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Are The Room sequels getting worse?

More Room Is Less Room

September 26, 2016

I open with a confession. I've retreated from the position I camped out at in last year’s Stop Making Sequels essay in which I wrote “my gut tells me indies should beware of sequels because that commercial success is often a trap”. Why? Do I feel bad about laying into Tiger Style? No. I still reckon Spider 2 was a bad decision as opposed to forces conspiring against it.

Thing is sequels can be a good idea for creative reasons as well as financial. You may not have exploited all of the ideas you'd formulated for pragmatic reasons (it’s good to ship before you run out of cash) and feedback from a wide player base may generate new ideas you could capitalize on. Closing the door on a sequel may deprive the world of what your game was meant to be. Some people might expect free DLC to fit this particular bill, but I think commercially speaking we can all agree this is only a good idea if it’s an affordable way of creating more marketing buzz and thus sales.

Metanet Software’s N++ is a beautifully tuned update of their original platformer n. Whether it actually makes mone, considering it was in development for something like ten years, remains to be seen. However, N++ is quite brilliant and I’m glad it exists (although I’m going to moan a little about its looks at some point).

Then there’s The Room from Fireproof Games which has received two sequels thus far and likely to see more in the future. I played through all three games over the last couple of months on my smartphone (although two of the games are available on PC). For me, The Room Three came across as the unpolished, bloated original, and The Room flaunted the concept streamlined and polished to perfection.

Tell me, does the following sound like the recipe for a winning game?

  • Puzzles solved across multiple locations, where you are forced to watch a slow transition animation whenever you move from point to point... and the hub area is large. There are even two mazes which have to be explored in the same, sluggish manner.
  • Certain areas you need to zoom in and examine with double-tap, but often you need to zoom in several times on progressively smaller elements. This Matryoshka Dolls system of examination sometimes means you get lost: how many times do you need to pinch out to get back to the navigation level?
  • No natural link between many puzzle elements, A follows B because it was developed that way.
  • Environment littered with drawings and posters that intrigue - but you can’t zoom into any of it (some of you might get this reference: The Room Three wins the “Columbia Celebrates!” award)
  • An unseen antagonist reminiscent of Jigsaw who writes cryptic notes flattering your intelligence yet providing no real narrative meat other than “what we’re gonna do together is pretty rad”.

I suspect familiarity with the brilliant original is what has subdued critics when it comes to The Room Three's, frankly, outrageous flaws.

Trusted Reviews: “For Fireproof to still be able to push the envelope three games in is, perhaps, The Room 3's biggest mystery.”

IGN: “What’s most fascinating about The Room 3 compared to its predecessors is its focus on larger, more involved solutions.”

Pocket Tactics: “The controls aren't perfect and it's still on the short side, but The Room Three delivers exactly what you're promised: brooding and beautiful atmosphere with epic-length puzzles to solve.”

Vice: “ The third game is nothing short of brilliant. It's a densely packed experience that is constantly rewarding.”

It’s not a complete whitewash. The plot didn’t electrify anyone and Pocket Tactics also pointed out that swiping the environment (e.g. a switch) could sometimes move the camera instead. But these are still overwhelmingly positive responses to a game I abandoned in frustration for weeks until I forced myself to finish it off, just so I could delete it from my phone.

Himitsu-bako are what we know as Japanese puzzle boxes, but more accurately translated as secret boxes. I made a big deal about secret boxes two years ago in Screw Your Walking Simulators, arguing that the so-called walking simulators were just another example of games in which developers hid secrets for you to find rather than challenges to defeat. In the notes, I wondered if The Room was a secret box game about secret boxes.

Generally, yes. The “puzzles” in The Room are less about testing your brain and more about testing your powers of observation. You twiddle different knobs and switches, hoping something will unlock and reveal… more twiddleable knobs and switches. It’s much like a 3D hidden object game particularly when The Room kits you out with an eyeglass that reveals invisible details providing an extra dimension to navigate.

The Room did not care to justify itself, offering up an horror story in which the unknown is to be feared and our hapless protagonist is compelled to unlock a secret box, despite all the signs pointing to this being a bad thing. It evoked Hellraiser more than Saw. It was perfect for touch screen and felt fresh, selling over a million copies in its first year, winning multiple awards.

The Room Two expanded the game from a secret box to exploring a room. The Room Three went further, to exploring a network of locations. This drift away from the game’s core competency to full-on Myst (Disclaimer: I only have a vague impression of what Myst is) has been received as progress, a good thing. Bigger is better! Bigger knows best!

But The Room was this gorgeous, tight experience: an unassuming little box covered with knobs and switches containing an incomprehensible threat.

One thing, however, saves The Room Three from a complete Electron Dance roasting. As a secret box, Fireproof Games do not really want you to get frustrated so the game keeps doling out hints like sweets. These hints didn’t always work and sometimes I fled to a walkthrough but the presence of the hint system means you’re generally pushing forward. A true secret box: don’t get jaded and bored, take a look at the hint! What saves The Room Three are its four alternate endings... which are included hint-free.

The Room Three tells you they exist but also admits that you’re on your own. Natually a quick Google search will reveal the truth, but this lack of hints changed my relationship with the game immediately. Instead of a chore of twiddles padded out with navigational taps, it was a proper adventure with secrets to solve. To be fair, it highlights how arbitrary some of the “puzzles” are: they’re on the same street that Gabriel Knight 3’s cat hair moustache puzzle lives. And it strikes me as bizarre that the most convoluted solution leads to a bad “Lost” ending.

It might sound like backhanded praise, but I swear the best thing about The Room Three was the end.

 


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Eight Links To Rule Them All

Chris Franklin on No Man’s Sky (YouTube). I can’t disagree with anything said here. I’ll probably take a different line for my own NMS film. *ahem* if I was making a film.

Steerpike on DOOM. "Hell Energy is clean-burning and affordable, and thanks to the miracle of Hell Energy humans can drive SUVs and leave the lights on and run the dishwasher endlessly."

GDC: What Do We Mean When We Say "Indiepocalypse"? (GDC Vault). Can use youtube-dl to grab it. Jeff Vogel, Randy Smith, Finji...

Alexis Kennedy on whether to add more content to a game or not. There is insight here not because it delivers answers but, instead, poses the right questions.

Screenlook. Electron Dance reader/viewer jeffool puts together videos which are collections of trailers to raise awareness for different games. While I thought the concept wouldn’t work, I ended up buying one game and watching another purely from putting myself in front of Screenlook. Lots of stuff in these I’d never heard of.

Profits Without Prosperity. If you want to know how executives are moving company capital directly into their hands - it’s through the practice of stock buybacks.

Steerpike on the Pathologic delay. "The vast majority of players never made it that far, because Pathologic 2005 was both incomprehensible and ruinously difficult to play. The game, having found success in Russia, was quickly machine translated and popped into a box for Western release. The result was a word-salad that only a Google Translate could produce."

Inside the Troubled Development of Star Citizen. I was torn whether to include this because I’m not that interested in this Star Citizen story. From the whole Kickstarter ecosystem perspective, Star Citizen is an outlier, symbolic more than educational. But this Kotaku piece is too well-researched to ignore.

Feel free to discuss anything in this post on the discussion page!
Joel.
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