Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
For as much as movie producers have driven themselves nuts over the years, trying to recreate the look and feel of video games in the real world—an endeavor that’s led to everything from Dennis Hopper in Jurassic cornrows to James Marsden cracking shit jokes with a digital hedgehog—the escape room people got it pretty much in one. Inspired by games like Myst—and, even more specifically, the Myst-ish single-room escape games that started popping up on the internet in the early 2000s—the rapidly growing industry intuitively grasped what Hollywood so frequently didn’t: That you can’t just cobble together a bunch of Koopa shell props, or toss a white hoodie on Michael Fassbender, and expect to call it a day. Video games have their own logic, one that has to be respected, even when (possibly even especially when) it doesn’t map very well onto the real world. Marry that love of abstract rules to the creation of an impossible or fantastical space, and you’re far closer to putting people inside a video game than the folks behind Hitman or Warcraft could ever hope to get.
As a consequence, the relationship between escape rooms and video games has gotten weirdly recursive over the last few years, a trend that the COVID-19 lockdowns have only exacerbated. With their physical doors shuttered, many escape room companies have taken their game design skills online, crafting (often shockingly high-quality) digital experiences that you and your Zoom buddies can play through from your own personal quarantine zones. At the same time, we now have digital titles like Nocturnal Games’ The Escaper, which aim to explicitly recreate the feeling of paying $40 to spin combination locks in an office rental space that’s been converted into an evil lab/Victorian sitting room/old-school video game arcade/etc. And that’s to say nothing of the whole side industry of escape-rooms-in-a-box, which can vary widely in how strong an experience they give you and your family as you huddle around the dinner table, spinning codewheels and arguing about when it’s time to check the hints.
And yet, for all these efforts, there’s still one series of digital escape rooms that take the brass ring when it comes to getting that all-important feeling of strange logic in strange places right—and then promptly take that brass ring, attach it to some massive mechanical monstrosity, and ask you to fiddle with it until the whole thing goes satisfyingly “Click!” We’re talking, of course, about Fireproof Games’ The Room series—still the best prospect going to get that all-important “Does this makes sense?” “I think this makes sense.” “This absolutely makes sense” sensation running through the back of your brain. That includes the series’ latest game, The Room VR: A Dark Matter, which took the franchise’s long-running obsession with flipping switches, turning knobs, and (occasionally) wrestling with dark magicks to its wonderfully illogical extreme.
Even if you don’t want to shell out for VR, though, there are still four other Room games out there waiting for you, each filled with fantastical contraptions hoping to lure you in. (Sometimes literally, since the games have a running theme of the player being pulled deep within various clockwork devices.) What makes the games—all available for a song on iOS or Android, by the by—different from their contemporaries (including many of the offerings from actual escape room companies), is their tactile, physical nature. Centered on a wide variety of strange, beautiful devices, the games luxuriate in every moving piece, every click of a button or snap of a latch. Even when they’re clearly impossible—like the Game Of Thrones-intro-esque city model that makes up most of the second chapter of The Room Three, or the elaborate doll house that occupies most of your time in the fourth game, Old Sins—they still have an internal logic, and a beauty and presence that so many games of this ilk lack. (One of the reasons The Room VR is so satisfying is that the motion controllers allow you to physically reach out to slide every slide and flick every switch.)
The best video games—and escape rooms, for that matter—create spaces that feel like they couldn’t exist in the real world, liminal realities where you can trick your brain into believing that a different set of rules might possibly apply. Escapism, in addition to escaping. The Room games might occasionally feint toward horror—spooky tendrils abound. But in their devotion to the forging of beautiful, haunted objects, they serve as clockwork engines in the service of creating wonder. It’s something that few of their contemporaries, real or otherwise, have even come close to matching.