We Gotta Get Out of This Place (If it’s the Last Thing We Ever Do)

Horizons of Expectation in The Room Three

RoomThreeCover

Will is a PhD candidate in the University of Waterloo’s English Language and Literature department, where he studies videogame representations of Victorian women.  He was the real-life inspiration for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Great Gatsby (2013), and in his spare time he runs a multinational restaurant empire under the pseudonym “Jamie Oliver,” a character he created in the late eighties. Follow him on twitter @willfast, where he occasionally tells other, less clever lies. Oh yeah, he’s also associate editor for the essays section here at FPS.

If there’s one trait of videogame series about which I’ve always been certain, it’s that sequels in a series are essentially the same game as the original but with a different story.  Though the odd sequel is truly innovative, more often than not, the key principles of gameplay in a sequel will be roughly the same as in its precursors.  Whether I’m playing Halo or Halo 5, I will always massacre aliens; whether I’m playing Assassin’s Creed or Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, I will eventually leap from a height to stab a Templar in the head; and whether I am playing Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune or Uncharted: A Thief’s End, I will inevitably end up hurling my controller through the drywall when I die during a mission involving riding a jet-ski or a boat for the forty-fifth time in ten minutes.

Fireproof Games’ The Room Three seems, at first, just like The Room or The Room Two.  The premise of the game is just as basic as its two predecessors: escape from the room.  Solve puzzles in a particular order to unlock subsequent areas.  Each room is slightly more difficult to solve than the previous one, and once solved the player will ultimately escape the room(s)… or so the first two games would have us believe.  The Room Three intentionally defies the expectations that the first two Room games meticulously establish, and it was only when I failed to escape that I was made aware I even had these expectations.  From here on, I make use of Hans Robert Jauss’ reception theory to discuss my repeated failures to escape in The Room Three and how these failures came to alter my assumptions about the game.

 

A screenshot of the splash screen for The Room Three.

Buckle up.

How Did I Get Here?

If you have not yet played the Room games, you are by now possibly confused, but more likely bored.  “Really? An escape-the-room puzzle game?” you are thinking. “Like those comically poor mobile games that were popular for about three weeks in 2009? This Room game doesn’t sound like any big deal,” you are also thinking.  “More to the point,” you continue, “where does this author get off telling me what I’m thinking, even though he’s actually right, not to mention handsome?”  For all your smugness however, you could not be more wrong.

Despite sharing a name with a movie so bad it made me want to gouge my eyes out more violently than Oedipus did when he found out he’d had sex with his own mother, The Room is actually quite a thoughtful and well-made game; it is so well-made, in fact, that it sets up a three-game narrative arc that is not readily apparent until the end of the third game (unless you’re like intelligent or clever or something).

Every game in the Room series looks beautiful and the puzzles are incredibly intricate.  Some involve finding hidden keys, some involve making your own keys, and some involve finding hidden locks.  There are puzzles that require placing and turning gears in a certain order; memorizing patterns to be reproduced; finding hidden latches, switches, and doors; turning cranks; and finding secret messages – none of which are ever guaranteed to make any obvious change in a given room.  This is where the games’ invaluable hint systems come into play.

That’ll Teach You to Teach Me!

Every few minutes that passed without me making any progress in a room (not an infrequent occurrence), the hint bar at the top of the screen would flash.  The hints in the Room games are only progressively helpful, so the game was still challenging if I needed to use a hint.  The first hint would basically be a riddle which needed to be solved itself to be useful, the second would give a bit more help, and the third would essentially tell me exactly what to do next.  This system made me feel smart for not needing to use it but not like I was cheating when I did.  Despite this, whenever I found myself good and stuck in a room and the hint bar would begin to flash, lording its knowledge over me like some sort of disembodied Alex Trebek, I would begin to get angry at it.  How dare some bit of coding tell me I can’t solve this part of the puzzle?  I have a Master’s degree!

Being an incredibly petty person, I found after a while that the game became less about solving the puzzles and more about seeing how far I could get in a given room without using a hint.  My opponent was no longer the puzzles themselves but my own astonishing lack of patience and observational skill.  Obviously though, I would yield eventually and use the stupid hint.  Don’t look at me like that!  Some of the puzzles are really hard!

Beyond occasionally making me feel like a real-life Sherlock Holmes however, the hint systems in The Room and The Room Two did something else, something sneaky: they trained me to think about the puzzles in a certain way.  Playing The Room, I frequently made use of hints, but in The Room Two I began to look everywhere in a room for what to do next before using hints.  I tapped on and swiped any surface that looked like it might hide something, I zoomed in on every object I picked up to see if maybe it opened and contained something else, and I yelled at the game like Batman interrogating a low-level thug. What does this key open?! Where were the other drugs going?! Then when my phone wouldn’t answer me I’d hang it upside down out of a window by the headphones cord until it talked. It never talked.

