Over the long weekend, I spent what was possibly a shameful amount of time on my couch with my laptop playing escape games. Quite frequently I go through spurts of near obsession with various types of games, music, activities, art projects, or whatever.
I love escape style casual point-and-click games. Because I am a hardcore gamer or whatever, I have spent probably as many hours in the genre as I have spent playing NES games during my childhood. Some games, like the Crimson Room (purported to be the first escape the room game; released in 2004), don’t even particularly bother with any sort of plot. The premise is supremely simple: you are locked in a room and must escape.
Over the years there have been quite a number of very popular and engaging little series. For those who haven’t spent years of their lives hunting down and playing these Mateusz Skutnik’s Submachine games, or his Covert Front games, or his Daymare Town games (Highly recommend. The man is basically a powerhouse of point-and-click games with outstanding puzzle/art/story quality.) The Alice is Dead series is also a wonderfully surreal homage to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books, with an interesting twist and an interesting soundtrack in part one. If creeptastic isn’t really your thing, or you want something the kids can play too, Pastel Games (co-created by powerhouse Mateusz Skutnik!) has some reliably cute, reliably beginner-friendly games.
Today we are going to be talking about a series that I recently re-discovered since the newest installment was released pretty recently. The Cube Escape series is set in the world of Rusty Lake. The games are part of a larger story, and are not released in chronological order. Well, since part of the games and stories involve time travelling among memories, maybe there’s a sort of divine chronology of release that I haven’t picked up on. Rusty Lake (the game studio) has released on their blog a chronology chart that spans from 1888 – when you play the game Arles as the setting’s painter Vincent Van Gogh – to 1972 – when you play as Dale Vandermeer, a detective investigating the murder of a woman with blonde hair. In at least one of the games, Harvey’s Box, you play as the titular Harvey, the parrot belonging to Dale.
The best game to start playing in this series is Seasons. I am unsure if this was the first release, but this struck me as the most pivotal and central part of the story. It clearly isn’t the climax, but it isn’t the beginning either. This occurs in the spring 1964, summer 1971, fall 1971, and winter 1981. According to Rusty Lake’s chart, you play this game as the woman, whom appears to be murdered in fall 1971, as evidenced as being the time when Case 23, the murder investigation playing as Dale begins.
The chronology of this series is ridiculously complex, and that is one of the big reasons I am so engaged by it. On the phones throughout the various games are the same voices saying the same things. The overlap of timelines in the games is not accidental, and seems consistent even through the viewpoints of different characters. The studio has crafted this series to go for the long haul, and they have been doing a fantastic job of it. There is a play order suggested by the studio on their about page which I hadn’t noticed as I was playing through the catalog over the weekend. The only game I have not yet played is Rusty Lake Hotel, which is also the only game which is not free to play.
The second most recent release, Birthday, with its homage (intentional or otherwise, I’m not the only one to notice) to the Alice is Dead series, was another excellent addition to this universe. Playing as a 9-year-old Dale Vandermeer (the police detective, recall) you must entertain your family by cutting cake, pouring drinks and playing music. Grandpa really knows how to shake his tail-feathers. An unexpected guest abruptly changes the mood of the party. The most recent release, Theatre, is a delightfully surreal experience. There isn’t truly another way I can even explain it. Seemingly taking place in a lounge hosting a macabre sort of talent show, most of the story’s characters seem to appear onstage. The ending of both games leave more questions asked than answered, which of course is ideal in such a convoluted timeline.
The puzzles within the game play are generally pretty fair. I found them mostly logical or intuitive, although there are a few times I needed to resort to the walkthroughs (stupid slide-piece image puzzles… you know the type.) Like many point-and-click games there are a handful of colour dependent puzzles, which limit the ability of some to play the games without assistance. Any audio clues however, like the telephone calls I mentioned earlier or instructions given by other characters, are also cued in writing in most, if not all, of the games.
A small warning about the games. They are horror games. Existentialism, surrealism, murder, insanity, unreliable narration, nightmare creatures, coersion, and cubes (sharp corners) are all integral themes to the games. There are a few well executed moments that could be referred to as “jump scares” by those with a very broad definition of what a jump scare is. Nothing flashes a take over of the screen as such, but something that was there or not there in the previous view of the scene may have changed with little warning and a simple turning of the viewpoint, accompanied by changes or staccato bursts in the background music. If that sounds like your definition of a jump scare, take your speaker volumes and own limitations into account before tackling this series.
Give these games a try and let me know what you think in the comments!