These days, the majority of the world associates the “room escape” genre with tourists and coworkers spending $20-60 dollars each to pretend to be locked in a room together for an hour, solving puzzles of various complexities to get let out. Semi-casual gamers, on the other hand, know that the room escape genre originated long before the live action version became popular in the late 2000s, with the earliest computer escape game being released as early as 1988. There are now thousands of room escape flash games available, and few are as admired as Rusty Lake’s.
First debuting with the free to play puzzle game “Samsara Room” in 2013, the Rusty Lake team has since released eight free flash games in their Cube Escape series and two longer pay-to-play games called Rusty Lake Hotel and, most recently, Rusty Lake Roots.
Entering the world of Rusty Lake, which specializes in mental health, fishing, and murder, means leaving conventional logic behind and entering into a stunning and unsettling world not unlike that nightmare you had after drinking absinthe. Starring human and not-so-human characters like the dead-or-not-dead unnamed “woman,” perpetually put upon Detective Dale Vandermeer, and a staff of humanoid birds of dubious ethics named Mr. Owl, Mr. Crow, and Harvey, players get to explore this dream world by finding and creating cubes, captured memories preserved by Mr. Owl and Mr. Crow.
Now that Rusty Lake Roots has been out for a couple of months, we spoke with Robin and Maarten, the two-person team behind Rusty Lake. To avoid spoilers, it’s recommended that you go play these games at Rusty Lake’s website before reading this article, or at least watch a “Let’s Play” or two.
Steph: Thank you for doing this interview! First, let’s meet the Rusty Lake team! What’s each of your backgrounds with game design? How did you get to this point?
Rusty Lake: Let’s quickly introduce ourselves. I’m Robin 26 years and Maarten is 32. We’re based in Amsterdam, in a-lab.nl a co-working space. I studied Law (masters in ICT Law) and Maarten Landscape Architecture (also masters). So it’s funny that we both ending up in gaming from a hobby. I was creating gaming portals with small flash games and Maarten made flash games as a hobby.
Via internet we met each other, and together we made small news based games like: Snowden Leak’s The Game or Save Harry, which went viral all over the world.
With Rusty Lake, we took a next step in our collaboration by creating a mysterious world around which we would be able create several games. We started with a few Cube Escape games to see if people would like it. It did, so now we are working full time on Rusty Lake and probably will continue working on it for the next years.
Steph: How would you describe the Rusty Lake/Cube Escape series to people who’ve never played it? What’s your signature style? What separates your series from other escape and puzzle games?
Rusty Lake: Surrealistic room escape/adventure games which are easy to play but get more complex on the way. We want to become the Twin Peaks of gaming. Creating a series of mysterious adventure games with interesting characters.
Steph: These days, each of your games answers several questions and leaves players with several more. Will we ever find out exactly what’s going on at Rusty Lake?
Rusty Lake: We think the story of Rusty Lake is a combination of using your own imagination/mind and following the hints in every game. Rusty Lake will remain a breeding ground for mysterious things you have to unfold yourself.
We have ideas about the current storylines and most important themes of Rusty Lake, which we will reveal in the games coming up. But Rusty Lake is a big world, where more stories can take place, so even we don’t know exactly where it will end.
Steph: Your games are stunning to watch and listen to. The visuals are both creepy and beautiful at the same time. Pre-Rusty Lake Hotel, you mostly used music by Kevin Macleod, but as of late, you’ve hired composers to create your soundtracks as well as voice actors for main characters Dale Vandermeer, Mr. Owl, and Mr. Crow. What has inspired your aesthetics? What made you decide to hire composers and voice actors?
Rusty Lake: Before we started we had some ideas about the atmosphere of the game. But the exact style is something that grows naturally, with the drawing methods we use.
Kevin Macleod’s database is great for beginning artists and developers, we were lucky that some of the music fitted so well with our games. It’s quite an investment to hire an a composer from the start, if you already know one. We came across Victor Butzelaar by accident, he is also working at a-lab and showed his work.
Steph: As of late, you’ve been focusing on the Cube Escape series, but you got your start with “Samsara Room,” which received extremely positive reviews. A lot of the motifs used in “Samsara Room” carried over into the Cube Escape games, including the grandfather clock with a secret compartment, cryptic phone messages, and even cubes. What made you decide to include these aspects in the Cube Escape series? Previously, you’ve stated that there’s no canon connection between “Samsara Room” and Cube Escape, but the word “Samsara” has made it into “Cube Escape: Theatre” and Rusty Lake Roots, and the actual Samsara Room bears a significant resemblance to the Woman’s apartment in “Cube Escape: Seasons.” Is there more to “Samsara Room” than meets the eye?
Rusty Lake: There wasn’t a Cube Escape series without Samsara room. It was a great inspiration for Rusty Lake. It’s long developed before, but it can be say it’s taking place in the same universe. Or at least it contains some of the most important themes of the Rusty Lake games.
