Genre: Adventure, VR
Release date: July 15, 2016
Whether Virtual Reality gaming will develop permanent and lasting popularity as a medium remains to be seen, but there’s no question that it’s the trend of the moment, drawing many developers to test the capacities of the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. The results in many cases are only sometimes functional and rarely fun.
One such new title is Vacate the Room, developed by one-man operation Heiko Ihde. The game takes its inspiration from other games in the Escape-the-Room genre, wherein the player is in a locked room with perhaps two sentences of character motivation and no other imperative than to find a way out. The genre saw immense popularity online in the mid-2000s when Flash games were a free and addictive distraction, and the runaway success of Crimson Room in 2004 spawned a host of imitators like Murder Escape, Guest House, and Mystery of Time and Space.
So how has the genre improved in the intervening decade? Not much, if you use Vacate the Room as a bellwether for progress. The game lacks many sophisticated puzzles and is fraught with technical quirks. It plays like a tech demo, the existence of which offers a vague promise of what could be possible when talented storytellers, artists, and developers team up to create quality VR content in the Escape-the-Room vein.
There’s no introduction whatsoever, not even a halfhearted text primer about waking up in the dark, a confused amnesiac (the bare minimum the genre demands). Instead you’re transported into a small room with no means of escape save a barred skylight where the moon shines down on you mockingly. A few notes scribbled by the protagonist are scattered throughout the room, but these too offer only bland asides about the environment and insinuations that imply you were possibly put here by someone. There’s also a secret ending that can be unlocked after you complete your first playthrough, but it doesn’t really add to the narrative.
The atmosphere is similarly nonexistent. The space is a series of cheap-looking wood textures and stucco walls that make Crimson Room’s interior decorating look ready for a magazine cover, and the only non-generic objects in the room are a few parody DVD covers and a handheld video game console that serve no purpose. The sound design in particular is unimpressive when not outright distracting. Every movable object, whether it be a ceramic mug, an empty soda can, a crumpled piece of paper or a single pushpin, makes the same resonant clanging sound when dropped. It might be funny if it weren’t so halfhearted.
For a game that seems to exist as a means of showing off the developer’s coding skills, Vacate the Room’s gameplay is unsatisfying. The environment is fairly dark and has to be explored mostly with a flashlight. This felt unwieldy when I was also trying to pick up and manipulate other objects. There is an inelegant glut of useless objects such as cardboard boxes, soda cans and a computer setup that aren’t interesting enough to justify being there except to fill up space.
The puzzles consist mostly of hunting around the room for hidden objects, which was fun, but provided little in the way of variety. There are missed opportunities, too. After finding a set of colored fuses, I assumed there would be another puzzle to figure out what order the fuses should go in, but was disappointed when they snapped into place of their own accord. There are also two safes in the room -- a mainstay of many room escapes, but a fairly tired way of concealing key puzzle pieces. In the section of the game that unlocks after you escape the first time, there’s a more interesting puzzle that incorporates different items and patterns from around the room, which is a more inventive use of the space. I didn’t initially discover this puzzle on my first time playing Vacate the Room, so it made the game feel slighter as a result.
I also ran into some technical glitches that hindered my enjoyment of the game. I spent several minutes trying to get past a problem where the floor of the virtual room was lower than the floor of my actual room, making it impossible to pick up an object that was flush with the ground until I restarted the game once and pushed it out with another object. Whether this was a calibration error specific to the game or to the system, it added an unnecessary level of difficulty.
VR gaming has several unique problems it hasn’t figured out yet, and many of them were on display here. One issue is the fact that the gameplay experience differs based on the player’s body. A colored fuse needed to activate the room’s power was wedged on top of a bookcase, which would have been impossible to find had I not jumped up in real life to see if I was missing anything (a potential trip hazard since the Vive headset has a long cord that it’s easy to get tangled up in). A tall person could have found this with no special strain, but if you're much shorter than my 5’4”, the last fuse probably would have been impossible to see at all. There’s also the issue that in virtual reality, players have the ability to step beyond the bounds of the designated play space. The human body naturally resists that impulse -- you wouldn’t willingly want to try to put your head through a cabinet -- but willingly stepping through furniture or walls can give the player access to hidden areas before it’s time.
Finally, though I hate to spoil an ending, I found the main game’s finish infuriatingly inane. I wondered how the game would contend with the fact that the means of egress is in the ceiling since I was unable to physically climb up to it in the real world. I was disappointed to find that after opening the sliding bars that keep you trapped, a message drops from the ceiling saying that the true means of escape is to “take off your VR headset.” In a word, anticlimactic.
After my lackluster playthrough of Vacate the Room, I found myself wondering if other games in the Escape-the-Room genre that I remembered so fondly still impressed with age. I revisited a few and was reminded that these games, too, were faddish and fussy despite their popularity at the time. Crimson Room, for example, suffered from unforgivingly specific click areas and often relied on gimmicks such as linking to external URLs to obtain codes. But the difference is that Crimson Room doesn’t cost anything to play, and it signaled the possibilities of the future of gaming. At its best, Vacate the Room implies that better things might be coming down the pipeline, but its $5 price tag will only feel well-spent if you’re a diehard genre fan or are looking for a short distraction. Otherwise, you’ll probably be able to find more interesting things elsewhere in the Steam Store.
I think this genre and gameplay experience have enormous potential in virtual reality. The kinetic joy of snooping, poking, touching, and uncovering are well-suited to the medium (as proven by the success of real-life Room Escape challenges that bring such game concepts to life). As long as games have existed, players have relished the opportunity to explore unfamiliar spaces. But developers need to take the time to create stories and locations that are worthy of that attention. They need to look beyond the amusements of the technology and remember to make games that are actually fun.1
1 This review has been edited since publication.
+ Might inspire other developers to create games in the Escape-the-Room genre
+ Gameplay area only requires about 2 square meters of space — good for players without much room
+ A more complex puzzle hides in the alternate ending
- No story and cheesy “ending”
- Poor graphics and sound design
- Unimaginative puzzles and technical glitches
- Short to play (took me around 45 minutes, with several of those minutes spent dealing with a glitch)
- Doesn’t do anything a Flash game from 2004 couldn’t accomplish