By Dax Duong
Warning: this review contains minor spoilers, but should not drastically affect the playing experience.
As an avid fan of the indie game studio Rusty Lake, I’ve been anticipating the release of “The White Door” since the studio announced the game’s name in May 2019. As I waited for the game to drop, I replayed the 13 other point-and-click games that the Amsterdam-based company has developed so far, including their highly rated “Cube Escape Series.” I enjoyed having a chance to refresh my memories of the delightfully surreal yet mysteriously macabre world of “Rusty Lake” (which shares its name with the game studio). When Rusty Lake pushed back the initial release date of “The White Door” from Nov. 26, 2019 to Jan. 9, 2020, I got even more excited for the game. They were taking the time to get everything just right, and I couldn’t wait.
But maybe I set my expectations too high.
For me, “The White Door” was somewhat underwhelming. I was expecting a game that showcased the elements that characterized Rusty Lake’s other games: an unsettlingly unpredictable storyline, original puzzles that challenge me to think creatively and an atmospheric, dreamlike world that makes me want to stay up all night getting lost in it. “The White Door” is the only Rusty Lake game that I have not absolutely loved.
However, the game developers did disclose that they were trying something new, and “The White Door” did satisfactorily achieve their expressed goal of creating a more narrative-based game with innovative gameplay. The biggest selling point of “The White Door” is its unique split-screen interface that provides players with multiple perspectives and ways to interact with the environment at all times. The game follows Robert Hill over the course of seven days as he follows the strict daily routine forced upon him by the mental health facility in which he’s trapped. With each passing day, Hill rediscovers his missing memories moment by moment through his dreams, and the player slowly pieces together the tragic series of events leading up to Hill’s psychiatric hospitalization. The journey is peppered with themes, characters and imagery from Rusty Lake’s other games.
However, the game was almost too narrative-heavy for me. Progressing in the “dream” half of the game, which occurred in episodes at the end of every day, largely required the player to manipulate one side of the screen to follow the events being described on the opposite side. For example, dragging a character’s pupils down when prompted by “She looked down,” or sliding the protagonist’s arm up in response to “I took a sip.” It felt like I was turning the pages of a book, or performing a relatively mindless action to access more of the narrative. Nowhere (barring the hidden achievements) did I feel stuck or challenged in the way that I did with Rusty Lake’s other games.
The “daily routine” half of the game was surprisingly less tedious, in a way. The gameplay was repetitive, but to a forgivable extent, since it represented the monotony of sticking to such a strict schedule. And there were enough changes made between each of the days to keep the player engaged while revealing information at a pace that artfully maintained the game’s suspense and mystery. The puzzles in this half of the game were still less challenging than those in Rusty Lake’s other titles, but at least required more thought than those in the dream sequences.
Now for the big question: Would I recommend “The White Door”? Yes, but under a few conditions. If you’re already a fan of Rusty Lake, make sure to approach the game knowing that it’s going to be very different from the studio’s other works, and is more of an interactive visual novel than a game. If you’ve done your research you might already know this, but to avoid spoilers I refrained from checking out the game beforehand, which ended up hurting my experience more than helping. If, on the other hand, you’re new to the world of “Rusty Lake,” I would recommend playing the studio’s other games first to get the full experience. Without at least some knowledge of Rusty Lake’s previous work, it will be hard to catch and appreciate the references scattered throughout “The White Door.” This game is great for anyone who likes puzzles, escape rooms or a healthy dose of creepy. And it seems like the rest of the internet agrees that it’s worth playing; at the time this article was written, “The White Door” was rated 9/10 on Steam, 4.7/5 on Google Play and 4.7/5 on the App Store.
Though “The White Door” fell a little short of my expectations, I don’t think it was because I set them too high, but rather because I expected something that aligned more with Rusty Lake’s other games. But comparing “The White Door” to Rusty Lake’s other games might be unfair. In response to some disappointed reviews, Rusty Lake made a blog post saying, “As mentioned we wanted to create something else this time: focusing on creating [a] narrative based game with…interesting new gameplay. Almost like a visual novel. We knew it wouldn’t be for everyone, especially the hardcore puzzle fans.” In this blog post, Rusty Lake also explained that they published the game under their new label Second Maze because they were trying something so divergent from their signature style.
Ultimately, playing through “The White Door” was still an enjoyable way to spend a few hours, and if given the chance, I would do it all over again (especially for the price!). I plan on continuing to be a passionate fan of Rusty Lake, and am enthusiastically looking forward to the four other projects Rusty Lake said they were working on alongside “The White Door,” accompanied by the promise of a return to their signature style!
If you’d like to enter “The White Door,” it’s available for purchase on Steam ($3.39 until Jan. 16, then back to the regular price of $3.99), Google Play ($3.49), the App Store ($2.99) and itch.io ($2.99). But first, consider checking out Rusty Lake’s other games, the majority of which are free, at rustylake.com.
Contact Dax Duong at daxduong ‘at’ stanford.edu.