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.) Rusty Lake is psychological horror at its best: it has a few jump scares to keep you on your toes, and the rest is terrifying uncertainty. And it has an attractive fish smoking a cigar, which should give you a sense of the game's, shall we say, aesthetic.
(The screenshot is from the game Cube Escape: Harvey's Box ,which you can play for free.)
Go back to the internet of 2004. 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. But society decided to keep the internet, so the digital escape rooms carry on.
Rusty Lake's puzzles are strange, sinister, and a little scary. Many escape room mysteries are bleak---because naturally, you're escaping from something. A nasty something. And added to the mystery of how to escape is the mystery of why you've been trapped. And who trapped you. And what's on the other side of the door. Many escape rooms span multiple games, building up their world game by game. Rusty Lake sports a complex multi-generational family, and each game covers a small part of their history. A family so large that it merits its own Wiki. (The lore of the Submachine series also comes to mind.)
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. You need everything you've got, and you're given everything you need. Even if you're stuck, somewhere there is a "strange thing."
There are hundreds of online escape rooms, ranging from the well polished to the 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.
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.🔑
*Crimson Room is still available to play. It jumps around from website to website, but a quick Google search should turn something up.
**You use one of the piano keys, of course!