One of the most intriguing demos I played during the Steam Next Fest back in February was The Past Within. It's an asymmetric co-op puzzle game set in the deeply weird world of Rusty Lake, which until now has been exclusively a singleplayer realm. Despite the move to multiplayer, The Past Within retains all the hallmarks of the series, including unsettling music, creepy narration, and simplistic yet somehow deeply disturbing graphics.
The basic idea is that memories live in cubes, and you're going to explore one of them to uncover the mysteries of Albert Vanderboom, who in life was not a particularly good man. It's a two-part process that places one player in the future, operating the cube containing Vanderboom's memory, and one in the past, in the actual world he inhabited. Players share instructions, clues, and other information as they go, through dedicated voice channels on the Rusty Lake Discord or whatever other method of communication they prefer—the chat bit isn't integrated into the game, so it's up to you to figure something out—in order to solve the puzzles, discover the secrets, and complete the game.
To be clear, the co-op angle is mandatory: You either play with someone else or you buy the game on two separate devices—say, your PC and your phone—and use them simultaneously. Rusty Lake (the name of the game series is also the name of the studio) said in a Q&A on Steam that The Past Within was originally intended to be a singleplayer game, like the other entries in the series, but early testing of a 3D puzzle box with a peephole gave developers other ideas.
"The more we playtested the game, the more it became clear it was way more interesting to separate these worlds and let one player control the inside of the cube (a 2D room like Cube Escape) and the other player the outside of the cube (a 3D puzzle box)," Rusty Lake wrote. "As soon as we changed the experience and tried it with two players, we knew we were onto something new and exciting. For the first time, we saw two fans enjoy communicating and puzzling together while having different perspectives, and for them it came very close to a real-life escape room experience."
This is also Rusty Lake's biggest game ever, involving a core team of eight—previously the studio only had two members—and various freelancers and helpers who brought the total to more than 25 people "that have been working relentlessly behind the scenes."
"The development of the game has been an amazing journey of over 2.5 years that lead us to this point," Rusty Lake wrote in a launch post. "It all started with a simple shoe box idea that turned out to become quite the unique co-op experience which—in our opinion—is the closest we’ve ever gotten to creating a real-life escape room!
"We are incredibly proud that we made it through all the hurdles and can finally share this unique co-op experience with you all. Many of you are probably already familiar with our devlogs where we shared the struggles we had to overcome for this project to come to life: our first 3D project, switching from Flash to Unity, and above all creating our first co-op puzzle game!"
Rusty Lake games have always been creepy—eerie, sinister, ominous, whatever adjective of the sort you prefer—in unexpected ways, and for me the co-op adds to that element. Unless you have a friend who also wants to play, you're going to be talking to a stranger—and not just idle chit-chat, but with a purpose. That's not the easiest thing for some people, and for them it will no doubt elevate the tension, at least in the early going: As one player in the Rusty Lake Discord put it, "It's kinda scary to have to communicate with strangers to play games this complicated."
(For the record, my experiences playing the game so far have been lovely.)
The Past Within is available now on Steam and Itch.io, at a 40% launch week discount, as well as for Android and iOS devices. If you'd like to get a taste of how it plays before you commit, The Past Within demo is still available on Steam, and you can get a crash-course version in the gameplay video below.