Robot in a Box is one of those games that is extremely difficult to talk about without giving away too much. Released by solo developer Matthew Sandstrom as a free PC download, the game is a low-bit, high-quality interactive piece of art which explores themes of isolation, anxiety, and choice.
The only explicit information Robot in a Box provides consists solely of what players bother to read in the developer’s statement and what they see on-screen. There is no prologue, dialogue, or even a menu-accessible list of controls. The only obvious in-game instruction is the initial command, “press Enter,” which starts the game; movement controls are basic and come naturally to anyone who has ever used the arrow keys, and two extra controls dealing with interaction can be discovered written on the wall in one of the various rooms.
The basic situation which players face in Robot in a Box is exactly what it sounds like. The player-character is an adorable little blue guy (or girl – players are free to imagine it either way) who reminds me a little of Mega Man and, for reasons which are not immediately apparent, is trapped by the thick black outline of a box around his body. Players start out in what appears to be his bedroom; leaving the room leads to a large hallway, where a plaque on the wall reveals the player has just exited room 1B. From there, players are free to explore the environment in any way and at any pace they choose.
The box prevents any interaction with the environment, restricting action solely to movement. Movement itself is also restricted: the box outline operates as a solid, preventing other objects including chairs, tables and other characters from entering, while also keeping the player from pushing these obstacles out of the way. This forces players to awkwardly maneuver around objects in order to make progress, as even something as small as a marble must be circumnavigated.
The most intriguing aspect of Robot in a Box is the extensive freedom of interpretation which the game allows. You are not explicitly told where, or even who, you are; there are no high scores, no leveling, no achievements, and no objectives save for those which players impose on themselves.
The low-bit graphics style lends itself to open interpretation, keeping detail at a minimum and allowing players’ imaginations to add life and personality to the pixelated world. The main characters’ gender-ambiguous appearance adds to this, although his design almost a little too unclear – were it not for the title, I would never have guessed he’s meant to be a robot. (Then again, I suppose I could consider the title as metaphorical and decide he’s not literally a robot but just a strangely dressed human. Or an alien. So many possibilities!)
The sound design is similarly minimalistic. There are no voice actors and only a few key actions make noise, such as the elevator descending or marbles rolling and bouncing around in the halls. A deep and unwelcoming ticking sound accompanies the cold loneliness of the robot’s boxed-in existence, whereas a cheerful, comforting melody begins if the player chooses to progress towards the more positive ending.
There is a sense that the player is free to quit at any time – play duration lasts as long as you desire, and whether the experience consists simply of exploring the environment or actively pursuing a goal is up to you. The game does not tell the player how to see the world; it simply presents a situation and invites the player to create their own understanding of it. The robot may just be a robot and the box may just be a box – symbolism, backstory, and plot (or lack thereof) are all up to the player to generate. This unique approach allows for a richer and more personalized experience than games with more overt rules and storylines are built to allow.
Robot in a Box is not a game of urgent mission-completion or intense action sequences. It’s not even particularly challenging; with a little time and patience, both endings can be discovered in less than an hour. But the point of the game isn’t to achieve a goal or reach a finish line; the point is the experience itself: finding meaning in your existence, discovering your limitations, and making decisions about what to do next.
If you are looking for an exciting, elaborately crafted epic adventure, look elsewhere. But if you’re craving a little existential exploration with a deeply personal twist (and really, who isn’t?), take a step outside the box and download Robot in a Box from the developer’s official blog.[review pros="Simple mechanics, open to interpretation and personalized experience, multiple endings, freedom of exploration, duration decided by player, free" cons="Maneuvering with the box can be downright irritating at times, game immediately closes on completion rather than returning to menu, no menu-accessible control list" score=87]