Monday, August 18, 2014

The Room (Fireproof Games, 2012/2013)

Over the years I've had a variety of day jobs. For a while I did technical support for a company that made home theater equipment. Those calls usually involved a lot of time spent waiting while the customers on the other end crawled behind their entertainment centers to let me know which wire went where so I could tell them how to fix it.

Luckily, this was around the time that online Flash game portals were skyrocketing in popularity. Slower puzzle based games worked best in that environment, and I soon stumbled upon a renaissance of a quirky genre known as Escape the Room games. Most of these were crudely drawn short distractions, but years later (in the same Humble Bundle that provided me with Contre Jour) I discovered a mobile game that showed me what the genre could do, given enough talent and attention. I found The Room.

Even though The Room is technically part of the Escape the Room genre, it's not actually about escaping from a room. In fact, even through The Room is called The Room, it's not specifically about the room it takes place in, focussing instead on a strange mechanical box inside the room. There's a secret hidden inside this box, or more specifically, inside a smaller box hidden somewhere deep within this one. In nesting doll fashion, each level of The Room concludes with the opening of one box to discover the next level's contraption inside.

While the narrative of most Escape the Room games is generally no more established than a statement that you've somehow become locked in a room and need to escape, The Room manages to contextually build up a story by hiding notes from the device's builder throughout the device. This method of plot development through collected missives, along with the dark visuals and eerie atmosphere of isolation, evoked an experience that often reminded me of the first Metroid Prime game. The story itself isn't incredibly deep, but it's not really the focus of this sort of game.

As with most games of the genre, The Room builds upon the foundation of a point and click (or more point and tap) interface, but expands the standard tap and drag commands to provide an extremely tactile touch screen experience. For the most part, dragging on the screen controls the angle of your view as you smoothly swoop around the 3D environment. Pinch zoom commands move your perspective closer to objects, and movable items can be manipulated as if you're actually touching them. Sliding hidden panels, winding gears, pulling levers, and unscrewing hidden compartments all feels natural, and past the first couple of interactions, no on-screen tutorial is needed.

It's fortunate that such a wide variety of interactions is able to work so intuitively, because The Room isn't the type of game that likes to repeat itself. Every new puzzle feels just as fresh and mind wrenchingly frustrating as those that came before it. The puzzle designers did an outstanding job of providing in-game clues that are just vague enough to drive you mad until the answer finally clicks into place and you wonder why you didn't see the solution in the first place.

In general, mobile games have never been known for cutting edge graphics. Most mobile games stick to 2D sprites, often cartoon styled, and the few that do venture into the third dimension often more closely resemble the N64/PS1 era of gaming more than they do anything modern. Somehow The Room manages to pull off a surprising amount of detail with just the right amount of moodiness and style to be one of the best looking mobile games I've ever seen. I'm sure it helps that it takes place in a single environment with a limited number of items, most of which don't move, but a remarkable accomplishment even so. This visual experience does come at a price of battery life though. Don't expect to pass the hours of a long road trip playing this unless you've got a travel charger handy.

There's not much to dislike about The Room, but if I had to find a complaint it would be that like most games of the genre, once you've found the solutions to all of the puzzles, you can never go back and get the same experience on a replay. Admittedly, it is fun to try to speed run the game the second time through and see how many solutions you really remember while rushing through contraptions you spent hours contemplating the first time. It does give a brief sense of "Gee, look how clever I am", but it's not the same. Luckily for us, Fireproof Games made a sequel that I'll be discussing in a future review.

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