Genre: Point-And-Click Adventure
Release date: July 28, 2015
The force of nature that is Life Is Strange is building toward a thrilling and dramatic conclusion so highly anticipated it seems criminal that we have to wait for it. The fourth episode of the series, Dark Room, is perhaps the most tonally uneven and disparate in its own right. Clumsy puzzles and startling choices set the game back, but Dontnod’s talent as a company and its vision for the project still glue the experience together. Episode four sets the stage for a stark and impactful ending to this remarkable series.
Dark Room picks up where the previous installment’s cliffhanger left off: Max and Chloe are reunited in the alternate timeline in which Chloe’s father was spared from a fatal car crash, but Chloe herself is fully quadriplegic from a different driving accident. The story begins on the beach, where the series’ trademark instrumentals score an image of dead whales splayed dismally on the sand—it seems Max’s attempt to self-correct the past wasn’t able to prevent the mysterious weather phenomena that still threaten Arcadia Bay. Max walks slowly and deliberately beside Chloe’s wheelchair, their interactions awkward and unfamiliar the same way they were when the pair first reunited in the first episode. But now the apologies are guiltier, sadder, more veiled. It’s a beautiful and uneasy scene that sets the tone for the new world we’ve landed in.
But it turns out we won’t be spending long in this alternate reality (basic spoilers about the framework of the episode follow). We return to Chloe’s house to find that her circumstances are even more dire than they first appeared. Her family is hemorrhaging money to pay for her medical care and her body is falling apart from the inside out. In fact, she’s near death and wracked with guilt about costing her family so much trouble. Max, seeing that she’s done nothing to truly improve Chloe’s life, makes the decision to reverse her actions and bring us back to the original timeline. And just as easily as we were ripped from the world we knew, we’re returned to it without anyone the wiser.
I was initially alarmed at the twist ending of episode three because it seemed to negate every choice that I had made as a player, but this backpedaling by the developers left a bad taste in my mouth. For a game that has handled the complexity of choices so elegantly, this one felt too easy. Chloe’s imminent death left no question about whether Max should return to the world as it was, but what if she had instead found a disabled but still happy Chloe? What if Max’s decision to go back wasn’t necessary, but selfish, predicated on a self-serving desire to have her brash and fully mobile friend back instead of a wheelchair-confined one? Dontnod painted itself into a corner by entering a different timeline, but the things that happened there could have been handled with far more nuance and doubt than the straightforward outcome we ended up with.
But once we’re past this diversion, the rest of the episode has a decidedly more pragmatic tone. It’s mostly concerned with pulling together all the evidence Chloe and Max have unearthed in their investigation of Rachel Amber’s disappearance. But there are a lot of dramatic revelations as well as the much-discussed End of the World Party, so the plot-hungry will find themselves mostly sated—until the next cliffhanger, that is.
In addition to the basic time-travel puzzle fare we’re already familiar with, this episode introduces a complicated fit-together-the-clues headscratcher that prove to be necessary but tedious, especially given the game’s interface. All the evidence you’ve gathered is aggregated onto a board in Chloe’s room and you have to match together related pieces, such as a picture of a license plate and a log of places that car has been in the past two weeks. It probably says more about me as a gamer than anything else that this part came as a surprise to me. Content with interacting with Max’s classmates and taking in Arcadia Bay, I hadn’t made the connection that the minor revelations Max and Chloe frequently discussed were leading to a concrete solution, an investigative plan of action. Is it farfetched that two teenagers operating beyond the law gather everything they need to discover the truth behind a months-absent teen’s disappearance? Maybe. But Max is no ordinary girl.
No matter what complex tangles mar the plot, Life is Strange nails the atmosphere every time. As usual, the environments are visually stunning and complex, and the music is beyond reproach. There’s more of it in Dark Room than there was in the previous episode, probably because the emotions are heightened as the story approaches its end—euphoria, disorientation and grief are perfectly scored. I was particularly impressed with the set for the End of the World party, which was held in the school’s swimming pool (try to ignore the improbability of the school greenlighting a raucous rave party in a place where drunk teenagers, energy drinks, and slick tile floors would be present—that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen). The set is fully transformed from the previous swim scene between Chloe and Max and the characters are mesmerizing to watch. Each one has his/her own unique dancing style, not just an endlessly repeated move but interlocking sequences that would sometimes bring two dancers together, clutching drunkenly at each other, until they broke apart again and continued to move. It’s the kind of remarkably immersive design that you could totally miss if you aren’t stopping to look around.
One of the biggest and most subtle developments going on in the game’s background is how it has explored its symbol of images and the hard questions we have to answer when making them. From the beginning this has been a story about artists and where their inspiration comes from. Max’s style could be called “natural,” as she documents beauty that she finds out in the world, but she is often contrasted with Nathan, whose images of female bodies in submission are clearly posed. To Max, photography is a form of discovery; to Nathan, it is a form of control. But most interesting of all is that even though Max despises Nathan, when she explores his bedroom and sees his art she can’t help but admire the arresting quality of the images he takes. This has always been a complicated question, how to view art if its creator is a deplorable person. And where do we as the audience fit into this relationship with cameras and perspectives? Have we been welcomed into Max’s world to share in her story, or are we uninvited voyeurs? Some of the masterful camera angles suggest the latter, that we are spying on a private drama, and that we are implicated in what happens. The game explores complex ideas in its artistry just as much as in its plot.
One of my biggest complaints about this episode is that the choices aren’t as nuanced or difficult as they have been in the past. The first one, which takes place in the alternate timeline where Chloe is disabled, feels shocking and callous, and all the more unnecessary for the fact that this timeline is quickly abandoned. Another choice later in the game essentially amounts to whether or not you want to warn a character that she may be assaulted by a friend if she isn’t careful. Thse are not the kinds of decisions we’ve had to make in the past, which are more subtle and reveal less about how they might play out.
There’s no question that this episode is a dark one. The violence is heightened, guns are being whipped out for every occasion and the cliffhanger ending suggests several kinds of trouble for Max in the final chapter. I was blindsided by the tragedies that played out, perhaps because Arcadia Bay is so deceptively beautiful. The wonder of Max’s world and the strength and gumption of its heroines had lured me into naiveté, convinced me of the invincibility that all teenagers believe they are imbued with. It's easy to forget how most stories about missing girls end. Now all that’s left to do is wait and see what happens to everyone else.
+ Major plot development as the game races toward a conclusion
+ Fantastic, varied soundtrack
+ Exploration of artistic themes and symbols
- Choices are more straightforward and less nuanced than in previous episodes
- Alternate timeline plot fizzles without making an impact