Quick question: When you see the words ‘video game’ and ‘AI’ in the description of the latest sci-fi themed release, what is your initial, gut reaction? If it’s “AI gone mad and murdered/sent other AIs to murder everyone”, then Rumu may seem like another one of those. I’m not judging you by the way-that was my initial reaction as well-it’s just a statement on the state of sci-fi themed video game stories; we’ve seen the same story in a myriad of variations-either in quality or details. Thus, when seeing the premise of Rumu, which is the journey to sentience of a single emotion vacuum cleaner and the discovery of the smart house it cleans and the family, which owns it. As one expects, it’s filled with AIs that you can interact with and-within minutes of starting the game-something is terribly wrong with the situation.
But, Rumu has more novel and nuanced intentions, than being another ‘by-the-books’ sci-fi video game narrative. It’s a quirky and poignant story of love and the complicated state of humans and their creations. It feels more inspired by ancient Greek tragedies, rather than 2001 A space odyssey or Blade Runner, and it’s those sensibilities presented and adjusted to the science fiction genre, that impacted me so. Its environmental story-telling, unreliable perspectives, smart writing-for dialogue narrative and collectibles- and known tropes of the genre such as creepy visuals and off-putting writing, which separate Rumu from many others. It’s a narrative that manages to leapfrog many pitfalls of other sci-fi tales, such as it does not bite off more than it can chew; the game took me 4 hours to complete and I never felt bored or that the plot was stagnant. Moreover, it does not try to be a cautionary tale about vacuum cleaners becoming sentient (it is more self-aware and funny to not do that) or the extreme impact technology can have in our lives; *Spoilers Ahead* instead it’s an exploration of why someone would even want a vacuum cleaner and the house’s AI to be sentient and capable of feelings. Obviously, this is a narrative driven experience and that is why you should play it, thus I don’t want to expand too much on the narrative and ruin the great moments it offers. Regardless, a surprising element that worked excellently is the gameplay and puzzle design; although unchallenging and very simplistic, the mixing of gameplay and narrative worked surprisingly well. It’s not the difficulty of what you must do, that makes the player focus and get invested, it’s how thematically and narratively appropriate it is, especially when the story delights in switching from funny (it got more than a few good laughs out of me), to suspenseful, to worrisome, to unnerving and tragic, just to name some of the myriad of emotions I went through while playing Rumu. Moreover, it’s a beautiful game, designed to look like the near future smart-home, populated with smart appliances and neon-colored backgrounds. Music-wise, the game uses its soundtrack to enhance the narrative and dramatic impact of the scenes, which made me a big fan of the soundtrack, and of the voice-acting, which was excellent.
Just like with any game, if you dig deep enough, you’ll find plenty to critique and Rumu is not different; it’s mechanically unchallenging, does not explain certain aspects very well (I only realized I could WASD my way around, in the last 20 minutes of the game) and the expected loopholes, are just some of my ‘issues’ with Rumu. But, I feel that it’s a disservice to talk about these things in a review of a game, sold as a narrative-driven adventure; not because the only thing that matters is the story, but because the only thing that matters above all else, is the experience and there’s plenty to love about the experience I’ve had with Rumu.