Inescapable doom and “free” rarely go together, but Fancy Fish Games made it happen. Their latest release, I Can’t Escape, is a first-person horror flash game that combines the allure of cost-free gaming with the terror of being trapped and hopelessly lost in darkness.
The game opens with an all-too-brief glimpse of a cheerful, harmless-looking meadow with spring-green grass and a lovely blue sky —and then the player is instantly plunged through an unseen hole into a dark, unwelcoming tunnel. You find yourself facing a locked door, on the other side of which is a ladder that could take you to freedom, if only you had the key. Sound maddening? Get used to it; the game continually taunts the player by dangling the metaphorical (and sometimes literal) key to your freedom just out of reach. Often what looks like a way out will turn out to be a trap, drawing you deeper down into the labyrinth.
Luckily (or unluckily, depending on how much you enjoy being scared), I Can’t Escape avoids one of the most common pitfalls other games in the genre tend to fall into when they include puzzles that are so aggravating they detract from the horror element. In this game, the frustration of being in an impossible situation never quite overpowers the fear. Instead, Fancy Fish probes into the psychology of instinctual human fears to build up a deeply disturbing sense of suspense and dread, even outright panic at times. The deeper you fall, the darker and more terrifying the game becomes.
Wandering through an underground labyrinth from which there may seriously be no escape is bad enough, but Chase Bethea’s diabolically foreboding score adds a whole other dimension to the experience. Deep bass notes echo the sound of monsters growling in the shadows, occasionally distorting into something vaguely reminiscent of chanting monks, and now and then random, unsettling sound effects like heavy footsteps and inhuman groans are tossed into the mix, just in case your heart wasn’t already pounding like a rabbit’s.
Retro 90’s-style graphics evoke distressing memories of classic horror titles like the first Doom. Textures like crawling vines, eroding stone and slimy underground plant matter lend an organic feel to an otherwise flat and geometric environment. Holes (and eyeballs – horrible, horrible eyeballs!) in the walls give you that creepy, spine-tingling sensation of being stalked. And no, those things you glimpse out of the corner of your eye or at the dim end of the tunnel are not glitches or figments of your imagination: here there be monsters.
The monsters, by the way, follow in the footsteps of so many horror game enemies before them: they are scarier when you can’t see them. This is not to say that up close they’re as cute and fuzzy as bunny rabbits (then again, not all bunnies are friendly) – they do a fair job of freaking the player out, particularly during the first few startling encounters. But they are a bit simply designed, and there’s a certain familiarity threshold to their ability to induce panic attacks; if you play long enough to become well-acquainted, they may start to slide down the fear factor scale from “alarming and upsetting” to merely “sorta creepy.”
The controls system of I Can’t Escape is limited and simplistic – use arrow keys, mouse, or touchscreen to move in any of the four basic directions, and try not to fall through holes. Keys can be picked up by walking over them, and unlocked doors (and other, less obvious exits) are opened by walking through them. There are no weapons; the game is an exploratory experience, rather than combat-based, and nothing but speed and luck can protect you from the creatures in the labyrinth.
Though limited movement may irritate players who prefer the freedom of more contemporary-style games, these restrictions can work in the game’s favor by reinforcing the sense of claustrophobia one might feel when one is, say, trapped in a maze of subterranean tunnels with no escape in sight. Something as simple as being unable to strafe or lean can make corners stressful to approach, because you won’t be able see what might be lying in wait on the other side until it’s too late. On the other hand, it is irritating not to be able to more fully explore such an extensive and eerie environment.
So, is there really no way out? To answer would be to spoil things —and good things come to those who try it for themselves first. (If you consider an intensely unnerving experience to be a good thing, that is.) The game is free, so you’ve nothing to lose, aside from your peace of mind and a good night’s sleep. Enter the labyrinth, if you dare, by visiting the official site to play the in-browser version, or visit the game’s Indie DB profile to download a desktop copy.
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