Four episodes in and it’s very difficult for me to talk about Life is Strange without sounding like an obvious fan writing a or repeating something that I’ve already said – there’s only so many ways that you can say ‘I like it’ before the exercise becomes something akin to writing on a chalk board. And if it’s not obvious at this point, I really do like Life is Strange.
The reason why I continue to rate Life is Strange so highly isn’t because it is an exceptional puzzle and episodic adventure game – which it is. The reason why I continue to rate Life is Strange so highly is that it successfully meshes almost-clichéd tropes, well-developed game play and excellent voice acting in order to create something that continually feels fresh, even if it does skirt the edge of cliché. The line between video games and films has been getting thinner and thinner for years, and I think that with Life is Strange that line has finally been blurred, and that’s great. At times it can and probably will give you nightmares and make you tackle the big questions in life, but it’s still great.
Taking place a short time after the end of the previous episode, this episode starts with Max Caulfield (Hannah Telle) still in the alternative timeline that she created when she went back in time to save Chloe Price’s (Ashley Burch) father. In this new timeline Chloe was paralyzed by an automobile accident when she was 16, and through our interactions with Chloe and her parents we find out that the calamity about to strike Arcadia Bay is still coming, and Rachel Amber still disappeared. It seems that whatever force is in charge of the Life is Strange universe demands a sacrifice in blood no matter the timeline.
In this stage of the game we are confined to the alternative Price household and a small section at Arcadia Bay’s beach. These locations, on the whole, are fresh and really manage to get across the idea that these are not the same locations that we are familiar with. While it would have been nice to get a greater sense of the changes made to the timeline, I really don’t have any complaints about the scenes as they are because they are so well done by the writers, the programmers and the actors. You can see the Prices as a family, and you get a real sense of friendship and appreciation between Max and Chloe. It’s scenes like this, I think, that really manages to get the appeal of Life is Strange across, that for all the supernatural things happening, a lot of the problems that these people face aren’t the struggles of superheroes, these are real life issues and I’m very glad that these problems are given the same gravity and breadth that the more supernatural elements are. It seems that no matter which way it comes, the end of the world is still the end of the world, whether it comes from a super-tornado or from being thrown out of your house.
After a little while in this strange new world, we come to the crux of the alternative timeline. With not much time left and very much aware that her last days won’t be dignified and painless, Chloe Price asks Max (and by extension the player) to help her to commit suicide. You as the player are left to make the decision. I remember a quote by Terry Pratchett who said that when he got fan mail from terminally ill fans (mostly children or teenagers) who said that they hoped that Death/The Grim Reaper would be like the one he wrote about he would sit and stare at the walls for hours afterwards. After playing through that scene on the morning of July 28th I’m not ashamed to say that I sat and I stared at my television for about an hour afterwards with the game paused. It was, quite honestly, one of the most moving things I have ever seen. Ever.
There has always been a lot of style in the way in which DONTNOD has presented the world in Life is Strange, but unfortunately the game has always been plagued with by lipsynching issues, which has sometimes been distracting. With Dark Room, though, they’ve fixed that. As I mentioned in my last review, these lip synching issues have never really bothered me, but I’m glad that it’s been fixed because even though I was able to ignore it in the previous episodes, to have it fixed here allows me to critically view the dramatic events that are unfolding without wondering “could anyone else be put off because of this?” And with scenes like the aforementioned, it really, really helps.
No matter whichever choice you make, Max finds herself back in the primary timeline, and I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, as a fan of the game I’m very much appreciative of the fact that we were able to return to the primary timeline and interact with the primary Chloe Price, but on the other hand as a science fiction fan I would have liked to see just how much the setting was changed by Max’s interference in the timeline. I suppose that as an independent game studio DONTNOD didn’t have the resources to give you that much choice in the game, but it would have been a nice option.
The next few scenes see Max and Chloe investigating the disappearance of the aforementioned Rachel Amber. Like the rest of the game, Dark Room makes heavy use of dialogue in order to push the narrative. One noticeable addition to the gameplay in Dark Room, however, is the inclusion of a detective mini game to represent Max’s amateur detective work. It’s not quite up to L.A. Noire (2011) levels of complexity or difficulty but I think it worked well enough. I really like how DONTNOD are introducing new gameplay features with each episode and only doing so when it suits the story. It means that nothing ever feels out of place and I think it shows a level of maturity by DONTNOD in how they tell their story.
For anyone who struggles with this gameplay feature, Max is programmed to give “hints” to help guide the player. These aren’t always helpful though, and after a while it can be frustrating to have Max admonish herself because if you’ve gotten to that point the player is almost certainly doing that already.
After this mini-game, Max and Chloe discover the location of a barn where their main suspect was at the time of another, very similar incident to the one that they are investigating. Following some more detective work they gain entrance to a bunker and discover the events surrounding Rachel Amber’s disappearance. What’s more, they discover a photograph of Rachel Amber in a location that they recognise – Chloe’s junkyard from the second episode. If the scene with Chloe in the alternative timeline was one of the most moving things that I have ever seen then what comes after the discovery, as Max and Chloe race to the junkyard, dig and then discover Rachel Amber’s remains is just heart breaking.
Firstly, the game designers decided to change the photography style just for the scenes in the barn, making the player very much aware of what probably happened before Rachel Amber’s death. For music, the creators used bouncy acoustic guitars (courtesy of Message to Bears) to give the scene a kind of ‘false energy’ – the expectation of a happy result when logic says the opposite. Finally, Ashley Burch and Hannah Telle’s excellent performances as Chloe Price and Max Caulfield respectfully turn the scene into something that will stay in your mind for hours if not days after you’ve finished playing the game, if playing is even an adequate term to use at this point. Burch in particular shines in this episode as she not only has to play the original Chloe Price and the teenage Chloe Price in the flashback sequences, but she also has to play the alternative timeline’s Chloe Price. In each role she shines as an actress and, for me at least, makes the character and the game.
After this scene, Max and Chloe chase the killer back to Max’s school and then back to the junkyard where the episode’s final moments take place. Like the rest of the episode, these final moments are crushing, and Rachel’s killer is revealed to be someone neither of the main characters thought it would be. It is a cliffhanger worthy of any great TV show, and with two months left before the expected release of Episode 5 – Polarized, it’s going to be a long wait for fans of the series. A very, very long wait indeed.
Ultimately, Dark Room marks the passage of maturity for the series, the point at which the “adventure” of the first episode is stripped away and all that is left is the imminent doom. It’s scary, but it’s also breath-taking and so, so good. But whilst Life is Strange is by far my favourite game, I’m apprehensive about recommending this episode to people who aren’t prepared for it. Many people who have played the game have been reported feeling distressed by its content – including, I admit, myself – and so I would advise anyone who is considering playing Life is Strange: Episode 4 – Dark Room to research the game. If you want a game that is part mature storytelling, part excellent vocal work, and part subdued yet mature gameplay which manages to tug at the heart strings whilst also the player with absolute dread then Life is Strange is still the game for you.