I had known about the Rusty Lake franchise for some time but never had the courage to explore it and, quite frankly, I didn't even know where to begin. With game series, as with book series that have numerous installments I always want to start from the very first one but it's not always easy to find the first one especially if the story is not told in a linear fashion and the games have since been remastered or re-released. I played Rusty Lake Hotel, became really engrossed in the whole setting but at the same time ended up kind of perplexed because the story didn't make much sense to me and I wasn't sure it was supposed to. I asked my tiny Russian community to help me out and tell me in what order I should play the Rusty Lake series. I received a lot of support and encouragement, for which I am most grateful, and I spent next ~2 months streaming all Rusty Lake games, having a blast with my viewers and enjoying every hour of the experience.
It's always important to me how exactly the game tells its story and what tools are used to elevate the narrative and make it coherent, especially if it is a point-n-click game that does not have a lot of dialogue or exposition and has a convoluted timeline. In this post I will focus on what impressed me the most in the way Rusty Lake narrates its story and what tools this game series uses to create its unique atmosphere.
SPOILER WARNING: I will not spoil any major plot points or reveal too much of the puzzles and characters. However, since I will be talking about what makes the storytelling in these games so unique, I will inevitably have to touch on some elements of the story.
Rusty Lake is a series of point-n-click games developed by Rusty Lake - an indie game studio based in Amsterdam, founded by Robin Ras & Maarten Looise. The Rusty Lake predecessor, Samsara Room, was their first room escape game developed in 2013 and then remade in 2020 to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the franchise. The Rusty Lake games began in 2015 with Cube Escape: a series of free room escape Flash games that follow an investigation conducted by detective Dale Vandermeer. 10 Cube Escape episodes have been released to this date, with the latest installment being Cube Escape: Paradox (2018).
Rusty Lake series also includes 4 full-length premium games: Rusty Lake Hotel (2015), Rusty Lake: Roots (2016), Rusty Lake Paradise (2018) and The White Door (2021). The next game, The Past Within, is scheduled to release in Q2 2022.
You can probably see why I was so confused about the order I was supposed to play these games in. Am I supposed to start with all the Cube Escape games? Should I break them up with the full-length Rusty Lake games? Are they even connected?
Yes, all of these games are connected; they share a cast of principal and secondary characters, tell different parts of one big intergenerational story and most of them happen in the same location - you guessed it - the mysterious Rusty Lake. I'd say that Rusty Lake's story is very much a puzzle, with every game, be it a free Cube Escape episode or a big Rusty Lake game, giving you a few more pieces to connect to those you already have. This type of narrative appeals to me greatly and even now, almost a year after I've played everything there is to play, it still occupies my mind.
Rusty Lake location where almost all the games take place, includes not only the Lake itself but also several more structures and buildings around it: a Cabin on an island, a Bridge, a Chapel, a Cave, a Mill, a Graveyard, the Vanderboom house, and a Forest. Different games allow you to explore different places, although sometimes it takes a while to realize where you are but most importantly - who you are.
The story spans many generations, and more recent games describe the events of more distant past: for example, Rusty Lake Paradise (2018) takes place in 1796, and Cube Escape: Seasons, the very first episode of the series released in 2015, is set in 1964-1981, which is about as far as the story goes chronologically.
The developers drew their inspiration from David Lynch's TV series Twin Peaks.
In point''n'click puzzle games you often control the protagonist on-screen. The main character is integral to the plot so it only makes sense. Think about Daedalic Entertainment and their games: the story of Rufus who wants to escape Deponia and get to Elysium, or Silence where you follow Noah and Renie as they are trying to save the world. There are also Amanita Design games where you help the protagonist through their hardships of, for example, recovering a cherry, as in CHUCHEL, or saving their girlfriend, as in Machinarium.
On the other hand, we have puzzle games where the player character is basically non-existent because the game is about solving puzzles and escaping rooms and the character the player controls does not matter as much. For example, the Room series by Fireproof Games where in the first installment of the series you follow a trail of letters and discover more and more cryptic devices with moving parts that you need to solve to get some kind of item or clue to carry you forward, to another intricate device waiting to be solved. Who you are in this situation, why you are doing what you are doing and how you ended up in this place does not really matter because the story told by the puzzles is kind of complimentary and runs parallel to the puzzle-solving itself. Three sequels do not change this narrative structure and the player character remains unknown and irrelevant, as they just follow the letters or some other type of clue and solve puzzles learning about a scientist, a craftsman or a missing engineer post-factum, more as an observer rather than a participant.
