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Rooms: The Main Building

(Hudson Soft; US: 23 Mar 2010)

This review contains plot spoilers, but are you really all that worried about the plot line of a puzzle game anyway?


While Rooms: The Main Building has the least compelling title that I have heard for a game in some time, at its foundation is a solid enough concept for a puzzle game.  Sliding puzzle games in and of themselves are not an especially challenging subgenre of the puzzle game, but Rooms innovates a bit in this regard by adding additional elements to the simple mechanic of sliding tiles around a grid until you get them in the proper order. 


Rooms takes place in an other dimensional mansion (the uninspiringly titled, Rooms Mansion), in which our hero Mr. X is charged by a talking book (called . . . umm . . . Mr. Book) with the task of locating puzzle pieces that will unlock the doorway between the world of the Rooms Mansion and the reality that Mr. X calls his home.  This theme of escape seems apt if still a bit unnecessarily tacked on.  It allows Mr. Book to serve as mouthpiece for teaching Mr. X how Rooms Mansion’s unusual architectural arrangement works, and it also serves as a framing device for some awful point and click gameplay elements that tend to slow down the game as it shifts away from sliding puzzles to some really obvious and ponderous adventure gaming sequences that serve to describe how Mr. X is gaining access to more sections of the main mansion.


These awful bits as well as the really bad dialogues that exist between X and Book make one wonder if adding a narrative to a puzzler is really all that necessary.  Tetris did just fine without a plot.  Developers might be able to trust that the pure pleasure of organizing and solving puzzles may be sufficient to keep a fan of puzzles interested in such game.  The only redeeming element to this plot is its conclusion , which while not the most original plot twist in the world serves as a curious commentary on the nature of tutorial in games themselves.  Book’s ultimate betrayal of X does reveal how easily players assume the authority of the “tutorial voice” in a game, assuming its advice is helpful to advancing in a game and forgetting that education can also be a means of controlling others.   


Still, I don’t want to overstate the ending’s profundity.  This isn’t Bioshock or something, interested in asking probing questions about freedom and submission within a gameplay system.  Mr. Book is, for the most part, a badly scripted character in an otherwise pretty insipid plot.


To return to Rooms brighter spots and more central interest, though, the puzzles here offer some interest as they do get creative in their approach to what can otherwise often feel like a subgenre of the more complicated puzzlers that is more about guesswork than it is about testing your mental acumen.  The rooms that serve as the tiles that the player must slide around to get X from an entrance to an exit contain additional elements that can (and must be) manipulated within them.  Only the room that X occupies can actually be moved at any time, limiting options for manipulating the overall puzzle but opening up options because that means that in addition to moving rooms around, the player has to concern himself with getting X moving from room to room to ultimately solve the puzzle.  Telephones and subway lines exist, for instance, that can essentially teleport X around as well as explosives that blow down walls and even rooms that have to be drained of water before X can safely enter them.  All of these additions complicate these puzzles and make rational thinking more a focus of the game than sheer guesswork.  Having to figure out how to move a room that contains explosives next to the room with a wall that needs to be blown down or having to move a drainage system underneath a room filled with water is a pretty neat idea and transforms what might otherwise appear to be some straightforward puzzles into occasional head scratchers.


The puzzles that occupy the main bulk of the story tend to not include the more difficult puzzles in the game though.  Most of these are fairly light fare, more ideal for portable play on the go than for long term gaming sessions.  I played this game while waiting to pick my folks up at the airport, and its general low level of challenge seemed appropriate to brief moments of downtime as I hung around the terminal, checked the arrival and departure boards, and made my way to baggage.  Playing a room or two at a time filled the intervening minutes satisfactorily enough.  Also, I should note that when I got stumped on any given puzzle, I tended to hand the game off to my 15-year-old daughter.  She would solve it, play a few more rooms, get stumped by one, pass it on to me, and I would solve the next, etc.  Again, this seemed an amusing enough way to approach the low key quality of the experience, and I would say that her age group might be the more appropriate one for a game of this sort as she found the puzzles a bit more engaging generally than I did.


All in all, Rooms is an adequate enough puzzler that fans of the genre and teens may enjoy.  However, that doesn’t excuse punishing players with unnecessarily stupid dialogue and completely uninspired adventure elements.  Some puzzles hardly need a plot, a picture will suffice.

Rating:

G. Christopher Williams is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He posts his weekly contribution to the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters every Wednesday. Besides also serving as Multimedia Editor at PopMatters and writing at his own blog, 8-bit confessional, he has also published essays in journals like Film Criticism, PostScript, and the Popular Culture Review. You won't find him on Twitter, but you can drop him a line with that old fashioned thing called e-mail at williams@popmatters.com.


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