There are times in life where it feels like no matter what you do, something is waiting to ruin your day. Obstacles that come from all directions, trying to take you down when you’re just trying your best to make it to the next day. Perhaps they’re big, foreboding, and scary. Maybe there are lots of little things that can harm you just as easily. Something might seemingly come out of nowhere and just wreck your entire being. That’s the vibe of the year 2020 Disc Room, a ball of anxious energy in the form of a 2D action game. But as nerve-racking as that sounds, Disc Room is also a game that will eventually encourage you to come to terms with frequent failure, learning instead to cherish the small successes that help you push forward.
A giant disc-shaped object has appeared over Jupiter, or so Disc Room’s introductory text tells you, and as a charming little space person your goal is to explore what is revealed to be a labyrinth filled with numerous deadly rooms. Each room houses a unique trial involving copious spinning buzzsaws threatening to cut right through you, something that will happen more times than you’ll be able to keep track of.
It’s a twitch-action game that focuses solely on the most heart-pounding element of bullet-hell shoot-em-up games: trying to avoid a ridiculous number of projectiles. Disc Room is concentrated on difficulty and pushing you into panicked situations, featuring a creative variety of aggressive enemy discs. Each exhibits particular behaviors, but none follow a predetermined course, making even the relatively simple stages dangerously unpredictable and challenging every time. Disc Room’s reality is one where you’re trapped in a room with over a dozen bouncing, fatal blades, where dark electro thumps non-stop, and where death can occur in less than a second.
Most of the game’s challenges, which allow you to proceed through the labyrinth upon completion, ask you to avoid death for at least a set amount of time. But it’s tough going. Surviving for 10 seconds before dying is usually a good effort worthy of forward progress; 20 seconds is a remarkable achievement deserving of the game’s equivalent of a gold star. You will also fail to reach these milestones again and again. You will frequently get minced into a little puddle of cartoonish gore before you can take stock of the situation, and you’ll leap out of your chair and shout when you finally manage to hit that tenth second after failing to break nine for so long. These seemingly trivial feats feel more rewarding because of the sheer difficulty of avoiding death. But Disc Room also manages to create some value and a sense of accomplishment around your deaths, too. You’ll quickly discover that dying to certain enemies will reward you with unique abilities to help you stay alive (dashing, slowing, and cloning, among others). On top of that, another key to unlocking more routes through the map is dying to each of the game’s many varieties of discs. You can be terrible at a certain stage, but Disc Room will often have alternative avenues to help you progress as you continue to hone your skills.
The excitement of near-misses, the struggle of survival, and making sure your causes of death are comprehensive, are all enough to propel you through the first hour or so, with changes in biomes later mixing up the conditions for counting up the clock. For example, some stages require you to stay within a particular area or collect golden orbs to add seconds to the timer. But more intriguing is the puzzle layer of Disc Room that eventually reveals itself. Certain rooms will require a mix of lateral thinking and creative use of abilities to complete objectives. Attempting to uncover more discs to die from turns into a more perplexing challenge later on. On a couple of occasions, you’re given cryptic objectives to try and decipher for yourself (e.g., ????? the ?????), providing a few pleasing avenues for brain-twisting eureka moments.
But Disc Room is still a twitch game first and foremost, one that demands intense focus, split-second reactions, and deft maneuvers. The game’s user experience caters to this perfectly–restarting after death is instantaneous, and teleporting to the other side of the labyrinth to begin butting your head against a different challenge for a while takes seconds. It’s a rapid-fire grinder of action-packed movement, where 30 seconds of white-knuckle gameplay can feel like an hour and achievement is tough to reach but all the more fulfilling for it. The minimal time investment and the fact that another run will only take seconds of your time drives you to keep respawning and trying to best your last attempt, again and again. What’s more, a persistent leaderboard displaying the best times from the developers and your friends also pushes you further if you’re prone to a resolute competitive streak–former GameSpot editor Peter Brown inadvertently motivated me to spend far more time in certain stages long after I had achieved all the objectives.
Graciously, Disc Room also offers several difficulty adjustments that allow you to alter the speed of enemies, hazards, and other assists, with the game’s objectives changing to suit. On the flip side, once you’ve made it through the initial set of trials and rolled the credits, a second, more difficult labyrinth of stages is unlocked. While stage conditions remain, the game’s puzzle elements are mostly gone in favor of pure survival under even more demanding conditions–even 10 seconds of life is a significant achievement here, and making your way through Hard Mode continues to provide new doses of the energetic feeling you get from winning hard-fought battles.
But you never really “win”‘ Disc Room. You just survive it adequately enough to move onto the next thing. The light, mysterious plot has a weird but worthwhile end, but the real reward that Disc Room gives you is learning how to appreciate your own small achievements. The game is fraught with dangers and failure, but it frames the handful of seconds you are able to hang on as something exciting, something to be proud of. Disc Room helps you feed on those tiny bursts of success, in addition to providing success in failure, to keep you moving and pushing through all its trials. Maybe we could all learn something from these… rooms full of discs. Like all great twitch-action games, Disc Room is at once exciting and stressful, challenging and fulfilling, and its spinning saw blades can seep into your everyday thoughts. But moreover, Disc Room feels like a pleasantly positive take on difficulty-first games–you didn’t die after 10 measly seconds, you managed to survive for 10 whole seconds. And that’s good enough for Disc Room. Thanks, Disc Room.