I would expect the same approach from the Rusty Lake series since these games are first-person room escapes. I didn't expect the player character to be relevant at all since I just needed to solve a bunch of puzzles and find something that would transport me into another room with another set of puzzles, much like in the Room franchise. However, since Rusty Lake has such a rich story that involves multiple characters through different time periods, it turned out that realizing who you are in every Cube Escape episode or a full Rusty Lake game is not only a matter of the utmost importance, but arguably one of the bigger mysteries to solve.
Every time you are playing as someone, and figuring out who this someone is might be quite tricky. Honestly, it kind of makes you uncomfortable in a weird way, to play as an unknown protagonist, move things around, solve puzzles, find more clues and still not know who you are even though you are relevant to the story. It's almost like a tiny existential crisis. Sometimes you know from the very start who you are, for example it is told to you explicitly in Cube Escape: Birthday that you are playing as Dale Vandermeer. In many other cases though you'll have to flex your detective muscle to come to the right conclusion.
At times, even if you learn the name of your character through a letter or a phone call, it might not give you any information at all. However, later you may encounter this character as an NPC in some other Rusty Lake episode while playing as somebody else, and your previous experience will provide you enough context to understand more of the story and the role of that character.
I think, the idea of the "mysterious protagonist" as a part of a point'n'click puzzle game that has such an intricate story and such a wide range of characters is ingenious. When you figure out that it does matter who you're playing as, it instantly becomes the most fascinating thing for you to unravel when starting any Rusty Lake game. Who am I? How do I relate to other characters mentioned in this episode? It's awesome, and every time you manage to establish who the player character is you feel like a genius. And you get creeped out by that discovery. Very, very often :D
Rusty Lake series excels at subverting player's expectations while not making it seem like it comes out of nowhere, which I think is a talent. A great number of puzzles involve object transformation, and the outcome seems truly unpredictable unless you learn that things in the world of Rusty Lake do not really work as they would in our reality. Since there are so many riddles that lead to some kind of change, you regularly enter the anticipation phase where you try to inadvertently guess what result will occur. For example, in multiple games there is a plant pot where you plant something: usually a seed but not necessarily. When it starts growing, you expect it to be a plant because that's what your real-world experience tells you. However, in Rusty Lake it might be a bloody hand growing out of a plant pot. Might be a plant though! But most likely not a plant you've ever seen.
Rusty Lake utilizes a lot of objects that act like vaults that you need to open in order to get whatever is inside, and the reveal jolts you every time because it's never something you expect. In a number of games there is an egg, also there are innumerable safes, jewelry boxes - all kinds of boxes, to be honest - locked drawers and compartments that house something you cannot even imagine. You see this giant bulletproof safe with an elaborate code system and you spend half the game trying to collect the pieces to put together a code to open it, and when you finally do - there is a single shrimp in there. And since it's not your first Rusty Lake game, you cry out, "OF COURSE! THE SHRIMP!" and it makes you happy :D And it makes other people think that you've lost your mind.
I think, subverting player's expectations is a big part of Rusty Lake's success. Not only does it surprise you every time showing the most bizarre object transformations that appear weirdly contextual to the story, but it also teaches you - through said transformations - to leave your real-life experience behind and employ your Rusty Lake experience when you're trying to predict what happens next. This process leads to a whole new level of immersion where after a few episodes of Cube Escape you expect an egg to hatch either a boiled shrimp or a golden tooth and would be most shocked if it hatched an actual chick. I never got tired of these transformational puzzles during my extensive playthrough, they still surprized me every single time and either gave me a good laugh or a good scare.
My favorite episode has to be in Cube Escape: Mill. You're exploring the Mill, trying to figure out what you need to do. You see a locked compartment in the wall. You find a key, open it and there is just straight up an old lady chilling there. Considering how rare it is to meet an NPC during your room escape, this reveal was the most shocking - and the most hilarious I had seen yet.
