This is the first entry in our Puzzle Autopsy series, where we dissect the puzzle design in a video escape the room game. The game we'll be discussing is Crimson Room by Toshimitsu Takagi, from 2004. Play the game here, and when you're finished, come back and read the article.
NOTE: Crimson Room is currently unsolvable because one of its puzzles relies on a webpage that is no longer online. I was able to finish the game using the safe combination "1994," but I haven't been able to repeat my success with copies of the game hosted on other sites.
A Study in Scarlet
Some people consider Takagi's Crimson Room to be the forerunner of the online escape game craze from back in the aughts. These games were almost always free to play, developed with Macromedia/Adobe Flash, and playable on the myriad online game portals powered by the MochiMedia game distribution and monetization platform.
To call Crimson Room the progenitor of the genre unfairly dismisses the vast wealth of computerized puzzle adventure games that came before it, which is one of the reasons why I don't actually like online escape games. Because Flash made it easier than ever before to develop and share games, everyone was doing it, including younger first-time designers who didn't necessarily have a pedigree of puzzling to reference.
All of the puzzle games that preceded Crimson Room had slowly been working out the kinks over a trial period of decades. By 2004, there were some very concrete "Don't Do" design decisions which, if they appeared in commercial puzzle games, would be called out immediately by reviewers. And rightly so. Chief among these design flaws was the pixel hunt, which had players scouring the screen, performing rapid little clicks with the mouse, hoping to uncover some tiny, single-pixel hotspot.
Enter Crimson Room, which, free from the commercial pressures of pleasing professional critics and paying players, re-introduced the pixel hunt, along with a number of other previously solved design problems. It was a big step backwards, and it was followed by a thousand imitators who, like Takagi, did not heed the lessons of the past. What ensued was an entire genre of games that gleefully perpetrated design crimes against humanity again and again and again. Today, live room escape games that were inspired by Crimson Room and its ilk have cropped up in every major city in the world, including our own LockQuest here in Toronto.
Can we turn this around, and squeeze a drop of goodness from such a heinous legacy? Can real escape games provide the same thrill of being locked in a puzzle-laden room, without falling back on bad game design? I think the only way we can protect ourselves, and our puzzles, is to have an open and honest conversation about what makes for good puzzle design, and which bad designs should be banished again to The Pit, as it was in the days preceding the release of Crimson Room, before Takagi recited from that flesh-bound Book of Evil Puzzle Design and freed these insidious, unfun challenges from their supernatural confines.
What Was That Trope Again?
Alright, so Crimson Room. You've woken up in a room after having drank too much, as the game explains to you in badly localized Engrish (example: "I felt thirst of the throt.") The room is painted crimson, the bed feels different, and you don't think you're in a hotel.
Aaaaand ... there you have it. That's all the story and preamble you get. Already, Crimson Room is resurrecting two tired adventure game tropes that we'd already put to bed nearly a decade earlier:
- You begin the game by waking up, unaware of where you are or how you got there. BONUS: You may have amnesia. Deja Vu, Sanitarium, Countdown, and a hundred other commercial titles listed on this Moby Games page use the amnesia trope, and it's probably not an exhaustive list by far.
- You begin the game in an enclosed space, usually a prison cell. TVTropes.org has a page devoted to this trope, which mentions the amnesia corollary.
We can't do much about that second trope. The whole point of the genre is that you're trapped in a room. But adventure game reviewers had long since decried the amnesia opener as lazy, yet here it is again in Crimson Room rearing its ugly head and inspiring countless other games.
Much of the Crimson Room is about collecting the items around the room. An early problem you're presented with is a CD player with no power cord, and a CD case with no CD in it. A key under the pillow unlocks a drawer, which contains the power cord. Inside the CD player is a second key. There is no CD in the game, and the empty case is a red herring. Or a crimson herring, I suppose.
Already, we're experiencing some of the random logic that these games became plagued with. It's not a difficult puzzle to pair two obvious items (CD player and cord). It's also not clear from the get-go what CDs and CD players have to do with you escaping from a room. Online escape games do this a lot: your goal is to open a door, which requires a key. You find a key, but it doesn't open the door - it opens this other thing. Begin chain reaction rabbit hole of unrelated tasks that have nothing to do with opening doors.
