In my first run playing I Can't Escape, I didn't make it out. There is a way out of the dungeon, and I felt like I was getting pretty close for a while, but then I started to fall down. And down. And down. It should have been easy to dodge around the pitfalls in this game once I knew how to look for them, but something about the overwhelming atmosphere of the game makes it very hard to concentrate. It is a very simple game at its core, merely being a maze exploration game, but smart sound design and some unsettling graphics take it and make something far greater.
You'll find yourself staring at a blue sky as you start the game, but you won't even have enough time to wonder where you are before you'll be tumbling down into the earth. From this point on, your entire job is to find the ladder that will lead you back to the surface. That might seem like a short-lived task when you turn a few corners and find a ladder leading out. You'll smile to yourself, shaking your head at how sad this little independent project is as you stride toward it. You probably won't even notice the little black pit yawning open under the ladder until you fall inside of it and find yourself even deeper underground.
The walls change as you move downward, and in ways that really make this game start to gnaw at your nerves. The graphics are pretty primitive, looking a little more upscale than something from the Doom era, but they serve to make the walls look off in some hard-to-describe way. Like Lone Survivor, this game uses an older graphical style to make things look a little vague. Is that vines or veins crawling along that wall? It doesn't quite look like one or the other, and the effect left me feeling unsure of my environment and a little worried. It gave the maze an otherworldly feeling, and it shook my confidence in reality just enough to put me off a bit.
I did quite well for a little while, but the maze seems to just sprawl off in random directions most of the time. I found quite a few ladders that looked safe to climb as I looked through some windows, but I was rarely able to find the path that actually lead to those places. Instead, I often found myself taking doors at random as I hoped to find my way through. There wasn't any compass to help me get my bearings, either, so a lot of my time was spent completely lost. It helped keep the game a little scarier, but it can be pretty annoying when you're trying to actually escape. It doesn't help that every floor is huge, and sometimes I could wander aimlessly for ten minutes or more before I found a door I'd already been through.
You get pretty good at watching the floor after playing for a bit, too, as the game relies on the player not paying much attention in order to keep the game going. The floor is littered with tiny black holes that indicate the pits, and you'll feel pretty smart for a little bit once you notice them and start dodging them. The second you go to crawl up a ladder and find yourself falling through seemingly-solid ground, you won't be as happy. There is a specific type of grass that covers a pit, a large green patch that is almost indistinguishable from the regular grass on the cave floor. It's only obvious feature is that it is almost always right under the ladder you're currently running toward in excitement. It feels like a cheap trick, but considering the alternative was using an obvious hole that you already knew how to avoid, I can't see what else the developers could have done.
That being said, it can be extremely frustrating to fall down pit after pit because the grass looked mostly safe. It helps make the frightening aspects of the game come to the fore a little bit better as it whittles away at your confidence when you see a ladder, though. That twinge of joy when you see a way up will quickly wither and turn to dread as you look at the ground under the ladder. Is that the kind of grass that's going to drop out from under me? Can I remember what that grass looked like? I was never entirely sure of myself when I took that final step toward the ladder, finding myself gasping with relief far fewer times than I spent cursing in anger as I dropped. It really can be an annoying aspect of the game, but it does turn moments that should feel like victories into crushing defeats. It wears the player's spirit and confidence down with each drop, setting them up for the atmosphere to do its work.
If a feeling of hopelessness hasn't settled in by the fifth or sixth drop, the music will put that feeling into your head. There are quite a few different tracks that play as you fall further into the maze, all of them filled with droning tones that just pick at the nerves. The music is your only company as you move deeper, and it just keeps getting louder and more frightening with each floor. It's also interspersed with effects like footsteps, a sound that always seems to put me on edge in horror games where you spend most of your time alone. The tracks all imply that something terrible is waiting for you, giving this sense of inevitable doom that only grows with each fall. None of it is as intricate as some of the tracks from Silent Hill, but they all do an excellent job of making the journey through the maze much more uncomfortable.
