Rusty Lake Hotel [official site] is a game I have meant to write about on RPS for so long. I missed its release, and found it by luck on my phone when searching for interesting escape-the-room games. And wow, did I find interesting. And not only did I discover the incredible Rusty Lake Hotel game, a dark and devastatingly creepy murder mystery adventure, but also their catalogue of remarkably unsettling and often brilliant free Cube Escape games. Each release fits into a larger mythology that feels ominously huge and yet barely understood, awful stories of gruesome deaths and mysterious looming bird-headed figures, time-bending weirdness, and an overriding notion of cruelty that's hard to quantify. In short, they're completely wonderful. So I enter Rusty Lake: Roots [official site] with a great sense of anticipation. Here's wot I think:
Things start off innocuously. These games have always been about simple interaction with complex or surreal notions - designed to be played with a single finger, but asking you to think in peculiar ways. So you know it's starting off in the mid 19th century, there's a dude in braces and a hat, in a garden stood next to a well, and a letter in his pocket informing him that his uncle's died, and he's left you his house and "a very special seed". Huh. "Plant it and start your own family." Huh.
What's immediately apparent is this is very much a game intended for touch screens, and while a mouse cursor obvious manages all the same interaction, it's pretty unavoidable that it's not how they intended for it to be played. Circle icons appear when you let go of a mouse click, to show the player where your finger touched - something completely unnecessary on PC. Interaction is greatly dependent on dragging the screen, which again feels natural when sliding a finger around, but very unnatural when using a cursor. And indeed it's running in Flash, which never feels like a natural fit on a desktop. And yet, on the first appearance of that fucking bird-man shadow-thing, brrrrrrrrr, it has me.
So you do the point-and-click adventure thing. Get the watering can, fill it from the well, get a dog to dig a hole for a seed by asking it to bury a bone - all that sort of usually unusual stuff. Plant the seed, water it, and you grow what appears to be a literal and metaphorical family tree.
You're back in control again, further to the right in this garden, with a door that appears to require three jewels to open. Again, adventure stuff: get the bird's nest from the roof, feed the bird a worm you've found, get a jewel. All a vocabulary accepted and understood by decades of adventure gaming, despite its bizarre internal logic, but then one that's rather appropriately shattered when you break a glass window and there he is. The bird-headed man. Appears, disappears, and you know you're back in Rusty Lake, the most intelligently creepy place I know of in video games.
You then proceed to play through thirty-three vignettes set from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century, following the lives of three generations of a family - a family that seemingly exists to provide, well, body parts. Parts for the reincarnation of... something.
What Rusty Lake (the name of the developer too, allowing the creepy circle to form) does best is consistency in the strangeness of their creations. You can play Roots on its own, and be introduced to their world, without missing out. But if you've already played everything else in their collection, it rewards by maintaining its dark lore. And that's depicted as simply as by its drawing a white square on the screen. I know that sounds silly out of context, but in-game, when the scratchy, shaky squares appear, you know something's up. You know shit might go down. And there's something awful about them, about how they rapidly flicker like epileptic geometry, how they seem to exist in the game world, rather than as an interface overlaying it.
Oddly, despite this macabre setting and goals, Roots definitely ends up slightly lacking in the intense creepiness that defines the Rusty Lake oeuvre. While it's constantly interesting, and very odd, I think over thirty different settings stretched the concept a little too thin, resulting in reliance on some hoary puzzles. While there are those completely apposite to the context, grim challenges involving feeding wine to babies, inflicting awful wounds by voodoo, and peculiar conundrums involving runes and stars, there's also the bloody six frogs puzzle and even the water jug riddle, rendered completely verboten since its inclusion in Die Hard With A Vengeance. A few too many scenes go by without anything strange at all, and feel incongruous.
But it does contain trademark features, unsettling moments, and it's funny too, in a ghoulish way. Finding a dead body means tweaking its nipple until it comes off, and then you go inside the hole to explore, before eventually emerging from his mouth. Of course. Plus, once you've finished the game there's a further set of bonus puzzles to complete, which when completed open up a final super-elaborate puzzle that's absolutely fantastic.
If you're looking for answers for the many clues the series has laid so far, you won't find them here. Or you might, but they won't make sense. Or they didn't to me. I've no idea. And while it's not as impactful as Rusty Lake Hotel, or my favourite Cube Escape, Seasons, there's an absolute ton going on here for a crazy tiny £2.
I heartily recommend you get Rusty Lake Hotel for a mere £1.60, as well as Rusty Lake: Roots for two quid. And then splurge on the amazing free Cube Escapes, each of which adds to the Rusty Lake universe in a peculiar way. You'll be so glad you did.