This article contains spoilers for the Rusty Lake games, including Paradise.
The Rusty Lake series has earned a small but loyal following for its macabre humour and difficult puzzles. Rusty Lake Paradise, the latest entry to the series, continues this tradition with a tale of grief and loss.
You play as Jakob Eilander, the eldest son of the Eilander family. After receiving news of your mother’s death, you return to the family home on Paradise Island to find it cursed by the ten plagues of Egypt, as sometimes happens, and haunted by spirits. It’s up to you to solve puzzles, take part in strange family rituals, and uncover memories in the hopes it may return the island to normal and help your family move on from the trauma.
There are five other living members of the Eilander family. There’s your bizarre siblings, Elizabeth and David; your austere father Nicholas, your gluttonous Uncle Gerald, and your grandmother Margaret. Every one of them is dealing with the death in their own unique way. Some of them offer condolences to the player: “Good to see you Grandson, I’m sorry about your mother.” Others will simply ask for help in exchange for answers: “Please son, I’m thirsty”.
Death inhabits Rusty Lake Paradise. Paradise Island is an ironic name for such a forlorn place. Its livestock are diseased, the water runs red with blood, and shadows lurk in the forest watching over the living. It’s even in the puzzles. You have to disguise the foul stench left in the air, commune with the dead to recover your memories, and that’s only scratching the surface. One early puzzle even has you locate your mother’s final resting place, opening its contents to find a key item.
The game’s morbid atmosphere never comes across as superficial set dressing. Instead, it’s used to evoke the heightened sense of mortality that often accompanies the loss of a loved one. No matter where you are in the game, you’ll see traces of death in your surroundings, just as you might do in real life. It could be an unexpected line in a conversation you have, the grim scenery, or the old heirlooms scattered around.
Rusty Lake as a series has wrestled with the theme of death before, but never with this kind of focus. In the earlier Rusty Lake: Roots, many topics wrestle for your attention including jealousy, revenge, and inheritance. You play through a series of vignettes about the Vanderboom family, watching as the family grows larger and older members pass away. Here the outlook on death is much more positive. Life always continues after every passing, symbolised by a tree motif and its diverging branches. This is a stark contrast to Paradise where everything is in a constant state of limbo, put on hold by the family’s tragedy.
The main character’s journey through the grieving process is what underlies everything. We take control of him at the exact moment he arrives home, and accompany him as he mourns alongside his family and tries to process what’s happened. This is communicated to the player explicitly through the wonderful opening narration, which outlines his feelings of the event:
“I remember that day when I returned to Paradise... the island of my family. Since I had received the message of my mother's death the blurred childhood memories started to become more clear. From the first glimpse of the island I could still feel my mother's presence. It's hard to forget someone who gave so much to remember.”
Even in spite of the bizarre setting and characters, the story remains relatable. We can emphasise with Jakob’s situation and recognise the mundane parallels to real life underneath the fantastical stuff. There’s the reunion of estranged relatives, the search for meaning, and the strange rituals we put ourselves through to try to bring about closure. Jakob does all of this over the course of the game, albeit through a weird and otherworldly filter. Here a normal family is an eclectic cast of characters, meaning is often supernatural, and traditional wakes and funerals are exchanged for cult worship and pyres.
So to what end? What points does the game want to make about grief? What follows includes some major spoilers for the game so, if you're interested in playing it, skip past the fly image below to the last paragraph.
At the core of Rusty Lake Paradise is the recognition that grief is a personal process, and tailored to the individual. Some people will find closure from performing these kinds of actions, almost like 'tidying up' after the departed, whereas others will simply be unsatisfied by any answers they dig up.
At one stage Jakob manages to stop nine of the plagues and locate his memories. At this moment, he realises the actual circumstances surrounding his mother’s death, and how his family was responsible. Before he can do anything in response, they surround him, drop their torches to the ground, and burn him alive. The last plague is fulfilled – the death of the firstborn -- and we see Jakob and Caroline together at last. Rather than simply moving on, however, Jakob merges with his mother and is reincarnated as a vengeful spirit: Mr Owl, a character who appears prominently in other Rusty Lake games.
The ending suggests that the family were successful in their efforts to free themselves from the curse, whereas Jakob is left confused and angry by the answers he receives – and is ultimately consumed by them. Perhaps he's the one that can't let go. And in the weird world of Rusty Lake, he ends up literally shackled to his mother for all time.
Rusty Lake Paradise may seem a little odd for the sake of oddness when you start, but slowly you come to feel like there’s a method to this madness. It takes the lofty family melodrama of Rusty Lake: Roots, but returns to the singular focus of Rusty Lake: Hotel – and ends up capturing the best parts of both, and creating a tale of real impact. At a glance you might think this is merely a quirky puzzler, but its meditations on death and grief leave sticky fingerprints all over some of life's big questions.