The Cube Escape games are series of free puzzle games on iOS and Android. I downloaded them all at the same time (because, free), but after getting through the first one, I wanted to delete the rest immediately. Instead, I played a few more of the games, just to see if the puzzle design might improve. After all, maybe that first game was awkward and bad because it was actually someone’s first game. Turns out, they don’t get better, and I kind of hate them all. Yet I kept playing. Eventually I broke down… and played the rest with a walkthrough open beside me. I wasn’t going to try and solve these shitty puzzles on my own. I was just going to get through the games as fast as possible. Because even though I kind of hated them, I was also hooked on them.
The Cube Escape title is both apt and awful. Half of it is perfectly honest, and the other half is a total lie. Each game takes place in a single room or a brief series of rooms—the titular cubes—but we’re rarely trying to escape anything. It’s quite the opposite, in fact We’re usually trying to dig deeper into something, and each game ends on an unsatisfying cliffhanger that propels us into the next one. The series as a whole feels like less of an escape and more of a descent, and it’s this descent that makes the series so strangely compelling, almost addicting. It’s a descent into madness that masks itself as logic.
I hate these puzzle games because the puzzles are nonsensical. Even though the setting is small, I’ll often hit a wall in which I have no idea what to do next. Even when there are less than a dozen interactive locations, I’ll stare at the screen and never achieve anything like an “ah ha” moment. And when I look up the answer, I’m never angry at myself for missing something obvious because the solution is almost never obvious. I’m angry at the game because the solution behind these puzzles is so horribly convoluted that I know that I never would have thought of it. It’s like “The Fucking Duck Puzzle” from The Longest Journey, repeated over and over again.
For example, in Cube Escape: Birthday, a needle for a record player is hidden in a birthday cake. More egregious is a sequence that has you give your mother gum to chew, then asks you to pop the bubble with (naturally) a screwdriver, use the chewed gum to catch a fly, and then use the fly to bait a mousetrap to catch a fish to feed to a cat who shits out a key. In Case 23, you drop a fly into a fish tank and then guide it so that it falls into a shell, where a human finger pokes it, which lights it up, and then you have to guide it into a fish’s mouth. Then, the fish itself turns into a key.
You can’t solve these kinds of puzzles with critical thinking because the steps don’t connect together logically. We have no reason to assume the needle is in the birthday cake or to bait the mousetrap with the fly. These objects (needle/cake, mousetrap/fly) have no logical or even symbolic connection to each other. They’re random. That’s the frustrating flaw at the center of all the Cube Escape games: The puzzles are based on irrationality, which means you can’t actually solve them. You can only bang your head against them until you come upon a solution.
And yet… I have to know more about the mysterious Rusty Lake at the center of each game.
There’s a narrative thread linking each game. It’s a thin thread, sometimes so thin as to be almost invisible, but the connection is always there, hinting at some insidious larger truth behind the weird happenings. Characters like Mr. Owl and Mr. Crow recur in strange ways, sometimes hiding notes to each other. The first game begins with the murder of a woman, and her body shows up over and over again, sometimes in haunting visions, sometimes as a physical object that can be examined. A detective follows the case to Rusty Lake, and there he finds an elevator that takes him on a journey through his memories, where he seems to be able to change past events.
Then there are the recurring phrases, like “Everything you touch you change” and “The past is not dead, it’s not even past”. They’re phrases that hint at some sort of time travel, some sort of a power over the observable world that might explain the lack of logic of the puzzles. In one genuinely clever twist, you’ll find a box in one game that can only be opened with a code from another game. It’s an amazing meta-element that sells the idea of that past as an ever changing thing. Playing a game is not the end of the game, replays are a kind of time travel.
Even the random diversions seem to expand the scope of the mythology. Cube Escape: Arles eschews the lake and the detective and the masked figures for an apartment in the French town of Arles. We seems to play as Vincent Van Gogh, cutting off our ear to fuel our descent into the addictive madness. Cube Escape: Harvey’s Box makes us play as a parrot trying to escape a cardboard box.
It all seems to hint at a coherent mythology, but hints are all it ever amounts to. That’s… fine actually. The narrative connections aren’t compelling because they offer any answers (the puzzles themselves are proof that the game has no ability to create satisfying answers). Rather, they’re compelling because they pull us into that addicting descent. This is a narrative that works on the same batshit crazy logic as the puzzles, introducing ideas that seem tangential while suggesting that they’re really parallel. It’s a surrealism that breaks you down, that gleefully ignores any attempt at logical deconstruction, that teases revelation through confusion, that invites understanding through misunderstanding, that turns non-sequiturs into answers. The narrative (such as it is) is fucking crazy, and it somehow manages to make you crazy as well, even if you try to distance yourself from it. The connections are too obvious to ignore, but too oblique to make sense of. I hate it, but I also kind of love it.
I’ve played all the free Cube Escape games. The next ones in this “Rusty Lake series” are premium, in that they cost actual money. I know that I’m going to hate them, I know that I’m going to rely so heavily on a walkthrough that I’d be better off just watching said walkthrough on YouTube and saving myself three bucks, but there’s something in the act of playing, something to the frustrating act of bashing my head against that illogical wall, that brings this whole beautiful mess together.
Or I’ve just gone insane.