Exploring an old room, putting memories together, trying to piece together a narrative - it's a theme we've seen a few times of late, and it's one that has to be handled carefully and meticulously. So it's rather a pleasure to report that's exactly the case for the entirely free Marie's Room, a short exploration game set primarily in a single bedroom.
I only stumbled on this today, when diving into Steam's ludicrous new releases. I'm really glad I did. It's clear from the beginning of Marie's Room that something's wrong. You're returning to a place, to Marie's Room, at some point in the future. Walking along the landing you can look at photos on the walls, and receive responses about the people that don't make sense to you, the player, not yet. The people in the photographs are alien to you. And then you walk into the packed up room, just a few remnants left of an old life, and on a box, a journal. You're there to collect it. And on picking it up, transported back into your memories of this place as it once was.
From here on the main purpose of the game is to look around. To look at every object with which you can interact. Your character, Kelsey, narrates her memories of the time with each interaction, and this in turn fills in empty spaces in Marie's scrapbooked diary. The more you look at, the more of the incidents of years ago are pieced together, eventually culminating in a satisfying explanation of what took place.
To do this requires no small amount of skill, since the player can explore any area of the room in any order they wish. And that's what makes Marie's Room so successful and so satisfying in its telling. At first I wasn't sure who was who, what any of Kelsey's comments meant, but putting it all together a shape began to emerge, and one that was satisfying to re-establish by looking at previous items again.
The game also cleverly gates a couple of pieces of information, one by a computer password that requires some degree of exploring to discern, the other a combination that requires a fair amount more. But it really is only these two elements that are inaccessible from the very beginning, letting you combine the rest in any order you fancy.
By the time the story was told, and I was walking back along that opening hallway once more, there was a really superb sense of having been somewhere, known some people, understood another's tale, despite the short length. Looking at those photos on the walls once again, they were no longer alien, but familiar.
It's not entirely perfect, of course. The writing is strong, and Kelsey's voice acting is great, but it's perhaps a little too on the nose by the end. I like the unknowns I was left with, but the final wrap-up did a little too much of the heavy lifting of the storytelling. If there had been a way to more heavily hint toward the final revelations as you're exploring, rather than just get told them, it would have been a lot more impactful.
Also, the game's decision not to have any form of save system, for the given reason that it's intended to be played in one sitting, is plain stupid. Not everyone has time for that, and real life happens to people in the middle of playing games - there's no good reason why it shouldn't just remember progress for anyone needing to switch off before it's done.
Created by just two people, Kenny Guillaume and Dagmar Blommaert, it's a huge achievement in a small space. Obviously reminiscent of Gone Home (and there are a couple of nods hidden in there), it manages to feel different enough in its approach to stand apart. And indeed that it packs all the detail into one room is no small feat.
I do wonder whether they'll regret its being free! It'd certainly have been worth a few pounds, even at around an hour long. But it very much is free, so you'd be silly not to grab it.
Marie's Room is out now for Windows via Steam for no monies.