Could The Room's success predict a new trend?

Leigh Alexander looks at Fireproof Studios' iPad hit The Room in the context of a legacy of "escape the room" puzzle titles -- and finds massive opportunity for an under-explored iOS genre.
A glittering, tactile puzzle box holds the secret to an abstract mystery: That's the basic idea behind iOS hit The Room, whose production values, depth and polish earned it an "iPad Game of the Year" award from Apple in 2012, leading it past 1 million in sales, according to reports. The Room feels both rich and intimate, making full use of the iPad's touch and tilt functionality to pull players in to engage with delicate object puzzles that unlock elements of a complex box that opens up into an almost surreal experience suggesting alchemical secrets. The smart design and the unique sense of engaging with something that feels solid might be a result of developer Fireproof Studios' heritage in traditional development -- the studio is comprised of Criterion Studios vets who went on to do work for hire on other big games like LittleBigPlanet. Migrating AAA quality values into the iOS space has seemed like a good idea to many for some time, but The Room succeeds because of how well it leverages the natural functionality of the iPad. The game is definitely onto something, and its success suggests major further opportunities for object-oriented puzzle games on the device. The Room puts one in mind of another trend -- alongside the rise of Flash games on the web there was a brief boom in an artsy, abstract genre loosely known as "escape the room"; restricted basically to point-and-click inputs but without the tech or means to develop complicated full-scale adventure games, "escape the room" titles offered exploration puzzles limited to small spaces. The genre name says it all -- the games usually set the player in a single, locked room, where exploration and the manipulation of puzzles and containers in the area are gradually solvable, allowing the player to discover codes that unlock panels that offer objects that interact with other objects and gradually lead to the unlocking of the final door. One of my favorite examples of these is an oldie-but-goodie: A game called Guest House, by Terminal House, that uses the constraint of minimalism to create an engaging experience. Constraint can result in interesting designs: The challenge of making a single room complex and substantial, or of creating an object-driven narrative around such limited resources -- escape the room games rarely involve significant dialogue or animation, since the sense of mystery and isolation is often enhanced by ambient sound, a stripped-down interface or the absence of other characters. Those same constraints are what makes The Room so appealing, and also what makes it work so well on iPad, where the user's limited to touch input and where the device functionality seems naturally suited to experiences about object manipulation. The Room also has the relatively-high production values that escape the room games traditionally don't -- there is a selection of games in that genre on iPad, but none of them are of particularly striking quality. 100 Floors tasks the player with entering increasingly complicated elevator doors, but it's simplistic enough that it often feels clunky, and the repeated door motif isn't as immersive as confining the experience to a single intimate and considered place. Since escape the room is in some ways a response to early tech trends and significant design constraint, it's rare to see them made at striking quality levels. But the success of The Room, and the unexplored territory of escape the room games, offer surprisingly fertile ground for developers looking to pioneer the next hit genre on iOS. The Room is a puzzle box that invites players in, not an escape game that challenges them to get out, but the appeal is similar. The constraint and intimacy in escape games might be a strong foundation for an iPad game, and the touch and tilt interface offers the opportunity for the genre to surpass some of its traditional limitations. One of the issues that kept escape the room games from surging past the Flash portal heyday into broad popularity like other kinds of puzzle games (besides the deceptive challenge of making well-paced, engaging puzzles at just the right level of difficulty) was the old pixel-hunt; in order to add depth to complicated rooms the games often asked players to find tiny details or to intuitively know that an object could be looked-behind, which often made clicking clumsy and random. Stuck players start clicking all over the screen in a desperate hunt for clues, which becomes frustrating and breaks the experience. But The Room thrives on how good it feels to interact with: Hidden compartments pop open when touched, little cranks click elegantly when turned. The puzzle box's structure has rules that keep the player from feeling permanently lost; the solutions are always nearby and never feel unfair. The game's built-in hint system also is balanced and paced such that stuck players can get help, but not ruin the challenge. What about an escape the room game that used touch in a similarly-valuable way, sidestepping the clicky frustration of its Flash predecessors? There's another reason escape puzzles might find a popularity surge on iPad if adequately-explored, and it's their resemblance -- or relationship, at least -- to the mainstay Hidden Object genre. Hidden object games have seen wide popularity because of their intuitive gameplay and the abstract storytelling that becomes increasingly necessary for them to sell. Modern hidden object games are wrapped in surprisingly-adult storytelling, in order to make the relatively-simple objective of searching items out of an image feel more meaningful, and to motivate the player forward to unravel the plot. The Room uses a simple narrative concept to provide a loose objective and some thematic and visual unity to its experience -- a series of discarded letters suggests the player is exploring the lost artifact of an alchemist whose fate is unknown. This kind of object-oriented storytelling could do with more exploration, and "you find yourself in a mysterious room with no way out" is a storytelling prompt that offers an intriguing number of options. No doubt developers will look to see what they can learn from the success of The Room, and classic escape-puzzlers with mystery storytelling and puzzles that scratch the itch to touch as well as to be bewildered are a next-frontier with a ton of potential.

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