Technology

The story of Rusty Lake – the best kept secret in puzzle games

Perhaps you’re already familiar with developer Rusty Lake’s eponymous puzzle series, but if you’re not that isn’t entirely surprising. Despite an enthusiastic fan base, the Rusty Lake games – and their free-to-play companion series Cube Escape – are yet to receive much in the way of mainstream recognition and acclaim. Which is a shame! They’re wonderfully macabre things, combining atmospheric, casual room escape puzzling with some point-and-click flair. But it’s the vast, interconnected plot that really sets the series apart, each self-contained title ricocheting back and forth along a gleefully grim timeline of grisly murder, shadowy rituals, and resurrection. It’s another kind of mystery in a series all about mysteries, and with Rusty Lake’s latest project – the marvellously ambitious co-op puzzler The Past Within – now here, Eurogamer set forth to find out more about the unassuming Amsterdam studio.

Rusty Lake, the developer, was founded in 2015 by friends and occasional collaborators Maarten Looise and Robin Ras. Before that, Looise, who was studying landscape architecture, had enjoyed decent success making news-inspired Flash games in his spare time, while Ras, who was studying law, ran a number of gaming portals. It was when their paths crossed online, while Ras was looking to collaborate with developers for his website, that a successful working partnership was born.

Their early output – small games based on current events, inspired by everything from Prince Harry to Edward Snowden – enjoyed moderate success, but their fleeting topical relevance was, as Ras and Looise saw it, an increasing problem. “I enjoyed it so much, and the collaboration with Robin always went really well,” Looise tells me, “but the Flash games were always in the news for a week, and then it was over. So we wanted to make something more lasting.”

“We wanted to go for something more meaningful, that would actually create a community,” Ras adds. “We wanted people waiting for the next game instead of doing a completely different game the next time.”

And so Rusty Lake was born, the studio’s name inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks – whose surreal, small town mysteries continue to influence the developer’s output to this day. “We wanted to have this place where anything can happen [for our stories],” explains Ras. “So we were really looking for a mysterious name as well.” But while the parallels with Lynch’s seminal series are obvious – the studio even tipped a hat to the director’s work by naming two characters Laura and Dale in its early games – the world of Rusty Lake owed just as much to one of Looise’s previous creations, Samsara Room, whose pre-occupation with shadow creatures and cyclical rebirth would become a hallmark of the Rusty Lake games.

The world of Rusty Lake and its delightfully macabre narrative made their public debut in 2015’s Cube Escape: Seasons, a surreal, sometimes grisly – and surprisingly substantial – casual puzzle experience, in which players slowly discover the horrible events that have come to pass in a single room as four key moments in its history unfold. It was an impressively confident debut, the series’ distinctive tone and mechanical sensibilities arriving almost fully formed.

It was also savvily released as a free-to-play ad-supported game, although the decision was primarily practical at the time. “When we published the first Cube Escape, it could have been a premium title, because Seasons was quite a good game,” Ras explains, “but we also thought, there’s so many games coming out every day, we’ll get [overshadowed and] nobody will buy it… So it was more like, okay, we don’t have the community, the press don’t know about us, [and we don’t have] the experience maybe. And we never released a premium game before, so we didn’t dare to.”

It was a decision that paid off. Some unexpected early success – the studio made it onto Kongregate’s list of best monthly games – gave it the exposure it needed to begin fostering a steadily growing community and the confidence to continue its strange little series with the likes of Cube Escape: The Lake, which gave players the opportunity to visit the series’ most infamous landmark for the first time, and Arles, a wonderfully unexpected historical detour inspired by Vincent Van Goch’s life that found a slightly more unusual approach to tackling the studio’s favourite themes. And those did well enough that three more Cube Escape games arrived throughout 2015: Harvey’s Box, Case 23, and The Mill.

“The comments and feedback were really good from the start,” Ras tells me, “and we could see after the first three games, some people were really waiting to play the next chapter.” Rusty Lake’s surreal narrative – a centuries-spanning tale of haunted woods, sinister wallpaper, and malevolent forces beyond time and space – had players hooked, its interconnected mysteries ripe for fan theorising. “Those connections,” Ras says, “activate something with the community. It’s really fun to read what they think. And we have our own ideas, which we tried to keep for ourselves.” Ras readily admits, though, that as Rusty Lake’s timeline has grown more complex – trading Twin Peaks homages for themes of memory and reincarnation – even the studio gets confused about where things stand. “[The community] makes these big fandom pages, which we sometimes use to look up stuff now,” he laughs.

With six free games under its belt, and with a vibrant fanbase beginning to flourish, the studio discussed taking the next step and creating its first premium game. “At one point, Steam Greenlight came along,” Ras explains, “and we thought, okay, we have to try this and make a bigger game. It took some time to announce that [it wouldn’t be free to the community], it was quite a build-up, but they were supportive of the idea… and for us it was also a step towards Steam and mobile – to have a premium game you get more acknowledged as a developer.”

