If you’ve been following my Twitter feed at all, you had to know there was a Game Pile coming, but you might not have considered that it wasn’t Far Cry 3. The problem is, Far Cry 3 is a monster of a game, the seven-meat-pie floater of ludonarrative construction, and there is no earthly way I’m near the end even with all the hours I have invested in it. Instead, let’s talk about supernaturally empowered livestock.
Last night, a friend of mine was late to D&D and I had my laptop. I had Escape Goat downloaded and I installed it, and I figured I’d play it a little bit while I waited. At 3 AM that morning, I finished it. Right? The last game I did in a streak like that, where the whole game just vanished underneath my fingertips was Hotline Miami, and wouldn’t you know it, I’m going to compare those two games real suddenly!
Escape Goat is one of those games based around a terrible pun title; but rather than other possibilities like Landscape Goat (the Sims, Ungulate Style) and Farscape Goat (fleeing into space carrying enormous piles of data that represent John Crichton’s sins), Escape Goat‘s title perfectly explains its premise. You are a goat, and you want to escape. Scapegoating, the practice of blaming unrelated parties for sins that are not their own is implied, which gives us our framing device – you, the goat, have been accused of witchcraft and condemned to a prison of eternal punishment for your wickedness. This typical framing device of being unjustly cast into a dungeon and wanting out would be slightly stronger if the game wasn’t based around the accusations being absolutely true.
For a start, your goat can read, which I’m not sure I believe is typical of goats. If goats can read, we need to start writing ‘Don’t Eat This’ on more things. Your goat is also purple and can double-jump, a mechanic that has become so banal it’s easy to forget what it is. This is a double-jump; it’s not a little extension of a jump, or a glide, no, it’s a second jump, while in the middle of another jump, and it’s as versatile or as mobile as your basic jump is. You can jump forwards three times the length of your body and without so much as a how-de-do to the laws of physics, spring backwards touching nothing, and land back where you started, and you can do this endlessly.
Then you acquire a familiar, who confides in you about how it’s going to escape this prison with your help, and at this point you can’t convince me that the goat you play isn’t basically the descended spawn of Beelzebub himself. By the time your pet rat acquires a stylin’ hat with a purple feather, you are truly in the realm of satanic ritual, make no mistake. On the other hand, the little guy looks so bitchin’ I think I’d sign on for the forces of darkness.
Framing device and channelling Shatan Who Spited Job aside, though, the game itself feels like the best game Apogee never made in 1988. It’s a one-room puzzler, of the style of Paganitzu, which we used to do because we couldn’t manage smooth scrolling at high speeds in videogames – until John Carmack decided to show off. Character sprites are nice and clear, animation is smooth but simple, and the game divides itself into small, five-level sets, with each level exploring a steadily more complex mechanic, until the fifth level serves as a sort of final exam. While this sounds like something someone may have produced for Game Design 101, it’s embarassing that it’s clearly a lesson that more developers could afford to listen to. While some people are trying with their indie games to revolutionise the industry, or tearing apart the fundamental assumptions about ludonarrative dissonance, I think Escape Goat should be nailed to the church door as a reminder that you don’t have to. You know? You can just make a fun video game.
One thing I will note is that it’s not what I’d consider a ‘clean’ puzzle platformer. That is to say, there are instances where inexact solutions to puzzles will be just as good as precise ones, which can me aggravating for fans of technical execution. There are some puzzles where you will have the solution, but you’ll need fast fingers to execute it. The game is also very, very fast to iterate; you tap the R key, you die instantly and the level resets. You hit a spike and you die instantly and the level resets. The game’s puzzles are unforgiving – the final one is itself a masterpiece of frustration where you can try dozens of different solutions and always feel like you’re close to the answer. Therefore, Escape Goat properly embraces the lessons of Hotline Miami and Super Meat Boy by allowing you to iterate appropriately. This keeps the flow going, and you are rarely more than a few keypresses from where you failed last time.
If Escape Goat cost ten dollars I’d call it overcosted, but at six dollars it’s great. Even if you only take about two hours to finish the game – and I was trying to finish quickly – then you’ve made your money’s worth. When you’ve finished the game’s core campaign, though, you can start on the custom content. I don’t know, I didn’t touch them – fundamentally, I view that sort of content a nice feature, but definitely not a good reason to buy a game. Yet, the game itself is definitely fun, it’s charming, and it’s cute. It’s a game that avoids a lot of conventional problems of videogames that try for more ambitious ideas, and it has a rat in a stylish hat.
Buy it if:
- You enjoy hectic puzzle platformers.
- You think rats in feathered hats are rad.
Avoid it if:
- You prefer a more steady pace for your puzzle games, like Bejewelled.
- You don’t like frustration-driven high-paced iteration.