After the unbelievable cliffhanger at the end of episode three of Life is Strange, I couldn’t wait to dive head first into episode four: Dark Room. I always knew Max wasn’t going to want to stay in the timeline she had accidentally found herself in, but I decided to explore it as much as possible just because I was so fascinated to find out how different things were. When Chloe said she hated the word ‘hella’ I knew things were pretty fucked.
This part of the episode contains some of its most emotionally charged moments, and the interactions between Max, Chloe, and her family are touching and devastating and they highlight that a real strength of Life is Strange is making you care, and hitting you hard when you do. I kind of knew Chloe’s request was coming, and I won’t go into details, but even that inkling wasn’t enough to prepare me for when it actually did come because the scene was so well voice acted, the emotionality was brought out even better than I imagined it.
I did have a couple of problems with elements of this episode. The puzzle where you pull together all the clues to try and figure out where characters are being taken was far from impossible but it was frustratingly under-explained and obtuse, throwing you into the deep end of information in a way previous episodes haven’t really prepared you for. I felt like an utterly inept Nancy Drew. And although the conversation with Frank at one point is supposed to be a pretty big moment, I was honestly bored by the content of the chat and frustrated that it wouldn’t just end. At no point have I ever found myself feeling that way playing Life is Strange and it was a little disappointing. Also, the fact that you even have the option to not warn Victoria that she might get drugged? Fuck that. I wish they’d explored Victoria’s character more. I may write fanfiction and do it myself.
That said, in Dark Room you really begin to see the effects of the choices you’ve made in a way that makes for satisfying gameplay. You feel like what you’ve done matters. The game retains its wonderfully human characters, and it’s nice to see the main story begin to unravel because I was beginning to lose my mind in the mystery.
This episode builds up to an incredibly dark moment and set piece that really made me think about the portrayal of women in this game and games generally. Frequently in the episode, Max says that Nathan has his own ‘style’, she’s disturbed but intrigued by his tortured subjects that become lifeless, dehumanised objects through the lens of his camera. When Nathan’s lens is turned on female subjects that Max has only ever seen filled with life, whether it’s through interacting with Kate or listening to wild stories about Rachel, his style and choice of life-draining monochrome suddenly becomes problematic and disturbing.
These photos point to a wider problem of dehumanisation of women in media, treating them as objects, which Life is Strange resolutely does not do. I found the images more disturbing and confusing than I would have in any other videogame, largely because the women in this game feel so human, well-written and resolutely not just objects that seeing them in these positions was genuinely upsetting.
At first I was annoyed that Dontnod decided to take this clichéd route in the story, but really, framed by the discussion of women being represented in video games, there’s no better game that I’ve played recently to bring up the problem of women being viewed as lifeless objects for our enjoyment. Life is Strange has throughout its episodes pointed to sexist double standards in our society, and I feel like through this part of the story it’s leading onto making us think about yet another one. The problem of a world where men have the power of representation and women are at their disposal to treat as they would like, and how this should make us feel uncomfortable.
I’m really not sure how I feel about Nathan. Of all the characters in the game, he felt like the most lazily written, the typical caricature of a rich teenager whose violence was annoyingly and insultingly “explained” with vague nods towards mental illness. I really hoped Dontnod would steer clear of the “mentally ill person as crazy” trope because nothing would make me finish Life is Strange with a feeling of disgust more than this.
Episode four has complicated how I feel about where they’re going with Nathan for a couple of reasons. In this episode we get much more involved in his personal life and it becomes clear that he’s not just mentally ill – he’s on a cocktail of drugs, medications, dealing with a neglectful and abusive father, and a doctor who is unable to give him sufficient help because of this. And with a twist in the ending that I won’t reveal, it’s hinted at that he’s also being exploited and abused by another character, or at the very least the wider knowledge of his mental illness is being used by another character to scapegoat him.
If this is the case I hope Dontnod will use the opportunity to call out the wrongful use of mental illness as a characteristic of villainy and maybe highlight prejudiced misconceptions. That’s the problem with this episodic format, I don’t have the whole picture yet and I can’t tell where they’re going to go but I’m trying to have faith in Dontnod that it’s somewhere positive.
Dark Room was the darkest episode of the game so far and although it was more focussed on pushing the story forward than developing character relationships than other episodes, this was a nice change of pace. I think I just need to play episode five. Like, right now, because once again there was another gut-wrenching cliffhanger that left me desperate for more.
Main Image: Screenshot