintive tone. Yet the grim and disturbing revelations of The Dark Room have been lurking in the margins of this narrative since the first scene of Episode 1.

 

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For those uninitiated, Life is Strange is an interactive fiction game; one of those “these actions will have consequences” Telltale Games-style affairs. The big twist, gameplay wise, is that protagonist Max Caulfield can reverse time. This makes for some interesting puzzles and other intriguing gameplay elements – such as the ability to open new dialogue options in the past based on information you uncovered in the “present.”

As an interactive fiction title, it’s no surprise that the plot of Life is Strange takes center stage. Games in this genre are notoriously difficult to design well – just think of David Cage’s last two projects, or the last couple Telltale games. Quality of those titles aside, in both cases the premise of choosing your own story is mainly smoke and mirrors, obfuscating the fact that two seemingly branching paths often wind up at the same destination. I understand the cost in both man hours and money to design in-depth bracketing consequence story lines. But if you bill your game as “interactive fiction where choice matters,” you have to come through with responsive writing if you want to be taken seriously.

 

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In Life is Strange, there are true consequences and branching storylines – particularly in the larger choices you make throughout the series. I’d argue Telltale hasn’t made a game this narratively compelling or responsive to player input since their first season of Walking Dead: The Game. Mind you, the implementation of player choice in Life is Strange isn’t perfect – video games still have plenty of room to grow in the :interactive fiction” department. But apart from the Mass Effect series, I struggle to think of another game that tackles player choice this well, or with this attention to detail.

A large part of this strength of Life is Strange in the consequences department is the way the game is framed as a pseudo-detective story. Max may not wear a fedora or call women “dames,” but the way she combs through every shred of possible evidence and interrogates every person she runs into, it’s hard not to think of her as a pint-sized, paranormal-powered version of L.A. Noire’s Cole Phelps. The evidence you uncover through gameplay helps you understand the story and the various, looming mysteries affecting Arcadia Bay.

 

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Rewinding time after seeing the immediate consequences of a decision play out gives the whole “player choice” concept a completely fresh spin. You make the choice knowing the initial outcome, rather than by going in blind. Telltale use the dramatic tension of not knowing the outcome of a scene to great effect. DONTNOD take this dynamic and flip it on its head.

The story itself is unique and genuinely powerful in its emotional delivery. The macabre, even shocking turn in The Dark Room was made all the more impactful by the fact that the first couple episodes were deceptively calm, if not melancholic, experiences. But what’s interesting about the darker plot elements and imagery of this episode, is that they – like the narrative as a whole – have the distinct feel of “newness” to them. We’ve seen plenty of these tropes and elements before in video games, just never in this form.

 

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Usually, when game developers want to terrify you, they don’t take up three episodes in a five episode series using the narrative to meditate on growing older, destiny, and the nature of space/time. They don’t put so much effort into crafting setting, themes, and tone. Instead, the video game cliché is beating the player over the head with horrific, graphic imagery. In this department, Life is Strange has no peers: this game is genuinely disturbing, in a way that’s never been pulled off this effectively in a video game. Yet at the same time, Life is Strange gives off a massive range of emotional hues other than despair, grief, and terror: it can also pull off bittersweet nostalgia, romance, and comedy, too.

It may be just me and other Life is Strange fanatics, but I haven’t been this emotionally wrapped up in the characters, setting, or story in a video game in a long time. I’m ashamed to admit that, at the ultra-dark finale of The Dark Room, I was so furious with a certain insufferably vile bastard in the game that I tipped my chair over and screamed like a man being stabbed to death in his own kitchen. Perhaps the game works so well on an emotional level because I didn’t go into Life is Strange expecting such sincere, emotional storytelling.

 

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I’ll admit that the sudden ratcheting up of disturbing content and nightmare-fuel reveals this episode was very abrupt. It struck me as appropriately abrupt though, considering that these psychologically shocking events and images correspond with some pretty shocking revelations in the story. That being said, I can understand a few of the initial reviews that criticized the episode for effectively dropping the floor out of the vehicle on the highway.

Overall though, I’m loving playing through DONTNOD’s series. This game packs a serious emotional wallop; and searching through its beautifully shot scenery for clues and new dialogue choices is addictive. Knowing how events transpire in The Dark Room puts a dark pall over the previous three episodes; it kind of makes me wish I, like Max, could rewind the game to its beginning knowing everything I know now. The fact that a company as big as Square Enix sees the potential in a game of this emotional depth actually makes me feel less cynical about video games overall. I recommend it, unless you aren’t a fan of feeling things.

 

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