The rest of your quest for random items underscores another problem with these games. Invisible unhinted hotspots abound, and if you don't discover them, you can't complete the game. For example, in Crimson Room, you can click at the right edge of the bed:
to view a blank wall:
Clicking the anywhere along the left edge of the wall screen takes you back to the bed view. But clicking a small hotspot at the bottom-right of the wall view turns you around to face the end of the bed, where you find a battery.
Live escape games can suffer from this problem as well. A number of the "stuck" points in Escape the Book Club Killer stem from players just not finding certain hidden objects. Sometimes in a virtual escape game, the artist will add a visual clue for a hidden item (like a frayed corner on a carpet), indicating where you should click. In live escape games, it can be a lot more frustrating to miss a hidden object because, unlike virtual games, there is no technological interface keeping you from discovering an item. The item is just there, and you failed to find it.
To solve this problem of undiscovered objects, we've occasionally added "helper clues" to the room guiding players to those objects. But of course, this solution creates another issue: what if players don't see or don't properly interpret the helper clues? You risk adding clues that lead to clues that lead to clues. She swallowed the spider to catch the fly. I don't know why she swallowed the fly. I guess she'll die?
Knock Three Times
When you open and close the curtain three times, a ring falls out. I don't mind this puzzle too much. I've seen it used in many other games - for example, ringing a doorbell three times to get someone's attention. I think in Crimson Room, it could be made more fair by having three ever-so-slightly different sound effects play each time you jimmy the curtain, or by showing the player a very slight change in the graphic each time, indicating progress. Otherwise, what's the sense in it? Jimmy the curtain three times and an item falls out. Why not five times? Why not seven? Are there any other things I have to interact with a seemingly random number of times to beat this game?
Short answer? Yes. Yes, there are.
Using the key from the window sill on one of the locked drawers yields "a small box of mistery."
The two rings I've collected, along with the metal stick I found behind the mattress by clicking on another invisible, unhinted hotspot, all fit in the recesses of the box. It opens.
But why? Is there some magnetic catch in the box that reacts to the ferrous metal objects I've placed on top? The only logic here is that I need two round things and a rectangular thing to match the shapes on the lid of the box. Very little thought has been given to how this box would work in real life, and that kinda bugs me. Also: why does one ring go in one of the two identically-sized recesses, and not the other? If you have a thin ring and a thick ring, why not make the circular indents two different sizes? Online escape game logic at its best.
Inside the box, I place the tape from under the dresser, and the battery from beside the bed. The increasingly implausible box contains a lens, and apparently the tape has a movie stored on it. I'm not really sure what universe I'm in right now - possibly the Planet of Convenient but Spurious Technology.
After a brief countdown, the movie that plays on the blank crimson wall shows a rotoscoped male bopping to air guitar and air bongos (?) before pointing three times to a spot on the wall indicated by a teensy tiny star symbol. Here, the ancient pixel hunt beast hears its name being read aloud and awakens from its slumber in the deep. What have you done, Takagi? We had imprisoned it years ago! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE??
There's no use. The genie is out of the bottle. To solve this puzzle, you have to first ensure that you've watched the video on the red wall screen. If you don't, you're pooched - unless, like me, you hold the tip of an x-acto knife to your monitor to mark the place where the dancing guy points. If you get it wrong, like me, then you're doomed to watch the overlong dance sequence at least 10 more times before you click on the tiny, correct spot.
Clicking three times on the single-pixel hidden hotspot reveals a secret panel in the wall (pretty impossible to replicate in real life, this one). Behind the panel is a safe, which brings us to the unsolvable puzzle mentioned above.
Inside the safe is a screwdriver. If you don't click directly on it, the panel will close and you'll have to watch the damnable dance sequence again and find the single-pixel invisible hotspot. Please don't ask me how I know this. I am still trying to block it from my memory.
The screwdriver pops off the door handle, and out you go. In a real escape game, any number of objects in the room could be improvised to remove the screws fastening that door handle: the rings, the edge of the CD case - even your own fingernail.
Apart from the broken webpage that once harboured a clue back in 2004, I was able to solve Crimson Room without any help. If I had failed and required a walkthrough, it would have been those invisible unhinted hotspots that tripped me up.
Here Comes Everybody
As the game that launched an entire movement, Crimson Room is underwhelming. There's nothing interesting happening here puzzle-wise, no story to speak of, and nothing to recommend the title. But it remains an undeniable historical artifact in consideration of the resurgence that was to come. Pandora's box had been opened. Cry havoc, and let slip the online escape games.