I played the fourth episode of Life is Strange with a lump in my throat. You know, the sort of uneasiness that puts a slight pressure behind your ears. The lump waned and grew with the chapter’s crescendos and decrescendos, but it never really left. It stayed for upward of four hours, my little buddy to accompany me through all the poignancy and travesty that Dark Room had to offer.
It’s funny — in these moments, I just want to let Max sit. Most scenes have an interactable object where you can take a load off, reflect while some soothing music plays. For a game about exploration, I find the most comfort in chilling out for a few seconds. It feels fair to give her a break.
Early on in Dark Room, I found myself setting the controller down on the coffee table and just sitting for a full minute, that throat lump bigger than it’s been yet. I could’ve moved, but I didn’t want to. The cumulative weight of everyone’s burdens hit me hard. Episode three made me care about Life is Strange‘s characters; episode four floored me to see bad things happen to them. There’s no doubt about it: Dark Room is hella effective (even if you hate that word).
Life is Strange: Dark Room (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One[reviewed])
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Release date: July 28, 2015
MSRP: $4.99 (Each Episode)
Interestingly enough, Dark Room largely betrays the pacing set forth by the previous three installments. Those chapters had a tendency to meander as Dontnod built the world and its characters. There wasn’t anything inherently bad about that. Actually, now that the game’s nearing its conclusion, it’s paying dividends. We’re invested in the story surrounding Arcadia Bay.
Still, Dark Room is always tugging at your sleeves, trying to guide you somewhere. The stakes in this episode have been raised to a degree that doesn’t lend itself to killing time. Urgency permeates the entirety of Dark Room. Rushing from one location to another advances the plot as things escalate steadily, and there’s not always a chair handy to take a mental breather.
As quickly as things move, a lot of the brilliance behind this episode comes in the form of finally tying together past events and seeing how they cause everything to shake out. There’s some resolution, even if it’s not full resolution. Dontnod has proven that it expertly laid the framework to affect future encounters. One particular instance comes in the form of another spat with a familiar antagonist. The branching paths can lead to several outcomes, none necessarily more optimal than the next.
Another prime example is very un-Life is Strange, and maybe the only time Dark Room just sat still for a minute. Max has a board of clues that she must use to put together some damning evidence against someone. Putting on Max’s sleuthing hat, the puzzle requires carefully finding related documents and grouping them in a sensible way. Odd as it may have seemed, this section nicely conveyed a sense of inter-connectivity and broke up the episode’s breakneck speed.
The rest of Dark Room‘s high points were the bleakest moments the game has seen, none of which should be discussed here. This episode doubled down on grim material and somber social issues. The absolute best thing Dark Room does is that it still somehow manages to present most of this (and the characters tied to it) from a complex perspective. It’s not dealing in blacks and whites — even though it’s completely expected by now, given the nature of the subjects.
The more time spent in Life is Strange, the more obvious it is that this isn’t the game we may have originally thought. The supernatural won’t overshadow the social issues. The rewind mechanic often doesn’t feel like an option because you want to live with your decisions. Somehow, Dontnod resisted the urge to lean on these aspects, even though they’d be the easiest to lean on. The game’s immeasurably better off for it.
So, after another cliffhanger ending, we’re left awaiting the conclusion and with no real idea where the narrative might go. Dark Room has been the most masterful installment in Life is Strange thus far, and it sets us hurtling toward the finish line. If the first 80 percent is any indication, it probably won’t be a “happily ever after” ending. Only one thing’s certain, though: that ever-present throat lump will be along for the ride.