You're not quite the only person in the maze, either. There are a few ghosts that wander the halls, looking to drop you down another floor if they touch you. They seem to have random appearances and can come right through a wall and surprise you, so they feel about as unfair as the grass-covered pits at times. Once again, they've been put in to make the game feel more uncomfortable and take the player by surprise. The first time I saw one I was terrified, if only because the game's clumsy controls made it very hard to get away. You have to hit the directional keys to face a specific direction before hitting up and down to go forward or backward, so it's extremely hard to maneuver when you need to. The ghosts are the only time this comes up, though, so it's not all that bad. It adds a certain inevitability when the ghosts see you and begin to close in, giving the player a scary feeling of being unable to escape.
The eyes on the walls drove that feeling home as well. I was surprised the first time I noticed one, watching as it seemed to open up from a deep sleep to stare right at me. The eyes open up a little bit for each moment you're standing in front of them, and I have to admit the effect was terrifying in its own way. I've played the game a couple of times and know that the eyes don't actually do anything, but there's something about seeing one of those things opening up across from you that just makes you want to get away. When I was running from a creepy wall texture I knew the game was doing its job well.
All of that hopelessness, all of those feelings of inevitable doom in hallways that were steadily filling up with an almost howling music, ended up pushing me to take stupid actions. I said before that most of the spots on the ground are easy to spot when you know how to look, but the game's crushing atmosphere soon starts to push the player into rushing and making bad decisions. Without meaning to, I was moving forward as panic began to settle into me. I didn't look at the ground as carefully as I used to when ghosts began to appear, and I rushed from door to door with no sense of direction or purpose. I just knew that I needed to find a ladder, any ladder, and start working my way back up again. If I could do that then the music and the eyes and the pressure would back off a bit and I could calm down.
I just kept making mistakes, though, tumbling ever downward until I finally figured out where the maze ended. It was a bitter moment as I fought against what happened, and I still had this insane sense that I could get away from where I'd ended up even though the logical side of me knew I was beaten. I'd lost the game long before that when I'd let it dictate my actions through a creeping sense of panic, though.
I Can't Escape doesn't look like much, and there isn't much in the way of danger besides falling to the bottom and losing, but it plays its atmosphere and sound so well that it made me more afraid than I should have been. I wasn't all that impressed when I was goofing off with it in a well-lit room, but once I had those headphones on and was playing after midnight it all clicked together. I Can't Escape isn't so great that it can scare someone easily, requiring the player to be more open to its scares than some other horror games would need, but it still does its job extremely well. It managed to create an idiotic panic in me when I knew there was no need for one.
It made me question the rules of the game and how safe I felt in my conclusions about the floors and environments, putting me at a point where I started to question other things I thought I knew about the game. After all, if you can't trust the floor under your feet, what else can you trust? What if those ghosts turn lethal later? What if those footsteps do mean something? You might know for a fact that something is meaningless from hundreds of attempts at the game, but it does such a good job of making you feel unsure of the game's rules that you never feel comfortable or safe. It'll do that without the player realizing it, soon leaving you in a state of blind panic that will lead all the way down, down, down into the game's depths, cursing yourself for the failure you deserve.
Because it can be beaten. There is a way out, but unless you can overcome your feelings about the game you won't find it. You could argue that's the weakest point about the game, as a careful player who observes everything and doesn't give in to the game's atmosphere will probably get out without much trouble. It was a necessary element to give the game a reason to be played, but it still undercuts the game's main goals in a way. You win by spiting the game's attempts to scare you.
How could you be afraid without that chance of escape, though? Doesn't the fact that you can win, that you can actually get out of the maze, make failure and panic all that more bitter? When you're running through the halls in a panic and looking for an escape route, you're doing it because you desperately hope that you can get away. If you didn't feel that there was some hope, you might give up and shut the game off, but it's that glimmer of hope that kept me going. I think it'll keep you going too, long after you've fallen so far you may as well give in. Even in that last area you'll be hammering away at the walls, hoping against hope for an escape route that you'll never find.
Not bad for a free half-hour long game, right? If you want to try it yourself, go give it a shot on Newgrounds.