Imagine that you woke up tomorrow to the news that signs of intelligent life had been discovered, but that what had been discovered was the worst thing possible. I would hazard a guess that a spaceship full of circular saw-like discs wouldn’t be too far from the top of that list, but that scenario is exactly that Disc Room presents. Published by Devolver Digital, Disc Room quickly establishes a universe in which such a craft has been discovered in orbit around Jupiter and you play as one of the crewmembers sent to investigate. Using quick reflexes, a variety of skills and a large dose of luck, your objective is to survive as long as possible and hopefully uncover the secrets of the discs.
On first glance, Disc Room looks like the kind of game that you would play in your browser in the early 2000s, with elements drawn in Microsoft Paint. The more you play, though, the more you realize that this art style adds a certain charm to the experience, and I personally grew quite fond of it by the time I had finished with the game. You actually don’t get much of a chance to view your character when playing Disc Room, as you’re so busy viewing the titular discs, but the interspersing storyboards do deliver a little bit of the narrative, however minimal it may be. Instead you’ll spend most of your time focusing on the wide variety of discs that are looking to dismember your character and trying to figure out how to avoid them for just a couple more seconds.
These seconds are the most valuable currency in Disc Room, and I can’t recall the last time I played a game that was so good at making a single second feel like an eternity. The reason for this is that success in Disc Room is often measured against how long you can survive in a certain room, and the fact that it is communicated in seconds instead of minutes or anything longer should speak to how difficult this task can be. Objectives start off relatively easily, asking you to survive for five or ten seconds at a time, but you’re soon asked to survive for longer periods, or to survive for a certain period of time in a particular number of rooms. There’s a good level of progression to the challenges given to you within Disc Room, with a gradual layering of complexity or demands that means that you’re always being asked to extend your comfort zone just that little bit further.
Meeting these objectives unlocks doors that allow you to progress to new rooms and face new challenges, with new environments and bosses coming at predetermined points in the game. Some areas require you to stay in a certain area of the room for the timer to be activated, some have low lighting levels, and others start to introduce hazards outside of the discs that also need to be avoided. Throughout, your map is incredibly useful at letting you know about rooms that have been unlocked that you haven’t yet visited, new disc types that you haven’t yet encountered, and rooms that have objectives that still need to be met. It feels like Disc Room wants the player to succeed despite the difficulty of the challenges that it presents, and there are plenty of objectives that allow you to feel like you’re always progressing, even if you might be stuck in a certain room in the short term.
One of the most surprising but most welcome inclusions within Disc Room is the fact that you’re able to tailor the level of challenge to your own personal preferences, in a much more customizable manner than simply choosing a difficult level. You’re able to fiddle with the speed of the game as a whole, or the speed of the discs and other hazards, and you can also dictate just how demanding the objectives in a particular room are. For example, you can determine how many seconds you need to survive in a room before you meet an objective, meaning that rather than having to stay alive for twenty seconds, you can alter it so that five or even two seconds is sufficient. On top of this, you can force areas to unlock that you haven’t otherwise earned, meaning that you can see the entire game from the first moment, should you wish. This is hopefully a window into how other games will approach the problems of difficulty levels and accessibility, and Disc Room should be applauded for its efforts here.
Because of the customizable difficulty, establishing a runtime of Disc Room is a little difficult, though it does feel like this is the kind of game that would evade being pinned down in such a way anyway. This is the kind of game that you pick up with the intention of playing for a few minutes, only to find yourself hammering the retry button over and over in an attempt to beat an especially tricky room. Disc Room displays the kind of simple but addictive gameplay that scoreboard worriers will obsess over, and the fact that your best time and the time to beat are constantly displayed in the top-right corner means that there’s always an incentive to do one better than your last run.
Disc Room came as a surprise to me, as I didn’t really know what to expect from the experience outside of a high level of difficulty. In truth, Disc Room can be as difficult as you want it to be, and it’s impressive that this level of customization never feels like it detracts from the experience. With a large variety of objectives and enemies, Disc Room feels fresh from start to finish, and the rapidity and frequency of its challenges means that it is a perfect fit for a hybrid console such as the Nintendo Switch. Disc Room is a thoughtful puzzler that isn’t afraid to frustrate, but also isn‘t afraid to offer a helping hand when needed. I can only hope that this level of user-driven experience is a sign of where gaming is headed in the future, as Disc Room does a great job of allowing the player to decide how they want to play.