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About the Story
You are one of the unlucky many to enter the maze. Will you be one of the lucky few to escape?
Contains brief strong language and some mature themes.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: October 1, 2022
Current Version: 2
Development System: Inform 7
Forgiveness Rating: Polite
38th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
Through the Shattered Lens
You May Not Escape! was designed using Inform and it’s a throwback to the classic text adventures that I used to play when I was a kid. Even the puzzle feels like a throwback. Can you navigate a maze? How many times to Scott Adams go back to that well? But You May Not Escape! is much more difficult and rewarding than the old games that it resmebles. This game requires some thinking. It requires some imagination. It requires that the player pay attention to what they’re reading. The game is well-written and I appreciated all the little details that made the maze so memorable. I especially liked the LED tickers the spelled out messages that were either menacing or encouraging, depending on how you read them. You May Not Escape! is challenging but rewarding.
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Adapted from a review on intfiction.org
Best I can tell, You May Not Escape! is a parser-based IF built around a random map generator and a premise.
The random maps are the less-interesting of the two cornerstones. Notably, the author has asked that players not share their maps online as “getting lost and the entering the unknown is part of the point.” That leads to the second notable foundation of YMNE!: It’s premise.
You start in an outdoor maze of high plaster walls, too high to scale, which you must navigate while the weather grows worse and worse. A purported guide named John Everyman (not terribly subtle) acknowledges your obvious questions—Why am I here? What is this place?—while sidestepping to offer any real answers. Intriguingly, he suggests many others (“billions”) have or are traversing their own mazes while you walk yours.
Then the conversation lulls, your questions bruise Everyman’s feelings, and there’s nothing left to do but traverse the labyrinth.
Walking the maze is minimalism itself. Locations are described in fleeting, often incomplete, sentences. Occasionally the stingy maze generator manages to cough up a park bench to sit on, or a closed-circuit camera spying on you, but most locations don’t even offer those variations.
At this point, YMNE started to look to me to be little more than an exercise in Inform coding–until I encountered the LED ticker-tape-style wall displays. Each offers a different message, sometimes taunting, sometimes misleading, sometimes patronizing. The messages serve to frustrate and confuse in an already frustrating and confusing game. (The ticker machines do serve one handy purpose: They tell you when you’re walking in circles, or have returned to a previously-visited location.)
Game play develops into the monotony of a foot soldier’s patrol as you wander in search of an exit. With each scrap of new information found, one will naturally try to piece together What It All Means. Some of the details hint at modern controversies, such dead-naming. Others offer empty sentiments for your predicament. Others still are accusatory and self-righteous. The game is patently designed to wear down the player (at one point, giving up is a formal option). It’s a bleak ride.
So: What does it all mean? Just as the author asked not to share maps online, I’m reluctant to share my full interpretation. I do think YMNE! is a reaction to social media and toxic culture online, although the abuse could be sourced from any number of dysfunctional situations. One of the ticker messages is political speech transcribed, the “thoughts and prayers” mantra rattled off after every tragedy:
"The phrase 'thoughts and prayers' is grating in part because it has become a victim of semantic satiation, a phenomenon that occurs when a word or words is repeated so often that it loses its meaning. Thoughts and prayers has become a little bit like saying 'bless you' after someone sneezes…"
That said, I do wish the game had been a bit more ambitious. I would gladly have given up a freshly-minted maze with each quarter dropped for a richer world and more immersion. I think that could have been achieved without losing the stark economy of the prose and setting, which is game’s calling card. More tongue-in-cheek, I was tempted to shave off a point for the use of an exclamation point in the title, but I won't do that.
Bottom-line, I found myself chewing on this game after I finished playing it. A little more oomph would have left me chewing on YMNE! much longer, though.
I really enjoyed Charm Cochrans previous game, and I was surprised at how different this was compared to that. That one was a religious-themed Twine game with good graphics and lush descriptions. This is a stripped-down parser maze.
