Just a Good, Old Fashioned Scary Story – The Horror of Rusty Lake: Roots

As I’ve mentioned in previous logs, Rusty Lake: Roots, is an indie point-and-click horror puzzle game following the extraordinarily dysfunctional Vanderbloom family.  In searching for scholarship on these types of games, I came up pretty empty-handed. Low-budget puzzle games without a wide audience reach tend to be neglected from mainstream scholarship, so instead, I did some reading on Rusty Lake: Roots’s better known cousin—the survival horror genre.  While reading an analysis of survival horror, I was struck by how this game often opposed the conventions of the genre in everything from mechanics to themes.  In my analysis, survival horror draws most heavily from horror films, while Rusty Lake: Roots takes its inspiration far more from horror literature.

Scholar Ewan Kirkland, in “Survival Horrality: Analysis of a Videogame Genre,” examines the morality of survival horror, and draws two conclusions: firstly, that than violence in survival horror is “largely done to, rather than perpetrated by, the protagonist,” and secondly, that the games often “enact a more conservative process of familial reconciliation.” Rusty Lake: Roots meets neither of these criteria.  As for the violence done to the protagonist, the game doesn’t have one, let alone a playable character.  The player interacts with the game world, solving puzzles and furthering the plot, without acting as any specific character.  This lack of playable character thus precludes any violence being done to them. Rather, the violence in the game—suicides, dismemberments, murders, and the like—all happen to the playable characters as a result of the player solving the puzzles.  Emma’s suicide, for instance, is the final step in one of the game’s levels, and there is nothing, besides refusing to play the level, that the player can do to prevent it. The player is unwittingly implicated in the horror of the game, simply solving a puzzle only for the solution to yield horrific results.  Secondly, the plot of Rusty Lake: Roots is far from a process of familial reconciliation; rather, the story revolves around the collapse of a family.  The dysfunctional Vanderblooms frequently try to kill one another, and the story chronicles how this family devolves further into violence and madness as generations progress.

Most people in this picture either commit murder or are murdered. Far from “familial reconciliation…” Source

Big-budget survival horror games strike me as more cinematic, while Rusty Lake: Roots is far more literary.  Survival horror games can rely on jump scares, follow one protagonist, and are capable of cinema-worthy graphics.  Rusty Lake: Roots, as a far lower-budget game, relies instead on the conventions of horror literature.  Without the capability of jump-scares or stunning graphics, the game must craft its horror through a compelling narrative, a constant sense of unease, and disturbing plot points.  In short, Rusty Lake: Roots could be classified not as survival horror, but psychological horror.

I’ve sung the praises of Rusty Lake: Roots in my previous logs, but I am again struck with how expertly the narrative is crafted.  The collapse of the Vanderbloom family is terrifying and compelling, a sprawling family drama told in vivid micro narratives.  While the game lacks any zombies or monsters to kill, the game, like horror literature, manages to frighten and disturb solely through the power of storytelling.

Works Cited:

Kirkland, Ewan. “Survival Horrality: Analysis of a Videogame Genre (1).” The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies no. 10 (Oct 30, 2011): 22-3

The Plot Thickens! – Narrative Architecture in Rusty Lake: Roots

Henry Jenkins, in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” considers the relationship between games and story.  He examines the tension in the scholarly community between those who wish to privilege the mechanics of games in their studies, the Ludologists, and those who focus on the storytelling aspect, the Narratologists.  Jenkins proposes a middle ground, one that asserts that many games tell stories while acknowledging that they tell them in ways unique to the medium.  Rusty Lake: Roots, is a highly narrative driven game, and I believe it departs from Jenkins’s characterization of typical video game storytelling in its clearly linear and unchangeable narrative progression.  In doing so, however, it may limit the freedom and exploration players come to associate with games.

