Production Admiration: Cube Escape Theatre

It’s been a while since I pulled something off of the Extra Credits’ “Games You Might Not Have Tried” videos. If you haven’t watched them, they are little treasure troves of games that promise interesting, if not necessarily good, mechanical choices. As I’ve been plugging away at a small title on Unity, I find myself looking closer and closer at how outlier games like these ones accomplish a great deal in very little space. As a producer myself, I can’t help but appreciate it.

Cube Escape Theatre is the first game on this particular video’s list. It is free, it is short, and it is absolutely worth playing, for the very least because you get to see how much of an experience can be packed in for a small scope and (probably) small budget.

Recommendation: Play this game, then come back and read this. It’s free, it’s on iOS and Android, and It’ll take you a couple of hours, tops. I will try to avoid spoilers, but I just wanted to err on the side of caution. Continuing!

The first thing that jumps out here is that it is a room escape game. The Cube Escape series has been swinging for most of last year and into this one and “Theatre” is the eighth instalment in the series. This idea is instantly innovative on a landscape of mobile games, while also promising an experience that feels “complete” in a simple setting.

It is hard to make a AAA-style control scheme or experience feel whole on a phone. There’s a lack of controller support, a weaker graphics processor, and the things that you feel like you SHOULD be able to do when interacting with and experiencing a AAA game are not possible on an iOS device. A room escape game is different. Your only expected interactions with a room escape game are maybe tactile, and at most internal. All the gameplay happens in your own head in a real room escape, so all Rusty Lake had to do with Theatre is give the player things to interact with and let them think about it. The difference between actions in real world and actions in game world are a lot less in a room escape game. This makes this setting and platform a great choice from the get go.

Second, is the depth of the actual narrative of this game. This is a room escape in someone’s mind, sometimes quite literally. The things that happen are surreal, and bizarre, but evocative of greater happenstance and more real circumstances that aren’t shown in the game world. A picture of a woman in a man’s pocket. The man drinking in the bar, looking dishevelled. A fetus under a sink. A cocktail made of blood. A locked room inside someone’s mind, the combination to which comes from analyzing closely the elements of a photograph of the woman above. All of this makes for a story, without ever having to clearly state what happened. “It’s all my fault” the guy says., as he’s spewing out the screwdrivers and roses you need to solve other problems, each time from giving him the right alcoholic beverage. This game goes a long way in showing and not telling, and leaves things up to you, narratively. Not only is this the right choice for surrealism, but it’s a good choice for the platform. Less dialogue, more images, and more strange juxtaposition almost has a Kuleshov effect on what you think the story is.

Finally, it is truly disturbing. I found myself questioning why they chose to go as dark as they did, but it fits the mobile platform really well. Sparse audio tones as soundtrack, and sometimes no soundtrack at all is a nice choice for atmosphere and it’s not processor-intensive. It almost begs to be played with headphones on and there is a lot to be frightened of once you do (I had to turn it down a couple of times…).

If you’re not an audio-nerd like I am, you may not know the amount that the handheld device actually compresses audio. It is impossible to have something perfectly lossless that still runs on mobile, and yet so many companies try to make high-fidelity or cute-sounding experiences. To my ears at least, this isn’t perfectly possible. Cube Escape Theatre doesn’t even bother. The sound is grittier, and compressed even more than you’d expect, and lends an air to the general discomfort of the entire experience. It makes it feel more surreal, more on edge, and while this is also a great decision in terms of optimization, sometimes those decisions actually benefit the game.

I’d love to hear more examples where you can notice choices to make a game easier to make that also made it work better as a whole. In the industry you are always coming up with new ways to solve problems, from every department. Sometimes those are design problem, sometimes they are art, sometimes they’re production. Watch out for the shortcuts you find that make you happy, use them when you know they’ll make your game better.

Tweet me @blankdave or leave comments. I’d love to hear from you.