There’s more to EscApe than you think

Posted by (twitter: @JohanRasten)
August 29th, 2011 2:16 am

This is kind of a port-mortem of EscApe (there’s another game with same name, it’s not about that one :)) but I’m going to focus certain design choices I did in the 3 hours I created it.

Massive spoilers below, so if you intend to play my EscApe, go do it now!

“Your game is just a crummy monkey in a badly drawn cage”, you say? Perhaps, but there’s still more to it than meets they eye. Continue reading!

I’ve found two other games that are exactly the same as EscApe, except that they look and play quite differently. There’s The Power of Escape by BurnZeZ and BATHOS by johanp. I’ll use them to point out some differences in game design, which might sound like I’m trying to bash the other games, but that’s not my intention. Read it as constructive criticism.

The basic concept [of all 3] is of course to present the player with a room, which is impossible to escape using methods normally available in computer games. Not until the player starts thinking outside the box (or tries to quit the game, as we’ll see later), and takes what’s printed on her keyboard literally, she will escape the challenge. If executed correctly, this puzzle actually takes place in your room, rather on the computer screen.

Now, what did I try to do with this? My goal was to give as many hints as possible, without actually revealing the solution. I wanted the player after figuring it out to think “omg, why didn’t I think of that from the beginning?”.

Starting at the title, there’s a big green hint all over the screen. But I tried to draw your focus away from it, by making the game about an ape. You see, the title only says “escape” with “ape” highlighted.. or does it? :) To put even more emphasis on this I added the text “Can you help the ape escape?”. There’s actually one more thing, which I didn’t think of until later, that APE is written in a slightly stronger color than ESC, but I think the difference could have been even bigger.

Still at the title menu, at the bottom it just says ENTER (the compo version had more text, but I thought it was distracting so I changed it). This is also a hint, actually. You see, I don’t give any exact instructions on how to play the game – I will return to why shortly – you have to figure it out yourself. As I mentioned the solution is to read the Esc-key literally, and for this to work, all keys have to work in the same way. You enter the game by pressing the enter key. Simple enough.

Lack of instructions, yes? The reason is of course, that only thing worse than giving no instructions at all, would be to give partial or faulty instructions (without telling the player that they are faulty). So either you tell players what all keys do, which would spoil the puzzle, or you say nothing at all.

(BATHOS – not made by me)

As you can see BATHOS looks nothing like my game, it has much better graphics (and sound) and I thought it was incredibly funny as well. But the other Johan seems to have done the opposite in just about every choice I’ve described so far. In fact, it even seems like he knowingly tries to lead players in the wrong direction  :) By giving instructions, there’s nothing in the game – or deducted from experience of playing 100s of other computer games earlier – saying that there’s another unmentioned key that is crucial to winning. Further, if Z means “jump” and X means “pickup”, then Q might as well mean “escape”? IMHO it’s a little like playing Super Mario Bros and having to figure out that you have to press the reset button on your console to press to find the princess. Though BATHOS has a lot more comments and ratings than EscApe, so maybe this is what people wants :)

Back to our poor, caged simian. My idea here was to print out the key you pressed in clear text, so you would get the connection between its literal meaning and what goes on on screen. Initially I was going to make it more passive, so that pressing left would only make the monkey look left for example, but I ran out of time sooner than expected. People ought to figure out soon enough that moving around in the cage won’t help you, so I’m not sure it made any difference. Hopefully after coming to that conclusion, all the previously mentioned hints have trained the player enough to start pressing other keys to see if anything happens.

Due to this lack of time, there is a crucial part of the game missing; There should be more keys with functions in the game to lead the player from using the direction keys to thinking “aha! I need to press Esc to escape”. Not only would this help bridge the logical gap, but also add a little bit more fun to the game. These were some I thought of:

  • Space – Launches the cage into space or something. Maybe the monkey just thinks about space. However, it is a very important key, as it’s likely one of the first ones the player tries pressing (partially because of its size and location and partially because of its use in other games).
  • Shift – The ape shifts its weight around.
  • Home – Text: “You can’t go home”
  • Enter – Text: “You’re already inside”
  • Dash (well, it’s technically a minus sign, but they look similar enough) – Quick sprint in either direction.
  • End – Popup saying “Are you sure you want to end the game?” with possible quit.
  • Backspace – Printed as “Back (from) space” and returns to the jungle. Maybe too far fetched.

So why am I ranting about all this? Because gradually training the player to adapt to your game’s rules and mechanics is how you write modern games. No game designer ships their game with a printed manual these days, and if they do, nobody is going to read it :) Another central concept of modern game design is to make player feel like they’re doing exactly what they want to, while they’re doing exactly what you want them to. This makes the player feel incredibly awesome and is a lot more rewarding that simply following a heavily scripted story. Ok, so EscApe isn’t Half-Life 2 (Valve are good at this), but maybe it’s a little bit more to it than you initially thought? 😉

I wonder what would happen if the next LD theme was “space”…

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2 Responses to “There’s more to EscApe than you think”

  1. shockedfrog says:

    I’m not an entrant and can’t see how many ratings the two games have, but there’s three reasons I can see why Bathos would have got more ratings:

    1 – it’s browser-based rather than a download. Seeing as you’re using java, you should try and host a web-based version somewhere if possible.

    2 – it was featured on indiegames.com’s blog.

    3 – the other Johan is Johan Peitz, best known for the hugely popular Icy Tower. That’s probably part of the reason why the game was featured on the indiegames.com blog too.

    As for the actual quality of the games, I preferred Bathos for a few reasons – I prefer its graphical style, it’s a more ‘complete’ game (sound, music, story), the keys acted as a neat red herring for what’s otherwise a one-trick game, and the writing was quite cleverly done, making it almost immersive and offering a more subtle clue to the solution. However, with the suggestions you mention for expanding yours with more different key functions, it would definitely hold its own in the compo and you’d certainly do well in Humor, maybe score some extra points elsewhere too.

    • shockedfrog says:

      Of course, the fact that your game isn’t browser based has the effect that players are more likely to find the solution by wanting to quit as Escape is usually implemented as a quit key, whereas for a browser-based game there’s no real reason to press Escape unless it has an in-game function. This could be considered either positive or negative. :)

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