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Wot I Thought: Life Is Strange Episode 4

The Dark Room

The Life Is Strange [official site] Episode 4 thoughts have been a long time coming for one reason and another, but I wanted to get something down on digital paper about it before episode 5 turns up and [presumably] ties some kind of a bow on proceedings. There will be spoilers, pretty much as soon as you click through and then constantly until the end of the article so, y'know, bear that in mind.

Okay, so my thoughts are still rather disjointed because I'm trying to reserve judgement on some of what happened until the final episode, but I've had a bit of time to pick at the episode. Life Is Strange is still a strong candidate for my game of the year but this episode raised a bunch of problems. With that in mind, perhaps it's best to lay out thoughts in bullet points. They're not all criticisms, by the way, but I've spent a lot of time thinking about what's unsettled me or what didn't quite work here so I think it veers towards the negative.

I'll recap the plot in case it's been a while since you played, but some of the specifics might be different if you made different choices:

We start off with Chloe in the timeline where her dad wasn't killed. Instead, he is still very much alive and with Joyce as the pair try to make ends meet paying healthcare bills after Chloe has been injured in a car accident and needs round-the-clock care. After you make a choice about helping Chloe end her own like you get taken back to the original timeline, no longer preventing William's death. Detective work ensues as you try to get to the bottom of what happened to Kate (a student who, in my timeline, is still alive after threatening to jump from a roof) at a Vortex Club party. This leads to the discovery of a creepy concealed dark room and what [presumably] happened to Rachel Amber. The episode ends with Victoria (the suspected next victim) winning a trip to a photography competition with teacher Mr Jefferson and Mr Jefferson apparently shooting Chloe and drugging Max.

All of the "suspecteds" and "probablys" and "apparentlys" are because, look, there is a lot of time jiggery pokery and I don't know how much of this is going to be retconned or turn out to be something other than you assume.

1. The Rachel reveal

I feel weird picking this as a highlight because it's horrible and sad, but it's also a rare moment when a game delivers a real gut punch like this. Chloe and Max race to the junkyard and Chloe starts frantically digging in the spot she has recognised from a picture in the darkroom. There's horror and devastation and the grim reality of a bluei-ish bag in the ground where you'd been wandering just a few days earlier, looking for bottles in Chloe and Rachel's special hideout just a few feet away.

I think perhaps the best way of explaining why it worked so well for me is that Rachel already being dead carries with is a sense of betrayal. In game terms it's because you have the power to alter time. Rachel can't be dead because you have a super power and you were going to fix everything. This body bag in the ground and Chloe's retching are able to - as Alice put it while we were chatting - utterly deflate that idea. The betrayal of that assumed contract between player and storyteller is a kind of small-scale mimicry of the powerlessness I associate with death in the real world.

It was horrible. Really horrible and really powerful.

2. The pacing

The pacing of this episode felt really off. It's most obvious towards the end where Max and Chloe head to the Vortex Club party in the school pool area after discovering Rachel Amber's dead body. The discovery of the body was really well-handled, as I've said, and it left me feeling really upset and wanting to take a few minutes to absorb what had happened, but then it was all drunk Warren and party music and faffing about. It felt like the key scene was never given enough space because the game devs were so keen to get to the next twist. Episode 4 was really long but I'm thinking that an extra scene between the junkyard and the party would have helped a huge amount in terms of the impact of that scene being felt rather than being rushed or glossed.

Another way the pacing issue manifests is within the Vortex Club scene. There's no change from the game's usual meandering pace. Max doesn't move any faster and, sure her questions are more focused around Nathan's whereabouts, but there's still plenty of time for chit chat and wibble and taking an interest in other people's love lives. When Kate was threatening to jump off the dorm roof Life Is Strange took away your time rewind power meaning you didn't get a do-over if you fucked everything up. There was tension and stress to that conversation. Here is the polar opposite. I feel like the game should have done a better job of underpinning the urgency of the situation, restricting dialogue options, having Max move faster, speak more urgently and so on.

3. Friendship

In the first section - the one with the alternate timeline and William still alive but the family struggling to pay Chloe's medical bills after a car crash - there was a repetition of "you're my best friend" in conversation to the point where it started to be abrasive in its meaninglessness. After a while thinking about it I'd say that's a fair use - when you're on uncertain ground it can be helpful to say what you wish was true or what used to be easily true even if it's been allowed to slip over the years. Fair use but uncomfy to hear - a sort of nails-down-a-chalkboard effect as I played.

