Sunday, March 29, 2015

Escape from Hell: Limbo to Treachery

I think the fellows that made this game were schooled in classical literature.

Within the confines of its own whimsical attitude, Escape from Hell is a decent game.  It might grate on me if it seemed destined to last a long time--if nothing else, the combat would become repetitive--but in general it does well with its theme. If the game had just been about the protagonist slicing through a variety of monsters that vary only slightly from orcs and trolls until he finds an exit, it would have been lame but inoffensive. Instead, Seaborne has used the Hell setting to introduce creamy lashings of history, theology, and philosophy into the game.

It isn't always a comedy.
In the first post, I said that the game was based on catholic theology. This is only indirectly true. It's more direct source is Dante's Inferno--enough so that I suspect Escape started as a literal adaptation of Dante but was shortened and changed in the development process. There are a ton of references I didn't pick up in the first post. For instance, Virgil shows up as a helpful NPC; there's a bank called the "Bank of Avernus," named after the lake in Italy where Dante entered the underworld; and the first level of Hell is ruled by Minos, who judges each soul. A lot of the people in Dante's Limbo show up in the game's first level.

Since all the important messages take place on separate dialogue screens, there's hardly ever a reason to show the game's main interface. Here, my party explores Hell's cafeteria.

Seaborne's Hell also continues broader themes from Inferno. For instance, Dante introduced the idea of poetic justice for sinners. Those who committed suicide have to endure eternity as plants, since they willingly gave up their bodies. Alexander the Great, whose armies killed millions, must continually drown in a river of blood. In Seaborne's Hell, Bonnie and Clyde serve as bank tellers and are eternally robbed for pints of their own blood. Hitler's house is a gas chamber. Televangelists have to exist with their mouths permanently zipped and padlocked.

Does he work for the "Idiot Broadcasting Corporation"?
An interesting element to Escape from Hell is something I can't tie to Dante or any particular source. The player occasionally finds excerpts from a document titled The Divine Debate, a series of dialogues between God and the Devil that explore a number of theological questions. The themes of these debates are found in numerous sources, but I can't find a single source for the specific text. Consider this:

Devil: You have so long believed blindly in your creation of Man. I keep telling you that he is inherently evil, and cannot comprehend the very concept of goodness. But you refused to acknowledge my words, and cast me into Hell where I would rule as I saw fit. I would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven!

God: I did not cast you down to Hell, but rather created a world for you, so that you might be happy.

Devil: No, you made me warden to your prison of condemned souls, for yourself!

God: It is good our desires can work together. You wished to inflict justice, so I have granted your wish.

Devil: I WILL have justice! All of humanity will be mine, in time!

This feels like a distillation of text in Milton's Paradise Lost (the "rather rule in Hell" part is a direct paraphrase), but not quite.

Another bit of dialogue that I can't directly source.

For all its thematic invention, Escape from Hell is a frustrating game in several ways. First, certain weapons don't work in certain locations. This doesn't happen in any logical way; you're just suddenly told that only "simple weapons" work in this section, or you notice that guns abruptly stop working in another area. This forces you to carry a bunch of backup weapons for such occasions (melee weapons with no moving parts seem to work everywhere).

But this leads to the second problem: each character has only 10 inventory slots. Between weapons, armor, and quest items, these slots fill up fast, and literally every 5 minutes, I have to go through an agonizing process of determining what to keep and what to discard. You don't know when a seemingly-useless item will turn out to be the solution to a puzzle later.

There's nothing in here I feel comfortable discarding.

The inventory problem also discourages you from changing party members. A lot of interesting NPCs have offered to join the group--Wild Bill Hickok, Spartacus, an arch-demon named Billy Bob--but there's no way to transfer items from the departing party member to the new one, and I usually don't have enough free slots among the other two characters. When I finally recovered my friend Alan, I had to watch a bunch of valuable items disappear with Genghis Khan.

Finally, there's the saving and reloading issue. Reloading and moving between areas immediately restocks the level with enemies. Because of this, you paradoxically don't want to save the game when things are at their most dire, as dying and reloading will put you in the same area, with your weapons and health depleted and all enemies restored.

There's a place on the second level in which about a thousand minor demons swarm you every time you visit. It's right outside a key area called "Gangster's Guillotine," and every time you enter or leave, you have to fight the same swarm again, wasting ammo that you need in other places. I learned the hard way to switch to melee weapons for these battles.

I have to go through this every time I exit a particular building on Level 2.

In broad strokes, since the last post, I finished exploring the first level, parachuted down to the second level, defeated Al Capone and restored rule of the level to Caesar.

Al Capone has invested in some plastic surgery since his Chicago days.

This freed Alan from Al Capone's mind control, and I was able to get him into my party (replacing Genghis Khan).