The studio’s first premium game, 2015’s Rusty Lake: Hotel, was also its most substantial undertaking to date, building on the series’ casual puzzle formula to deliver a deeply strange multi-room adventure set in an opulent manor inhabited by some very unusual guests. Unfortunately, while its gothic weirdness was extremely well-received, sales didn’t immediately suggest a shining future for Rusty Lake as a premium game developer. Its fortunes began to change, however, when the studio’s seventh Cube Escape game, Birthday, arrived, concealing secrets that unlocked a little more in the premium game.

“But even after Rusty Lake: Hotel,” continues Ras, “you couldn’t say, ‘Oh, we’re such a success now, we can make a studio out of this.’ That really took one or two years after that, so we invested quite a lot of time and money from ourselves.”

But Rusty Lake had been energised by its experience developing something more substantial with Hotel, and it wasn’t long before it began working on its second premium game, the considerably more ambitious Rusty Lake: Roots – a wonderful, emotionally rich adventure that jumps back and forth in time, charting the lives and misfortunes of doomed individuals on a sprawling family tree. “For me, Roots is still maybe my favourite of the Rusty Lake series,” says Looise, “because I think we had a really good structure… I think it turned out quite nice… In hindsight, it was quite a big step maybe, but back then it felt quite natural to make a game a bit bigger and a bit more ambitious.”

And that ambition has only continued to grow with each new release. “I think at some point, as a developer,” Looise continues, “you want to try new stuff. We could have made Cube Escape games forever, but at some point, you want to go in a bit of a different direction.” 2018’s Cube Escape: Paradox, which arrived just eight months after third premium game Rusty Lake: Paradise, saw the developer doing just that, releasing not just a new puzzle game but an accompanying 18-minute live-action film – revealing additional clues for those watching closely.

As bold an experiment as Paradox was, Ras says it also felt like the point where the studio had pushed its traditional ‘square room’ formula about as far as it could go. “I think from there, we [wondered] what do we do after this?,” he explains, “and we brainstormed a lot about that.” The end result was 2019’s The White Door, an impressively realised puzzler using a striking split-screen approach to tell a story, one that combines the series’ creepy surrealism with a more direct, honest exploration of depression and grief. “That was quite hard to develop,” Looise admits, “because of the different structure with the dreams. It’s more like a narrative game, and we never did that before.”

Since then, Rusty Lake has released one more premium title – a remake of series progenitor Samsara Room, launched to celebrate the studio’s fifth birthday – but the bulk of its attention has been focused on The Past Within. Easily its most ambitious title to date, this co-op puzzler – which cleverly expands on the series’ familiar formula by dropping two players into distinct timelines, each holding clues required to progress in the other – is now available on iOS, Android and PC today after almost two-and-a-half years in development.

It’s a wonderfully intricate thing, necessitating an incredible degree of communication and collaboration from its players, but, remarkably, it wasn’t originally envisaged as a co-op game. “The first idea,” explains Looise, “was just to make a 3D cube, because we always have cubes in the game, and we thought it would be nice to make a 3D environment where you have a cube and a room inside that cube.” That would require a change of engine – The Past Within is the studio’s first Unity game – which in turn required Rusty Lake to expand its team with new full-time members as it explored ways to bring the series’ distinctive art style into 3D. But despite promising progress as development went on, something still didn’t feel quite right.

“We basically prototyped a lot with the 3D cube,” Ras explains, “and you would look inside where you had a 2D room. And that was quite a fun experience, but something didn’t add up. So after we came back from [PAX in 2020], we were like, ‘Okay, something has to change.’ And then we [started to wonder], what if you separate those universes inside the cube and outside? And we got so enthusiastic, we [knew we had] to make it co-op.”

That, though, brought a whole new set of challenges for the studio. “It actually meant we had to start from scratch,” Ras reveals, “and also had to learn that people who play this game communicate – they don’t see each other screens, they have to say what they see, and that was a new challenge for us, because we only made games before where you actually play with the room you have.” Despite those challenges, the end result is a winner, revitalising Rusty Lake’s expansive puzzle series with a whole new way to play.

“We’ve had a lot of people say at conferences, they normally play the single-player games with their mum or brother or boyfriend on the couch, and The Past Within is now finally a game they can play together,” says Ras. “And we also think it comes even closer to the real-life escape room experience where people really work together to not escape, but to solve the puzzles.”

And despite The Past Within’s comparatively lengthy development, the studio shows no signs of slowing down, with a Switch release scheduled for early next year – marking the first time any of its games will be available on a console. Could this pave the way for more of Rusty Lake’s back catalogue – such as the absurdly generous Cube Escape Collection – to make the jump to consoles? Ras will only say the studio wants to see how The Past Within fares first.

But there’s more new Rusty Lake on the horizon too. “We have another project coming up,” Ras tells me, “and that’s really exciting. We might have some even bigger plans too, but because of The Past Within we had to postpone that – and that’s still secret.” If one thing seems certain, though, it’s that Rusty Lake’s ambitions for its wonderfully macabre puzzle series continue to grow. I ask whether the studio’s next project could see a return to Cube Escape, but Ras isn’t sure. “We’re still figuring it out,” he tells me, “because it’s getting bigger again.”