If Dan Smith isn't a name you know in video games, you should fix that mistake as soon as possible. At 18 years old, Smith won a BAFTA in 2016 for his work on a game called SPECTRUM, a solo project he had been working on since age 15. Ripstone Games saw the potential in Smith's game and offered him the backing necessary to fully flesh out the title that earned him such a prestigious award. Now, two years later, SPECTRUM has been renamed The Spectrum Retreat, fleshed out with puzzles, and given a more concrete narrative. With an impending release in a matter of weeks, I sat down with Smith to talk about and play his first commercial video game.
The Spectrum Retreat has something of an odd story premise. Without giving too much away, players wake up in the spacious and immaculately ordered Penrose Hotel. Slowly explore the surrounding area reveals that it's a vast complex, empty save for a number of very polite robots that handle the day-to-day maintenance of the facility. However, no matter what you do, the robotic refuse to let you leave the hotel. As this reality begins to sink in, someone contacts you over the phone, a woman who seems to know that something is going on, something bad. She begins giving instructions on how to escape. Unfortunately, the easy way out becomes impassable and she guides you to a restricted area blocked off by color coded force fields. It's here that the puzzle-solving truly begins.
The core conceit of The Spectrum Retreat, based on the mechanics from SPECTRUM, revolves around color. Players are able to absorb a color and use it to walk through barriers of that color and then swap it out for a different color. It's a simple mechanic, Smith even said it was one of the first puzzle concepts he learned when he dove into programming, but it's one that has fascinated him enough to build an entire game around the complex puzzles that can be constructed with it in mind. I saw the color swapping create bridges over chasms, walls, and can easily imagine that the uses only become more complicated as crazier geometry and gating mechanisms combine in future puzzles.
The opening levels slowly introduce new twists in how space and the color mechanics can be used to create more elaborate scenarios in a slow, accessible way. The goal, according to Smith, was to make a tutorial that didn't feel like a tutorial, with players discovering how to proceed on their own. This approach certainly worked for me; I enjoyed the dopamine tickle across my brain as I discovered new ways to overcome each challenge.
A large part of what makes The Spectrum Retreat so interesting is how the color mechanic works with the non-euclidean space of its world, an unnerving aspect of the hotel that carries over into the puzzles. Sometimes dropping down a hole will bring you back to the beginning of a level, but it could also bring you to an almost identical version of the level with a story hint or clue to the puzzle. Certain hallways repeat endlessly, but how sure can you be that its not part of the puzzle when you turn back and find yourself in a new location? Combine this uncertainty with more concrete areas that feature maze-like layouts and the potential for some truly stimulating scenarios becomes apparent.
After the demo areas were completed, my character had to return to the hotel to "keep up appearances." However, Smith told me that as the game progresses, the comforting art deco world of the Penrose Hotel will begin to merge with the strange, sterile puzzle rooms, creating an unnerving sense of dislocation. He said that the overall theme of the game would be one that grapples with the downsides of escapism, how we can run so far away from our problems that the methods used to run can actually create far more issues with which we eventually need to grapple.
The Spectrum Retreat launches on July 10 for the PlayStation 4 and on July 13 for Xbox One and PC. A version for the Nintendo Switch will launch later this summer.
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