Life is Strange: Episode Four - Dark Room review: low road

Game Info
Box Art N/A
Platform 360, PS3, Win, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Square Enix
Developer Dontnod Entertainment
Release Date Jul 28, 2015

In the style of most episodic games, Life is Strange relies on a choice-and-consequence narrative in which players take on the role of high school student Max Caulfield — a young woman with the power to rewind time. While the game focuses on Max's school life, it also sheds a light on her relationships and the mysterious disappearance of a local girl.

As Max, players navigate school life through a linear path, interacting with classmates, teachers and friends through choice-driven dialogue. But these decisions aren't set in stone; once a conversation is over, you can choose to "rewind" time. You can relive a scenario as often as you like with no consequence, though your powers only allow you to back up for a set amount of time.

To accommodate for the game's branching narrative, senior reporter Colin Campbell and deputy managing editor Megan Farokhmanesh are reviewing the game together as a series of discussions. Below is their take on Episode Four, "Dark Room."

Life is Strange: Episode Four - Dark Room screenshot 7 1920

Megan Farokhmanesh

For as long as we've been playing Life is Strange, I've always said that it is the first game I'm recommending to people. Even when it falls into goofy dialogue and straight-up boring gameplay, I've always appreciated what it tried to do — its presentation of young women, its delicate tackling of tough topics. That ended for me with Episode Four.

Colin Campbell

There were some outstanding moments in this episode, but "Dark Room" also showed many of the series' most worrying flaws.

Megan: Episode Three ended on a huge cliffhanger, with Max altering the world we've come to know. I never expected it to stick, but man, I did enjoy watching it play out as it did. I need to say right now that Episode Four didn't start as all doom and gloom for me. I spent a lot of time digging through texts and notebooks, examining every object with as much care as I did in the first episode. In the opening segment, I wandered through Chloe's house; I sat for a long time quietly observing her room. It's these little moments of Life is Strange that I really love.

And for the not-so-little moments of this episode, wow. I appreciated that it hit you with hard choices right away — in this case, whether to honor Chloe's wishes or not.

Colin: The opening section was handled beautifully. It was pretty much guaranteed that Max would seek a way back to the core timeline, and that she would probably use the exact same mechanism to find her way. No surprises there. But the tenderness of Max's scenes with both William and Chloe was a revelation. Wonderfully scripted and acted, I found myself in tears when it came time to confront the big moral decision.

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I found myself in tears

It was the strongest part of the episode and may turn out to be the entire season's high point. It also establishes the strength of this game in that it asks players to make real choices and it demands that you care.

I have my own concerns about this game, and "Dark Room" offers more of the stumbles and missteps that we have seen previously. So I am curious about what you didn't like about this episode.

Megan: A lot of my uneasiness with this episode begins with our grand ol' villain so far — Nathan. Nathan, in the past, has been ... a cartoonish villain. His lines are almost always two notches above any kind of relatable character, even one that's painted as a snobby rich kid. And as we've watched Nathan progress through the game, we've come to realize that he's not just some brat with daddy issues. He's dangerous. In many ways, we've known this all along; Max's interventions are the only reason he isn't a murderer yet.

"Dark Room" finally has the chance to establish Nathan as something more. We get to explore his room, read some of his medical files. We even help or hinder violence against him, but Dontnod takes the easy route here. Nathan is cemented as a straight-up psychopath; a dangerous, mentally unstable person.

the game falls back on the trope that mentally ill people are just "crazy"

Here's where we start to see Dontnod stumble where it's previously shown grace and expertise in handling tough topics. I was disappointed to see the game fall back on the trope that mentally ill people are just "crazy" or — worse — violent to those around them. Remember, this is the developer that handled public shaming and teen suicide incredibly well. I wish they would have done more to work against this continually perpetuated stereotype and mental health stigmas.

Colin: The nature of his mental health is still unclear. Yes, his behavior is disgraceful and he's obviously a prize shitheel, but we got some more insights into his background. He comes from a toxic family environment where his vicious whims are indulged. His father is overbearing and sociopathic. He seems to be on some sort of inappropriate medication, and his psychiatrist is making little progress due to family interference in his treatment. The cliffhanger at the end of the episode also shows another element at play, which will no doubt be explored next episode.

Life is Strange: Episode Four - Dark Room screenshot 1920

Despite these threads, I hadn't really thought about Nathan as anything other than a thoroughly nasty piece of work. I don't disagree with your point that hanging his defects on a vague mental illness is lazy, but I want to see how this plays out.

