Many things in our lives demand our attention and affection: our spouses, our kids, our friends, our coworkers. Hey, even our phones. From flesh-and-blood relationships to trendy tech, everything wants a little love.
Sometimes, even robots.
The new game Rumu introduces us to a vacuum-cleaning ‘bot with a dust bag full of warm fuzzies it longs to share. And this lovable little mess-cleaner has a story it thinks we ought to suck up, too: a surprisingly involving tale that talks of family, love and loss.
In this puzzle- and narrative-driven game, you play as the above mentioned robo-vac. Using point-and-click commands, you move your Roomba-like avatar around a home of the future—cleaning, tapping into electronic circuits and exploring air vents and other passages as you go. Then again, Rumu isn’t just an average bump-here-and-there vacuum. Nor is this house quite like anything you’ve ever seen before, either.
For one thing, there’s a female-voiced computer AI, named Sabrina, that’s in charge of everything within the home domain. Sabrina’s voice is the first thing we hear as this ever-present (and nearly all-seeing) house brain gets us up and running with our initial zap of power. She then introduces us to the world that our human home owners, scientists David and Cecily, have created.
At first, the action is all whimsy and clean-up joy. “I love cleaning … I love Sabrina,” Rumu communicates through his electronic, binary boops and beeps, his eyes little pixelated hearts on a digital screen. We trundle him about, cleaning up a spilled container of cereal here or a splash of juice there. And then there’s that promise that someday we might even get to meet our brilliant human makers in the flesh. “I love David and Cecily,” Rumu beeps.
However, as the curious appliance starts poking around—slowly becoming more self-aware as he’s guided through puzzles and around obstacles by Sabrina and a house full of other semi-intelligent gadgets—it becomes clear that there is something of a sci-fi mystery afoot here.
Why is it that those beloved human owners never seem to be around? Who, exactly, is making all these messes? Why have robotic things been given emotional responses at all? And why is Sabrina so potentially volatile? For that matter, who is this little child, also named “Sabrina,” who’s left scattered drawings and toys in a newly discovered room? Is there a connection between her and our AI keeper of the same name? Is it morally wrong to try and unlock a certain room that we’ve been told to stay out of?
And finally, is everything here telling … the truth?
Gameplay-wise, Rumu is much more about a creatively unspooling narrative than it is about the puzzles and obstacles blocking our mechanical hero’s path. The circuit-connecting tasks, computer-terminal tapping and passage-clearing quests can be relatively entertaining. But they’re hardly a challenge for your average puzzle fan. Instead, the game moors itself to the narrative on hand—the nuanced robot relationship between Rumu and Sabrina, and the human ones we learn about with each discovered clue.
Young gamers don’t have to wade through any disturbing visuals or other foul things here. But it should be noted that there are some sad and unseen deaths in the mix. There’s also emotional manipulation, marital strains and family estrangement to navigate in the course of this unfolding tale.
With all that in mind, then, this might not be the first game choice for your younger players, in spite of its adorable-looking mess-mop-up protagonist and its T rating.
On the other hand, for those prepared to think through the character decisions here, this can be a thoughtful examination of, well, love. It’s a heartfelt and heart-breaking scrutiny of that thing that binds us together and goes beyond a mere feeling. And it forces us to question the choices we sometimes make that hurt us more than we may know.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.