Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One, XBOX 360 | Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment | Publisher: Square Enix | ESRB: M | Controls: Keyboard/Gamepad
[alert style=”grey”]Warning: Life is Strange is a heavily narrative-driven adventure game. While I will avoid direct spoilers for this fourth episode, this review will discuss key points from the third episode. If you’re not caught up yet, you may want to wait until you are.[/alert]
DONTNOD’s Life is Strange’s narrative has paralleled the the trajectory of the massive tornado that is hurtling towards their fictional Oregon town of Arcadia Bay. They initially provide intrigue; what is their meaning and why is it happening? As each slowly began to move towards their ultimate end goal, the questions surrounding them, instead of being answered, multiplied. Through each episode, no matter how Maxine Caulfield chose to use her power to rewind time, these two concurrent entities have continued to become more frantic and hurried — juggernauts rushing forward with total abandon towards their shared cataclysmic destinies.
When we last saw Max in Episode 3 – Chaos Theory, the true dangers of her power had come to full fruition despite all of her best intentions. Max alters the events that originally lead to the death of Chloe’s father. However, her attempt to rewrite the tragic history of a family that would never truly recover, she destroyed the future of her best friend. Chloe, in a car accident of her own during this alternate timeline, has been made a quadriplegic. This is where Dark Room begins.
The first portion of this episode is relatively short, but it’s a profoundly difficult experience to deal with. The shocking reveal of Chloe previously is fully fleshed out here, and her struggles are extremely difficult to see. Still she and Max are able to have a good day together, including reminiscing about their childhoods, and capping the evening off with a viewing of one of their favorite films Blade Runner. Despite any joking to the contrary, Max falls asleep first and finds Chloe awake before her as well. The full truth of her condition is given voice and it leads to the first major choice of the game. And, wow is it hard to make that decision.
Maybe your philosophies on politics, religion, and/or life in general are completely clear cut, and you’ll say, “psssssh, whatever”. That was not the case for me. I tried bargaining and sharing my fears, only to be again stared down with the choice after some additional dialogue. My mouse hovered between the two options for what felt like an unnaturally long time before I ultimately leaned left with that pointer and chose what felt like the least awful outcome to me. Your thoughts may differ, but that’s the beauty of the Life is Strange experience. The choices are powerful and they often times examine our morals and then not so delicately poke at them to force a reaction.
These decisions also have the added realism of the randomness of life. Each individual action has a repercussion. Whether fully perceptible or not the game seems to hold fast to this idea and then applies a multiplicative property to the mix via Max’s time rewind power. An item you lose in an early episode impacts an encounter with a character later; a simple kindness with no ulterior motive may save Max or Chloe in the future. This brilliantly causes players to second-guess themselves and thus make use of the rewind mechanics. When certain scenarios don’t have a completely desired outcome or perhaps a supremely uncomfortable one, just rewind time and try a different approach.
This method of play was at first foreign to me. I like to play through this type of experience the first time, making the decisions I would as the individual in the story, usually resulting in the “good” ending as it were. Then if I enjoy a game, I’ll go back and play through the opposite way. Where most games are fairly cut and dry in the good or bad categories, Life is Strange blurs all those lines. Life is not black and white and DONTNOD are really forcing players to dabble in all the colors.
One section of the game saw Max and her friends getting justice for themselves. Things started to get ugly, and the forces of good transformed by the spirits of vengeance, begin edging into darkness itself, before nearly fully submerging into the shadows. It is an irony not lost on me that many times it’s the things we don’t say, the times we don’t speak up, that do the most damage. I rewound time to fix that mistake, but was left wondering if that justice actually needed to be served and how would the changed outcome come back to haunt Max later.
The way in which this series has continued to surprise further enhances player apprehension in settling on their decisions from moment to moment. Things are strange in Arcadia Bay to say the least. Up to this point there has been an undertone of mystery, with the story-telling pointing the finger in a million different directions. Dark Room takes a much more sinister turn. Whereas things may have been suspicious and troubling before, they’ve slipped into a fully creepy and horrifying construct. A loosely ominous story has become thick with a very realistic terror, and all of that is aside from the strange happenings with the weather, the death of animals and world-ending tornado from Max’s visions.
We’re no longer being sent on a wild-goose chase. The game is firmly pointing the finger in a singular, inevitable direction. This is the only place where I felt the idea faltered a bit. While the middle pacing of the episode felt somewhat uneven, it was balanced by each decision or reveal, up to the event that we all knew deep down was coming. At that point, everything that I knew about Max as a character, and about how I had played her, suggested that I would be given the option to make a singular call, which would be the best shot at ending the immediate danger… that choice was not given.
Instead, the game continued, and for some reason it started to feel a bit long… and then a subtle clue in a simple piece of dialogue — a tiny, almost imperceptible hesitation told me that this danger was even more present and grave than the narrative had previously let on. Life is Strange has done a great job of hitting players with shock moments, particularly cliffhangers. This one… it’s a doozey. But it wasn’t the smash-you-in-the-face shock they’ve used before. No, this, in confirming my suspicions, was more like some creepy crawly creature on your skin in the dark, with no arms to brush it away.
Life is Strange is firmly, in my mind, in contention for game of the year. Its narrative continues to be thought provoking, while rolling through multiple genres and keeping players guessing. This penultimate episode ramps everything up. This includes gameplay elements, by letting Max examine the clues she and Chloe have gathered throughout the story and having the player piece them together into meaningful information. Even this feels more expansive as it reaches with us into the darker corners of this game world.
My worry again is that it may be difficult to wrap up a story that has zigged and zagged so many times, all while resonating with the echoes of player choices. I cannot wait to see how it all ends. If we’ve learned anything from our time in Arcadia Bay, it’s that things hardly ever work out as we had hoped. A happy end is definitely not guaranteed.
Life is Strange Episode 4 – Dark Room was played from a personal copy of the game.