Notes: 1) Alan doesn't get a customized NPC portrait; 2) Alan has nothing to say about why there was a note taped to his door with an incantation that sent us to Hell.

Caesar gave me a mission to go back up to Level 1 with a new database program to help move things along more smoothly in Minos's court. Apparently, I would get a "consultant badge" there that would be important on Level 3.

If this game was more famous, we'd be quoting it constantly.

Killing Capone made me something of a hero on the level, and some of the NPC comments suggested that the NPCs think I'm leading a revolt against Satan rather than just trying to get out. This is an interesting plot direction.

Thank you, nude woman.

I'm declining to offer other details because I'm going to be playing it again. I made a mistake in the conservation of weapons, and I've put myself in a situation where I'm unable to progress back to the teleporter to Level 1 because the enemies are too tough and I'm trying to fight them with hand weapons. Regular guns don't work there; only "dark pistols" and "dark rifles," which I'll cover later, but suffice to say I don't have any.

I might be able to fight my way out of my current situation, but I'm inclined to start the game over for other reasons. I feel like I missed a lot of puzzle solutions and, more important, historical and literary allusions on the first level. When I started playing, I had it in mind that it was a short, negligible game like Fountain of Dreams. Now that I'm enjoying it more, I want to start anew, explore it more carefully, and take more time to appreciate Seaborne's incorporation of sources.

A couple of notes on mechanics and content before I go:

  • There are several items of armor to find and equip, including masks, helmets, shields, and body armor. Each item comes with a rating, but its effectiveness slowly degrades as it takes damage. Fortunately, on Level 2, there's a place where Dracula will give you a new bulletproof suit (the game's best armor) in exchange for pints of blood, obtained freely from Bonnie and Clyde's bank.
  • Guns don't technically have ammo; they just have a limited number of uses. When it hits 0, the entire weapon breaks and disappears. There's a place on Level 2 where you can exchange some depleted weapons for new versions, so it pays to monitor the number of shots remaining and make sure you swap out the good guns before you shoot the last bullet.
  • Using the "Fairy Dust" that you get in the opening is supposed to whisk you to safety. Instead, both times I've used it, it whisks me to a black screen from which I can't escape.

Well, hell.

  • I guess skills don't increase by using them. Instead, they go up a lot by running into the right NPC and getting some training.

Solving this quest got me a suit of armor and some training in "Bluffing."

  • Although the combat mechanic is basically the same as Wasteland, there is one oddity by which in order to change weapons or move closer to an enemy, you first have to (R)un from the combat, giving every enemy a chance at a free shot. You then have a split second to move or open the inventory screen before the enemy re-engages you. It's kind of annoying that there's no in-combat interface for these things. Oddly, while in combat, you can look at the surrounding terrain and position of enemies with the "T" key, but you can't move; I suspect that the original intention was to allow movement on this screen like you can in Wasteland.
  • The manual encourages you to just weigh down the space bar to pass time and restore health.

Wouldn't a "rest" option have been better, then?

  • The game's sound is nothing special. There's a piercing, unmemorable introductory tune, quick pulses in combat, and an occasional bloop when something interesting happens.
  • The game has moments where it treads the boundaries of sensitivity--never quite going completely over, but still. Last time, we saw Indians consigned to Hell. The copy protection sheet shows a variety of fake NPCs, including "Ann Orexia," who's in Hell for "self-denial" and whose favorite punishment is "starvation." Sitting Bull is on here, with a favorite punishment of "eating Custard." I'm not sure that it's a great idea to put a replication of Auschwitz in a game even if it's trying to make a point, and swastikas appear randomly in places not associated with Hitler or Nazis. When you add that the female NPCs are almost all nude, you end up with a game that isn't exactly offensive, but that probably wouldn't be made the same way today.

This is Julius Caesar's palace, so I don't know what all the Nazi flags are doing here.

Anyway, let's take it from the top and give Escape from Hell the attention it deserves instead of trying to rush through it to get to the end of 1990. Next time, I'll report on anything I missed from Level 1 and a more thorough description of Level 2.

Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 9


Further reading: The full text of Dante's Divine Comedy.


  1. This game is such a splendid curio. I always saw it as a kind of EA co-opting, then outmaneuvering Interplay. First, taking the wind out of Wasteland with Fountain of Dreams; then, pre-empting Interplay's never-released "Meantime" ( --"The basic premise was that the player would travel through time, and recruit famous historical figures to the player's party.") with this -- a bit less Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure part 1, a bit more Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure part 2.

    the first level of Hell is ruled by Minos

    This is older tradition that runs through Dante, but many aspects of the Divine Comedy's Inferno, including this, come from older ancient Greek beliefs regarding Hades.

    Elements of The Divine Debate rang a bell, but what I was thinking of was "Dialogues in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu", the text from which the Protocols of the Elders of Zion was cribbed. PROBABLY unrelated to this game.