This is an observation that sounds like a criticism but I think the discomfort is important and is possibly the most interesting way it manifests, followed closely by the attempts at teasing by both Max and Chloe. That said, that scene is so saturated in guilt and dramatic sadness and hammering the tragedy of the situation home that I spent a lot of it feeling bludgeoned by hopelessness. I'm fortunate enough not to have experienced anything close to the reality of that alternate timeline so I don't know if my words are coming from a place of total naivete or inexperience. I guess all I know is that from the point of privilege from which I'm playing it felt like being railroaded into agreeing that the game should switch back to the original timeline even if that meant not saving Chloe's dad.

4. The William's alive timeline

Actually, I was watching my partner play this episode yesterday and it underscored to me how differently he and I play. When I was in Chloe's room I felt uncomfy rooting around in her things as she watched. I also felt uncomfy having a long conversation with her dad while she was waiting for pain relief so I didn't actually explore everything that was available, just made brief chat and then a beeline for the bathroom. I never even met Joyce in that timeline because I've always considered Joyce and her husband's bedroom to be off limits no matter which scene it is or which episode and so I'd never even opened the door. Max wasn't supposed to be in there as far as I was concerned so it was weird watching someone else's Max rooting around in bedside tables and checking out photos.

But overall it was a peculiarly weightless section of the game for all the guilt and sighing and the focus on financial struggle as a result of healthcare costs. I think I was similar to a lot of other people in feeling like this timeline couldn't be the one you stick with for long because otherwise too many of your previous choices would be meaningless. With that perspective the assisted suicide choice at the end seemed weightless too. I'm guessing it might be something you revisit in the final episode - perhaps you have to adopt that timeline for some reason and thus you are forced to make that choice again but with actual consequences to the scene this time?

This is one of the things that I'm still waiting to see how it plays out - was her accident and subsequent need of expensive and extensive medical care a shock tactic or a brief sojourn into moral thought experiment land? Life is Strange has earned enough trust that I'm still waiting for Episode 5 to see where they were going with it but I do still have reservations.

5. Tonal weirdness in conversation with Victoria

The conversation I had with Victoria at the Vortex Club party felt all over the place tonally. Games that hinge around player choice do tend to have those because you get key moments where a conversation takes into account multiple actions - you did this positive thing so you get this friendly line of dialogue but then the next part of the conversation deals with the repercussions of a bit where you were less nice and so suddenly the other person becomes cross. The conversation with Victoria played out like that - vulnerability and crankiness alternating in weird ways - and I really just couldn't get a handle on it.

I saw a similar thing in my partner's conversation with Kate on the rooftop too (although not my own). Kate was ready to be helped down and seemed pretty calm but then she switched back to frantic and freaked out while he had to resolve one last part of the conversation tree.

6. Mr Jefferson and Nathan

I'd been saying Mr Jefferson was a wrong-un since the start (to the point where I have "I told you so" rights in conversation with several friends at this point). He's skeevy as all hell and he was a douche towards Kate. In fact he was the one I picked to accuse when we were in the principal's office after Kate's suicide attempt. Nathan seemed like an obvious candidate but a) I thought he would wiggle out of any charges because of his dad's influence and b) when kids like Nathan pop up in this type of fiction I'm used to them being red herrings - acting out in response to terrible parents or something. They're generally bellends but ultimately not the real villains of the piece*. The real villains tend to be the slightly-too-cool adults on the periphery who abuse positions of trust. HI MR JEFFERSON.

Also anyone who trots out that "Life is what happens when you're making other plans" Lennon quote to impress students can do one. Screw you, Mr Jefferson.

Obviously there could still be some other twist and, I dunno, a time ghost could still have done it, or Nathan's dad might be blackmailing Mr Jefferson because Nathan's dad loves a spot of blackmail but Mr Jefferson is clearly a wrong-un at this juncture.

7. In the dark room

God, that dark room and those binders full of women and the photos of Kate and Rachel were creepy. Properly gross and creepy.

8. The future

At this juncture it's logical that people would be trying to work out how it all ties together - the property deals, the tornados, the mystical/magical elements, the abductions/druggings/suspected murderings, the role of time travel, whether Max can save Chloe in this timeline because it looks PRETTY FREAKING BLEAK RIGHT NOW... I have done a little of that myself but I'm trying not to, partly because I'm not too fond of the theories I do have and I'm hoping I'm wrong.

Something I have been pondering since the start of the game is that polaroid of Max looking at her own photo wall. I think she describes it as a selfie at one point but it's taken from a few feet behind her own head. With that in mind I've spent these four episodes wondering whether at some point she will get some sort of super souped up version of her time powers and be able to be turn up in her own timeline, manipulating herself and rewriting history in a broader way than she currently does.

What about you? Did you play? Did you feel very differently?

*See also: Frank. He's not the villain here because he was too obviously the villain.

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