Point and click adventure games are a rather strange creature still lingering on the great stage of the modern games industry. By all rights, they should be condemned to the mausoleum of dead genres, alongside text adventures, religious educational games, and pornographic Tetris reskins.
Point and click games come from an era where games were printed on pieces of toast, and this limited wheat-based memory forced developers to choose between gameplay and story. Today, however, games have the luxury to choose both, and so it would make sense if point-and-clicks just faded away. Yet, here we are in 2018 with point-and-click adventure games going just as strong as ever, on the indie scene at least.
Going onto the point-and-click category on Steam is such a saturated mess that it feels a lot like getting blasted in the face by a shotgun, except most of the buckshot are actually tiny pellets of shit. Pick through the remains of your face, however, and you will discover that among the bone fragments are also little tiny gemstones, like the phenomenal Rusty Lake series.
Right, now that we’re through stretching that ugly metaphor for all it’s worth, let’s get down to business. What is Rusty Lake and why should I care? Rusty Lake is a series created by, well, the Rusty Lake team from the Netherlands. The series is composed of several free browser games titled Cube Escape and three not-free-but-still-pretty-cheap entries: Rusty Lake Hotel, Rusty Lake: Roots and Rusty Lake: Paradise. They are surrealist, being heavily inspired by Vincent Van Gogh (in one entry, you even play as him), Twin Peaks and many, many other examples of dark abstract fiction. The games are all linked by the titular Rusty Lake, a place where many strange, supernatural things seem to occur. You play as many different characters, ranging from a detective investigating a murder linked to the lake, a disembodied spirit haunting his former family members, to a parrot trapped in a cardboard box.
What makes these games worth playing compared to the million other point-and-click titles out there? Simply put, I think the wonderfully dark and surrealist nature of Rusty Lake is something that hard to match. The developers understand that the best surrealist works of art are those that are confusing yet seem to have some form of underlying logic to them, but it is a logic unknown to you. By keeping you on the cusp of understanding, you are constantly filled with an uncomfortable dread that you have actually misread and misinterpreted everything you have seen. This feeling perfectly encapsulates Rusty Lake, where there certainly is an overarching plot to the whole series but it is wrapped in mystery, symbolism, and metaphor.
The overall story concerns Rusty Lake, a quiet place in the countryside of a thus-far unnamed nation (though the character names give the impression that it is set in the developers native Netherlands). Not all is as it seems, however, as the lake itself feeds on extracted memories from the dead and seems to bend space and time itself. Certain characters want to exploit this strange place to achieve true immortality, while most just want to discover what the Hell is supposed to be going on. Each new entry seems to answer a few questions by raising a hundred more, so the sense of overall mystery just grows and grows the more you play.
There is also some really disturbing imagery on display throughout the series, with examples such as macabre animal masks, disembodied hands reaching out of walls, familial sacrifice and suicide recurring in nearly every entry. Even the mundane is adorned with horror, as nearly everyone speaks in a dull monotone and gives you a dead-eyed stare even as terrible things happen around or to them.
Now, while adventure games are usually concerned with story and style foremost, they still need to have engaging gameplay. This means puzzles, the bread and butter of the adventure genre. Rusty Lake is built on the long tradition of room escape games (hence the alternate title of Cube Escape for the free games in the series), and so the thrust of the gameplay is usually as follows: You are in a room, try to get out of the room. What makes the series stand out in its gameplay is in how it blends its surrealist elements into its puzzles: Got a clue saying ‘empty your mind’? Well, grab that knife and cut your brain out in front of a mirror. Got to find thyme in order to cook one of your hotel guests to perfection? Well, it’s obviously in the clock, you idiot!
What makes these unconventional puzzles work instead of just being annoying is that there is always an underlying logic to them, however twisted and macabre that may be. The logic is never stretched too thin and you rarely ever find yourself just rubbing all your inventory items on everything in the world until something sticks. Additionally, there is a great variety of puzzles on display throughout the series. There are classics, such as morse code interpretation, as well as innovative ones, like interpreting star signs and playing Victorian parlor games. Sadly, there are a few games in the series where the puzzles felt a bit lacking, such as in Paradise where the new ideas felt few and far between. Overall though, the puzzle standard is high and should even test the most avid adventure game fans at times.
Now, one place the games fall a bit short is the graphics department. Now, yes, these are very much independent games and so we cannot expect top of the line graphics on display here. However, the Rusty Lake series resembles the type of Room Escape flash games I played in my IT lessons at school over a decade ago. Granted, that probably is the point of the earlier titles, as it was meant to lure you into believing you were playing your standard flash game before unraveling into abstract horror, but it should really have improved by now, thirteen games in. There are plenty of adventure games with amazing art styles, such as Tormentum: Dark Sorrow, but Rusty Lake falls rather short. Personally, this issue doesn’t bother me too much and in some ways, I appreciate the minimalist art style, but I could understand some players being turned off by the visuals.
The Rusty Lake fanbase seems to be growing more and more, as evidenced by the most recent entry into the series: Cube Escape: Paradox. This game comes with two parts, the first chapter being free and the second costing a small fee. In addition to this, the game comes with a short film that feels surprisingly professional for a film made for a tiny Room Escape game series. The game itself has some of the best puzzles and story development of the series, so now really is a great time to dive in. If you have any interest in the adventure/room escape genre or are just fans of surrealist horror, you should follow this link to begin playing the free entries now.