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No Way Out: My forgotten landmark game

A retrospective on No Way Out, a point & click zombie survival gamejam game that ranks among my greatest achievements, but nobody knows about.

December 14th

"Man, the themes I like never get picked", I whined on IRC. Lena LeRay (@Crowbeak on Twitter), who I met through Ludum Dare and would later go on to be the level designer and writer for Ultra Hat Dimension, assured me it wasn't so bad, that I shouldn't give up. "I could make a joke game. A zombie survival game, you get a gun and only one bullet. Win the game", I said.

The theme was You Only Get One. I can't remember what theme it was I was rooting for that time; like I said the themes I like never win. In the end I had a crazy idea, and I decided to roll with it.

January 7th

There were a lot more tweets like that from other people I knew. It was a bizarre thing to wake up to. I'm not a morning person, and I saw this before I even had my first cup of coffee. For reference, I need at least two in order to use over 50% of my brain power. I think my response to that tweet reflects this state of mind nicely:

In the end No Way Out scored a silver medal for mood, 4th place for audio, and 36th overall in the jam category. I knew the response to my game had been positive, but this seemed ridiculous to me. I felt as though I had in a way "won" Ludum Dare. It is to this date one of the most significant accomplishments in my career as a game developer. Unfortunately most news sites aren't interested in Ludum Dare games unless they're the top rated game overall, so this landmark game for me is something most people don't even know about.

You Only Get One (Bullet)

I tend to make games that focus more on complexity and depth of gameplay than narrative or giving players 'an experience'. With No Way Out I decided to see what happened if I tried something a little out of my comfort zone for once. The setup; you play as a nondescript person barricaded in a room during what appears to be the zombie apocalypse. I kept the protagonist ambiguously gendered in order to foster a sense of identification by the player. You don't start with much; some painkillers and a gun which – upon inspection – is revealed to only have one bullet left.

The room is filled with a variety of things you can interact with in a traditional point & click kind of way. Many of them are red herrings. Some of them are gags, with the bible being a favorite, making the protagonist say things like "I've tempted fate enough for now" when used on a trash pile, or "That does not look like it needs bible thumping" when used on other things.

Other gags are less obvious, like the protagonist saying "They misspelled judgment. Dumbasses." when inspecting 'judgement day' scrawled across the wall in red lettering (the gag being that both are valid spellings, one US, the other UK English).

What is immediately obvious is that the protagonist messed up and is in a clear state of panic. Why, we don't know, but it's obvious they didn't mean to be in this room. Their heartbeat is clearly audible over the growling of the zombies outside. Both grow increasingly louder as a timer ticks down in the corner from 3 minutes to zero seconds.

That's not why everyone instantly knows the character's panicked though.

A Taste of Panic

Thoughts float up randomly across the screen, things like "Come on!", or "How could I be so careless?", or even "I can hear them...". These thoughts are intrusive and persistent, multiplying in panicked intensity and number as the timer ticks down and the sound of the heartbeat increases in tempo and volume. These thoughts not only represent the panicked state of the protagonist, they were also designed to confer this sense of panic to the player. The thoughts are annoying, intrusive, persistent, and get in the way of trying to solve the game. In the end, it even helps put the player on edge.

This panic level was a single floating point value that directed everything. As it went up, thoughts get more frequent, the heartbeats sound closer together, and the heartbeat and zombie sounds increase subtly in volume. Above a certain threshold the thoughts the character has are more panicked and immediate in their scrambling for salvation. A crisis partway through solving the game instantly increases the panic level.

I don't want to spoil the game, hoping still that many more people will play it and experience the solution to the game for themselves. There's two bad endings, and one good ending (signified by the credit text and music during the final credits). What I will say is, like most humans, the protagonist clings on til the very end, never giving up until the futility of their situation becomes poignantly clear to them.

No Way Out is a game about how sometimes there is no way out, designed to let you taste of a cornered character's panic, and about subverting the unspoken expectation that every game can be beaten. Sometimes there is no way out.

Or is there?

You can play No Way Out right now in your browser at http://kitsunegames.com/nowayout

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