Thursday, April 11, 2013

App Review: The Room

Fireproof Games. 2012. iOS & Android.

Video games aren't known for deep ideas. Yes, there are some with passable and a few even with compelling stories, yet the better the plot the more I wish it liberated from the confines of walking around whacking baddies. The exception is the game which uses its interactive space not just to pad or decorate the plot with novel ways to complete tasks, but which justifies the activity by creating a revealing in the doing which could not be achieved by watching.

This is a lofty goal to be sure and few games even attempt this, let alone achieve it. I'm not sure the makers of  The Room had such a purpose in mind, and while they didn't achieve it, they seem to have wandered onto the path.

The premise is simple: you're trapped in a room and they key to your escape lies inside a box sealed by all manner of locks. The gameplay is equally easy to explain: unlock the box. The devil lies of course in the details and you'll find yourself desperately tapping to find pieces, assemble mechanisms, match symbols, spell codes, and align images in the hopes of teasing the secret to your release from the mysterious casket.

Lovers of point-and-click or click-through games will delight in these puzzles. The tasks vary significantly and the clues are just far enough out of sight. In fact, it's not until the last level that you get a sense of there bing variations on the puzzle themes. Most entertaining of all, though, are not the brain-teasing puzzles but how they are stitched together into the space of this box which quickly becomes not only a world unto its own, but an unfolding one.

Which brings us back to our premise: the ideas of the game. No, The Room is not a philosophical mind-bender, but there is enough said and left out to get the impression of what one might look like. First, the lack of context to one's predicament gives it an existentialist twinge. Why am I trapped in this room? Who put his box here? Why bother giving me a way out? We aren't left to wonder, however, whether there is a way out, mostly because designing an impossible game is not only dastardly but unprofitable. Second, the dramatic tone is that of exploration, set by the puzzles of course but also by following in the footsteps of a scientist whose journal we read as we progress. The entries become increasingly rapt as the mystery unfolds, yet also fraught with concern about the increasingly untamable and overwhelming nature of the unfolding power. Are we on the path to nirvana or falling down the rabbit hole? Lastly, the visual tone is set by the symbological, astronomical, astrological, scientific, religious, and numerological, references. Throw in a little Greek and Latin, shake, and it certainly feels like you're on a momentous quest.

We're not quite, though, or not very much. Such elements don't conspire dramatically or philosophically toward a purpose, be it a question, answer, or process, but are spice for the puzzle experience. That's certainly to the developer's credit, for this is polished and absorbing puzzle game. It's also a tantalizing taste of what a philosophically-oriented interactive experience could be.

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