Megan: Overall, I'm very unimpressed with Nathan's arc as a character. He is every teen villain we've seen in every teen movie with rich kids — daddy issues, being above the rules and so on — but taken about three steps further. The tricky thing with episodic games is that we don't have the full picture yet. And, as you mentioned, there's obviously more at work here. In examining "Dark Room" as a stand-alone experience, I'd reiterate what I said previously. But I'm also willing to see how this plays out, and if Dontnod can do a better job at redeeming the gross stereotypes it's given us to work with.

Nathan is, unfortunately, just the beginning. Part of this episode involves searching for and investigating the room where Kate and countless other women were taken after being drugged at Vortex parties. This is the most upsetting thing I've ever played in a video game, and I mean that without a hint of exaggeration.

This is the most upsetting thing I've ever played in a video game
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I want to talk about the way this scenario is set up, first. From the moment you start your search, the game very much shifts into this spooky, almost horror film-like quality that it never really shakes. You're looking around a creepy barn for clues. You find a hidden door that — shock! — leads to a creepy underground bunker. Nathan's psychiatric reports are strewn about for extra chilling effect.

This would be sort of goofy if it weren't so video game-y already, and then you find literal binders featuring photos of women tied up, drugged, abused. Photos that include your friends. Photos that you can revisit in full detail again and again, poring over them until your voyeurism of their abuse is fully satisfied. It is maddeningly exploitative, unnecessary and upsetting.

Colin: I've mentioned before that this story was created by men and often drifts into a sense of titillation. We saw that last episode when Max and Chloe's relationship was explored in predictably salacious tones. It's interesting that this is a game about strong women protagonists and yet the central mystery is also about women as silent and immobile victims of severe abuse and violence.

this story was created by men and often drifts into a sense of titillation

Megan: I've always said that I relate heavily to the young women in Life is Strange, and you have to understand that that doesn't change in "Dark Room." I've seen myself as a young teen in Max and her friends, and it is horrifying to now see myself as a victim. After finishing this segment, I put the controller down and took some time to think. Perhaps that sounds like good storytelling — a game with the ability to affect me so much that I have to walk away from it, even for a minute — but I can tell you that it's not.

Women being drugged and abused is not part of a "horror scenario" for me. It is life. It is something I hear about in the news, online, from close friends. There is a right way to handle the problem of women being assaulted, but I didn't find it in Dontnod's dark, laughably sterile basement bunker.

Colin: There's a bad moment at the end of the episode that illuminates lots of problems with Life is Strange. At the very moment Max needs her power the most, and needs to rewind time, we get an on-screen icon stating that 'you can't do that,' with no further context. Life is Strange leads us down some narrow paths, some of which work well, and others offer frustration.

This episode didn't really explore the whole time-shift thing very much. Mainly it was about moving objects in order to solve very simple puzzles. I found this lack of video game-y quests and conventions quite a relief. Generally, I'm happy to just work through dialog trees and action choices. The game works best when you have to choose between one difficult option and another, in order to get what you want.

But the conversations range from compelling to downright annoying. How many times do we need to hear that Max is a wonderful human being? How many times is Max going to connect with someone else and tell them how marvelous they really are, deep down?

Max's idealization is taken to extremes as she works her way through the cast of characters and collects plaudits for saving Kate, an event that took place two episodes ago. Hell, there's even a chummy moment with Victoria, who remains one of the most enigmatic and woefully unrealized people in the game.

The points you make about women being drugged and abused are important. I hadn't fully considered them before. I hope that the ending offers some positives in this regard, and in the portrayals of Nathan and Victoria.

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Overall, I'm finding Life is Strange a positive experience. It's trying to do things that many of us wish to see in games. It is making changes to the idea of video game-y stories and characters. It offers a fictional world that feels vibrant and real.

And yet, as you say, Dontnod still falls into errors that we associate with video game design today, and it struggles in its portrayal of women. I think I liked this episode more than you did, with the caveat that this is still a game that makes you want to slap your forehead repeatedly.

Wrap Up:

'Dark Room' exhibits the best and worst of what Life is Strange has to offer

Megan: There are moments I truly enjoyed, like piecing together clues you've gathered to find the creepy bunker, or having that incredibly emotional moment with Chloe early in the game. "Dark Room" is probably the most "exciting" episode we've had yet, between the sense of urgency, the altercations we saw and the final twist. But I'm genuinely disappointed and disheartened by Dontnod's stumbles. It's with a general sense of fatigue that I'm carrying on to the final episode, hoping to find answers to all my remaining questions.

Life is Strange: Episode Four - "Dark Room" was reviewed using downloadable PS3 copies purchased by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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