Adventure Gamers Awards
Episode Four - Dark Room
Life Is Strange’s fourth episode, Dark Room, picks up right where Episode 3 left off—and after that cliffhanger, it’s a good thing! Building on that momentum, the penultimate episode hits a high point with the series’ most powerful emotional punches, but is also dragged down with some clichéd storytelling. The story stuff might have been intentional, though, so I’m hesitant to judge it too harshly. We’ll see how this all wraps up soon enough.
It’s really impossible to talk about the episode’s first few scenes without major spoilers, so let’s just say they give a captivating glimpse into the repercussions of toying around with time, and will make you think hard about how far you’d be willing to go for your best friend. Then we’re back to the greater season arc: what’s going on with the Vortex Club, what happened to Rachel Amber, and that foreboding tornado.
Max and Chloe spend some time sleuthing to piece together what they know about unstable rich kid Nathan, drug dealer Frank, Chloe’s missing friend Rachel, and Max’s troubled friend Kate. This culminates in a great multi-part puzzle where Max must sort through all of the clues to make logical connections and zero in on a key location. You’ll also interact with David Madsen in two different ways depending on past choices, and with Frank in a sequence with three possible outcomes. Plus, players who got Episode 2’s good ending are treated to an additional scene with interactive dialogue and a small impact on a later scene. Four episodes in, we’re really seeing how unique Player A’s experience can be from Player B’s, and while the story is still on rails to a large extent, these variations provide a refreshing payoff for the series’ choice-driven gameplay.
When Max and Chloe get to the titular dark room—a place where disturbing things have clearly gone down—the storytelling gets a bit flimsy. For starters, it’s simply not believable that Max and Chloe don’t go to the police. Even with its supernatural elements and teen angst, Life Is Strange has a hyper-realistic setting, and calling the cops is what a real person would do in this scenario. Some plot points, such as the role of Nathan’s father Sean Prescott, are tossed in randomly with more gravity than they’ve earned. (Unless I missed some optional dialogue supporting these story bits, which is entirely possible in a game with branching narrative.) Other elements, like Nathan’s apparent mental illness, come up repeatedly but in unbelievable ways. This is what I don’t want to judge too harshly yet, because the episode’s out-of-left-field ending suggests that some of Dark Room’s revelations may be red herrings. So I’ll save critique of the story’s climax until next time, but unless Nathan’s storyline does an about-face, I have a hunch I’ll be unsatisfied with how he’s been depicted overall.
On the other end of the spectrum, two scenes in this episode are so well put together they deserve special mention. The first is a wrenching cutscene in the junkyard—from the animation to the music to the voice acting, it’s absolutely perfect. (A strange compliment considering it’s also incredibly sad, but I do like when a game makes me cry.) The other is the massive Vortex Club party complete with kids dancing, a DJ spinning, lights, glow sticks, and a bartender pouring “energy drinks” into plastic cups. It’s high school all over again. Story-wise, some elements feel inauthentic—I don’t believe that a school would sanction a party like this on campus, with drinking and drug use obviously going on and no chaperones in sight. But the scene itself is so well choreographed, if there were a year-end award for Best Crowd Scene, Dontnod would win it hands down.
Besides the big logic puzzle, Dark Room’s gameplay is similar to the other episodes, with Max’s rewind ability used sparingly. Last time, a puzzle in the principal’s office thoroughly confused me when I solved it accidentally. This episode has a couple more like that, and I realized the source of my confusion: the solutions contradict how Max’s superpower was defined in the beginning. The first time she rewinds time—to save Chloe from getting shot in the bathroom—she ends up back in class before the gunshot happened. In other words, when time rewound, Max’s actions rewound too. But when it’s convenient for a puzzle solution, after time rewinds she remains in the position she was in when she started rewinding, effectively making the rewind a way to jump around spatially and bypass obstacles. Not only is this unintuitive, it doesn’t make sense that she can do this without getting caught. (If she rewinds time in front of someone but physically remains in the spot where she was when she started rewinding, wouldn’t that person see her disappear?) Puzzles like this are easy enough to figure out with brute force—just rewind a bit and it solves itself—but I can’t help feeling that even after four episodes, Max’s superpower isn’t being used to its full potential as a puzzle-solving tool.
In theory, an episodic release schedule allows the developers to make improvements based on player feedback, and Dontnod seems to have done just that with Max’s “sit around and look at things” behavior. A few times in this episode you can let Max take in the scenery—pensive moments that make sense for her introspective character but previously didn’t have much point. In Dark Room, such formerly silent moments come with interior monologue, so you don’t just sit and look; you sit, look, and hear what Max thinks. It’s a small tweak that adds so much. Another interface-related first I noticed: while searching an area with easy-to-miss hotspots, my PS3 controller vibrated when I walked Max over one. In both of these cases, I like that even though Life Is Strange was working well as is, the developers continue to refine here and there as the series goes on.
At around four hours, this is a long episode but it keeps moving with mounting urgency and several new environments to explore. (Besides the Vortex Club party, my second favorite was the boys’ dorm—a hilarious contrast to the girls’.) Dark Room ends with the best kind of cliffhanger—one that seems to give Max and Chloe no way out—and after the credits roll, the title screen’s idyllic daytime scene is aptly replaced by the dark, churning tornado we’ve known was coming all along. As Max acknowledges during this episode, it’s been a long, strange week at Blackwell Academy. I’m hella excited to see how it ends.Continued on the next page...