The Spectrum Retreat‘s Penrose is a hotel with impeccable service, lovely spacious rooms, and stylish art deco trimmings. But you have no idea why you’re there, and you soon realize that this is one inn where you can’t check out — or leave. This sci-fi puzzler is indie developer Dan Smith’s debut game, and he teamed up with publisher Ripstone Games to release it later this summer for PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Smith is self-taught, and he began working on The Spectrum Retreat when he was 15. It was a solo effort for the first four years until he partnered with Ripstone. Even before the partnership, though, he was catching people’s attention — he won the British Academy Film and Television Arts’ Young Game Designer Award in 2016 for a prototype of this game.
In a hands-on demo, I played as the hapless protagonist, meeting the hotel’s android staff and fielding phone messages from a mysterious woman who told me that I had to break free from my well-decorated prison. She told me that the first step was to get inside a restricted room to solve a series of puzzles to give me more access to my surroundings. She also told me that something is terribly wrong and that the reality I’m experiencing is somehow constructed around me.
Once I cracked the code to the room and stepped inside, my environment was no longer a chic hotel but a series of sleek metallic chambers that were divided by occasional energy fields. I had the enigmatic ability to absorb colors. This power is the key to getting past the barriers, which respond to like colors. In the demo, I encountered red and white fields, and I could swap which color I was holding with glowing cubes that were scattered throughout the levels.
Smith says that designing puzzles is “absurdly hard” because he can’t test them himself; after all, he already knows the solutions. He says that play testers are immensely helpful when it comes to balancing and adjusting the difficulty levels.
“No matter what puzzle you make, you’ll find it easy, because you create it in the opposite direction you solve it,” said Smith in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s been really difficult to fine tune difficulty when you can never try it out. It’s been about getting it in front of testers and figuring out the learning curve, doing it in a way so that people that aren’t into puzzle games can enjoy, but also it’s not going to just bore people who are really good.”
The puzzles get more complicated as you go along. Sometimes, you have to swap with cubes in a certain order so that you can absorb their colors as you proceed through a series of barriers. Other times, you want to hold the opposite color than a barrier because it’s a bridge you have to cross. Smith said that the game’s puzzles feature a couple of different kinds of mechanics beyond the basic color-swapping in the demo. The game eventually features situations where players can teleport and walk on walls.
I liked how the demo gradually introduced new ways to think about my color-absorbing abilities. Smith says it’s tricky to plan the way puzzles ramp up as players progress.
“I think that’s actually what makes a good puzzle game good. It doesn’t let you rest on your laurels very long. It can become very same-ey if you don’t get new stuff. Trying to predict when the player will be done with something is quite difficult,” said Smith. “The vast majority of the puzzles I made, I decided not to put in. It’s about respecting what the mechanic is and what ultimately you can do with it, and then saying, right, we need something else now. And then with the way we introduce the mechanics, it is similar to what you’ve already had here, where we let you use it, and then the idea is that the game shouldn’t spike in difficulty just because you found something new. It should ease you into it and let you try it out.”
The Spectrum Retreat’s brand of reality-bending is gentle. It doesn’t present you with anything too outlandish, at least not during the 20 minutes or so that I played. It doesn’t seek to disturb you, merely instill in you a sense of disquiet. It asks you to pay attention to your surroundings and observe if one of these things is not like the others — like a door which, unlike its near-identical twins in the rest of an old-fashioned hallway, is locked with a modern keypad.
The idea of being trapped in a hotel could easily morph into a horror experience — Exhibit A: The Shining — but Smith says that though the puzzle adventure has its creepy moments and ideas, it never quite veers into that territory.
“I’d say it’s more of a psychological thriller,” said Smith. “That would be the closest genre to it. It is unsettling. You’re never quite comfortable. A lot of people will find it quite scary, but it’s not a horror game per se. It makes you think. The narrative itself is very deep and involved compared to other puzzle games. You’re not only solving the color puzzles, as you’ll see soon. You’re trying to escape the hotel.”
It’s clear something is going on with the protagonist’s state of mind. Toward the end of the demo, I found a piece of displaced reality that looked like a piece of someone’s bedroom. When I interacted with it, a woman began speaking to me about my child and our life together. Perhaps our hero has endured some traumatic event and The Penrose is his own personal purgatory – or maybe the explanation owes more to its sci-fi elements.