By the time I got to The Room Three I was even a bit more patient when I couldn’t figure out a particular part of a puzzle right away, and my swear words per minute ratio was at its all-time lowest level: “young Gordon Ramsay.”  I was doing exceptionally well without using any hints in The Room Three; I even considered turning off the hint system.  Then the game stabbed me in the back, put a bag over my head, and pushed me down the stairs.

Puzzling Experiences on the Horizon

This is not literally what happened of course, but it did hurt to find out I had been played like a Sega Dreamcast on Christmas morning in 1999.  “You thought we were friends? We were never friends,” the game mockingly implied, like some sort of Jeff from my high school. I’ve always thought that no plot twist could make me feel as cheated as the one at the end of Signs  (2002), but the ending of The Room Three managed to outdo even the great and terrible M. Night Shyamalan.  The whole game is a set-up, it turns out, and what players think is simply escaping from rooms on an island estate is actually edging ever closer to becoming trapped in a mystical labyrinth for all eternity!  How is this the end of an escape-the-room puzzle game?

Reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss argues that when approaching a text, everyone has different “horizons of expectation” based on their previous knowledge of the genre and the specific text in question, as well as their lived experiences in general.  Essentially, when two people read a book (or in this case play a videogame) they experience it differently because they each have vastly different expectations of what will happen based on their individual lived experiences.  This is, for instance, the reason why only someone who had never seen an episode of The Big Bang Theory would expect it might be funny.  If The Room Three was the first puzzle game I had ever played, I wouldn’t have known what to expect and thus would not have felt as betrayed by the ending.  Because I had played escape-the-room games before and because I had specifically played The Room and The Room Two however, I was primed for failure in The Room Three; I did not escape the island on my first playthrough.

Read This Carefully, or Your Soul is Mine

Upon replaying The Room Three I now see there are actually quite a number of ways my character’s untimely demise is clearly predicted (and that my earlier comparison of the game to Signs is wholly unwarranted).  However, the majority of these clues are in the form of letters, newspaper clippings, and other texts found throughout the game.  I initially skimmed over these because, I hope it goes without saying, I was busy trying to play a videogame and they were getting in the way.  Reading?? If I wanted to read a terribly-written book I would have just reread The Catcher in the Rye or played Super Paper Mario.

In most games requiring far too much reading – your Elder Scrolls, your Fallouts, your Assassin’s Creeds, your Dragon Ages and so forth – the majority of in-game text merely fills in lore or other boring backstory for the game world and so can be skimmed or ignored altogether; this is also true of The Room and its follow-up.  In The Room Three however, the bits of story contained in letters throughout the game are suddenly linked directly to whether or not the player escapes the island estate which serves as the game’s setting.  I largely ignored the letters and worried only about solving each smaller puzzle, never realizing that the letters were the key to solving the overall puzzle of how to escape.  Even when I did read some letters, they often flattered me and my kick-ass room-escaping abilities and so I overlooked the more sinister letters.  Sure there was the odd suggestion that someone or something was trying to capture my soul to power some unearthly evil machine, but THE GAME SAID I WAS CLEVER YOU GUYS!  Basically, I was stupid and so clearly that was the game’s fault.

I felt betrayed by The Room Three not because it was a poor quality game (it’s arguably the best in the series), but because everything I had been taught to do in the first two games had altered my horizon of expectation such that I would play the game in the style the hint system had encouraged.  In the first two games, puzzles need to be solved in a certain order, or are at least are self-contained within one room.  To get to the one of four possible endings of The Room Three in which I actually escaped, I had to solve puzzles that took me all over the manor and were interrelated in a very non-intuitive way.  My expectation was that solving puzzles in each room would lead to escaping, but I uncritically stumbled into what I am calling the “sucker’s ending” of the game because I was so darned sure that this sequel would be essentially the same game as the original but with a different story.

Escape this Commentary

Do I ever get tired of being so wrong? Surprisingly, no.  Even though all I’ve written here might seem to suggest otherwise, I very much enjoyed having The Room Three pull the rug out from under me because it made me hyper-aware of what my expectations for the game (and all escape-the-room games) are.  This subversion allowed me to have what I felt was a unique and original experience in a genre that has been around for years and has become rather stale, and I hope that more mobile developers begin to play with player expectations when making sequels.

If I learned any actual lesson from my time with The Room Three it is this: read the backstory that games provide.  The Room games are drastically different when their story is carefully considered. The game world they form is not really about puzzles at all, but about alternate universes, undiscovered elements, séances, cruel scientific experiments, and warping of space-time.  There is even a website dedicated to piecing together fan theories about the story of The Room series based on the scraps of paper and letters found throughout the three games.

Since this experience I have developed a newfound appreciation for lore and backstory, so much so that whereas I was excited for the release of The Room Three because I loved the puzzles in the first two games, I am most excited for the upcoming release of The Room: Old Sins later this year to see where the story goes.  Will I read every tiny scrap of paper in the new Room? You’d better believe I will.  Did I read every little bit of lore and additional backstory in the newest Assassin’s Creed, Dragon Age, and Fallout games I’ve played since The Room Three’s release? Nope. Hey, I was busy trying to play a game and they were getting in the way.