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When weddings turn bad in extremis, August 31, 2011
Room 206 is a huge mystery-horror game of poetic venereal prose (and poetic overkill), a boggle-leaning story and reality-skewing assaults. Programming and writing this game would be an extreme challenge for even a whole team of superhuman IF veterans to pull off smoothly – and I have to say upfront that the game's author Byron Alexander Campbell has not pulled the programming off in bullet-proof fashion – but he has pulled the game off, and done so using the ALAN development system.
The game kicks off in a chapel where you're considering the aftermath of your wedding to exquisite Erica. The wedding party waits for you out on the lawn as you observe stray paraphernalia like a dropped handkerchief and a wafting ribbon, but once you head outside, you find the party has disappeared. Only an anonymous limousine remains. Thus begins this noir-wedding-horror-hardboiled-nightmare-daymare mystery.
Room 206 doesn't have any trouble integrating its sprawl of content and styles into one story, but does have trouble integrating it into the tone of its prose. Lines which are functional, overripe, poetic, super earnest and bizarre all chase each other's heels, often within the space of a paragraph. Dynamically I found this too erratic, so I didn't always buy the narrator's ability to construct back-to-back vivid metaphors while digging through the garbage in a hotel room, for instance. Scripted conversation, especially by telephone, is also in abundance. If you don't like your IF extra writerly, you're unlikely to be able to come at Room 206, but the more you stick with this game, the more you get into its style.
Unfortunately, the adventure reaches close-to-impossible difficulty levels by the halfway mark due to shortcomings in those most important (though boring to always cite) design areas of implementation and giving the player cues. Most objects are implemented for only one purpose, resulting in a lot of preclusion of action and oblivious feedback. Failing to perform a task such as treating your headache with painkillers can result in the game ceasing to progress without telling you why.
Room 206 also makes extreme use of the 'wait' command to progress the script – the walk-through lists more than 50 waits. I appreciate the game's interest in creating an emotional reality in which the player might pause to process thoughts and feelings, but it's too often impossible to guess when you might need to wait to make something happen. It is also in the nature of the game's ambitious content, which becomes increasingly abstract and complex, to make it tough to work out what you might need to do next in general, especially once your character's grip on reality has started to slide. The game mobilises keyword technology for movement (the opening scene is particularly graceful) but geography is typically the least of your worries.
Eventually I was exhausted by the various kinds of onslaught and had to take completely to the walk-through. Doing so typically destroys my interest in a game, but with Room 206 I found that seeing it through to the end was rewarding. I realised I had persisted through lots of challenges, some frustrations – including out-of-game stuff like numerous crashes in two interpreters and corrupted saved files, resulting in multiple replays (I think the latest version of the ALAN interpreter at this time of writing has some Macintosh problems) – and that I had done so because of Room 206's engrossing story and wildness. Even when the prose was overkilly, I started to side with it. And I found myself thinking about the whole experience afterwards. While I was definitely infuriated a lot on the way through, I was ultimately impressed by the fiery reach of this game.