Thoughts after playing The Room series

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.

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