It's well-implemented and runs smoothly. You are met at the beginning by a man who introduces himself to you and explains the maze. You then go through it.
While it seems hideously complex at first, the vast majority of the maze rooms have only one entrance and one exit. If mapping, it's only really necessary to write down the rooms with three exits, which are rare.
There are several layers of meaning in the game, from the base Inform implementation level (with little meaning in itself), to the maze itself, to the objects in the maze (like the lizard you can follow or string you can leave behind you), to the messages from Everyman and the LED tickers, to clear political statements that are plain and not symbolic (especially (Spoiler - click to show)the gravestones describing people who died from being denied an abortion for a non-viable pregnancy or who died without anyone using their real chosen name).
Overall, I enjoy surreal games and well-implemented games. I thought that a lot of the messages were delivered well, and if it is designed as a way to feel the frustration of being a marginalized person in a white male cishet-dominated world, I think it demonstrates it very well (also the frustration of caring about the climate or similar issues and getting a lot of promises that don't get acted on). But the main gameplay loop was not one that I enjoyed; a frustration simulator is still frustrating; a frustration parody is still frustrating; a metaphor for imprisonment through frustration is still frustrating.
But given that the game seems designed to incur those feelings, I can only conclude that the author has succeeded. Given that they've so far made an excellent Twine game and an very well-coded parser game, I can only expect that his next game will be brilliant.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
The randomizer continues to send me games that rhyme; You May Not Escape!, much like One Final Pitbull Song, communicates what it’s like to live a marginalized existence through a combination of satire and allegory. This one’s a parser game, though, and cleverly expresses its themes through a slight recontextualization of typical parser gameplay element (in keeping with parser tradition, it’s a lonelier experience too, lacking the found-family gaggle of OFPS). While the ending didn’t fully land for me, and I think the game maybe errs a little too much towards abstraction, it’s still a neat marriage of narrative and crossword, with clean implementation that’s especially impressive for what I think is the author’s first parser game.
Now that I’ve said all that, this is a maze game. Wait, come back! Yes, 90% of the gameplay is wandering around a big, nearly-empty maze, and if you’re allergic to that sort of thing you probably won’t enjoy yourself here (I have to confess, it’s not my personal favorite). But that’s integral to the premise of the game: you’ve been chosen, through a process whose exact operation isn’t clear but which is clearly deeply unfair, to be thrown into a maze. There is an exit, you’re assured by the representative who greets you upon your entry, but it may or may not be unlocked. Still, there’s nothing for it but to try.
This is clearly a bone-dry premise, but it’s not too hard to suss out what it’s in service of. When you ask the representative why you’ve been picked for the maze, he’s a bit shift, but admits “[i]t could be based on any number of factors. Your body, your mind, your home, your clothes – any of these could make you eligible.” As you explore the maze, you come across screens where outside observers seem to be commenting on your situation, sometimes offering not-very-helpful advice, sometimes sending thoughts and prayers, and sometimes vituperatively wishing for bad things to happen to you. And one of the points of interest in the labyrinth is a graveyard with four tombstones – one’s being readied for you, making clear the graves are for those who never escape the maze, while the others appear to be victims of right-wing politics (as best I can make out, there’s a trans woman, a woman who died because she wasn’t able to get an abortion, and some people who were killed by a fire in a gay bar).
It doesn’t take much deductive reasoning to understand that the game is articulating something about what it feels like to face explicit discrimination and hatred, and the implicit challenges of living in a world not designed for you, with the metaphor being sufficiently supple to accommodate several different angles on the idea. It makes sense, then, that navigating your way through the landscape should be difficult, confusing, and fairly depressing. Thus it’s no surprise that exploration is unpleasant: there are lots of twists and turns, with few landmarks and many locations that look exactly the same. Moreover, it quickly begins to rain, soaking you and making the dirty-floored maze muddy as all get-out. And – shocker of shockers – when you get to the exit, it turns out it is indeed locked.
