Too much solitude does terrible things to a person’s psyche. With endless time to turn thoughts over and over in the mind, cracks slowly begin to form. Mild anxiety can mutate into an all-consuming obsession, and the desire to leave such quiet contemplation slowly subsides into a fear of the outside world. The Room Syndrome is a time-travelling adventure focused on the horrors of looking inward for too long. Created by solo developer Jesse Carradine, this escape-the-room game offers a truly creepy glimpse into a mind pushed to the limit.
The Room Syndrome begins with an unnamed protagonist disembarking from a train and entering a house. The door locks behind her much to the dismay of the room’s occupant, David, who has been trapped inside for a very long time. Defeated, he slumps back onto the couch as the player looks around. The room is a strange place; food is automatically replenished in the refrigerator, and any changes to the layout are reset by the end of the day. Strangest of all is an antique radio sitting in the corner, which allows the protagonist to briefly travel backward and forwards in time. Searching through these different time variants of the house, the player learns more about David, his missing friend Karis, and hopefully finds a way to escape.
The many iterations of the room function like a puzzle box, with the player creating and solving time paradoxes to progress through the game. An individual’s previous attempt to escape has left the timeline in shambles, with correcting inconsistencies the only method to find the true way out. The key to the front door is not overly difficult to uncover; found through a combination of deciphering codes, time manipulation, and reading through diary entries. If any paradoxes remain when that key is used to open the door, however, the protagonist is wiped out by the timeline trying to correct itself. Chasing down paradoxes is a tricky task, with every iteration of the room along the timeline required to be in a consistent state: televisions set to the same channel, boxes crushed, and puzzle pieces set in place. Little marks on the radio’s dial help keep track of which time periods have been corrected, but reaching the true ending requires a great deal of care and precision.
Some of this fastidious puzzle solving would have been aided with a more friendly user interface. Controls are never explained, and are inconsistent between the different sections of the game: the menu screens do not support mouse inputs, but the mouse is used in-game for manipulating the radio. Arrow keys work in menus, but movement around the room strictly uses WASD as directional keys. The magical radio is rather fiddly, with round dials rotated by clicking and dragging the mouse left or right. The movement does not match what is pictured on the screen, and overshooting the intended time period is all too easy. When such a large proportion of the game is spent adjusting the dials of the radio, playing with the gadget should be pleasing rather than frustrating. The interface is also not suitable for those with colourblindness, as watching a light switch from red to green is vital to make the radio work. A starburst effect around the green light would work as an indicator of correct settings without requiring the identification of colours.
The Room Syndrome has a striking minimalist aesthetic, with every object made up of thousands of tiny dots. It brings to mind the ASCII art of very early video games and lends the world a very eerie tone. Great stretches of black enhance the feeling of isolation, depicting the world as simple, blank, and flat. The handful of sound effects are used masterfully, the thumping beat of an incoming paradox shattering the quiet atmosphere. The characters of David and Karis are well developed through notes and conversations, and the level of interactivity with the pair is impressively complex.
Seven endings are present in The Room Syndrome, some more complex than others. Considering the level of effort required to pull off each one, a few of the choices could have been a bit more fleshed out. The true ending tells a satisfying tale of isolation and madness, but some of the others lack impact. The methods of obtaining the different endings could also be better signposted: by the time one of the characters told me what needed to be done for the true ending, I had almost completed the task. Nothing too obvious should be stated since the appeal of the game is trying things and seeing what happens, but a few more breadcrumbs of information would have been appreciated. The recently added save feature is a big advantage in tracking down the remaining endings, making finding all seven a much more approachable task.
The Room Syndrome is a clever twist on the locked room mystery, viewing the same location at different points of time. More interestingly, it closely examines how living in such a situation would affect the minds of those inside. The interface might be a little rough, and some endings lack an emotional impact, but overall this puzzle box is an engaging and innovative entry into the escape-the-room genre.
Next week, we will be playing The Good Time Garden, an adventure game with high levels of nudity and surrealism. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. Discussions are happening on the Discord server, or you can email me here.