After being featured on Google Play’s list of 2018’s best indie games and bouncing around Europe in a successful tour of film festivals, the combination point-and-click game and indie short film comprising “Cube Escape: Paradox” is paving the way for a bright future for indie games and the point-and-click horror genre as a whole.
“Paradox” is far from the only game recently produced by Rusty Lake, the company behind the game, also sharing its name with the beautiful and strange setting of the now 13-part “Cube Escape” series.
Over the course of the games, the player must put together the non-chronological stories into a larger, more complicated, and often open-ended plot with problem solving and puzzle skills, but often not without brief research. Certain games are incompletable without basic knowledge of the Zodiac, Biblical allusions, Impressionist art, the Fibonacci sequence, or even Morse code, but given the inclusion of a walkthrough in every game, it is encouraged to use outside resources or the hints in the games to complete more difficult puzzles. One could go so far as to attribute the success of Rusty Lake to the rush of relief and satisfaction the player receives when a puzzle or game is complete.
Each challenge is rewarded with a step further into an engrossing story, told through environmental clues and music. Even if the player’s free reign of interaction with the story must be briefly paused in order to get an important plot point across, the player must always continue to periodically click for events to continue until the event is complete. This storytelling technique is the first of many used by the developers behind “Cube Escape” to avoid the traditional pitfalls of point-and-click games.
Often, indie point-and-click games are both free and playable on any number of websites online, sacrificing plot and psychological engagement from the player as a result of this. Those attempting a plot often accomplish this with cutscenes, which are long breaks in gameplay in which the player cannot interact with the game and merely watches as the story progresses in a pre-scripted and pre-animated manner. By having the player continue to click and interact with the story through the cutscenes, there is a minor shift in perception from the player that makes all the difference in their engagement and therefore enjoyment of the game. Having to click on the correct item or character before a movement or action takes place makes the player feel as if they are the catalyst for the story, rather than merely watching it take place. The player also has no time away from their keyboard, so there is no break in focus that would otherwise result in loss of attention or interest.
Additionally, the game is always played in a first-person perspective, so the player has no idea who they are, why they are in this situation, and often, what they are attempting to accomplish. At times, one must play as the villain to complete the game.
This is contrary to the setup of most point-and-click games, indie or not. The player often has an on-screen character with a backstory that is explained at the beginning of games, as seen in favorites of the genre such as “Fran Bow” or “Manual Samuel.” The setup of the player watching the story unfold from the eyes of its catalyst is not only engaging, but it provides yet another mystery for the player to solve in a game that gains the majority of its atmosphere from confusion.
Atmosphere itself, from the music and art to the logic of the games themselves, ensures that everything in the “Cube Escape” games is an utter enigma, whether or not it is relevant to the story. The short film accompanying “Cube Escape: Paradox” features a scene from the game in which the player finds a fish in the drawers of a dresser and must use this fish in order to solve a puzzle, and this is far from the strangest item found in a drawer within these games, nor is it the only sea creature to have graced the desks of the recurring characters in the Rusty Lake universe.
While the vaguely creepy music does nothing to ease the player, subverted expectations in such simple things as cause and effect make the greatest difference. When one opens an unfamiliar drawer, they often expect to find it empty or filled with clothing, paperwork, or other atmosphere-appropriate items. When one opens a drawer and finds a fish, yet the character they play at shows no sign of finding this strange and merely puts it into their inventory, there is an unshakeable unease that allows the “Cube Escape” games to achieve their status as indie horror games without resorting to cheap tactics such as jumpscares and traditional horror movie plots.
The aspect that most significantly sets “Cube Escape: Paradox” apart from the other games in the series is the inclusion of the integral 20 minute short, which blends animation and live action in a shockingly well-done translation of “Cube Escape: Paradox” into film. In perhaps their most ambitious project yet, David Bowles stars as Detective Dale Vandermeer, a recurring character in the series, who finds himself in an unfamiliar hotel room with no memory of how he got there or why it is locked from the inside.
The inclusion of this short film in gameplay transforms a free point-and-click game into a cinematic experience, hooking the player into the feeling that they have entered a movie themselves. It is a combination of this effect and the stunning ambition and work put into both the game and the short film that makes “Cube Escape: Paradox” a masterpiece of the point-and-click genre as a whole.
Despite popular game distribution company Steam’s 10/10 rating for the most recent installment in the Rusty Lake series, the game is not without its flaws. It is the first of the 13 games to have multiple endings other than the pass/fail system of “Cube Escape: Case 23,” in which the player either completes a level or fails it and can retry this level as many times as necessary.
In a practice dating back to “Dungeons & Dragons” and other popular RPGs of the 80’s and 90’s, there are the three traditional endings of a split-ending game: the good ending, the bad ending, and the mediocre ending. The good ending is usually achieved when the main character reaches their goals without any personal sacrifice. The bad ending usually characterizes the opposite, with the main character does not reach their goals and usually experiences some kind of personal loss as a result. The mediocre ending is a mix of the two, where goals are partially achieved, but usually at the cost of something important for the main character.
While all three endings of “Paradox” encompass these traditional splits, they diverge from tradition in terms of the sheer difficulty of each ending. Most often, each ending will be equally difficult to reach, or the good ending will be the easiest path, as the narrative ending intended by the author will most often be reached the first time the game is played. However, in the case of “Cube Escape: Paradox,” it is incredibly difficult to reach anything but the bad ending. The game is hard enough to finish as it is, and the pressure to find another way out of puzzles with a seemingly singular answer can be deterring for otherwise die-hard fans. Even then, the good ending is open ended, rewarding likely hours of hard work and attempting to find a resource with the answers to the puzzles with yet another puzzle that has no available answer until the next game is produced.
Despite the narrative endings and the challenge of completing “Cube Escape: Paradox,” the game is one of the most ambitious feats of the point-and-click genre in recent years. It has revived plot and critical thinking amongst games by indie developers, as well as paved the way for unique and engaging storytelling in future games of this genre. With ambition and fittingly out-of-the-box thinking, Rusty Lake continues to push the boundaries of indie game design, gameplay, and the horror genre as a whole.