Game Review: The Room

The Room
Developer/Publisher: Fireproof Games
Platforms: iPad 2 or later: $2 (free demo level for iPhone 4S or later, with $2 in-game unlock of other levels)
Rated: 9+ for “infrequent/mild horror/fear themes”
Content descriptors: Occult symbols and references in both text and gameplay, persistent mood of unease. There are no characters per se, and therefore no graphic language or violence.
Parents should know: The horror/occult themes are little more than you’d find in a story by Lovecraft or Poe.

A somewhat tepid year in mobile gaming ended with a bang thanks to The Room, a devilishly clever puzzler that dropped in the fall and quickly earned a strong following and a number of awards, including the App Store’s own “Game of the Year” award.

The Room makes much of minimalist elements. It takes place, as you might have guessed, in a single room, with the action surrounding an elaborate puzzle box sitting on a table. Each chapter of the game involves solving a series of object puzzles imbedded in the box in order to get deeper inside. Four chapters end with a not hugely satisfying conclusion as you pass briefly beyond the room into …

Well, let’s not spoil it for you. The Room works basic Lovecraftian and occult tropes that hint of powers and dimensions beyond human understanding. There is no dialog: only notes left behind by the person who sealed the secrets inside the boxes to protect them from all but the most worthy. Most of this is merely atmosphere, however, and combined with an eerie score and sound effects, adds a steady background hum of nervous unease as you go about exploring the box’s many levels, drawers, buttons, doors, and mechanisms.

The game calls to mind Myst, but it’s a more tightly structured, and ultimately more satisfying, puzzle experience. Solutions are all based on examination, observation, and deduction. I wouldn’t say that the puzzles are hugely challenging, and it’s possible for an observant and skilled puzzler to finish all four chapters in less than 2 hours. If you examine the box long enough and carefully enough, in most cases solutions will present themselves.

That’s not to say it’s easy, but merely that it finds that fine line between frustrating and simple, and stays there for the duration. A couple of taps on the screen may solve one puzzle in a few seconds, but each puzzle solved merely opens the next as you plumb the depths of the puzzle box. It’s a very organic and fluid structure that puts the touch screen capabilities of the iPad to brilliant use.
For example, in the second chapter, you examine the box and find a seam that doesn’t quite match, indicating a hidden door that’s opened with a tap. Inside the door is a book with a puzzle clasp. It’s a simple matter to rotate some disks to unlock the book, but inside is a mysterious letter and a key. This sends to searching the box for where this particular key will fit. And so it continues, through dozens of challenges, both discreet and interlocking.

There are never more than a few things in inventory, and once they’re used they disappear, so there are no useless objects to manage. There’s no real object combination, but keys often feature moving parts, and need to be manipulated into certain shapes to fit a lock.

Helping the process along is an eyepiece, discovered in chapter 1, that allows you to see and manipulate an invisible dimension. Sometimes this is used just to reveal clues, but at several points you need to align various squiggles into an ubiquitous symbol that unlocks hidden places.

There are no characters, no dialog, and no movement: just a box you can view from different angles and letters from a mysterious figure. But it’s a game you just won’t be able to stop playing. Each element in the puzzle leads so perfectly to the next that it draws you along until you finish it. It may well be the best realized object puzzler of all time: a virtual Chinese box unbound by spatial limitations.