December 28th, 1979. Somewhere south of LA, Kyle Hyde walks into Hotel Dusk, a shabby, unobtrusively disreputable establishment off the 101. Hyde used to be a cop, but now he’s an itinerant salesman for Red Crown, shucking novelty crap from one dusty town to the next. Sometimes he’ll do a job off the books for his boss, Ed. This is one of those sometimes. Hyde’s supposed to collect a package at Hotel Dusk. Hyde doesn’t ask questions. Hyde’s got other problems. Hyde’s still trying to figure out why his former partner betrayed him. Hyde’s the kind of guy who probably externalises his own inner monologue, as he sits sucking on cheap cigarettes and cheaper whisky in a shifting pall of smoke, stirred lazily by an unseen overhead fan.
So anyway. Hotel Dusk plays out a bit like those one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books. You know, the ones where, in any given scenario, you’ve got three options and two of them will surely lead to immediate, if occasionally somewhat baffling or otherwise quite unpredictable, DEATH. Except this game swaps out “DEATH” with the rather more euphemistic “chucked out of the hotel”. You even hold the DS on its side, like a book. Taking this totally clever book metaphor even further, the game itself is almost relentlessly linear, essentially ushering you through from one chapter to the next (divided here into short time periods), with only a modicum of real player interaction or puzzle solving. It’s not that it’s not there, it just feels a little perfunctory. Elsewhere, you’ll be spending a lot – like, a lot – of time talking to other characters.
This might be sounding somewhat unfavourable, but daringly, Hotel Dusk manages to be all of this with a brash elegance of style and subtlety that entirely legitimises its presentation. The characters wandering the halls of Hotel Dusk are a motley bunch of Cluedo extras, positively gagging on misdirection and gossip about everyone else. In line with its decidedly noir narrative, the game’s visuals feature stark 3D environments with a sort of unfinished-but-totally-on-purpose paint over effect just barely this side of monochrome. The story itself is a ingeniously complex tangle, where you’ll have to discover a lot more about the past before you ever reach the present. Also, I’m just a total slut for rotoscoped character animation.