I would like Hotel Dusk: Room 215 to be more accessible than it is, because it had all the essential ingredients to be a huge success. A fantastically translated Japanese adventure game, it was released on the Nintendo DS in 2007, at the height of the console’s popularity, and has a timeless, sketch-based visual style that immediately catches your eye. After him we saw, during the following decade, how a handful of similar adventures for Nintendo DS had considerable success, from Phoenix Wright to Ghost Trick, through the Zero Escape saga.
Despite what the PEGI 12 icon shown on its box may suggest, Hotel Dusk is aimed at a more adult audience. The game puts you in the shoes of Kyle Hyde, a former detective who left the police force after killing his partner during a case. This trauma ends up haunting Hyde in every aspect of his life, and he daily refuses to accept that his partner is no longer here. Since he left the force, Hyde has worked as a door-to-door salesman, but it is his search for answers to the unknowns surrounding the disappearance of his partner that leads him to the Dusk Hotel.
It sounds intense, but Hotel Dusk isn’t totally bleak. It’s hilarious when it needs to be, and above all, it’s a relaxing text-based experience. You spend the entire game inside the hotel, and all you have to do as Hyde is wander through the different rooms, investigate clues, solve puzzles, and chat with the other guests. It seems to have too little adventure to be precisely that, an adventure game. But the other guests staying at the Dusk Hotel are just as complex as Hyde, each tied to some event in their past from which they cannot escape. And as a former detective, Hyde can’t help but become involved in the lives of these other people.
Hyde is a sympathetic character, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s likable. He is often rude to strangers without being provoked, and is purposely reserved when he talks to most people. But that’s exactly what makes him a fantastic protagonist; In a way, Hotel Dusk is a story about Hyde’s own development and how he grows as a person.
Unfortunately, a remaster of Hotel Dusk will probably never be released. Cing, its developer, declared bankruptcy in 2010, and the legal rights to Kyle Hyde belong to Nintendo. Other Cing games have had a second life – Another Code, for example, of which a remake was released for Switch this week. But most importantly, Hotel Dusk took advantage of being a Nintendo DS game in a way that any port to another platform would lose something along the way.
The defining factor of Hotel Dusk is that you have to play it sideways. You physically have to rotate the console in your hands to hold it as if you were holding a book. It’s a seemingly simple change, but it greatly transforms your relationship with the game. By simply turning your DS around, Hotel Dusk feels less like a game and more like an interactive photo book. Reading the game’s long conversations feels much more natural this way, because each of the two screens shows a different character speaking and you can see both sides of the conversation simultaneously as it unfolds.
Nintendo DS was not a particularly powerful device, at least when compared to home consoles. That’s why many DS games used simple 3D graphics, but I think it’s fair to say that for an adventure with a lot of text – something that relies heavily on visual appeal – going that route would have been a mistake. Hotel Dusk uses 3D rendering for the hotel interior, but instead opts for some beautiful sketch-style illustrations for the characters.
Something the screenshots can’t show is that all of Hotel Dusk’s characters are rotoscoped. To achieve a distinctive visual look, photographs and videos were taken of real actors, then hand-drawn to achieve the game’s fluid animated art style. In this way, the animations capture the energy of a real performance, but at the same time maintain the sharpness of a drawing. Each character is convincing, with their own traits and quirks. As a curious fact, a while ago the director and character designer of Hotel Dusk, Taisuke Kanasaki, confirmed that the inspiration for this was the video for Take on Me, the legendary song by A-ha.
Hotel Dusk is brilliant at drawing you into its world, because it frequently blurs the line between Hyde and the player. Throughout Hotel Dusk Hyde constantly jots down notes and clues in his diary, and the player, interacting with the DS stylus, does the same. Instead of pressing a button or moving a stick, the touch screen and pen force you to make a wrist movement like the one you do when writing to perform almost any action. Even basic actions like walking require analog input on the touch screen.
Hotel Dusk’s puzzles are another aspect that forces you to think creatively. One requires you to rotate a finished puzzle by moving it from the Nintendo DS’s top screen to the bottom. Tapping the screen does nothing. What then is the solution? You must physically close the console to create the illusion that you are flipping the top screen, and when you reopen the DS the puzzle has been flipped. I never discovered this organically. I closed the DS because I didn’t know what to do next, and when I returned to the game and opened the console I was amazed. My actions outside the game had directly affected the world within it.
In the end, the appeal here is not that Hotel Dusk is an extremely vivid world in which a person can get lost. Many games offer that. The appeal of Hotel Dusk is that it’s an extremely vivid world held in the palm of your hand. What you have in Hotel Dusk is a work built from many brilliant individual pieces, but which collectively also create something even better.
Although we may never have a port of Hotel Dusk precisely because of all these things that I have explained to you in this article, the good news is that, if all of this is attractive to you, Hotel Dusk had a sequel that explored and tried to expand on all of these ideas. It’s called Last Window: The Secret of Cape West and it was also translated into Spanish, and it’s waiting for you to play it.
Translation by Josep Maria Sempere.