The best part of an immersive sim isn't the tense sneaking around, or the creative assassinations. It's the downtime in-between when you're breaking into every poorly secured residence you can find, rummaging through their knicker drawers, and turning on every toilet, faucet, and shower just to see if it's possible. The Norwood Suite is a whole game built around the act of nosing around, and while it foregoes the combat, stealth, or traversal abilities of a Dishonored or Deus Ex, it nevertheless offers up some of the most satisfying immersive sim-style exploration of 2017.
In this follow-up to developer Cosmo D's similarly surreal Off-Peak (a first-person adventure set in an unusual train station), you're investigating and generally fathoming out the imposing Hotel Norwood, a structure built in honor of the famed musician who shares its name. Peter Norwood's fictional fingerprints are on every surface of the hotel, from the grandiose portraits plastered all over the walls, to the stereo speakers pumping out music drawn from Norwood's oeuvre. Moreover, every guest and visitor seems to have a connection with the legendary pianist—and it's your job to uncover them.
The act of exploring Hotel Norwood is the act of discovering Peter Norwood, the reclusive genius who produced a series of seminal jazz albums before disappearing from the face of the Earth decades ago. The hotel is his biography, his legacy, and in a way it's his tomb: a jazz-funk pyramid keeping the the man's considerable legend alive. Giant piano keys serve as monuments to his contribution to music. Snaking secret passageways pierce the building's middle, revealing hidden tableaux that chronicle significant events from Norwood's outlandish life. There's 'a bit much', and then there's Hotel Norwood, a musical theme attraction so over-the-top it puts both Graceland and Dollywood to shame.
I'll tell you what though, it makes for a terrific location to explore. If you're anything like me, your main concern will be mapping the place, creating a mental layout of the hotel's woodland surroundings, its angular interior, and its many guest rooms and secret tunnels. It's a building that thankfully connects together in a coherent way, despite an outward appearance that might suggest otherwise.
While there is a structure to the game—certain items need to be found, and used, before you're given access to the ending area—a large swathe of the hotel is yours to explore from the get-go. It's not a huge place, but it is a detailed and densely interactive one. I spent an enjoyable couple of hours sticking my nose into every crevice, solving simple item puzzles, and prodding hidden switches that gradually opened the environment even further.
In true immersive sim fashion you're rewarded for all this exploration not just with a series of memorable sights, but with a bunch of more tangible rewards: a new item perhaps, which you may need to give to a guest, or a stray note bringing you one step closer to understanding both the place and its curious owner.
In many games these missives would be flavor text justifying the presence of a pile of gold, but in The Norwood Suite they are the reward, and as such you tend to pay closer attention. Every object and note has something to do with to Peter Norwood himself, or the institution that has been erected in his absence. In its dogged commitment to its theme this is one of the most cohesive exploration games I've played.
However, even without those tantalizing rewards, it's satisfying enough just interacting with the hotel's various fixtures and fittings. Despite a notable absence of working toilets, sinks, and showers (surely the totemic pillars of any immersive sim), The Norwood Suite nonetheless features an admirably tactile game world. Every drawer in the hotel can be dragged open or tidily pushed shut, and many contain books or other curios that can be picked up and rotated to your heart's content.
While you're busy ransacking the place, you're sure to come across Norwood's assembled guests and staff—as interesting as the hotel is, I don't think it would be half as meaningful without its eccentric cast of characters. There's the teacher trying to school her students on the importance of Norwood's music, the frustrated jazz band searching for inspiration, and a number of representatives from a carbonated soft drink company, who are close to acquiring the hotel. These people are the (official) reason you're exploring Norwood in the first place, as you track down obscure trinkets, tools and doodads that will help move their personal stories along.
You can choose to chat to all these NPCs, and you surely will at some point, but the game is also content to let you eavesdrop on their conversations, providing you don't jam your nose too far into their business. Even though these talks repeat, they successfully breathe a bit of life into the hotel, introducing a feeling that things are happening even when you're not around to witness them.
Without wanting to spoil it too much, I will say that things do change as you move the story forward, and as you attend to the guests' minor peeves and more ridiculous requests. There's scope for a second replay, when you're armed with a better sense for the shape of the story.
Everyone who has ever stayed at a hotel has surely wondered, when they're sitting down to their complimentary breakfast and guzzling their third cup of unlimited coffee, how these disparate people came to gather at this specific point in the universe. Where did they come from? Where are they going next?
The Norwood Suite is a game about exploring a hotel, but as in the best immersive sims it exists as a repository for stories. For the smaller stories of its transient guests, and for the bigger, unsolvable mystery of the enigmatic Peter Norwood, whose presence can be felt in every corner of its fascinating world.