[7 January 2014]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
The Room understands that we are gamers, geeks who like to look at a thing, take it apart, and figure out how it works. We aren’t mere computers.
“We’re not computers, Sebastian. We’re physical.”
—Roy, an android from Blade Runner (1982)
A year or so ago, I made the claim that “If Plato’s forms do exist, then the Platonic form of the video game must be Ms. Pac-Man” (“A Love Letter to Ms. Pac-Man”, PopMatters, 22 April 2012). Part of the reason that I find Ms. Pac-Man to be kind of the most essential form of the video game is that, to me at least, the game embodies the difference between video games and other kinds of games, like board games or card games. “Video games are physical. They require all of the mental processing of any other game, but they require the player to play as physically as they require the player to play mentally.”
Games are generally understood as mental activities. Indeed in a traditional game like chess, “you could have someone else move your pieces—successful play does not include the idea of skillfully moving the pieces themselves.” This is not the case in video games, which require not mere mental planning, but the capability of executing moves in a skillful manner physically, as well.
The last console generation saw an uptick of interest in expanding physical interactivity in video games. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the release of the Wii, especially its quasi-tech-demo, pack-in release, Wii Sports, which is a game that used the new Wiimote controller to get players off their couches and into a position in which they would be very much physically mimicking the physical activity associated with playing real tennis or real bowling. This almost exaggerated emphasis on “moving the pieces skillfully” in a game is interesting, but also tends to transform the video game experience into something more approximating something like a “video sport” than more general kinds of video games usually do, which require something more like a virtuoso performance on a dual stick controller or mouse and keyboard combination than on play requiring the commitment of the whole body to the experience or play that requires one to be more physically competent at something resembling sport, rather than game, than they actually are.
Yes, the video game is a physical activity that requires precision and reflexes, but it’s also an experience that is equally interested in mental activities, like thinking strategically or tactically or in solving puzzles or problems in the context of the game world. Input devices require physical skill to manipulate, but they also have traditionally served as abstractions of physical actions, assuming that the player of such games is not actually interested in learning to shoot a gun or swing a sword or jump over a ravenous plant emerging from a large green pipe.
Instead, if the fictional worlds of video games offer a player the opportunity to escape the confines of reality by allowing that player to step into the shoes of a knight, a pirate, a ninja, or a plumber in worlds populated by dragons, aliens, and animate and aggressive mushrooms, the controller likewise provides distance from reality by not asking the player to be competent as a gunman or a swordsman or a working class, yet Olympic-level high jumper with a big bushy moustache and overalls, but instead to merely practice enacting actions like shooting, fencing, and jumping through the simulation of such actions via button presses and the manipulation of joysticks.
The lack of the long term staying power of Wii-style gaming or the general lack of success of the Kinect in drawing players into less abstracted physical activity in games seems (again, to me at least) to be due in part to the fact that games that attempt to overemphasize the simulation of in-game activities with their real life counterparts run the risk of moving too far away from what the video game does well, which is to balance the importance of physical and mental acumen in games. Traditional games favor smart play. Sport favors well executed play. The video game in most instances maintains a happy medium between our desire to play a game that asks something of both our brains and our brawn.
Which brings me to my recent encounter with the 2012 iOS release, The Room, a puzzle game whose experience is accentuated and grounded on the capabilities of the platform that it was released on, a touch screen gaming system. Given my own fascination with the idea that video games are both mental and physical challenges (a belief, perhaps, influenced by the fact that I grew up in the arcade generation, given that arcade machines featured games that required so much physical skill and reflex to master in addition to some ability to quickly reason and analyze the potential problems on a game board), one might question my definition based on how some types of video games might not easily seem to exemplify an always careful balance between mental and physical skill. After all, the point-and-click adventure or the puzzle game are often games that don’t require much in the way of mad controller skillz to successfully accomplish.
Sure, Tetris is a game in which piecing together a puzzle also requires a level of competent hand-eye co-ordination, but any given Professor Layton game doesn’t ask much of the player physically, content as it is to merely throw brain bending riddles at the player, not requiring feats of agility and dexterity. Puzzles and riddles are usually logical conundrums solved at leisure in relative repose. These gaming “problems” are solved in a computational and mathematical style by the gamer, not through physical action.
This is not the case with The Room.
The Room (Fireproof Games, 2012)
As a game that is designed around touch screen controls, The Room‘s in-game actions are not abstracted the way that those in a point-and-click adventure might traditionally be. In a point-and-click adventure, one might find a key for a locked door and “use it” by clicking on the key and then on the door. Voila! Unlocked door.
In The Room a key is “clicked on” by tapping it with your finger and is then dragged to a lock. However that lock is only unlocked once you actually “turn it” on the touch screen itself. The logic of unlocking a lock with the right key requires the act of physically turning it.
Such obvious and simple puzzle solving, though, like unlocking locks, is not really the extent of the activity in The Room. Instead, the player is introduced to The Room by being confronted with a safe, which that player can pan around and investigate and then click in spots to zoom in on. This “safe” is a puzzle box that can be opened by manipulating its various dials, knobs, gears, and secret panels until eventually one opens this complex mechanism to reveal a smaller and more intricate mechanism, another locked puzzle box, that can be investigated, manipulated, and ultimately opened by essentially “feeling” your way through it.
While the first “real” puzzle in the game involves locating a riddle in a box that sits atop the safe that hints at the first button that you must press on the exterior of the safe in order to access keyholes and tools necessary to “take the safe apart” until you can finally open it, quite honestly, most of this game is less about riddling and word play (as this first test is) and more about turning an object around in your hands and messing with its components until you stumble into how it works and thereby stumble into solution.
Indeed, you won’t solve the boxes in The Room through computational analysis, but instead by “getting physical” with those boxes. Tugging, pulling, sliding, twisting, and flipping gears, switches, panels, and the like are the way to solve The Room. This is a video game that really is less interested in you “thinking about it” than in honest to God just “playing around with it.”
This is also why The Room seems to me like one of the most fully realized puzzle video games that I have ever played. By not reducing logic and puzzle solving to something that can be worked out on paper, as many of the aforementioned point-and-click adventure games essentially could, and requiring the player to essentially turn the game around in his or her own hands, manipulating and testing the puzzle in more deliberate way, it manages to transcend the concept of an intellectual puzzle and become something reminiscent of a Ms. Pac-Man, of a video game, the kind of game that, to me, requires me to not only think about it, but to play with it.
At the same time, The Room remains satisfyingly free of a sense of a sports-like athleticism. One doesn’t need to practice for years something like dribbling a ball or tackling a ball carrier or aiming a gun or swinging a sword to do something as simple as what this game requires of you, just turn an object around in your hands and poke and prod at it a little until you figure what it does. Anybody can do that.
In essence, The Room understands that we are gamers. We are not superstar athletes, dancers, or hitmen. We are geeks who like to look at a thing, take it apart, and figure out how it works. We aren’t mere computers, though. As video gamers, we are physical.