Another thing I admire about the Rusty Lake's atmosphere is the smart use of horror elements that keep you on your toes continuously throughout every episode. Before we dive into two components of horror that I felt were the most prominent, let's talk about Terror and Horror and how they are different. I briefly touched on this topic in my Control post, I will just reiterate the same idea here.
Terror is a premonition of horror. It is a sense of discomfort that is growing stronger and stronger as you feel something horrible is just about to happen. Terror is a continuous feeling that is deeply unsettling. Horror, on the other hand, is the event itself; it is the moment when you actually come in contact with something horrible: you either hear it, touch it, see it or feel it. It is instantaneous, basically your preceding terror being reified, embodied. Think about a jump scare in a horror game - that's horror, but the part before the jump scare, where you're wondering alone in the dark just waiting for some monster to jump out the corner, is terror, a premonition.
Ann Radcliffe was the first to describe the difference between these two things, she is one of the founders of Gothic fiction. Devendra Varma who was an expert on Gothic literature wrote the following in his book "The Gothic Flame" (1966):
The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference between awful apprehension and sickening realization: between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.
Rusty Lake uses many elements to create a truly unsettling atmosphere, but I want to talk specifically about Doors and Changing Environment.
The terror of doors is probably my favorite thing in the world, I talked about it in my Control post when discussing Oceanview Motel and Casino. Doors are both safe and unsafe, especially in the context of horror stories such as Rusty Lake. Almost every episode of Rusty Lake' Cube Escape subseries is a room escape, which means you're sealed in a room, the door is locked and you need to solve puzzles in order to proceed and, you know, escape the room. Doors are always there, and they are both the objective - often figuratively as you most often don't escape through the actual door - and provide reassurance that your experience will be quite solitary.
However, later you come to realize that if you cannot open the door yourself, it does not mean that someone else cannot come into the room from the outside. Now, that's really unsettling. You're busy solving puzzles and doing all sorts of crazy things and yet you have a door behind you that can be opened any time. Essentially, it is the question of who controls the door, and it's very rarely you.
I think I came across this concept for the first time on my literature course in university when we were studying actually the very Ann Radcliffe I've just told you about and her novel "The Mysteries of Udolpho". The episode that is forever etched in my mind describes the heroine being accommodated in a big gothic castle and finding a mysterious door inside her chambers.
To call off her attention from subjects, that pressed heavily on her spirits, she rose and again examined her room and its furniture. As she walked round it, she passed a door, that was not quite shut, and, perceiving, that it was not the one, through which she entered, she brought the light forward to discover whither it led. She opened it, and, going forward, had nearly fallen down a steep, narrow staircase that wound from it, between two stone walls. She wished to know to what it led, and was the more anxious, since it communicated so immediately with her apartment; but, in the present state of her spirits, she wanted courage to venture into the darkness alone. Closing the door, therefore, she endeavoured to fasten it, but, upon further examination, perceived, that it had no bolts on the chamber side, though it had two on the other. By placing a heavy chair against it, she in some measure remedied the defect; yet she was still alarmed at the thought of sleeping in this remote room alone, with a door opening she knew not whither, and which could not be perfectly fastened on the inside.
The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Ann Radcliffe
So here she is, in her room, with a horrifying door leading god knows where and she has no control over it. This door created the atmosphere of perpetual danger of invasion that could not be remedied by anything, and it impressed me very deeply. It seems so simple - it's just a door - and yet its effect is so profound.
Rusty Lake loves to get on your nerves with its door games. Sometimes people just walk in and you never knew it could happen. Almost every door comes with a peephole that you can actually peep through and sometimes you discover that there is someone behind the door. This fact makes your skin crawl every time because you never know if they can actually open the door from the other side or even force it open. Other times there is a doorbell that rings suddenly making you jump and it completely destroys the serene solitude you've been enjoying while solving puzzles and generally minding your own business. You go to the door, peep through the peephole and there is no one there.
I find it fascinating how the doors in Cube Escape, while seemingly being there just because having an escape room with no door would've been weird, contribute so significantly to its disturbing atmosphere introducing all kinds of uncomfortable ideas to the player. What if someone could come through from the other side into your safe space? What if somebody is waiting for you outside?
