I’ve been playing a few cheap/nearly free ‘adventure’ games on the Android lately. These are of the ‘get item/use item in appropriate location’ style adventures. Ever since the early days of these things (even before they became graphical and were text based) one problem the genre had was that sometimes there didn’t appear to be any logic involved in which item was used where. The worst examples become an exercise in simply trying every object you have on every object you can see.
The other issue is that once you really start thinking about these things, you wonder just how some objects got there in the first place, and how you’re finding them so fortuitously. If a game does it well, you don’t notice this, but once you do notice it, you can’t stop.
While The Room (TR) and The Room Two (TR2) are more compact and focused, they still fit into this category of game and could have had the same issues. Instead, the puzzles, and solutions seem quite natural, even if solving them is just as convoluted as in some of the worst examples of adventure games.
As with any writing, you can get away with a lot as long as you keep the suspension of disbelief. In a world with magic, you can get readers to just accept the magic as long as it follows its own internal rules. If, for example, you say that a magic user has to expend the same energy to do something by magic as they would by doing the same thing physically, then having the same magic user tearing up mountains and throwing them around is likely to break that suspension.
In many puzzle games they either don’t justify the locations of items and the solutions, or they justify them poorly. Some, like the Monkey Island series are set in a fantastical, comic world where things are often justified simply because they’re funny. Others (HitchHikers Guide to the Galaxy from Infocom springs to mind) use everyday items as the solutions to many puzzles, so finding them, and using them, doesn’t seem too contrived.
TR and TR2 play the trick a different way. In TR you begin with the conceit that someone has carefully set up the puzzles to protect something from others. You are introduced, slowly, to more and more complex devices, and then a simple type of “magic” is introduced. At the same time, the atmosphere goes from ‘a normal room with a curious puzzle box’ to a feeling that the room no longer exists in the world you thought it did. Instead of strange solutions, or things that couldn’t work in reality breaking the suspension of disbelief, you instead come to expect the strangeness.
TR2 starts you off in another world. You’re stuck in a room with two tables, with the rest of the room mostly dark, or with strange structures or machinery just on the edge of visibility. There are also the notes left by your predecessor that hint at ‘something’ that might be constructing these rooms.
Immediately this allows for puzzles that would normally feel contrived or plain silly. It also allows for things to happen that would be completely impossible in our world, and yet are fine here, because this isn’t our world. The other thing that the setup allows is for the internal rules to change. As you move from room to room, you get the feeling that each room has its own rules – so there is no need for them to keep to one set of internally consistent rules. As long as they keep them consistent within a room, they can change them completely between rooms.
I guess it’s -a type of training. Instead of just using the story to justify the puzzles, they’re actually training us to expect the strange, the bizarre, the convoluted. It also means that it’s surprising when a puzzle is as simple as put key in lock. In fact, it’s almost disappointing.
Personally, I’m hoping they take this whole idea even further in The Room 3 (there will be one, right?). It would be fascinating if we can shift from ‘normality with hints of otherworldly’ (TR), to ‘otherworldly with roots in reality’ (TR2) to ‘otherworldly with very little to do with reality’. I want to see what puzzles they might come up with if broken from the need to have any kind of nod to reality in there.