The Room and Other Computer Game Puzzles
The Room came out back in 2012 and won enough awards to get its own Wikipedia page. I decided to give it a whirl to see what the fuss was about. It can be picked up cheaply as a mobile game, or for a few pounds on Steam in a revamped desktop incarnation.
It’s a short game, possible to complete in an evening. It’s also easy to see why it’s popular as it’s beautifully presented, accessible and contains nothing taxing enough to cause severe frustration.
But all the way through I spent more time thinking about other games, and the numerous problems with computer puzzle games as a genre. Problems that have rarely been solved.
For me, puzzle games on computers started in the 1980s with Granny’s Garden on the BBC Micro. I still remember how that game relied almost entirely upon trial-and-error to find your way through, with one wrong choice sending you back to the beginning. Great fun for an 8-year-old!
I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with trial-and-error as a puzzle game concept: not every problem can be solved with logic and deduction. But it has to be done with care.
My favourite trial-and-error game is probably Grow, from 2002. It features 12 objects that have to be fed into a giant sphere in the correct order to make it “grow”.
Mathematically daunting, the millions of different combinations are gradually whittled down as you observe the outcomes of your various guesses. The game works on one level because so many of the dead ends produce interesting outcomes with fun animations and sound to reward you even when you get it wrong.
I think the reason Grow really works is that trial-and-error is obviously the way the puzzle is MEANT to be solved. There is no other way and the game never misleads you into thinking you need to be clever to win at it. [Note: I see the latest version of Grow has a “hint” button. I think that spoils the joy of game and urge you not to even consider using it!]
There are a number of puzzles in The Room which I solved using trial-and-error. I think that’s how they were intended to be solved, but I’m not certain, and they jar with the rest of the game.
Puzzles in The Room are almost all of the type where you are presented with a lock, so you need to search for a key. Sometimes you’re really looking for a physical key, sometimes you’re looking for a word or a number sequence, sometimes you’re looking for a hidden panel or disguised switch, but there’s always a key of some sort. Except when there isn’t.
Solving a puzzle by trial-and-error when you’re not certain a clue hasn’t been missed somewhere else is irksome. Fortunately, there are not too many puzzles of this sort in The Room. It helps that the game invites you to play with around with items as if they were real physical objects and, by and large, the interface into the game is well done. But, especially for the trial-and-error puzzles, a slight slip of the mouse (or finger) can knock something the wrong way and force you to start again.
Which brings me to the other downfall with so many computer puzzle games: struggling with the interface. For me, the king of games when it comes to this problem has always been the Myst series.
Ah, Myst. The game that got so much right and so much catastrophically wrong.
I recently revisited Riven, the sequel to Myst. I struggled through it to almost the end but, by the time I had reached the final puzzle, I was thoroughly worn out by the game’s interface and just looked up the solution.
The problem with the Myst games is the scattering of important clues across a labyrinthine world. Puzzles in games are rarely mentally challenging. Often the way to solve a given puzzle is immediately obvious, but you need to retrace your steps, through a labyrinth of rooms, click-click-click, to find some obscure marking that you saw several hours earlier.
Worse, you’ve found a puzzle and know there’s a vital piece missing, but do not know if that piece lies ahead of you or if you simply missed it somewhere in the labyrinth behind you. Perhaps the vital clue was hidden in a single pixel in screen 93 out of 274.
Struggling with an interface to search for a needle in a haystack is not puzzle solving and, for me at least, not a fun game.
The Room avoids this problem by restricting the puzzles to confined spaces. Each challenge is a puzzle box and all the pieces are immediately at hand. There is a fair amount of random clicking to be done to reveal subtle hidden panels and switches, but Myst-levels of aimless searching are avoided. The downside of this confinement is that all the puzzles are linear. You solve one, then move on to the next with little or no choice about order.
The best games at finding a balance between open-world aimlessness and linear simplicity are probably the LucasArts adventure games from the 1990s. Sometimes they had their moments of hiding clues behind the point-and-click interface, but the worlds they created were simple to traverse so that you were rarely fighting the game itself.
Key to the success of the LucasArts games were their stories. Good characters, pages of funny dialogue, and an actual narrative flow all made you want to spend time exploring. The puzzles themselves were often mad and illogical, but all made sense within the narrative and fit within the world.
Fans will deny it, but Myst never had a decent story to back it up and what little story there was was told in solemnly turgid prose. The puzzles also never made much sense within the context of the world, often being disconnected from the reality the storytellers were trying to create.
The Dig was one of LucasArts most flawed masterpieces, yet it achieved a real sense of a decayed world. The puzzles were about fixing machinery and using unfamiliar technology rather than solving an abstract puzzle which would somehow open a door or start up a dormant train.
The Room follows the Myst mould of storytelling and puzzle-setting. Mercifully short notes have been left by your predecessor as you unlock the different stages of the puzzle box. These notes reveal an uninspiring backstory in a failed effort to create tension. The fact that the keys to open the box are all hidden within the box itself also never makes much sense, detracting from the reality that the game tries to present.
After that extended rant, I’ll finish with something The Room does well: it takes advantge of the fact that it’s a computer game.
Several of the game’s puzzles could not exist in reality and are based on altered perspectives and a magic lens that reveals another dimension. This single idea alone makes the game worth picking up if you have a few hours spare and a few pounds to burn.
Ultimately, The Room is a beautifully made game with enough interesting ideas to make it worthwhile. Once finished, however, it is quickly forgotten and I find myself with no interest in picking up the next two games in the series.