Indie Highlight – Rusty Lake

Long have I been searching for a puzzle game to really grip me in the way Rusty Lake Hotel so immediately does. The scene is quickly established: five guests have arrived, and it is the player’s job to prepare their meals for each night of their stay. But here’s the brilliant catch, each entree consists of the meat of the guests — who are all anthropomorphic animals, by the way — which are attained each night after murdering the guests in their rooms. The surviving guests then gorge on the meal the next day, and then offer the player a rating out of 3 stars, depending on whether (s)he has procured the two extra ingredients.

So yes, you are killing these individuals and then feeding them to the unknowing others. The very act of killing the guests becomes an extended puzzle in itself, which initiates upon entering their rooms late at night to offer ‘assistance’ to their specific requests. Their frank demands actually provide a solid justification for bringing about their doom, let alone the intricate and convoluted manner through which the act is performed.

In Rusty Lake Hotel, murder becomes a systematic means by which artistic craft is executed (pun absolutely intended), mainly for personal gain; but an unequivocal air of mystique invades the atmosphere of the entire hotel setting. Throughout, the establishment does not necessarily feel comfortable. The owner’s motivations remain a mystery, signs of enlightenment never really develop. The devil is in the details: each guest’s relationship to the owner and the business is hinted at in environmental cues situated within their separate rooms.

The very notion of murder is itself never even directly articulated — in a game where the primary goal is to kill in order to succeed. It is the process of creation through destruction, a sort of a redefining of these individuals’ roles as privileged house guests into appreciable main course, which puts an almost justifiable twist on the game’s central violent conceit. Overall, it’s quite a linear experience, yet one that does occasionally delve into the obscure, and in fact slightly demands player consideration before jumping headfirst into the next puzzle room.

Certain meals should be primarily completed, depending on what other ingredients the player is awarded or discovers on their own. This can significantly impact the rating of which the entree will receive, a fact never hidden from the player from initiation. Rusty Lake Hotel’s ability to teach without ever blatantly illustrating its central functionality may perhaps be its most compelling virtue. It allows the complicated puzzle segments to feel all the more rewarding, and with each star granted, awareness of the keys to victory disallows the tasks at hand to ever become restricted or unfair in demonstration.

My initial playthrough, I did not find the third ingredient for any of the dishes I completed, and thus I only received two stars maximum for each dish. While this can seem a relatively bothersome issue, in regards to effectively describing the seemingly-mysterious methods of obtaining 100% completion, the mystery itself allows for this fundamental construct to come off as a further engaging challenge. A subsequent playthrough is almost necessary to see what consequences abound for properly achieving three-star status on at least one dish.
The main issue with the game similarly regards around the star-system: completing puzzles out of the order in which the game subconsciously prescribes for the player will always result in at least two entrees receiving a single star. This would not be a significant nuisance if it wasn’t for the fact that, upon entering guest’s room to initiate the puzzle sequence, the player is then trapped inside until arriving at the murderous solution.

I entered a room on my first playthrough which housed an animal patron whose flesh did not match the ingredient I had accumulated moments before. It was a trifle mistake on my part, however the game had really only just begun and I had yet to properly register the ambiguous rules. Here is where the ambivalent nature of the narrative begins to show signs of weakness in illustrating what can and cannot work in order for the player to progress: for if I had been made completely aware of the correct methods by which to proceed, it would have simultaneously diverted this impactful mistake from occurring while consequently affecting the intriguing ambivalence which so fuels the enigmatic plot.

While the game is a brief venture, extending across only five nights (thus five levels), the motivation to replay through the rather theatrical experience, comes in response to the assumed rewards present in collecting all perfect ratings. Furthermore, it sets up a fantastic blueprint for puzzle gaming which is expanded upon in the developer’s later release, Rusty Lake Roots. This title is even more intriguingly-crafted, exploring the rich history of the surprisingly-invested lore surrounding the titular setting, while also continuously challenging the player across 38 various levels.

The prequel iteration is more interested in the roots of violence and decay – thus the title — which subsequently creep up amongst the natural human inclinations to develop families. I’ll only share some info, since I highly recommend the game and would argue it is one of the finest releases in recent years.

A symbolic family tree persistently branches out with the completion of each puzzle segment, signifying the player’s direct intervention with this institution’s very development. If birth is the constant effect of each puzzle solved, then the very foundations of this developing history rests upon the status of establishing relationships. Creating Life then becomes a result of solving complicated mysteries which require contemplation and a keen eye for correlations.

Gameplay implies the very act of creation as equivalent to correctly fitting the pieces together. It evidences Fate as an ever-consistent formula, resistant to diverting paths, though entirely dependent on direct individual intervention. In essence, the player guides the various scenarios through to their determined outcomes, as though the hand of Fate itself; as such, it becomes a commentary on the concept of Fate as being a thinking entity, one which does not necessarily write out peoples’ separate courses of events, but nevertheless pieces them together in efforts to progress the passage of time and civilization.

Both games creatively manage to entice and provoke thought, effectively demonstrating their arguments with a constant air of mystique. This is what puzzle games should strive to achieve: instilling a real sense of purpose to successfully completing the tasks at hand. Without motive, there is no foundation for a struggle — to solve, to survive, to simply develop. It’s the ultimate goal of any game: to formulate a predicament which necessarily demands solution. The added lore simply augments the motivation to complete, providing further insight into the wild mysteries which so fuel the game’s deceptively-crafty composition.

Andrew Gerdes

Gamer, musician, writer, film buff, 'foodie,' aspiring baker, critic, intellectual self-reliant, optimist, health-obsessed kid who only wants to explore the infinite possibilities of artistic expression. Also, people tend to think I'm an all-around awesome guy

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