a review of Hotel Dusk: Room 215
a videogame developed by cing
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo DS
text by Brendan Lee
Hotel Dusk is a lot like a mylar Happy Birthday balloon, half inflated, hovering at the foot of a dead child’s hospital bed. It was made with the best of intentions by talented individuals who knew exactly what they were doing; it was paid for by people who believed in what it meant; and it was delivered to an audience who was no doubt capable of receiving its simple but earnest message.
That it comes off looking somewhat at a loss for what to do with itself it largely a problem of a market still feeling the growing pains of 1) what a curious and versatile piece of hardware the Nintendo DS is; 2) how money can be softly kneaded into a product that looks like it’s on the cutting edge of the future, while actually kicking us back into nostalgia-scented King’s Quest territory; AND 3) the concept that a small developer can, with the right vision and sense of purpose and selection of hardware, compete in the innovative space as well or better than those with 4000-Gigawatt Money Cannons.
And so Hotel Dusk manages all these things. The art is . . . well, it’s truly masterful, when you get right down to it. All of the characters seem whispered to life on the edges of an enchanted sketch pad, and damned if it doesn’t translate extremely well to the (here vertically-oriented) DS screen. The use of the touch screen, though a trifle smug and gimmicky in parts, actually makes a kind of forehead-slapping sense in a lot of places (yes, you can take notes – – yes, you should – – yes, the novelty wears off – – yes, that’s okay, because people take notes all the time in life, and it’s actually far, far weirder that we should have been weaned on punching in encyclopedic nonsense codes in things like Monster Party, and then consider it a novelty when video games finally evolve to a more natural way of doing the very very simple).
The writing’s nice – – in the sense that you can actually notice the story and not be immediately alarmed or poked in the ribs by someone overwriting their way through a day job. The music’s nice – – a bit elevator at times, but just smoky jazz enough to evoke a whiff of gunpowder-scented gumshoe.
Did you take notes with the little notebook, there – – when you were wandering around the hotel, grilling the little charcoal-sketch strangers? If you didn’t, expect to be wandering those halls a lot, feeling like the wasted time is all your fault . . . which it kind of more or less is, in this case. There are little bonuses and clever bits – – just like in those trusty old Sierra adventures (LOOK UP THE LETTER ON THE THIRD CRAB FROM THE BOTTOM NEXT TO THE SEASHELL IN YOUR ‘SEAS AND SEAMEN’ BOOKLET AND TELL THE YEOMAN NOW), you get a little bit of electric juice for running your stylus over all of the little details that they threw in the hotel so you wouldn’t feel like you were just running your stylus over little details. Essentially: the picture is painted well enough that if you squint just right, and maybe if your eyes are a little dry, you might just think it was actually a photograph.
Hey, you know: Hotel Dusk is good.
So: why is it at a half-inflated loss? What keeps it from being so absolutely cheerful that the boy comes back from the dead, yells “I WANT CAKE” and wets his sheets all in one miraculous action?
More important than being good, Hotel Dusk is actually hecking trying. That is such a rare and wonderful thing in this industry, when it’s obvious that it’s kind of a failure way to go about things in the game industry – – at least, financially speaking. For the price of one or two conceptual artists you could partner up for a port, or a flavor-of-the-day license, or go out to a middle school and sell $5 maps to the Free Beer Party (Just for Kids!). Instead, it’s something big and ballsy and fresh – – back to the days of a couple guys green-screening up Myst or whatever. All the technology was already there, and the quirks of the system were just waiting for someone to give them a tickle in the right direction.
That the innovation ends up beating its fists somewhat against a saggy-eyed detective romp is kind of the fault of nobody, and everybody. There’s a crazy magician inside of those walls, sister . . . he’d murder for a pizza with cheese in the crust, and he just saw a tiny crack of light through the crumbling masonry.
Let’s hope his wand still has some juice left in it.