It’s my first time standing next to a sarcophagus. The ancient coffin is every bit as grand as you’d expect, only twice as spooky because of the dank room and the rainstorm pounding on the roof. I’m standing in the basement of the British Museum in London — my first experience inside the venerable institution — and I’ve just hoisted a stone slab off of the Egyptian relic by yanking on an old-fashioned pulley system. My time here has felt strikingly Indiana Jones-like, and just like the famed archaeologist himself, my curiosity gets the best of me as I work to crack open the old coffin and reveal its secrets.
I didn’t really sneak into the British Museum on a stormy night, but it certainly feels like it. I’m actually pacing around my living room wearing an Oculus Quest headset on a sunny afternoon in California. I’m playing a new VR game called The Room VR: A Dark Matter, a new adventure from developer Fireproof Games. Known for making byzantine puzzlers that are part H.P. Lovecraft and part Winchester Mystery House, the developer promises a new experience for VR fans, one full of creaking doors and menacing whispers.
A series originally designed for mobile devices, The Room specializes in a unique brand of tactile gameplay—using your hands to decipher mechanical puzzles, like the Rubik’s Cube or the Tangram. This kind of gameplay feels right at home in VR, where sliding a tile or flipping a switch requires you to mimic those actions in real life. It’s the first time the award-winning developer has adapted the popular series for VR, and so far, I’m both intrigued and a little scared (in the best way) by what I’ve experienced.
I'm standing on the balcony of the Bloomsbury Police Station in London, circa 1908. As I look across the moonlit cityscape, I can see smokestacks puffing out black fumes and catch the sound of an old steam train off in the distance. I hear a rustling to my left and turn my head — physically turn it, mind you — to see the British flag waving in the evening breeze. The scene is cool and calm; I could stand there longer, soaking it all in, but I’ve got work to do. I turn around and pop inside to start exploring my virtual surroundings.
Exploring a nearby office, I find a note from the station sergeant indicating there’s a parcel waiting for me inside a nearby safe, something to help me with a rash of disappearances involving high-profile scientists. I rummage through the sergeant’s desk and find a single key. The safe is a crusty 1884 Germain & Co. with a keyhole and a brass crank. Sliding the key into safe produces unexpected results: a growth of plantlike tendrils burst from the hole and clog up the latch. It’s a clear indication that strange happenings are afoot.
I head to the evidence storage area down the hall and examine a chalkboard that lists recent perpetrators. I spot what I’m looking for: someone got nabbed for cracking safes, and their gear is in lockup. I use the evidence retrieval system — a combination of gears, switches, and levers — to call up the thief’s safe-cracking tool using a small elevator. The contraption is made up of tiny gears, a crank, a circular blade, and suction cups. I place it on the safe door and turn the crank clockwise. Sparks fly as I cut the metal like I’m using a jumbo can opener. The virtual device has a clumsy realism that feels entirely new.
Inside I find a triangular object nestled among a growth of vines and muck. I reach out and it starts pulsating red. I pull my hand back, feeling a bit silly as I do, then grab it anyway. Then things get weird. The room is suddenly awash in an eerie red light. Looking outside of the balcony, I see it’s not just the room; it’s all over the city. The once-tranquil skyline has taken on a menacing glow, and I can hear an odd warbling sound coming from . . . somewhere. Stranger still, the old film projector is also blasting a red light, and I spot a hand-scrawled note next to it:
“Forgive my unorthodox approach Detective, but I have vital information relating to a case you are investigating. I’m sure you have questions, so please take these lenses and let me show you what I cannot explain. This is only the beginning.” —The Craftsman
Next to the note sits an ornate box with a compass-like dial on it. After I rotate a few dials on the box, a latch shoots out from the bottom, and I crack it open. Inside, I find a pair of meticulously detailed steampunk goggles. Grabbing them lets me toggle them on and off whenever I want to use them; they’re a permanent addition to my early 20th-century wardrobe. I turn them on now by pulling on a special tab, and the room erupts in a supernatural glow, revealing footprints that lead back to the sergeant’s office.
I follow them inside and see a dollhouse-like box sitting on the desk where I’d found the note earlier, as well as arcane symbols brushed on the walls. The scene feels like I’m walking through a black-light fun house. The wooden box flowers open after I twist and pull at a network of hidden switches, revealing a triangular impression. I snatch the strange artifact I found earlier and place it on the little podium. Like before, the object pulses with life, but this time I’m thrown into total darkness.
“Welcome Detective, to the hidden realm of the Null. The disappearances you are investigating are part of something more sinister than you can imagine . . . This document is no ordinary letter. The Null connects it to me, its author. Use the eyepiece to reveal the connection. Find the others, discover their fates.” —The Craftsman
When I open my eyes, I’m standing in the basement of the British Museum. Egyptian treasures litter the room, from stone sculptures and tablets to caskets of different shapes and sizes. Off to one corner is a collection of stone deities so tall I need to crane my neck upward to appreciate them fully. I examine everything as I move around the room, and it occurs to me each artifact is more than a decoration — they’re all pieces of a giant, escape-room-like puzzle. I set about tinkering with everything I can lay my hands on, poking, pushing, twisting, and turning.
After a series of intricate puzzles, some of which include ghostly apparitions of the missing Dr. Rupert Montgomery, I manage to drag a large stone box into the middle of the room using an elaborate rope-and-pulley system. By switching a few gears in the back of the room, I use it to open the box — the action feels weighty and satisfying. Even the sound of my physical endeavor rings true, thanks to the slick sound effects and immersive audio. My virtual labor reveals a gold-and-jade sarcophagus resting inside the stone cradle.
What follows is a string of riddles involving cryptic symbols, ceremonial daggers, and canopic jars stuffed with organs so fresh they drip goo when moved. My time in the hidden basement of the British Museum culminates in a supernatural reveal I wouldn’t dare unveil here, but it’s in keeping with the finest moments of the Room series itself and should make old-time fans as well as newcomers hunger for more.
The Room VR: A Dark Matter is expected to ship March 26 on Oculus Quest and the Rift Platform.