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.
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.