Publisher: Square Enix
Year Made: 2015 (Episode 5 to be released later)
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Price: First Episode: $4.99; All 5 Episodes: $19.99
Content Areas: English Language Arts, Social Studies, Health
Suggested Age Level: Upper High School
Play Length: 3 hours
Number of Players: Single Player
Difficulty Rating: Medium
Warning: Drugs, alcohol, profanity, violence, and sexual themes. Some sensitive material (described below).
First, if you have not yet read our reviews of Episode 1, “Chrysalis,” Episode 2, “Out of Time,” and Episode 3 “Chaos Theory,” please do so before reading the review for Episode 4, “Dark Room.” For a more overall review, check out our first review of Life is Strange. This review will contain pretty major spoilers and focus heavily on “Dark Room,” so you should try the other episodes first. For those of you unfamiliar with episodic games, think of them like chapters in a book. Each episode builds the story off of the episode before it to create one overall story. You wouldn’t read chapter four before you read chapter one! So follow the links above to catch up on Max’s story as she rewinds time to save her friends and her town.
As several darker themes, such as sexual assault, make their way to the forefront of the episode, the Life is Strange team has to be commended on their balance and discretion. Visuals provide just enough context to an event while the characters’ dialogue clarifies exactly what is so horrific or dread-inducing, creating a balanced teamwork between art and writing that stops the game from taking advantage of brutal imagery and emphasizes the people at the heart of the conflicts. As always, Life is Strange both humanizes unsympathetic characters and pushes seemingly perfect characters until they finally show a darker, imperfect side. Along with its continued balancing act, Life is Strange remains a visually stunning game paired with quiet, contemplative music that often had me so engrossed in the characters and their dialogue that it felt like watching a movie as much as I was playing a game. Balance continues to be the theme of the episode as the puzzles and choices woven into the game feel particularly well-integrated into “Dark Room.” The puzzles require players to think critically about clues and utilize Max’s rewind power when possible. Meanwhile, every choice the player makes feels like making the choice between getting punched in the gut or punched in the face: either way it causes pain and bruises, but you at least get to choose how to take that pain. “Dark Room” also featured more scenarios for players to work through and choose their words carefully to avoid serious and tragic outcomes, such as a standoff with a supposed villain and an attempt to make someone believe a warning. All three of these styles provide players with more opportunities to interact with the game and impact Max’s past, present, and future. In all of these aspects, “Dark Room” feels like the balanced piece that the last three episodes worked toward.
While Life is Strange gets closer with every episode, there is no such thing as a perfect game. As the storyline darkens, it can be increasingly difficult to use within a classroom and could distress students who have found themselves in similarly traumatic situations. As always with the mature themes and intense subject matter, please consider what is best for your classroom and your students. One of the other challenges I noticed in playing was that spending too much time in the party scene both dragged down my computer’s speed - which isn’t a problem if you have a higher performing computer or a console - and also caused a few headaches from the pulsing light. The party doesn’t quite contain strobe lights, but the flashing lights make it difficult to focus on it for too long. If a student has difficulty with this section though, another student could help them through it as it takes up a smaller section of the overall game.
Within education, Life is Strange has continued to excite me, and “Dark Room” is no exception. From a social studies perspective, the game continues to pose challenging philosophical questions and push players to consider a variety of philosophies, psychological motives, and theories about time and the past, all of which could lead to discussions and seminars on the questions raised and theories mentioned. Within an English class, the game has a large appeal as well. The latest entry in the series is as addicting as any book series I read as a high school student, and this is a story that players have influence over. It does contain mature subjects, but no more mature than what high school students read in texts in class now. The fact that they can interact with and influence this text though can be used as a draw for students to reflect on their own actions and their consequences and on what makes a compelling narrative, complex characters, and even literary devices such as allusion and foreshadowing. More importantly though, from a storytelling perspective, episodic and story-driven games like Life is Strange can pull students into reading and becoming literate in analyzing and understanding the stories they experience. Episodic games, like Life is Strange, have the power to hook readers on to a new kind of series and can in turn give teachers a new way to excite readers and pull them into other kinds of texts as well.
Life is Strange alone could teach a number of valuable lessons in teen health. I am fairly certain that the latest episode managed to run the gamut of health concerns teens face today: drugs, alcohol, sexual assault, mental health problems, stress, depression, and suicide. While not all teens face all of these problems, nearly every teen has experienced at least one of these and has struggled to decide what to do about these issues. Reading about them in a textbook does not always create the solid connection to their own lives that students look for. However, experiencing such a stressful moment in a virtual world where they can’t be hurt could help them work out what the best decision would be in a matter that does have high stakes. For example, the sight of a girl passed out at the party is enough to make Max upset that no one looks out for her and can provide enough of a solid image of what could happen that students could recognize someone in trouble in real life. In a similar instance in “Dark Room,” Max learns that someone is planning to hurt another girl at Blackwell during the party. She then has the choice to warn the girl or say nothing. Students can play through this segment then discuss why they made their choices and what they think the ramifications could be of warning or not warning the girl. If students have already experienced a stressful situation virtually and have seen how badly inaction or the wrong choice can go, it can be easier for them to visualize and know what to do in the heat of a real-life situation.
“Dark Room” is as magnetic as the other installments of Life is Strange, but it takes the storyline down a harder, darker turn. Whether using it as a basis for a philosophic discussion, a text for readers and players to enjoy and analyze, or a virtual world for students to explore health issues that could relate to their lives, Life is Strange’s fourth episode will have students engaged and wanting more. Based on their work so far and the startling end to “Dark Room,” the Life is Strange team will exceed its audience’s expectations in a perfect storm of a finale.
Educational Rating: 6/8
(Classroom Tech Friendly, Motivation, Concrete Learning, Additional Skills, Feedback, Difficulty, Accessibility, Extension)
Overall Rating: 8/8
(Immersion, Environment, Storyline, Replayability, Entertainment, Gameplay, Originality, User Control)