Video games are often stereotyped as poorly-written orgies of violence: That may be true in many cases, but is just as often just a stereotype. And I have never played that disproves this stereotype more convincingly then Hotel Dusk (not that I needed convincing). Before I continue, I should warn the reader that parts of the plot are given away in this review.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a 2007 visual novel/Point- and click adventure game for the Nintendo DS, developed by Cing (who sadly went out of business in 2010). You play as Kyle Hyde, former detective in the New York Police department. In 1976, he was betrayed by his partner Brian Bradley, who was working undercover on a case involving a criminal organization named Nile. It seems that Bradley has joined Nile for real. Kyle confronts Bradley about this by the Hudson river, but the meeting ends with Kyle shooting Bradley, who falls in the Hudson and disappears without his body being found. Kyle, disgraced, quits the force and takes up a salesman job, but continues to search for Bradley, who never explained why he betrayed Kyle and the police force and who Kyle is convinced is still alive. In December 1979, this search leads to the Hotel Dusk of the title, which is located in California, near Los Angeles. There Kyle soon discovers that the other guests have dark secrets in their pats, just like him, secrets that might help him find Bradley.
The objective of the game is more or less to uncover those secrets. You do this in two ways. The first is solving puzzles, just like in a traditional western Point and click adventure game, ala Gabriel Knight or the Monkey Island series. If you ever played one of these, you feel right at home in Hotel Dusk. Here the game greatly benefits from being on the DS, as all the Point- and clicking is done via the DS touchscreen with the stylus. This is major improvement from the old mouse-driven computer adventure games, which I wouldn't be surprised to learn was actually developed by sinister forces in order to give the player a bad case of mouse arm.
The second is by simply talking to the other characters and gather information from them. Hotel Dusk is a visual novel, which means that it is text- and dialogue driven game, in which the player proceeds by choosing what the player character will do or say. An interactive novel in other words.
While playing you get to choose what Kyle will say to others, what questions he will ask them.
If you choose the right question's you will in most cases get information, which will enable you to progress in the game. But you can also choose poorly and say the wrong things. Some dialogue options can anger the other characters, due to being rude, invasive or aggressive. You can also lie to the other characters, which mostly backfires when they discover the deception. While there is just as in real life some leeway for mistakes, but if you anger another guest too much, they might stop talking to you (leaving you unable to progress), or it might even result in Kyle being thrown out of the hotel, all which leads to a game-over. (Certain puzzles requires breaking the law or at least hotel rules, and being discovered doing so also results in being thrown out and a game-over)
This text and puzzle heavy gameplay is ably supported by excellent graphics, in particular the spectacular character animation. While the backgrounds and environment are 3d, the characters are 2D animated in unique sketchy style, that is like nothing else in gaming. This is not only because of the sketchy art style (the only similarity to other games is a light manga/anime influence), but also due to the brilliant use of rotoscoping. The music, composed Satoshi Okubo is also excellent, if a bit repetitive, but absolutely capable of emotional resonance.
But the core of the experience is the writing, which is one of the best in all of the video game medium. It's greatest strength is undoubtedly the characterization, which can even rival the best novels I have read. The dialogue also has a very natural flow to it, that is very realistic.
The plot and storytelling is also incredibly strong. The only real flaw is the setup, which relies on the unlikely coincidence that all the people in the hotel are previously connected to each other somehow. But with such strong characters and a otherwise excellent plot (which I can't do justice in synopsis), it feels like nitpicking.
The late 70s time period is another nice touch, which gives the game much of its charm. Much of the
plot hinges on the limitations individuals had before the information
society and the internet. Characters are able to "disappear" and hide. The plot has as it's foundation a hoax that simply would be impossible to perpetrate today.
Information has to be gathered from talking to others, instead of
consulting the internet. A good example (which also demonstrates the
gameplay) is when Kyle meets a famous writer, Martin Summer. At one
point, he lies to you and claims that Martin Summer is just a pseudonym,
his real name is Alan Parker. Later, you talk to a fan of his books,
and ask her about this. She informs you that Summer is not a pen-name,
but in fact his given name. If this had taken place today, Kyle would have been
able to find this out himself, using the internet. This furthers the theme of the importance of communication and is a lovely way to let the setting inform gameplay and plot.
Perhaps the foremost reason for the strength of the writing is that it lacks most if not all cliches of not only the video game medium but also the mystery/detective genre the game belongs to. Most video games are about you doing something epic and heroic, defeating a villain, saving the world etc.., which is true even in the non-violent adventure games. This is also the case for detective novels, in which the detective usually solves a murder, and brings the bad guy to justice, something that is true even of the more cynical noir novels. To say the least, Kyle Hyde does none of that.
What remains is a deeply unorthodox video game and a just as unorthodox detective story. Kyle never uses violence, but instead relies on his ability to convince others to give him information and his problem-solving skills. The problems and mysteries he solves are all deeply personal. There is no saving the world here. And while there is murder involved, it isn't the driving focus as in the traditional mystery novel.
There is no villain either. Conflict exists, but is resolved peacefully and all the characters in the end emerge as sympathetic. The only candidate for the villain role is
eventually revealed to have been dead for months by the time the game
starts, shot in revenge by one he has wronged. The game here brilliantly
de-constructs the traditional and in fiction omnipresent revenge story,
in which all problems are solved by killing "the bad guy". The villain is revealed to have a daughter, who he loved and is totally innocent of his crimes, who now is left without family.
In place of the violence of the common crime novel or video game, the game offers the alternative of communication. Kyle has the ability to make people tell him the dark secrets in their pasts, and in this confession, they seem to be redeemed. If there is a message in Hotel Dusk, it is simply that honesty and communication are important, and can make you a better person. As mentioned above, you can anger the other people in the hotel to the point, that they don't speak to you any more, or even have you thrown out. But there is nearly always a simple way to avoid this: be nice to others and tell them the truth. A clear message, or at least good advice.
The ending is very ambiguous and bittersweet, but also shines with a subtle hope. In the end, Kyle has seemingly accomplished little. He hasn't found Bradley, or any of the other missing people in the story. Unlike nearly every other detective story, the guilty remain unpunished and the one exception hardly seems worth it.
But in his interactions with the other guests and the staff of the hotel, he has in some sense redeemed them and himself. He has found out why Bradley betrayed him, and seems to be able to put it past him. The others, who have lived miserable lives plagued by guilt over past wrongs, has thanks to Kyle found the motivation to continue living and try to make amends for the mistakes they made.
So, try to get a hold of this game if you can. As said, Cing went bankrupt in 2010, (proof if anything, that capitalism doesn't reward quality or talent) but not before developing a sequel: Last Window: The Secret of Cape West. They also made the similar Another Code series, consisting of one game for the DS and one for the Wii, which takes in the same world as Hotel Dusk. I haven't played them myself, but if they are half as good as Hotel Dusk, they will be worth it.