    Al Capone has invested in some plastic surgery since his Chicago days

    Much as with the Balrog called-out in the previous post's comments, that illustration is lifted... in this case, from Palladium's Transdimensional TMNT RPG sourcebook -- a picture of Savanti Romero. (The picture's original appearance is likely from an issue of the comic book, but that's where I seen it before.)

    both times I've used it, it whisks me to a black screen from which I can't escape.

    That sounds like a glitch, bug or perhaps copy-protection run awry.

    This is Julius Caesar's palace, so I don't know what all the Nazi flags are doing here.

    Caesar, Kaiser, Czar -- let's not split hairs here.

    1. Alan is pretty clear;y traced from Monty Python, either this or this I love Monty Python, so this came to mind as soon as I saw him.

    2. Thing is, Chet isn't really a fan of Monty Python's. I have fond memories of Escape From Hell for their tongue-in-cheek humor which, can sometimes be fridge philosophy, appear to be very Monty-Pythonesque.

      Which is why I actually commented that he might not like it. Glad I'm proven wrong on this one though.

    3. TMNT Transdimensional was one awesome saucebook, particularly for my 13 year old power gamer self.

    4. Whomever owns TMNT these days (or did in the late 80s and 90s) must *hate* that the license is tied up with Palladium forever. I could see someone else buying the whole company in a heartbeat just to get that license.

  2. That snippet of dialogue makes me think of C. S. Lewis's theological works, but I haven't read enough of those to be sure whether it's from him or not. Definitely similar, though.

  3. You seem to have a similar feeling to what I did to this one - if it had stayed away from the goofyier stuff and stuck more to the cynical/philosophical theme, it would have been a much more thematically solid work. Hell, even if it had just managed to be outright absurd rather than just goofy, it would have been a lot better - I'd love to play an RPG set in Flann O'Brien/Third Policeman kind of world.

  4. I'll be merciful on the creator and point out he was considerate enough to put asian swastikas there, not nazi ones :)

    1. That seems somewhat worse to me.

      Regardless; it's clear from the colours of the flag and the setting of the game that those are supposed to be Nazi swastikas and the creator probably just made a mistake.

    2. There's no such thing as "Asian Swastika" versus "Nazi Swastika" Both right-facing and left-facing variants were used by every single culture that used the symbol (pick up a Kipling book published before WWII and you'll see both), and the Third Reich used both the "square" type and the "45 degree" type in various iconography.

      The only reason that people came up with the "it's not a swastika, it's a manji" or "we use the good swastika, not the one the Nazis used" is because people are desperately trying to rehabilitate one of humanity's oldest protective and spiritual symbols from the stigma of being adopted as the symbol of one the 20th century's most despicable madmen.

    3. It's better than to throw a cultural icon, which is thousands of years old, away just for 1 man who barely lived past half a century, isn't it?

    4. Not at all. It would be far better, however, to work to rehabilitate the entire symbol rather than making up some myth about "this one is good and this one is bad".

    5. I don't think it's possible at this moment without someone screaming "NAZI!!!".

      BTW, I've not seen the Nazis' use of the Swastika sitting on the broad side before. Any examples?

    6. The insignia of the 5th SS Panzer Division, as well as the SS Nordland, is a "broad side" swastika with curved arms, and the flat one was ubiquitous in the NSDAP before Hitler managed to drive it into power, and was displayed prominently at the marches in Munich in 1923 and the commemoration of that failed coup in 1934.

    7. So... not really an actual Swastika that is a "square" one SITTING on its broad side for the earlier 2 examples, eh?

      As for the NSDAP emblem, there seemed to be a transformation post-Night Of Long Knives. All later representations show the swastikas to have one of their sharp edges pointing down because those "broad-side" swastikas seem to disappear from their entire regime.

      Then again, I don't believe that one needs to have to carry a Swastika around if one have Nazi tendencies.

  5. As a previous Let's Play I read noted, the manual has a few words to say about Fairy Dust:
    "A Word About Fairy Dust: you were warned when you picked this stuff up: use it only in dire need. It's great for escaping a tight situation, but if you use it indoors, you might wind up in an undeveloped section of hell. Worse yet, you might materialize in stone -- which means instant bye, bye. If you find yourself in an undeveloped section of hell, try a few things to get out. Things like walking around to find a door back to where you came from, or using the Fairy Dust again. If none of this works, it's time to reload your last saved game."

    It looks like you got teleported outside the map boundaries.

    1. You think they intended this, or did they put it in the manual when they realized there was a bug?

    2. I think "Let's just pretend the bug is a cunning trap" is something you can only get away with at this level of video game development.

  6. There was a book called 'The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu', which the developer might have pinched. I can't find the text in it though. (It later became famous for being pinched to become the notorious antisemitic forgery 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' by the Tsar's secret police.)