Or at least it was in my game – for the maze is procedurally generated. This is another nice thematic twist, since of course while many marginalized folks face similar barriers, their experiences and circumstances are each unique, and as far as I could tell it worked completely smoothly in my game, which is an impressive bit of coding. So the metaphorical resonance takes some of the sting out of the exhausting gameplay, and the author also provides some support for the maze-averse player through use of an exit-listing status bar that highlights places you haven’t been yet (the ABOUT text also recommends mapping, which would make things much easier – I didn’t, to my regret).
Escape isn’t too difficult, though I’m embarrassed to admit it took me longer than it should have since I failed to notice an important detail (in my defense, there are a lot of random events and atmospheric text that fires, meaning my eyes were starting to skip over some of the words by halfway through). But there are also a few optional puzzles that help flesh out the experience and deepen the metaphor. Many of them are pretty intuitive things you’re likely to try anyway, but once again, the author’s provided some assistance in the form of a STATS command that tracks your progress.
All told I found You May Not Escape a smart, well-designed experience. Personally it was more intellectually than emotionally engaging, since the allegory is fairly dry – I got a deep sense of the protagonist’s discomfort, but since the protagonist isn’t characterized in any real way, and there are no other people that they have a relationship with, their suffering isn’t especially barbed. But I think that’s a reasonable authorial choice, and in some way may be a comment on the stereotypical right brain/left brain split between choice-based and parser games (increasingly inaccurate as the division of IF into those two houses is becoming).
As flagged above, the other thing that didn’t fully work for me is the ending, and what it seems to be saying – but to explain this, I’ll have to back up to the beginning. So the person who meets you upon your entry into the maze is one John Everyman, who says he’s there to answer your questions and advocate for you with the people outside to eventually make your lot in life slightly easier. He’s not especially helpful or sympathetic though, growing truculent through the course of your conversation and eventually berating you for “alienat[ing] your potential allies.” Similarly, among the social-media-style messages you’re bombarded with along the way, is this one “Have you considered voting? If we get more of a majority in six months, maybe we can demolish a few of the hallways.” Suffice to say the game seems intensely skeptical of political solutions to the problems it allegorizes.
So if politics and voting aren’t the answer, what is? Here I’ll shift over to spoiler territory.
(Spoiler - click to show)When you get to the gate, you’ll see that it boasts an inscription: “AND IN THE END, THEY FOUND THEMSELVES RETURNED TO THE BEGINNING.” And sure enough, if you wend your way back through the maze, you find that Everyman has skedaddled, but also that there’s now a sledgehammer waiting for you, with which you can simply batter down the gate. As with most metaphors, this is subject to several readings, but one of the most straightforward is that it’s about returning to oneself, gathering one’s strength, and then simply refusing to be bound by the limits society imposes.
That’s an empowering enough message, but also kind of unrealistic and maybe in its own way not dissimilar to some of the annoying “just try harder” messages you seem ticking across the screens? I’m probably biased because my day job involves public policy, but at least in American society it sure does seem to me that there are a whole host of places where the lives of the most vulnerable can be meaningfully improved – maybe even only be meaningfully improved, at least for now – by voting, gathering coalitions of friends who can sometimes be kinda flaky, and at least starting out by making awful things like 15% less awful, in order to get to the place where true transformative change becomes possible. This is not a very inspiring view of the world, I admit! And far be it from me to lecture folks far more directly impacted by oppression on what their strategy for social change should look like, much less how they express themselves through art. But it seems to me this alternative has something to offer folks who can’t find a sledgehammer inside themselves, or find that in battering against the walls that surround them, they’re the ones who start to give.
Okay, back from spoiler-town. I’ll wrap up by saying that just because I didn’t find the game’s suggested resolution of the dilemmas it raises especially compelling, that didn’t undercut the effectiveness with which it poses said dilemmas. You May Not Escape is a smart game that knows how to weave its themes into its gameplay and its themes into its gameplay, which is a rare thing and well worth celebrating.
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