A big part of Rusty Lake's unpredictability and horror potential comes from changing environment. Very often, while solving puzzles in Cube Escape and Rusty Lake you are going to interact with the most boring and mundane items you can think of. You are in a kitchen, messing with a kettle and sink, or in a room with a simple bed, couple of framed pictures, a big clock and a radio. These rooms always come across as very simple and realistic because you probably find yourself using these objects every single day.
However, this is where subverting expectations that we've already discussed comes into play. Simple everyday items transform in the most weird ways defying your real-world experience with them as they turn into something new and unexpected. Trees sprout from fish, a giant eyeball glares at you from the ceiling where there was a lightbulb two seconds ago. Often these transformations provide almost a jump scare experience as a trivial object that you do not view in any way as dangerous turns into something horrifying.
The way you move around the room also contributes greatly to the growing feeling of horror anticipation. Most Rusty Lake games are played in first person and in every room you have four screens available for you to examine, one per wall, plus the ceiling. As you "move" from one side of the room to another, you turn very quickly 90 degrees and it's incredibly easy for the game to shove something petrifying into your face as one scene changes to another in a blink of an eye. Sometimes it took me a minute or two to gather up all my courage and turn, when I got a hunch something there might not be as I left it.
The puzzles often have you focused on a small space: a zoomed in safe, or a picture, or one of the windows. As you zoom out and into the familiar scene, you can also find it altered. Once I did that and half the room was covered in blood where there was none before. Rusty Lake and Cube Escape have truly limitless potential of changing the environment drastically without you seeing any of it before you are momentarily thrown into the altered room that you felt you knew down to the last nail.
Point'n'click adventure games that have some sort of story and not just puzzles usually have dialogues, cutscenes, talking protagonists or narrators that make sure that the player understands the setting, the gist of the story, the objective and character motivation. Rusty Lake refuses all standard means of storytelling and instead relies heavily on environment and puzzles themselves to tell the story. Rusty Lake also uses you as its narrator since you're supposed to piece the clues together into a coherent narrative, connect the dots and link characters to their environments and to one another.
Both Rusty Lake and Cube Escape are fairly silent games, despite the many characters you encounter. There is hardly any dialogue, and if you hear someone's voice it's going to be once in a blue moon. And yet communication in Rusty Lake, albeit quite rare and honestly a puzzle in itself, is always contextual and helps you expand your understanding of the plot and setting.
Of course, there are notes but they are hardly ever addressed to you, whoever you might be playing in the episode. You assume the position of an observer while reading little things like, "Can I eat Harvey's egg?" that raise a bunch of questions immediately. Who is Harvey? Well, apparently it's something that lays eggs, maybe a bird. Or a crocodile. Who is the person asking, and most importantly, who is the one responsible for giving permissions to eat Harvey's eggs? These little notes might not even be relevant to the episode you find them in but your memories of reading them will definitely be triggered some time later as you gain more knowledge about Harvey and realize who the other two characters in this one-line conversation might have been. The fractured nature of the Rusty Lake's narrative often makes you think that most of it will never make sense but in the end it always does.
Sometimes you receive a phone call - or make one yourself. These conversations are usually very short and one-sided, really, as you hear something reassuring like "There will be blood" from the other side, or something simple and straightforward like "The past is never dead, it's not even past". These phrases keep popping up here and there in different Cube Escape and Rusty Lake episodes and they might seem meaningless, thrown into the game just for the horror and mystery value but later, as you play more and get more familiar with the story, these words will start making much more sense to you.
Rusty Lake: Roots and Rusty Lake Paradise are the richest games when it comes to story and yet there are not many conventional narrative means that these games employ to deliver it to the player. In Rusty Lake: Roots the story of the Vanderboom family is told through their family tree that shows you the names and the degree of relation. Everything else you learn through the puzzle scenes, and it's all almost completely wordless. You describe this story yourself in your own words based on what you see and what kind of puzzles you're trying to solve. It's fascinating to me how if you've played Rusty Lake: Roots you can reliably tell the story of the Vanderboom family when the game itself is pretty much silent.
Rusty Lake rooms that you're supposed to escape from are usually quite minimalistic but highly interactive: you have a modest set of items and yet you can use all of them in one way or another, and even multiple times. Everything is a piece of a puzzle. Some items can be seen repeatedly throughout the series, accumulating symbolic meanings and character significance the more you encounter them.