Steph: It’s dangerous getting attached to living creatures in your games, since most of them tend to die horribly. Why do you torture your players so by making us watch people like Dale’s parents and animals like Harvey and Mr. Rabbit die like this?
Rusty Lake: It’s not that we want to torture our players, I think the correct word will be to shock them. It’s something that happens in Rusty Lake.
Steph: Most of your games allow you to solve puzzles at your own leisure (for which your fans are grateful, since many solutions take a lot of outside-the-box thinking, and slide puzzles that can take hours to complete), but “Cube Escape: Case 23” involves an unforgiving time-sensitive puzzle, further complicated by a corrupted soul gradually threatening the room. What made you decide to include a time-sensitive in “Case 23?” Will you include more in later games?
Rusty Lake: We might include it later again. After 3 rooms of puzzle we wanted to do something completely different, making it more exciting to finish.
Steph: Most of your games use entirely original characters and material, but “Cube Escape: Arles” delves into the mind of Van Gogh and his apartment. Can we expect anymore historical fiction in future games? What made you decide to use Van Gogh in the first place?
Rusty Lake: Yes we hope to do more of them. Van Gogh’s painting and personal history was the perfect match for a Cube Escape, and explain more about Rusty Lake.
Steph: Let’s talk about Rusty Lake Hotel and Rusty Lake Roots. These were the first “pay to play” games in your series, with every other game so far being a freeware flash and/or mobile game. What made you decide to require players to pay for these games? They’re definitely more in-depth than any of your other games–did this have something to do with it? What has the response been like to these games so far? Does the relatively low price tag have any impact on sales?
Rusty Lake: After developing 6 free games, and hardly earning anything, we came up with the idea to create a premium game, which became Rusty Lake Hotel. We had to do to this to survive and get more recognition as a developer. We received almost no negative response on the price of the two games. Also because the price is pretty low and we already published a lot of free games. So we are very satisfied with the choice of going premium, it gives us more space and time to continue developing games, both free and premium.
Steph: Rusty Lake Roots introduces us to the Vanderboom family, which until now hasn’t been hinted at. Given that the last five games in the series (“Case 23,” “The Mill,” Rusty Lake Hotel, “Birthday,” and “Theatre”) have all concerned Dale Vandermeer, some fans were surprised at his lack of presence in Rusty Lake Roots. Will we be seeing more of Dale in the future? Outside of investigating the Woman’s murder in “Cube Escape: Seasons” and “Cube Escape: Case 23,” how is he related to what’s going on at Rusty Lake? How is the Vanderboom family related to the rest of the series? Will we see more of the Vanderbooms in future games?
Rusty Lake: There are a lot of connections with the other games in Roots. But we wanted to create a complete new series of characters for the family tree.
Steph: In Rusty Lake Hotel, we learned that Harvey was more than just the Woman’s pet, and in fact used to have a human body and work for Mr. Crow and Mr. Owl. We know that under threat of death, Harvey was able to drop his/her human form and become a regular bird. Will something like this eventually happen to Mr. Crow or Mr. Owl? How did Aldous Vanderboom become Mr. Crow in the first place?
Rusty Lake: Yes for Mr Crow it already happened.
Steph: While the series as a whole doesn’t have any clear villains (yet), the closest any of the games has to a villain is Albert from Rusty Lake Roots. What made you decide to introduce Albert as a character? Will his presence be relevant in future games? Does his daughter Rose possess any of his traits?
Rusty Lake: We wanted to make a very dark family member, which became Albert. He will somehow return.
Steph: Is Rose the Woman’s mother? That’s one of the most popular interpretations of her wearing the Woman’s dress and carrying a baby in that dress at the end.
Rusty Lake: There are some good hints for this yes 🙂
Steph: You’ve been posting a lot of fan art to your Facebook page recently. What’s been your favorite experience when interacting with fans? What type of fan works haven’t you seen yet that you’d like to see? Some “Let’s Players” have picked up on your series lately. How has it been watching these playthroughs? Which LPers would you like to see play the series next? How would you feel about a film or TV adaptation of either individual games or the entire series?
Rusty Lake: We just love to see all the fan art, in every way. We couldn’t believe the first Harvey tattoo. But we also really creative things like a gingerbread house of Roots. We hope to see more cosplayers for our characters.
Checking the let’s plays is just an awesome and helpful experience for us. We don’t mind which LP’ers will check out our games, as long as they have fun with it. Of course we would like to see more bigger YouTubers/Twitchers checking out the game, so it draws more attention to Rusty Lake.
Steph: What’s next for the series? You’re already working on a new Cube Escape. What can you tell us about that? Will there be anymore in-depth installments like Hotel and Roots?
Rusty Lake: We can’t say a lot except we’re working on a new cube escape and that it contains Mr Crow. We will make a bigger premium game again later this year.