"The guests here eat, sleep, and hoard secrets like squirrels hoard nuts." It's a telling statement from the main character of the new DS game, Hotel Dusk: Room 215. Secrets are plentiful in this title. Every guest you meet in the rundown, hole of a hotel where the game takes place has a mystery to solve, and buried deep within are the answers to your own riddle. Finding answers to these mysteries involves a lot of chatter and a fair amount of puzzle solving. With strong characters and a compelling story, it's a fine example of the divergent types of experiences that videogames can provide.
You have the starring role in this interactive noir novel as Kyle Hyde, an ex-cop turned traveling salesman. You arrive at the Hotel Dusk waiting for a package for your boss, but your simple errand quickly becomes much more. Don't let the glazed over look in his eyes and chin strap facial hair fool you, Hyde is much more than an errand boy, with a personal quest that boarders on obsession. He's searching for his ex-partner, Bradley, and some resolution to the mystery behind his disappearance. And the key to solving that mystery lies within the hotel.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is an excellent example of the importance of a finely crafted narrative, dialogue and characters.
Games often don't focus on story and dialogue, but it's key to this game. The lively characters, snappy dialogue and intriguing story make it a success. It really plays like an interactive novel. You even hold the DS like a book to play. Each character speaks style and tone, establishing themselves through their dialogue. It's a text based game, but I often found myself reading the lines in my head in the voices that I associated with each character, like I would a novel. Just by interacting with the various characters, you'll learn whom you can trust and whom you can't. No character is just a talking head in this game.
You'll be glad the characters are interesting, because extracting information from them is a necessity. There are certainly some puzzles to be solved, but the majority of your information and progress will come through discussion. The conversations are interactive, with bits of gleaned information raising new questions you can ask. Some will take you down the right path, while others will force you to hit the road by slapping you with a game over screen. The dichotomy of the question system does hurt the experience a bit, as there is usually no way to tell that you've made a miscalculation until you've already asked the question. When you offend a character you're questioning they do sometimes get angry and red washes over their body, but most of the time it's already too late and the next thing you know you've been tossed from the hotel. Some middle ground between complete success and utter defeat would have been a welcome addition.
The story is broken down into chapters, each with it own aim and resolution. Each chapter is usually centered around the secrets of a particular character, although you'll quickly realize it's no coincidence that all these guests have gathered at the hotel on the same day. During your investigation, you can write things down in a notebook that you carry with you at all times. It's a very useful feature for a game that throws a lot of information at you. Of course, since you're writing down vital information in your own handwriting you need to be sure it's actually legible. There's nothing worse than not being able to read your own handwriting. Each chapter ends with essentially a chapter quiz, recapping the highlights in case you forgot. Thankfully, you can't get a game over screen here, as it's understood that you may have taken some time off between play sessions and forgot much of what happened.
For all its story driven immersion, there are a couple of irritating quirks. Since it takes place in a hotel, the game features more knocking on doors than a girl scout during cookie season, especially in situations where you aren't quite sure what you're supposed to be doing. For the most part, the game does a good job of pointing you in the right direction, without holding your hand step by step but you can end up a bit confused. At one point I ran into a glitch where I hadn't picked up everything I needed to in a certain room. As a result, I could leave the room and wander, but there wasn't anything for me to do until all the proper items were in my inventory while in that room. Only then would my exit cue the next character encounter. It would have been fine if it had prevented me from leaving (as it had in other situations), but it merely allowed me to leave, freeing me to uselessly bang on some more doors.
Minor flaws aside, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is an excellent example of the importance of a finely crafted narrative, dialogue and characters. While this title revolves around those foundations, I hope its influence spreads to other games and other genres. There are stories worth telling in games, it's just going to take a lot of banging on doors to find them.