So, I have a DS Lite, the first portable gaming console I’ve owned since my Game Boy, and I love playing it. It’s a great little system, but that’s a whole other saga. Right now, I’d like to discuss a particular game I picked up a while ago, based almost entirely on the discussions and reviews from these guys. The game is Hotel Dusk: Room 215. And to put it simply, Hotel Dusk fails where Fla-vor-ice pops succeed.
If you aren’t familiar, Fla-vor-ice freezer pops are slim plastic pouches of about 1.5 oz. of obscenely colored and flavored frozen water. They’re a lot like those red, orange, and purple popsicles with the two sticks, but much smaller. They also require a little effort to get at. You cut off the top of the pouch and suck and squeeze the frozen parts out, then suck out the last melted leftovers, so as not to waste any of the delicious artificialness. All in all, it’s more effort for less pop, but the experience (particularly for a kid) is so novel and unique that it ends up carving out its own memorable and desirable experience. Hotel Dusk is a lot like a Fla-vor-ice pop, when compared to its more robust counterparts: actual videogames and actual novels. It tries to combine the pacing and rich development of a book with the interactive problem-solving entertainment of a videogame, to create a less immediate but ultimately unique and rewarding experience. But instead of having fun getting at the delicious Fla-vor in the unique package, you end up getting frustrated opening the plastic pouch, which is apparently full of plain water anyway.
Hotel Dusk, a kind of Japanese approach to the American detective novel, takes advantage of the DS’s unique control scheme* by presenting the game in such a way that you need to orient the DS like a book, rather than like a laptop. You interact with it via the stylus, and hold the DS with your off hand. As Kyle Hyde, the protagonist, you can do exciting things like knock on doors, turn doorknobs, ring hotel desk bells, reveal dialogue, reveal more dialogue, open suitcases, pick things up, and write messy notes about how the hotel is small and boring. Sound kind of dull? Well, it is. Hotel Dusk lacks the depth and intrigue of a book, and fails to compensate by upping the engaging interactions found in a typical videogame. It takes the less entertaining aspects of novels (slower pace, complex and opaque plot) and combines them with the least entertaining gaming convention possible: making simple, mundane tasks complex under the guise of “interactive puzzle-solving”.
Exploring the hotel, involves interacting with a flat, 2-D map on the touch-screen, and viewing a 3-D rendered room on the view screen. It sounds OK, but unfortunately I found the setup a bit annoying, as I spent much of my time looking at the map rather than the actual room. It took me right out of the experience and abstracted it immensely. If Hotel Dusk is so story driven, it should probably have tried to keep as much of the player’s attention in the 3-D world as possible. As it was, it felt like just another unsuccessful Fla-vor-ice control scheme, particularly since I had to walk around that damn hotel over and over again in a few cases just to figure out who I was supposed to talk to, or what event I was supposed to trigger. Exploring a bland hotel room is about a entertaining as exploring a bland hotel room, by the way.
The interactive elements of Hotel Dusk are largely handled on the touch-screen, and consist primarily of tapping objects and nested menus. Want to look at a lamp? Well, you have to look at that side of the room, enter a sub-area, then tap on the lamp. Then read some observation that may reveal no more than: hey, it’s a lamp. The game could really have used some streamlining, particularly since the dialogue is the meat of the experience as a narrative game. There are a few instances where you use the touch-screen and stylus to simulate jiggling or lifting or turning, but they are too few and far between.
After about 2.5 or 3 hours of this torture, I just lost interest. I’m pretty open-minded when it comes to games, and I’m also somewhat compulsive in my need to complete them, even if they’re bad. Even if a game is hard or frustrating, I’ll often give it a few shots before dismissing it, which often leads to my enjoying them from the right mindset. Also, many games don’t hit their stride until a few hours of gameplay have passed. But I just couldn’t do it with Hotel Dusk, which continually failed to pull me into its plot and world. Scrolling through dialogue, trying to care about a bunch of characters that all seem to have nothing to do with each other, ‘solving’ non-puzzles, not really having any sense of why I’m doing what I’m doing; none of this is fun. I’d look forward to playing with a bit of dread. It was the same sensation I got when I had to read something in school that was necessary but unrewarding. I’ll only suffer so much of that sensation before trading in a game for something else, perhaps Rocket Slime.
If Hotel Dusk was going to succeed by abandoning more engaging gameplay devices, it had to do it with a great story that featured a quick hook and more active participation. Instead, it delivers an obtuse narrative doled out at a ponderous pace, as reward for performing thoroughly mundane tasks. Why a story-driven game would focus its game mechanic on actions that would hardly even bear mentioning in the novels the game tries to emulate is beyond me. I do not recommend this game to anyone. However, I salute the developers for taking a shot at something unique. Apparently some people really enjoyed it, so that’s worth something, I suppose. As for me? I’m going to go find myself a Fla-vor-ice instead.
*The DS utilizes two stacked screens, one of which is touch-sensitive. In addition to standard Game Boy-esque controls, the DS includes a stylus for the touch-screen.