An eldritch game about opening boxes just might be the best game to play on your phone this year.
It's 3 AM on Wednesday morning and I am doing something I haven't done since I was about 16 years old, playing a video game deep into the night, ignoring my body's demand for rest. I'm sweating like Gillian McKeith battling through a Bush Tucker Trial, except I'm stuck in a mansion on an island struggling to open a box. This is The Room Three in a nutshell: creepy, addictively infuriating, and quite possibly my game of the year.
Whereas other contenders for that title involve shooting people and platforming, The Room Three is a cerebral puzzle game for iOS that makes you feel like you belong in Mensa. There is little story; much of the game's plot is told through the player's actions, or through letters you find dotted around Grey Holm mansion about a mysterious character's research into a substance known as "Null." It's creepy as hell, especially when you're up in the quiet night and your flatmates are snoring while a storm rages outside, and your mind's buzzing with all sorts of what-ifs and whys.
Your goal is to use all your puzzle-solving abilities to tackle a sequence of trials created by someone known only as "The Craftsman." Puzzles are intricate without being impossible—players will often use objects found in one location to unlock something else in the other. It's clever, without being patronizing. Gameplay centers on the touch screen and asks players to physically interact with beautifully rendered 3D objects, turning hidden panels in the woodwork of boxes, swiping latches, and the like to find out what's hidden within. Your task is to find four pyramids hidden in different areas so you can escape the mansion. It's a wonderfully tactile experience that makes you feel like you're playing out moments of a Rube Goldberg machine.
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"To me, The Room is half puzzle game, half digital toy," says Barry Meade, co-founder of the Room series' makers, British developers Fireproof Games. "We wanted to make a game that really took advantage of the touch screen and how users interact with mobile devices. So we made a game that was essentially about manipulating weird keys into even weirder locks and doors."
It is this that makes The Room Three more addictive than meth. When they began the Room series, though, Fireproof Games didn't know they were going to go on and sell more than 5.4 million copies worldwide. Far from it, in fact.
"In late 2008, we were a bunch of six 3D artists who quit our jobs and started an outsourcing business in order to raise money to fund our own games," Barry says. "But it took us four years of non-stop work to even be able to hire our first programmer and as soon as we did, we made The Room in six months flat. But those first four years were up and down to say the very least."
No one can argue that they weren't well spent, however. When The Room was finally released on the iPad in 2012 it rocketed up the charts and won Apple's coveted iPad Game of the Year award. It won the BAFTA for best British video game, regardless of platform or budget. Fireproof spent £60,000 [$91,400] on development and recouped those costs within a week. It was nothing short of a publishing phenomenon.
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"We never in our dreams thought that would happen," Barry continues. "In fact, we didn't even know the Apple award existed until we won it, and we didn't even know we'd won it until we saw it in the press. The day we were due to upload it to the App Store I said to the guys: 'Even if this never sells a copy, as far as I'm concerned we've made a minor classic.' Nobody took that seriously, of course, but not one of us thought we'd go to number one all over the world."
The wild success of the first game in the series meant that Fireproof was able to create a sequel, The Room Two, in 2013, expanding the puzzles to more rooms with a deeper, richer lore. They updated the first game with a new level to lead into the second. And that impossible level of polish is present in The Room Three.
The new game's ghoulishly lit environments are more beautiful than ever, and its puzzle mechanics open up hidden dioramas that remind me of the opening to Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, the sounds of Victorian England seep through the mix, while Cthulhu, that eldritch horror, is never far away. New areas unlock through hidden portals, activated by a device that projects arcane light. When a new door is opened black tentacles push it out of the walls. This is a wonderfully creepy game—and one that doesn't involve a single death. It's a game about survival and logic and the power of reason above and beyond anything else.
'The Room Three,' trailer
"We tried to make The Room Three an enhancement of the core mechanics people like about the other two games," Barry explains. "But as the game is a sequel, we have to try extra hard to impress. There's an idea that sequels become easier, but in creative terms that really isn't the case. Fans want you to retain what they liked about the previous game but also mix it up, weave in new ideas that are equally well executed."
And they've managed it. The third game is nothing short of brilliant. It's a densely packed experience that is constantly rewarding. My housemate soon looked over my shoulder after laughing when I told them about it being about opening boxes and said: "I want to play. I get it now." Barry tells me more about the original game's roots, and how it was always designed to maximize the potential of its mobile platform:
"When we made The Room in 2009 we were coming from a triple-A, high-quality console and PC games background. We didn't know anything about mobile games, and like most developers back then we thought mobile games were for kids and retired people with no in between. We looked at what was popular on the stores, which was mainly Facebook-type games and crappy console ports with virtual D-pads, and thought, 'Holy shit, this is a platform criminally under-served by original titles that take advantage of the platform's strengths.' So we did want to make a game that made mobile look better to gamers, frankly.
"We wanted to make something that had a right to be called a true game, like on any other platform. I still think to this day that, creatively, mobile is the most unexploited gaming platform out there. Making a million copies of the top ten games is not a serious approach to advancing a creatively driven business. Our industry has never believed in mobile as a games platform, and that continues. It spends very deeply on a very narrow spread of ideas and calls it progress, even when the vast majority of that money goes to advertisers and not developers."
I've played a lot of games in 2015. Rise of the Tomb Raider and Fallout 4 are currently wrenching all my free time away from me, just like the first series of Lost did so many years ago. And yet somehow, despite being engrossed in these console heavyweights, I've found the time to 100 percent an eight-hour game about opening boxes. I've gone through an absolute bloody obsession. I've taken it into the toilet with me; I've swiped latches in the bath. I have become a Candy Crush addict translated into a Lovecraftian nightmare.
And I am so very glad I did. In a year of enormous open-world games, like Fallout 4, Metal Gear Solid V, and The Witcher 3, it's important to remember that a simple game can be just as beautiful as one of daunting scale—or, at least, every bit as addictive.
The Room Three is out now for iOS.
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