The Rusty Lake series of puzzle video games is the weirdest I've ever played. (And this is taking into account Little Inferno, where the sole mechanic is burning stuff in a fireplace.) The horror movie The Shinning scares the heebie jeebies out of me, but the psychological horror in Rusty Lake is my cup of tea. The Shinning and Rusty Lake both only have a couple jump scares, and the rest is terrifying uncertainty. But only Rusty Lake has a fish smoking a cigar.
Go back to 2004, and World of Warcraft just launched (as did Facebook). Toshimitsu Takagi releases one of the first and most popular online escape games Crimson Room.* It starts with a few lines of text:
"I am shut up. I have to escape."
This is probably because it's a translation from Japanese, but one of my favorite parts is that when you click on something unimportant, the game tells you: "There is no strange thing." Crimson Room was released right as the Internet escape room genre was rising to popularity. The hallmark of these mystery games is the conceit: you're stuck in a room -- just four walls -- and you have to find a way out. Then you point and click your way to freedom. It reminds me of the riddle:
"You are in a locked room with no vents or windows. In the room is a bed, a piano, and a chair. How do you get out?"**
Jump to the present day. Escape rooms (the real world kind) are everywhere. Me, everyone I know, and their cousin's roommates have gone to one. (And, if I daresay so myself, some of them have attended a murder mystery dinner party.)
Society decided to keep the Internet, so we can continue playing escape room video games. Rusty Lake's puzzles are strange, sinister, and a little scary. (They've made 13 of them so far, a delightfully inauspicious number.) Not unusual for the genre, there is an entire lore surrounding the series as a whole. For example, each Submachine game ends with "to be continued," followed up by another game. Rusty Lake sports a complex multi-generational family, and each game covers a small part of their history. The picture above is from Cube Escape: Harvey's Box (you can play it for free), which should give you a sense of the game's, shall we say, aesthetic.
The confines of an escape game (whether physical or digital) make the design tight and focused. I love flying in a jet for 30 miles (and subsequently crashing it into a mountain) in an open world game, but there's something satisfying about puzzling over every corner of a room. Everything is intentional. Murder mysteries, on the other hand, often rely on red herrings, twist and turns, and uncovering lies. The fun comes from tangling apart what's important and what you can throw out the window. But in an escape room, you can't throw anything out the window, because there aren't any windows (at least ones that will open). You need everything you've got, and you're given everything you need. Even if you're stuck, somewhere there is a "strange thing."
Rusty Lake is a bizarre masterpiece of psychological horror. Other escape the room games range from the well polished to rough and ready, which are obviously labors of love. I enjoy both, but I have a fondness for the unpolished, made-by-one-person games. They add another level of eeriness; sometimes a perfectly rendered world feels safe compared to four walls hacked together.
Many escape the rooms mysteries are bleak---because naturally, you're escaping from something. A nasty something. Some games are quick to beat, so if you've got twenty minutes, they're a nice diversion. And if you want something really weird, go for Rusty Lake.🔑
*If you want to play Crimson Room, use this link. The game breaks otherwise, now that it's not 2004 anymore.
**You use one of the piano keys, of course!