This entry covers The Room 1-3, plus The Room: Old Sins.

The Room series is an absolute master class in tactile puzzle UX/design. I don’t know if there’s a specific term to describe it, but I’ve variously called it things like “mechanical interaction” and “physical manipulation.” It describes the overall process of how the player can interact with objects within the game; a combination of how the object is visually (and sometimes audibly) presented, the physical actions a player can use to interact with the object, and how those actions manifest in changes to the object. The Room series excels in its approach to all three areas.

An important principle I learned when studying web UX is that while children enjoy hunting for interactions, adults do not. Or to put it another way: if you want a user to interact with something, it should be visually apparent that they can do so. These games make heavy use of visual cues (e.g. evenly-spaced parallel lines indicates an object can be rotated/moved) to help the player to see what they can do (if they are observant enough) and avoid a great deal of clicking on random things to see what happens. They also include a lot of visual clues about the “steps” necessary for a mechanism (e.g. a lock needs to be removed before a bar can be shifted to unblock a door) to give the player a clear plan of attack. These measures don’t remove 100% of roadblocks and frustration, but I found that I’d typically get stuck because I hadn’t yet seen something important, rather than because I didn’t realize I could do something with the things I’d seen.

A prime example of this is how The Room requires the user to click and drag for most interactions with objects: opening doors, flipping switches, spinning wheels, rotating objects, etc. In many other games these actions would boil down to a simple “click” to interact, which is simple and intuitive, but also can leave the game feeling a bit “flat” and artificial. Given the user more fine-grained controls introduces more complexity, but when handled well it can make the world feel much more immersive and satisfying to navigate/manipulate. I won’t dig into all the small details about how they did this portion well, but suffice to say that it’s easily the most polished and easy-to-use implementation of this style of interaction I’ve seen. Aside from a few minor quirks with how the game recognizes “rotation” (likely due to having played the PC port; the game was originally designed for iPad) and some practical limitation in how inventory items are used, the majority of interactions in the game are downright pleasant.

In terms of difficulty, I’d place the series more at the “casual” end, so don’t expect a great deal of complexity in the puzzles. Though it does sprinkle in some relatively simple traditional puzzle elements (locating combinations, laser/mirror puzzles, mazes, etc.), the bulk of the game is focused around being observant and creative with how you’re able to examine and explore. I don’t consider this to be a negative; it feels intentional, and it’s executed well. Even though there are many periods of “find the next interaction to proceed down a linear set of actions” – the interactions themselves are satisfying enough to keep me engaged from start to finish.

All four games keep a surprisingly high level of consistency and quality throughout, though if I had to pick I’d say that the first and fourth entries were my favourites. In the first, I really enjoyed the sense of working on a single densely-packed puzzle in a limited space that would continually unfold and grow into something more and more impossibly complex. The middle two entries experimented more with spreading out the puzzles across more objects and rooms which I felt was more narratively compelling, but diluted the experience somewhat. The fourth entry finally got to a point where the openness really paid off, and was presented in a way that managed to interweave various puzzles in different ways to still give it that densely-packed and unfolding feeling.

I would recommend The Room series to just about anyone who doesn’t explicitly dislike puzzle games. I will note that the games do progressively start to add more horror/suspense elements, so avoid if you don’t like creepy/spooky content. I would consider these games to be a “must read” for anyone who wants to develop a game that features the sort of “mechanical interaction” that I’ve described here.

Spiritfarer is a special game; it’s truly a marvel. It falls into the category of game I call “perfect.” Not that I think it’s objectively without any flaws, but rather that it’s such an exceptional experience that despite any flaws it still feels perfect. The game’s whole package of aesthetics and mood showed off an incredible amount of care, attention, and intention, and any compromises it made felt fully necessary in service of the game’s broader themes.

At its core, Spiritfarer is a game about a very difficult topic – the inevitability of death – and it feels like virtually every design decision was made with the purpose of making that difficult topic easier to confront and process. This purpose manifests in a sense of gentleness and comfort that permeates the art, story, writing, sound design, mechanics, pacing, and so on. There are no “hard edges” in this game – so to speak – there’s such little opportunity for frustration for feeling overwhelmed; progress is easy, constant, and un-rushed; the audio is slow and calming; the animations smooth and satisfying. It helps the player to reach the natural conclusion of each character’s story of being guided to the afterlife – and engage with many different realities of that process – without dread, guilt or resentment.

In a game full of strong assets, the ones I felt the strongest had to be the art and sound direction. The careful integration of these three aspects resulted in moods and tones were not only remarkably consistent, but also very powerful. The delicate sounds of an oar gliding through the water as I paddled in silence – bringing a spirit towards the Everdoor through calm red water – created a sense of tranquility that I felt in my bones and will likely never forget.

If I had to describe the writing in a few words, I’d pick “grounded” and “thoughtful.” The characters felt incredibly believable, and while they didn’t necessarily resemble any of my personal relationships I could imagine myself having them, or imagine my loved ones having these relationships with their loved ones. They all had their own strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes, motivations, and goals. I also adored how the character stories were allowed to progress on the characters’ terms, sometimes in ways that defied the players’ expectations; they were able to decide when they were ready “to go” and were allowed to do so in the manner of their choosing.

Similar to what I had mentioned in Thoughts after playing Manifold Garden, Spiritfarer was careful not to get into its own way when executing its strengths. For a game that takes 20+ hours to play through, the gameplay itself does require a fair bit of meat to avoid getting repetitive. However, adding any significant challenge could risk evoking unwelcome emotions in such a carefully crafted emotional landscape. Instead the “challenge” of the game is largely a low-stakes logistical puzzle of exploration and obtaining various materials in order to unlock new areas, materials, characters, etc. The majority of tasks either had no true failure state – producing a minimal level of progress even if done “poorly” – or were quick and simple to retry. The player is also encouraged to take their time with no critical time-based outcomes: crops do not wilt if left unattended, food doesn’t burn if left in the oven, and so on. Characters will become hungry over time, but that exists more as a motivation to interact with them regularly and experiment with cooking, as I don’t think there is any mechanical consequence to letting a character go hungry (though there is an emotional one!) At some point this does leave some of the gameplay feeling a bit hollow and rote, but never to the determent of the game’s primary purpose. And, to its credit, the mechanical progression was very well designed and satisfying; the gameplay kept me engaged right up until ran out of new things to unlock and the remainder of the work was gathering up various quantities of already-available materials.

I didn’t have a specific topic to tie these thoughts to, but I felt that it’d be a disservice if I didn’t mention: 1) yes, you can pet the cat, and 2) you can hug every spirit that comes aboard your boat, and it’s always adorable.

I would recommend this game to folks who like powerfully emotional story-driven games, low-stakes management sims, and high-quality game design. The subject matter can be rather difficult so that’s an obvious caveat, but as someone who has a lot of hang-ups about death and mortality (and can easily fall into angst and rumination about it) I found myself leaving the game with a healing and hopeful (if bittersweet) mood.