Games Review: Rumu (PC, 2017): I love feelings

Rumu is the second major release from Sydney-based indie developer Robot House. It’s a game about a little robot vacuum cleaner that lives in a smart home run by an AI named Sabrina — a little guy trying to make sense of a big and complicated place. Rumu, as a game, is much the same — a little game with huge philosophical ideas to work through.

Editor’s note: We’ve done our very best to avoid talking about anything that will spoil the story of Rumu. That said, this review does brush up against a few of the broader concepts the game deals in. If you’d like to go in totally blind, please feel free to play the game first (it’s out today! Get it here!) and then come back.

Rumu gets something right that a lot of games, particularly ones where narrative is the focus, can forget: it has something it wants to say. Rumu is a meditation on love, grief, one’s place in the world and how simply extending a kind word can make all the difference. Where other titles would be happy to pivot directly into horror or the macabre, Rumu clings firmly to positivity, determined to find the good even when engulfed by unimaginable pain.

The game takes its time moving you through each story sequence, each of which accounts for a day in the life of the little robot. Rumu obediently stops to listen to Sabrina when she speaks, there is (as far as I can tell) no way to skip through or speed up any dialogue or text fields. This may bother some players but it serves an important purpose — getting you to pay attention. As a vacuum cleaner, Rumu’s job is to poke around, get into confined spaces and keep everything neat and tidy. This means, even with Sabrina’s careful guidance, the little robot quickly finds himself uncovering more and more damning evidence that something awful has happened in the house and that he’s not getting the whole story.

Image source: Robot House

In terms of gameplay, most players will not find Rumu particularly taxing, but it isn’t trying to be. Many of the games puzzles are about connecting narrative dots more than any lightbulb-moments of clever puzzle solving. The puzzles that are there are fine but those who turn to indies looking for challenge may be disappointed (though I’d encourage you to stick around anyway).

My gripes with Rumu are very few. On two or three occasions, I found myself wandering around in circles trying to figure out how to proceed because my attention had momentarily lapsed and I’d missed what Sabrina had said or not seen a visual cue go off. That’s certainly more on me than it is on Robot House, though if I could offer constructive feedback, a screen keeping a transcript of what Sabrina has said to player would be terribly useful, as she is frequently the thing that sets Rumu on his way.

Controlling Rumu may also take a second of getting used to. Players can use the WASD or arrow keys to move the little guy around, or they can send him on his way by pointing and clicking with the mouse. I ultimately found that a combination of the two worked best, with the mouse allowing for a degree of precision that wasn’t always there with the sometimes touchy keyboard controls. I do want to be clear — the controls are in no way bad, they are actually quite good, it’s just that Rumu turns quickly but is otherwise quite slow when moving in a straight line. This feels like a deliberate move on Robot House’s part because when he bumps into a wall, the look and sound of doing so is indistinguishable from a real Roomba robot vacuum. Rumu bumbles about, he runs into things and is always trying to course correct as he moves through the house as fast as his little servos can take him.

Indeed, from an art direction standpoint, Rumu himself is an especially huge home run in a game full of them. Armed with only a pair of blue eyes on a black LED screen to communicate his emotions, Rumu endears himself to the player immediately. His design is cute, practical and perfectly aligned with the streamlined design of the smart home he lives in. The smart home itself, represented room to room over each of the game’s sequential work days, is equally lovely to look at. Rumu is a testament to the sort of visuals that can be pulled out of the Unity 2017 engine these days. Each environment is gorgeously lit and constructed with obvious care. The environment textures and models are quite low-fi but this allows Robot House to do really wonderful things with their colour palette.

Image source: Robot House

I want to take a second to shout out the game’s sound and music across the board. Allegra Clark, best known to gaming fans as the voice of Josephine Montilyet in Dragon Age Inquisition, is a massive get. Her performance as Sabrina is a nuanced one, rarely letting the veneer of antiseptic congeniality slip but for those moments when Rumu’s inquisitive nature gets the better of him or he fails to heed her advice. Matt McLean’s score sets the perfect mood for every scene — from the sort of fizzy chiptunes I’d put on to speed up my own household cleaning, to bass tone suspense and mournful dirges that grow the smart home’s sense of creeping isolation. Rumu and the many robots that litter the house are further aural standouts. Rumu’s adorable electronic chirping, the way he hums to himself as he goes and the little squawk of surprise when he bumps into something, his eyes turning yellow and squeezing shut in digital pain It’s wonderful character work.

Rumu is yet another fine example of what the Australian independent game dev scene is capable of. It is clever and concise, it confronts numerous philosophical quandaries head on and it does so with humour and heart. Top tier work from a studio to watch.

As the little guy himself might say, “I love Rumu.”

Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Great writing; Beautiful art design; I want my own Rumu
Lowlights: One or two moments of progression uncertainty
Developer: Robot House
Publisher: Hammerfall Publishing
Platforms: Windows PC via Steam
Available: Now

Reviewed on Windows PC.