I was recently looking over some old browser tabs. One that I’ve apparently been hanging onto since 2015 was a Flash-based room escape game called Elements, the still-latest such work by an artist named Neutral. And I’m glad that I found and played it, because it’s a peculiar example of the room-escape genre. It basically morphs into a small mystlike.

Room escapes aren’t far removed from mystlikes to begin with, of course. Their basic dynamic is the same: clicking around, exploring, looking for ways to unlock stuff. The chief difference is that mystlikes mainly have you explore outward, journeying to new places, while in room escapes, you explore inward, unlocking drawers and peering behind sofas, gaining access to ever greater layers of detail. The moment you’re able to journey to a new place, the game is over. This is a superficial distinction, really. There’s no mechanical difference between clicking a hotspot to walk down a pathway and clicking a hotspot to take a closer look at a bookshelf. But it’s a difference that’s important enough to the feel of the thing to have genres built around it.

Now, I’ve seen room escapes with more than one location, but usually anything beyond the initial room is a mere mere annex to it. Neutral’s previous game Vision, for example, has a mechanism that unlocks a door onto a small balcony where a needed item is housed. Once you’re on the balcony, the door closes behind you, turning the balcony into a small room escape of its own, a sub-escape where you try to get back to the main room you’re trying to escape from. Elements takes things considerably farther than that, with a chain of four additional rooms that are the initial room’s equal, including one that’s a spiral staircase that you walk up and down, looking for clues. Sometimes you’re locked into a room, sometimes you have the run of all the rooms you’ve found. Eventually you loop back to the initial room and open up the obvious front door, and there’s another room past that one.

The initial room has standard room-escape decor: easily-modeled modernist furniture. This creates an impression of genre convention, so that later rooms can break it by putting you in an unfinished cave or an indoor garden. These settings aren’t notable for a mystlike or an adventure game. It’s just the initial false impression that you’re in an ordinary room escape that makes them stand out.

The thing that really gets my attention, though, is the extent to which it’s concerned with building systems of symbols and glyphs, with simple patterns feeding forward into less-specified ones. This is the chief reason it keeps letting you go back to previous rooms: so you can recognize something you’ve seen before, then go back and look at the original with new understanding. Interpreting vague and mysterious symbols is a staple of the room escape genre, but it’s only in a larger game that the system can go several levels deep like that. Not all mystlikes try it, but I wish more would, because it’s one of my favorite things in a game.