An asymmetric co-op puzzle adventure, The Past Within is a unique take on the “escape the room” style of game popularised by Flash titles in a bygone era. Taking less of its cues from recent cooperative games like It Takes Two and more from real-life escape rooms, this short title challenges players to solve its tricky puzzles through the power of communication. Bring a friend and dive into the Twin Peaks-inspired world of Rusty Lake, a hallmark of the mid-2000s internet landscape that has adapted itself for the modern age.
The Past Within is the first time Rusty Lake have ventured into the multiplayer arena, presenting an entirely co-op puzzle-solving experience. Cleverly, this does not require an internet connection, only a method of communication between players. You can speak over Discord, jump on a phone call, or simply sit in the same room on separate devices. This also means that The Past Within supports cross-platform play by default: one player could be sitting on their PC while the other snuggles up on the couch with a tablet. Importantly, neither player should be able to see the other’s screen. Much like other asymmetrical co-op titles such as Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, the focus of the experience is on communicating as a team. You need to be able to describe what you’re seeing on your screen and remember what your partner tells you about theirs, helping each of you spot solutions to the other’s puzzles.
One player’s adventure takes place in the past, the other in the present. This forms the throughline of the game’s story and puzzles, with the different timelines interacting via solutions and recurring characters and themes. It also affects the game aesthetically – the more “futuristic” environment is rendered in 3D, while the “past” is shown in a grim-cartoonish 2D for the most part. Each player will receive hints as to what kind of information they should be sourcing from each other, such as codes to enter into a keypad or symbols to match up in a panel. The puzzles aren’t massively challenging, but they do require good powers of observation and decent communication skills to solve. Once finishing the game, you’re encouraged to replay from the other perspective with all-new puzzle solutions.
It’s also worth noting that The Past Within extends into the broader Rusty Lake universe, particularly with its mildly eldritch aesthetic and sense of spooky mystery. My partner and I became gradually more unsettled as the game tasked us with dismembering a corpse to retrieve puzzle clues, and there are some genuinely frightening jump scares throughout. There’s nothing super gruesome, but the creepy elements definitely add a feeling of dread to what would otherwise be purely cerebral activities. We found that we needed to take a little break halfway through our two-hour playthrough just to get away from some of the spooks. This added to the nostalgically mid-2000s feel of this Flash-game inspired adventure, where shock sites and creepypastas were the cream of the crop in internet content.
For those whose appetites for mysteriously threatening puzzles aren’t quite sated by the few hours The Past Within provides, each title in the Rusty Lake series is available on PC and mobile platforms. The Cube Escape Collection bundles nine of the series’ original Flash titles in an anthology, while newer titles such as Rusty Lake Paradise continue the macabre saga. While the other titles are single-player only, the franchise’s mixture of escape room puzzling, point-and-click adventure gameplay, and unnerving story elements provide a unique experience that sits at the odd junction of cosy and chilling. I recommend grabbing a mate and settling down with The Past Within on a rainy day – just keep the lights on. You can check out The Past Within and the rest of the Rusty Lake world on Steam, itch.io, iOS, and Android.