Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Room 3: design ruminations

(Or "roominations", har har.)

I have finished The Room 3, third in the series of gorgeous puzzle-box games for touchscreen. I didn't know it was in production -- The Room 2 seemed to wrap up the storyline, such as it was -- but I guess the designers have decided to ride this clockwork train for as long as it ticks. I'm not objecting; this entry in the series is a satisfying chunk of puzzle manipulation. It's longer than the first two games put together, and it expands the original game mechanic into an explorable environment. (By offering an architectural space of rooms, and also adding a new "zoom into tiny sub-rooms" mechanic.)

I want to talk about one particular aspect: the storyline. In idle post-game chatter, I tweeted:

I can't say I think of these games as narrative objects at all. (--@zarfeblong)

That may sound nuts; how different is the Room series from the classically-narrative Myst series? Puzzles + journals = IF. But there must be a difference. When I said above "the storyline, such as it was", I wasn't kidding. I literally don't remember anything about the storyline of The Room and The Room 2 except that R2 seemed to wrap it up. And there was "the Null", but that's something that R3 reminded me of.

R1 had no environmental storytelling. It was ostentatiously unanchored in any physical environment. It had physicality, yes -- its puzzle-boxes were of wood, brass, glass, and steel, as conveyed by texture and sound and the direct manipulation of the touchscreen interface. But the boxes sat on spotlighted tables. The walls around you were unfocussed and dimly lit: the bare minimum to keep you feeling grounded at all. Despite the title, the game kept your attention resolutely off the room you were in.

R2 added furniture -- adjacent tables, mechanisms on the walls. Now we could talk about "the room" as a space that the game took place in. But these were still silent spaces: no history, no future.

In R3, as I said, we are given an architectural environment. We can move from room to room. We can backtrack to consider clues that were originally obscure. Occasionally the topology even becomes relevant, adding a Rhem-style puzzle or two.

These additions expand the scope for puzzle design. But do they add to the storyline? I don't think so. The journals tell us that this house is named "Greyholm", but that's the only mention of the house or anything in it, aside from undescribed "keys" and "parts of the Null". We get no history, no sense of events occurring here. We have no reason to imagine the Craftsman reading in his library or puttering in his greenhouse.

Now you may object: who says this game needs a sense of history? Perhaps the designers wanted to hew to the original R1 aesthetic -- an uncontexted puzzlebox -- while embracing the expanded puzzle possibilities of architecture. And I agree with that!

Or, from the other side: does Myst really have much more than this? Atrus writes about construction in his Ages, but you never get a picture of little Sirrus and Achenar playing in the planetarium or swimming by the dock. Myst Island resists being placed in any context beyond "they burned the library". And I agree with that too. (Although Cyan clearly saw that as a shortcoming; they stuffed as much history into Riven as it could swallow.)

So I am not criticizing The Room 3, but observing how I reacted to it: as a garden of puzzles in spotlights. The journals and letters, lacking historical context, presented themselves to me as irrelevant. So I didn't read 'em! I gave them one glance each, to check whether the pattern had been broken by a surprise clue or something, and then moved on with the "real" game.

The designers may be frustrated by this reaction. Here they are writing content and I'm ignoring it. (And I call myself a text game fan!) They're even trying to set up some narrative tension by having two sets of notes; one says "do the thing!" and the other says "it's a trap -- don't do the thing!" And I'm ignoring that too, because the game just doesn't have any space for it. There's no action you can take which corresponds to "don't fall into the trap". There are only puzzles. You solve the puzzles, or you quit out and go back to Pac-Man.

Myst, of course, set up a very similar narrative tension (red pages or blue pages?) but it managed to make it stick because you could make a choice. It was a silly choice, a clearly terrible choice, but the game let you express it. So you had a reason to at least listen. And then when the third alternative came along, you were engaged enough to count it a victory.

R3 tried an interesting variant of this. You progress through rooms, solving puzzles and collecting pieces of the Null. But as you do, you discover extra puzzles on the side. These appear unsolvable at first, but you can discover an "in" and begin solving them in parallel with the mainline puzzle rooms. Or not; up to you. If you complete both threads, then you can reach extra endings from the game's final scene.

These side puzzles are associated with the "it's a trap" notes -- but, since I was ignoring the notes, I didn't actually notice that until later. In retrospect, the designers must have intended this to be your choice: finish the main puzzle thread or the side puzzle thread? Accept the Null challenge or refuse it?

Except the game doesn't work that way at all, because puzzles are for solving. You're never forced to choose between the threads. You can work on either at your leisure; alternate threads or leave the side puzzles for later. (The side thread is unlocked by the main thread, so you can't solve it on its own. That's what makes it "side".) This is an open design (to a degree, but more open than R1 or R2 were) -- an excellent thing, but not a narrative choice. Final-scene choices are never narrative choices in the game, because the game is over.

(Yes, I'm talking about Myst here too.)

The game has structure; the main-vs-side puzzle construction is admirably clear. The final scene invites you to discover the extra endings -- unsolved puzzles, and then an extra goal beyond that -- purely through presentation. (The closing screen nudges you about which endings you've found, but it didn't have to.) My point is that this structure is not the narrative choice that the journals seem to be conveying. In fact it actively cuts against it; the game wants you to solve all the puzzles.

I'd extend this to the atmosphere, as well. The Room series has a tone of unearthly horror. But this does not flow from unreliable letter-writers or Lovecraftian tentacles. (The tentacles are kind of laughable.) It comes from the unexpected abrogation of your physical environment. You are simultaneously led to think of the world as real and as a directed dreamscape. When your expectations of structure, solidity, and architectural space fall out from under you -- that's what makes these games disturbing.

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Dan Fabulich (Nov 11, 2015 at 12:28 PM):

I feel that R3 was even less narrative than earlier Room games, or certainly less spooky.

In earlier games, you were reading AS's journal, and AS was clearly afraid of what he was discovering. Almost all of the notes in this game are from the Craftsman and they're all gloating. Nobody in this game except Maggie seems worried about anything at all.

And the lens! In R3, the lens is just a magic shrink ray; nothing's creepy about it. In R1, stuff would change when you put on the lens and take it off. Remember the svyz fgevc? Jvgubhg gur yraf, perrcl thl jvgu n fpengpurq bhg snpr. Jvgu gur yraf, gur thl'f ybbxvat ng lbh naq cbvagvat ng n jbeq. Jvgu gur yraf bss ntnva, gur thl'f tbar. Jvgu gur yraf ba ntnva, gur thl'f fgvyy tbar, ohg gur jbeq erznvaf. Was he ever really there to begin with? Are we going mad?

R3 reminded me, in a way, of Gone Home, which was told in the style of a horror game--in the style of Bioshock, where a splicer was going to jump out at you at any moment, but in Gone Home, it never actually did.

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