Like most of you, I was still reeling from the shock of the end of Life Is Strange Episode 3, where we find out what happens to Chloe by saving her dad from the car accident in our little time-travel adventure. Episode 4 jumps right into the story at that point in the alternate timeline – where William is alive, Joyce never marries David, and Chloe is paralyzed from the neck down from an accident. On the meta level, weird things are still happening like they have been in our “original” timeline in Arcadia Bay that we’ve had for the first 3 episodes.
This is the backdrop Dark Room plunges us into, and is in my opinion, the most emotional episode in the series so far. The episode’s opening is beautiful and sweet as Max gets used to this new alternate reality and new relationship with Chloe, until she (and you) are forced to make a very difficult choice regarding her life. What really impressed me about it was how giving the alternate timeline’s Chloe a severe disability never portrayed her as a victim – there were a number of scenes where Max and Chloe were hanging out and having fun just like we’re used to in the original timeline. And in the background, while you were walking around the Price house without Chloe, what players see is a family surrounded in mountains of debt trying to make ends meet and pay for medical care, showing the very real emotional and financial hardships this kind of tragedy can bring. After agonizing over that choice and rewinding as many times as I possibly could before locking a decision in, I was relieved to see that either choice brought you back our timeline. I’m not sure how this game would even progress without Chloe.
The big “rewind” scene in Dark Room takes place shortly after that, in the form of an encounter with Frank – the not-so-lovable drug dealer, who Chloe loathes and who has ties to her friend Amber. This scene, no joke, took me roughly 30 minutes to get through until I was satisfied with the choices that I made. With over five choice branches and combinations, the majority of which end up very very badly, I was on the verge of outlining my own flowchart before I finally came out on top. Every other option was horrendous. DONTNOD actually furnished a flowchart for that scene in a rare behind-the scenes look, and though while running through that scene I shouted numerous times “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME??” at my screen, it’s really cool to see how complex a (sans rewind) 5 minute scene can be on game’s decision engine. You can check out the flowchart in the gallery below (click or right-click/download to blow it up to full size).
And that complex logic, with all of its twists and turns, broke the fourth wall and spilled over into my real life discussions with people. You see in a lot of other episodic games, the choice engines generally brought you right back to a main timeline with only subtle differences in details with no real alterations on the plot. Dark Room really shows how this game differs from other popular titles like The Walking Dead. You were able to see some of the short term consequence from Chrysalis in Out of Time and Chaos Theory, but Dark Room was the first episode where some real differences took place in the main storyline due to your choices.
I was at work and a friend asked me if I had finished playing Episode 4 yet, and my response was:
“Not yet. I’m still at the part where you’re visiting Kate at the hospital.” He looked at me for a second confused, and asked when that was because he didn’t remember the scene.
“Huh? But in my game Kate died.”
So I had a full and complete scene in my version of the game that he never got to see, because of the differences in a 4-question scene way back when. Consequently he’ll be replaying that, as will I, to see the other potential events that cascade from the other side of that particular coin.
The new mechanic in Episode 4 was possibly one of my favorites. After collecting a slew of clues from around Blackwell and Arcadia Bay, Max and Chloe (i.e. you) go to work on an evidence board matching up license plate numbers, code names and GPS information to get answers for what’s going on. Matching the right clues got you to the next bit of the mystery – and when it’s over, you get a sense of CSI pride for making it work.
The culmination of the episode was a collection of scenes that was some of the most tense and harrowing sequence of events I’ve seen in a video game. After assembling the clues and investigating what happened to Rachel, Max and Chloe find information find the titular dark room in what was one can only be described as legitimately frightening. Scenes around the famed Vortex Club party follow where Max is looking to get answers. I’m not going to tell you what happens, because it’s something you have to see for yourself and honestly I’m not sure I have the right words (I know, and I call myself a writer) to describe the shocking and quite frankly, unsettling conclusion to the episode.
Having started on the journey with Max and Chloe way back in Episode 1, we see the wow factor of the mechanics make way for storytelling, and subsequent episodes show what it can accomplish through the video game medium. DONTNOD hasn’t shied away from making the audience emotional and uncomfortable, and situations in-game have made me more uncomfortable that some actual decisions I’ve had to make in real life. Dark Room continues that trend with a hard crescendo and takes a very dark turn in plot and character development. The sheer number of events, both personal and meta, with the knowledge that there’s only 1 day left for Max to fix this adds a lot of anticipation and a sense of urgency while finishing this chapter, and continue to deliver with endgame twists and turns.
Setting up those kind of logical trees with this kind of depth is not easy. Everything has to be mapped out down to the last detail for it to work smoothly and have real short and long-term consequence. How do I know how hard that is? Because over a decade ago as a 19 year old sophomore in my Digital Logic class for engineering school, mapping out the logic for something as simple as the coin return on a damn vending machine took a couple retries to get right.
The release date for the upcoming and final episode is next month on October 20th, and if you haven’t gotten a chance to play this series through then I highly recommend that you do before Episode 5: Polarized comes out to play.