Rusty Lake Paradise Review
There was a dryness to the morning air as I sailed to Paradise. Upon the shore stood my brother, sly grin on his face, welcoming me with shrewd menace underneath the wooden entrance awning. Stepping off the boat, the sand greeted my feet, and I felt as though I were sinking in. Wandering into the dense, dark woods heightened that sensation, the haunting shadow looming beyond my reach reminding me of my mother….
But not especially my mother; a memory of my mother. Something once so close that seems to have drifted off into blackness before my very eyes.
. . .
Family is provided by faith. In each other, in God, in the hypocritical notion that the world remains constant. The roots of a family’s origins are planted by the illegible concept of chance, which that very family convinces themselves is divine intervention. In their eyes, it is therefore not relegated by random chance, but a prescribed formula. Place A into the appropriate slot A. God will do the rest, since She has already sparked magnetism in the first place. However, the devil will often deceptively intervene, forcing B into slot C; and it actually fits.
The Rusty Lake series (universe, trilogy, brand) is structured around repetition. Levels place the player in familiar, restricted 2D environments, populated by a number of collectible items used to fit into different slots to progress. It is the act of copulation expressed through abstract puzzle design, an allegorical setup which inspires threats to natural recurrences.
Rusty Lake Paradise, the third installment in the Rusty Lake history, likely most thoroughly illustrates this concept. A subtle transformation weaves through its otherwise consistent setting, exhibiting further depth to its structure after each chapter’s conclusion. But sex and religion go hand in hand, each act of symbolic intercourse itself a dark ritual, inspiring the transformation of a body as well as a sickly defamation of faith.
The family unit is the very structure of the game. That and the levels based upon each of the ten biblical plagues. The irony is that this family warmly welcomes the plagues, conditioning them as some means of reconstructing modern familial morality, accepting the antithesis of God for the sake of transformation, though not necessarily the anti-Christ. But Paradise does not lack for subtlety; in fact, its storytelling is rich in allegory and subtext underlying the often remarkable puzzle design.
Twin Peaks references abound, even reconstituting iconic lines within their own narrative constructs. It all emphasizes the conditioning of the abstract into the familiar, replacing logic with reasonable illogical fallacy. Puzzle design is implemented thoughtfully, hinting at the correct methods of progression without ever questioning the player’s ability to interpret them on their own.
At the heart of Rusty Lake Paradise is the essence of transformation. Metamorphosis of the body, of the mind, of the family unit, of modern morals. ‘Paradise’ is relevant to the individual’s concept of an ideal reality. Hell, therefore, could even be considered a masochist’s isle of serenity.
. . .
The animals seem untrustworthy. They are far too naive for this sinister island to house them. Their entire existence rests upon the inevitability of sacrifice: for their land, for their God, for the humans who seize ownership over their bodies for sustenance.
I feel just as out of place. Clearly my family has determined their status far more rapidly than I. Their faces breathe comfort, but their hushed attitudes remind me of an ironic poem. Stoic though deceptive. A familiar face twisted by reservations. The wildlife stare with a similar lack of empathy, only they fail to acknowledge the abstractions at play here in Paradise.
During my extended walk, I come across a small shack. Inside my grandmother sits at a fire, cooking food on a skillet; for whom, I am uncertain. She may be as well. She stares at her work, her cold demeanor seemingly uninterested in this routine chore. She cracks an egg into the hot metal, and I stare in awe as the yellow yolk takes form, crawls out of the white, and stands complacently.
I take the chick in my hands and leave the shack. I stumble backwards and come across an owl perched on a tree stump. It hoots innocently as I approach; is it trying to threaten me? Is it greeting me with a warm welcome? A nervous stammer? Organic vocal flux? Choking on blood? I watch as the chick slides down its throat, the yellow erasing down a tube of white.
. . .
The greatest achievement of Rusty Lake Paradise is its ability to treat players as functioning problem-solvers. There is no handholding, and none is ever required thanks to the successful implementation of its numerous aspects of puzzle design. Unique, memorable riddles and situations emerge at nearly every instance, some orchestrated as a series progressively exhibiting sophistication to test the player’s understanding.
But these scenarios also speak volumes considering the overarching narrative as well, beautifully merging story with gameplay in a way only adventure games truly can. Every trivial moment is enveloped by cunning subtext, and though the game can often get away with trivial ambiguities for the sake of ‘art,’ they are nevertheless always fascinating to ponder and experience.
While most puzzle games often lack a distinct motivation for audiences to peruse their systems besides personal achievement or progression, Rusty Lake Paradise (the entire series, in fact) casually inspires progression through proportionate worldbuilding. Call it an equilibrium between plot and gameplay, neither ever outsourcing one another for the sake of its own intent.
Puzzles become rituals, defined by religious allusions and sinister plot repercussions. Not since Portal have I witnessed a game so invested in explaining its universe through progressional methods such as this, finding humor in its horror, emphasizing the irony of the player’s own eager participation. It can be hypnotizing, problem-solving often is, which is all part of the macabre point.
Not every puzzle succeeds, as some are too simplistically designed. This would not be a problem if the game primarily revolved around the personal association with completing challenges. Subsequently, not every puzzle is as enjoyable an experience, and for a game whose main mechanics involve puzzle-solving, these instances can occasionally feel like filler content. As an indie project, the overall product can feel rough around the edges: awkward animations arise (more forgivable given the artistic style); voice acting often feels unnatural or out-of-sync with the universe; the anticlimactic conclusion comes off as rushed or unfinished.
But the Rusty Lake series has always provided a wholly unique experience, even when promptly acknowledging their own influences. Paradise is no exception, with its biblical undertones setting the stage for each chapter, prompting a catastrophic event just around the corner — one which you, the player, are directly involved in bringing about.
Rusty Lake Paradise does nothing entirely ‘new,’ per se, but reshapes its influences — both mechanical and thematic — into something wholly unique. Cautious in illustrating its ambiguities, but compelling in its deceptively complex design, Paradise is a thorough demonstration of irony in motion. Vague but determined, quirky though devastating. Simultaneously harrowing and a bit on the nose.
. . .
The tower finally appears as I exit the forest, looming in the distance on the shore of the lake. Inside, the empty well stretches for what seems to be miles below the surface. I fasten a rope around the base and descend down the rabbit hole. The floor is damp and empty; lines are scratched into the walls. I strip away at the brick until an opening emerges, then crawl inside.
I find statues. I find diamonds. I find enormous caterpillars in chrysalis. Owls, hawks, bulls. A raven in a suit staring back. I find my mother. In her eyes lie the universe, its colorful rainbow absorbing me within, and the deeper and deeper I crawl. The cubes suddenly materialize, rotating maliciously like a top on a mantelpiece.
Touching one reels me back into my own mind, recalling my mother’s youthful smile. But I feel alone, for memories do not make serviceable companions in a state of loss. Moving forward means evolving beyond the pretenses of the past. But to forget the past is to forget the why. Well here is no Why, only the How and When. The How is the cube, the When is the now.
I lock the cube in the golden box above the well. It descends into black nothingness, and the portrait below erases yet another painted image. To remove the past is to remove the context, and the memories. My family stands outside donning animal masks. Oh cruel irony, twist them into something natural. The box disappears past my sights. The portrait beams with white-hot malevolence. I ascend.