You May Not Escape!

by Charm Cochran profile

Surreal
2022

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A thematically resonant maze game, January 5, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(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 itís like to live a marginalized existence through a combination of satire and allegory. This oneís a parser game, though, and cleverly expresses its themes through a slight recontextualization of typical parser gameplay element (in keeping with parser tradition, itís a lonelier experience too, lacking the found-family gaggle of OFPS). While the ending didnít fully land for me, and I think the game maybe errs a little too much towards abstraction, itís still a neat marriage of narrative and crossword, with clean implementation thatís especially impressive for what I think is the authorís first parser game.

Now that Iíve 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 youíre allergic to that sort of thing you probably wonít enjoy yourself here (I have to confess, itís not my personal favorite). But thatís integral to the premise of the game: youíve been chosen, through a process whose exact operation isnít clear but which is clearly deeply unfair, to be thrown into a maze. There is an exit, youíre assured by the representative who greets you upon your entry, but it may or may not be unlocked. Still, thereís nothing for it but to try.

This is clearly a bone-dry premise, but itís not too hard to suss out what itís in service of. When you ask the representative why youíve been picked for the maze, heís a bit shift, but admits ď[i]t could be based on any number of factors. Your body, your mind, your home, your clothes Ė any of these could make you eligible.Ē 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 Ė oneís 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, thereís a trans woman, a woman who died because she wasnít able to get an abortion, and some people who were killed by a fire in a gay bar).

It doesnít 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 itís 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 Ė shocker of shockers Ė when you get to the exit, it turns out it is indeed locked.

Or at least it was in my game Ė 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 havenít been yet (the ABOUT text also recommends mapping, which would make things much easier Ė I didnít, to my regret).

Escape isnít too difficult, though Iím 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 youíre likely to try anyway, but once again, the authorís 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 Ė I got a deep sense of the protagonistís discomfort, but since the protagonist isnít characterized in any real way, and there are no other people that they have a relationship with, their suffering isnít especially barbed. But I think thatís 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 didnít fully work for me is the ending, and what it seems to be saying Ė but to explain this, Iíll 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 heís there to answer your questions and advocate for you with the people outside to eventually make your lot in life slightly easier. Heís not especially helpful or sympathetic though, growing truculent through the course of your conversation and eventually berating you for ďalienat[ing] your potential allies.Ē Similarly, among the social-media-style messages youíre bombarded with along the way, is this one ďHave you considered voting? If we get more of a majority in six months, maybe we can demolish a few of the hallways.Ē Suffice to say the game seems intensely skeptical of political solutions to the problems it allegorizes.

So if politics and voting arenít the answer, what is? Here Iíll shift over to spoiler territory.

(Spoiler - click to show)When you get to the gate, youíll see that it boasts an inscription: ďAND IN THE END, THEY FOUND THEMSELVES RETURNED TO THE BEGINNING.Ē And sure enough, if you wend your way back through the maze, you find that Everyman has skedaddled, but also that thereís 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 itís about returning to oneself, gathering oneís strength, and then simply refusing to be bound by the limits society imposes.

Thatís an empowering enough message, but also kind of unrealistic and maybe in its own way not dissimilar to some of the annoying ďjust try harderĒ messages you seem ticking across the screens? Iím 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 Ė maybe even only be meaningfully improved, at least for now Ė 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 canít find a sledgehammer inside themselves, or find that in battering against the walls that surround them, theyíre the ones who start to give.



Okay, back from spoiler-town. Iíll wrap up by saying that just because I didnít find the gameís suggested resolution of the dilemmas it raises especially compelling, that didnít 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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