Rusty Lake: Roots, is an epic family drama, spanning across generations.  Each level contains its own narrative, telling the story of a key moment in the family’s history.  These stories range from birth to death, marriage to betrayal, conspiracy to rescue.  Jenkins characterizes traditional video game storytelling as episodic.  He explains that “Each episode…can become compelling on its own terms without contributing significantly to the plot development and often, the episodes could have been reordered without significantly impacting our experiences as a whole (7).  Rusty Lake: Roots somewhat defies this description of video games.  The narrative of the game, while occurring in individual episodes, has a clear arc and could not easily be reordered without losing a great deal of coherence.  For example, in one early episode, Albert throws Emma’s baby into a well.  In a subsequent level, Emma hangs herself due to the heartbreak of losing her child. Several levels later, the player finds herself in that well helping the now-grown child, Frank, to escape.  In another level, Frank kills Albert.  This sub-plot is but one of several narratives that follow a more traditional literary plot structure.

This clear narrative structure is due in large part to the family tree structure by which the game is organized.  After each level, the player returns to the tree and a branch grows, displaying a new level to play that quite literally stems from the previous one.  The narratives, therefore, follow a clear chain of cause-and-effect, as I identified earlier with the Frank narrative.  While this structured approach to storytelling allows for a fascinating, easy-to-follow narrative, it certainly constrains players’ freedom.  Jenkins identifies this concern, explaining that too much plotting can detract from the exploratory nature of games.  Rusty Lake: Roots falls into this trap.  Players can solve the puzzle on each level, but ultimately have little to no control over the outcome of the narrative.  The choices the player makes have no impact on the story, which may be frustrating to players who prefer freedom within a game world.

The game’s family tree displays how each narrative episode progresses from the last

Rusty Lake: Roots is not a traditional game.  Everything, from its graphics (stylized two dimensional drawings), to its mechanics (simple pointing and clicking), to its structure (a clear narrative progression with little player agency), departs from the usual big-budget video game conventions.  However, as an indie game, Rusty Lake: Roots is able to take risks and experiment with storytelling.  The result is a rich, sprawling story worthy of a Gothic novel enacted in a video game.

Like a Bad Dream: Surrealist Horror in Rusty Lake: Roots

Rusty Lake: Roots in an escape-the-room puzzle game telling the story of the Vanderbloom family in 1860.  Dysfunctional to the extreme, this family is brimming with murder, suicide, cult-like rituals, sacrifice, and strange experiments.  What interests me the most about Rust Lake: Roots, however, is its use of surrealist horror.

I’m a lover of most things horror (the glaring exceptions being torture porn and anything with large spiders).  But spooky and scary generally delight me.  What makes Rusty Lake: Roots so unsettling is that it just doesn’t make sense.  The website TV Tropes explains that surrealist horror is “not just nightmare-inducing, it’s nightmarish in a literal way, by being surreal, disjointed, dreamlike, and filled with bizarre imagery, usually saying goodbye to all logic and sanity in the process.” 

Rusty Lake: Roots definitely fits the bill.  Some levels are more frightening than others, certainly, but the whole game feels like an incomprehensible nightmare.  There’s a recurring shadowy figure shaped like a large man with a bird’s head.  In a birthing scene, you give one baby a bottle of blood, and it drinks it happily.  Albert, one of the main characters, is frequently depicted wearing strange, frightening masks that can sometimes control the weather.  In an otherwise romantic scene, James proposes to Mary with a message written in Mary’s blood.


Mr. Crow lurking in the window. Personal screenshot.
Mary goes to sniff a flower and her face promptly begins to bleed. My screenshot.

What interests me most about this surrealist horror is its use in a puzzle game.  Puzzles are about figuring things out, finding clues and solving problems.  In Rusty Lake: Roots, solving the puzzle often only brings about more puzzling results.  Mr. Crow, as the bird-man is called, will often appear at the very end of a level.  In one level, the final step to the puzzle involves cutting out a corpse’s tongue and putting it in a jar, but you never know why.  The player solves the puzzle and figures something out only to be greeted with something incomprehensible.  I think this mismatch between the mechanics of the game and the theme is a really powerful choice.  Contrary to our usual experience, solving the puzzle often results in more questions than answers, enhancing the game’s surreal, bizzarre atmosphere.