Probably one of the most significant items that you come across fairly often, is Grandfather's Clock. You can see it as early as Cube Escape: Seasons, and it keeps popping up here and there either as an interactive item, often a cornerstone of an episode (Rusty Lake: Roots) or more as an omen of things to come, like in Cube Escape: Case 23. You learn very early on what the clock can do and what its purpose might be, so you come to expect certain plot development out of an episode where you see the clock. The clock, after you've got acquainted with it, serves to provide context so you feel that you're becoming more and more familiar with the world of Rusty Lake.
The same goes for character significant items that are more clearly shown in Rusty Lake Hotel, where every character you visit has their own story and their own set of related items. For example, Mr. Deer demands a Bloody Mary and is preoccupied with figuring out whether or not there is something at the bottom of the Lake and how one can descend there. Mr. Rabbit is a magician so you can expect hats and playing cards to be his related items. Mr. Boar is very hungry, he wants a... specific kind of sandwich and is thrilled about the shrimp cocktail that everybody else treated with zero excitement. All these items seem kind of random until you suddenly start finding them in other games, linking parts of the Rusty Lake story across decades.
Since Rusty Lake's themes include rebirth and reincarnation, cycles of life and death, these recurrent items help you navigate the timeline and determine connections between different characters and even establish who certain characters used to be before they were reborn. This is probably the most fascinating, detective part of the Rusty Lake seemingly incoherent story - connecting the dots, tying characters together across generations.
There are also recurring items that you can associate not with a particular character but with yourself. Almost every Rusty Lake episode starts with you finding a box of matches in a drawer, and then most likely you'll discover a knife, optionally covered in blood, or scissors. Matchbox is a point of stability and reassurance in the crazy chaos of unfolding events and as a player you become more and more reliant on this seemingly small and insignificant item the more episodes you play. Imagine what happens when you suddenly cannot find it anywhere.
I always focus on narrative and story in games since this unique medium allows for some pretty amazing ways of telling a good story, and Rusty Lake is something that I felt was very unique in this regard. The way it used recurring items, environment and its puzzles - and hardly any words - to tell quite a long story involving multiple characters impressed me greatly. It is a commitment of sorts, you won't really get to the bottom of things after playing one Rusty Lake game or a couple episodes of Cube Escape, you'll need to play everything there is to play to fill in the blanks. I really like how fractured the story is and how it suddenly starts coming together the more episodes you play. Things just kind of fall into place. Ultimately, I've come to regret playing Rusty Lake Hotel as my first game of the series, it wasn't a really good or well-informed decision as I feel Rusty Lake Hotel would've made much, much more sense to me had I played it later, after several Cube Escape episodes.
It's also quite impressive how far Rusty Lake development team have come: from simple point'n'click puzzle games on Flash to premium games with more elaborate puzzles, to making their own short film that is, as you can imagine, also a puzzle and you can actually use it in the game it corresponds to - Cube Escape: Paradox. The short film is amazing, really; when you hear "a short film for a game" your expectations fall kind of low and you keep your hopes in check. However, Paradox is an unforgettable experience as you watch every item from the game recreated in real life with such precision it's almost eerie, especially this wallpaper that's been haunting you since literally the first episode of Cube Escape. The acting is also on point, it's just a precious piece of art from every angle. The next installment, The Past Within, takes an unexpected turn: it's the first asymmetric co-op game in the Rusty Lake franchise. Super excited for this one, can't wait to play it. It's great to see that Rusty Lake team is not afraid to experiment, try something new, lean into other genres when they could just continue making the same point'n'click adventures and literally nobody would complain.
I encourage you to give Rusty Lake a try. Start chronologically, following the games' initial release dates, you can find the timeline on wikipedia or wherever else. These games are great to play with someone: friends or family members (maybe not really young family members though). I streamed them and had a great time with my viewers because I am notoriously bad at certain types of puzzles so the chat helped me through a couple of those, and it was awesome to see their reactions to whatever was happening in the game and share mine. On the other hand, you can totally enjoy Rusty lake just by yourself, I promise you it will be the weirdest journey but definitely a worthy one.
Thank you for your time, and I'll see you in the next post. Take care.
Rusty Lake series Playtime - 28hrs