Noir Sleuthing on a Rainy Night: Celebrating Hotel Dusk: Room 215
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a quiet achievement in Nintendo's library: an overlooked mystery game for the DS that felt like it belonged on the system, but still only "quiet" for being relatively unknown to most. Following the format of a visual novel, Hotel Dusk was heavy on dialogue with a story laden with secrets, but its gameplay was in line with a point-and-click with elements of risk similar to Broken Sword, as well as the occasional puzzle treatment. This blend made for a compelling and suspenseful detective story, one that nailed a 70s-themed noir art style.
With the non-static approach taken in its hand-sketched motif, characters were represented as 2D sketches with line shading and white outlines, supported by looping animations where poses would change or refresh as dialogue advanced. While there's no voice work, character animations conveyed emotions of sadness, distrust and shock rather adeptly. Hotel Dusk also boasted an excellent jazz-driven soundtrack that was an embodiment of the time period the game was set in. The down-tempo track "Easy Feeling" (a.k.a. Louie's unofficial theme) has a welcoming hush meshing with the lingering trumpet and light drums, while "Hangover Blues" makes a chipper Saloon-like theme out of a harmonica, tambourine and galloping piano notes. The main character, Kyle Hyde, was serious-yet-sly with a hint of mystery, so it's fitting that the presentation adopted a similar smoothness.
Hotel Dusk: Room 215 asked you to share lodging with strangers in a run-down hotel for one night and learn their secrets before morning. Tall order. You don't start out in detective mode; you were sent here to do a job, and to do it quietly. But your secondary reason for being here — to pick up the bread crumb trail left by your former partner — means you also have business with the guests, who are surprisingly connected to your quest for closure.
You're warned at the time of booking that the hotel doesn't take kindly to suspicious characters — and these aren't empty threats. The owner, Dunning, is serious about no shady business on the premises, and there was a sense of dread whenever you would, for example, see him coming out of the same Utility Closet you were snooping in not moments before. Solving a puzzle at times meant borrowing tools from a staff locker by necessity, but these were not meant to be personal keepsakes! Running around with these would get you booted immediately if caught. Using the crowbar felt like a double whammy because you needed it to retrieve something from Dunning's office — so that's perceived theft and trespassing.
With these moments emphasizing that you're on rocky ground, it created an environment where you'd need to keep a sharp eye on your surroundings. If Rosa was doing her cleaning duties nearby, or you heard a door close as you left your room, that was not the time to sneak into a guest's quarters. There was also reason for caution in conversation — not giving an answer that would tip people off about your motives. While speaking with someone or after making an odd discovery, Kyle's thoughts would become entries in your question library. Questions with a yellow label could only be asked of a specific person, but those labeled white had no specific target so it was up to you to experiment. If the latter questions came after seeing something you shouldn't have, then discussing it with certain people would have been damaging. So there was also a trust factor involved — especially when it came to Rosa and Louie, as they have a regular presence in the storyline but their loyalties are initially hidden.
With these elements of enforced consequence, you felt like an undercover detective who was one careless move away from having their cover blown. It made interruptions ruffling, whenever you'd walk down the hall or be in the middle of a conversation and a door suddenly opened. What also contributed to players getting into the role, along with making scratches in a notebook, was being able to explore without having your hand held the entire time. And for a game that takes place in a setting some would think stifling, Hotel Dusk was consistent in according players choice to foster a spirit of exploration and curiousity over navigating the environment.
Another key facet was how sleuthing at times triggered puzzle sequences that made clever and realistic use of the DS' features, like blowing away powder over an engraving or closing the top screen to flip over a jigsaw puzzle. Hotel Dusk had just the right amount and frequency of these to maintain engagement in what was a slow-paced adventure. Moreover, they felt well-considered and a natural part of the experience, rather than an artificial measure. Near the game’s end is an incremental puzzle that's fashioned almost like a boss fight, complete with a nerve-wracking countdown and wonderfully atmospheric music that builds suspense. It's a very satisfying and memorable moment, and one of the best puzzles in a DS game. (Unfortunate side-effect of playing this on the 3DS, I found out recently: you can't rely on backlight for the "invisible ink" portion.)
The build-up of searching for clues, questioning guests, and solving the occasion puzzle led to confrontational interrogations where people's secrets would unravel. It's here that the animation work really brought suspense to the fore, as it showcased in a life-like way how characters betrayed agitation, strife, or regret by their body language. The hostile reactions of Martin's raised hand with extended fingers, or Iris' discomfort as she rested a cupped hand on her face. In this phase of brutal honesty, making incorrect judgments in dialogue choices (signified by a red gradient effect over their faces) would make things even more heated, so there was added pressure to make accurate dialogue choices. The soundtrack effectively relayed the tension of these chapter-defining moments with eerie compositions that featured sharp, intermittent piano notes and heavy bass.
Seeing the full story come to light as these individual plotlines came apart was a thrilling experience, and then as chapters concluded with Kyle's reflections about his own search, it felt like everything was intertwined. Hotel Dusk's story was well done in how it leveraged its characters as surprisingly key players in moving the overarching plot. The final piece of the puzzle is a sad revelation, but the detailed explanation is mesmerizing to watch unfold, like the ending to a suspenseful book. And even when you consider how the experience is bookended by tapping the hotel doors, it's all executed in such a purposeful way.
Learning about a friendship destroyed by greed, participating in light conversation and games at the hotel bar, finding a major clue in an unoccupied room, getting to put the hotshot Jeff in his place, having a mini-party in the Storage Room — these are all memorable moments that made Hotel Dusk: Room 215 an engaging mystery tale, where the allure of progressively exposing secrets and breaking past people's defenses also made it hard to put down. Years later, Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is remembered in small circles as one of the DS' best games, with its well-written story, a soundtrack that effectively carried a range of moods, a cohesive visual motif, and smart puzzles that were well-suited to the platform. What is perhaps more striking than the back-to-back twists of the final two chapters, Kyle's full circle moment of introspection (with the same track that concluded prior interrogations) and the satisfying ending, is how his greatest gift came from a cold showing.