    Swastikas might just be there because Nazis are evil. This was before games got a big international market--nowadays games have Nazis with the serial numbers filed off, because you can't put a game with a swastika in it in Germany, which is a huge market.

    I like that they stuck Stalin in there too--he killed millions of people too... I always figured a modern version of the Inferno would have Satan chomping on Hitler, Mao, and Stalin.

  7. So, it has been years since I have read either Milton or Dante, but the key challenge that both of those and many other Christian scholars have tried to address is a "character development" issue: in short, that Satan in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is nothing like he is in the Christian Bible.

    Satan pretty much only appears once in the Old Testament: in the Book of Job. Here God and Satan are taking a bet, or perhaps it is more clearly understood that God is working through Satan to test Job's piety. In this depiction, Satan seems to act more as a "prosecuting attorney" or as a "devil's advocate" (so to speak!), part of the divine plan rather than outside of it. Some Bibles actually translate this figure as Ha-Satan, or "The Adversary", rather than connect it to the later Satan. When he appears to tempt Jesus (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), he's the more developed post-fall angel that we recognize.

    Christians subsequently re-imagined the serpent as the garden of Eden as a manifestation of Satan, although to Jews it is just a talking snake. But that is part of a pattern of history where both Jews and Christians have reached back and found Satan in many of the Books of the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, reading between the lines. For example, there is a well-known side story taught in Judaism that Sarah's (Abraham's wife, the mother of Isaac) sudden and unexplained death in Genesis was caused by Satan visiting her to tell her about Isaac's sacrifice on the mountain, without mentioning that he was spared.

    Although Satan is pretty much non-existent in Judaism today, pre-Christian and earlier Jews had a thriving set of stories about Satan and the fall of the angels, many of which survived in a number of legends and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The rejection of Satan as God's opposite number in Judaism probably came out in part because later Judaism tried to stamp out teachings that could imply polytheism-- a heavenly power not completely in God's control was a no-no and even the angels were stripped of their selfhood, to be manifestations of God rather than independent actors.

    Since I've already gone too far already, I will mention that one of my favorite traditions (still believed by certain African-originated churches) is that the fall of the angels did not happen before the Garden of Eden (as believed by most Christians and discussed in Paradise Lost), but rather right before the flood. You can still see the connecting tissue of that story in our bibles, just take a look at the first five lines of Genesis 6. This take (the Book of Enoch) is fascinating and probably held as "true" by the Dead Sea Scroll Jews a few hundred years before Jesus. While modern Christians and Jews do not believe it today, this and similar stories helped to shape the different version of Satan that we see in the New Testament from his limited appearances in the Old. But these intermediate books and legends for whatever reason were not later considered canonical parts of the bibles for Jews or (almost but not all) Christians.

    1. If you happen to stumble on a demon named "Belial" in that game, that is a common name for Satan in the Dead Sea Scrolls. If I remember correctly, "Azazel" is another.

      The word "Satan" in Hebrew just means "accuser" so he (like God) would have had another name. God's name is four letters YHWH. Jews never pronounce it, replacing it in speech with "Adonai" ("lord") or Hashem ("the name"). Christians followed that practice in their bibles and always write LORD in places where God's real name appeared in the original text.

    2. Belial likely has a Phoenician basis that greatly predates the Dead Sea Scrolls, at least form my readings. The Phoenicians were the enemies of the ancient Israelites.

    3. There were a lot of translated manuscripts available that are locked & hidden in the Vatican's vaults which conflicts with the Bible that they were forced to compile by King James in the early 15th Century.

      These writings were, either obstructing the flow of the story, offered offensive (at that time) opinions/teachings and/or outright blasphemous which, thus, did not even make it into the footnotes of the Word Of God aka The New Testament.

      I prefer God in The Old Testament when He kicks non-Hebrew @$$ while taking names and giving absolutely zero "knowings-in-the-Biblical-sense" to anyone who didn't obey His laws because... no one knows why we should .

    4. Joe, I appreciate the rundown. It is amazing how much has entered our mental conceptions about God and Satan that has no scriptural basis. If I'm not mistaken, angels are the same way. The Bibles are vague about them, and much that people think about them--names, classes, hierarchies, origins--comes from writings of theologians.

    5. Angels are... more complicated. But our conceptions are traditional and not just scriptural, but there are a lot more stories about angels in the Old and New Testaments for later writers to hang their stories on.

      In Judaism, there are only two named angels in the bible-- both from very late books: Michael and Gabriel. There are plenty of other angels in the Hebrew Bible, but they are especially common in Genesis where they show up all the time. Angels were present at the creation of man ("let US create man in OUR own image", God is imagined as speaking to his heavenly court of angels rather than other gods), cherubim guard the entrance to Eden, they visit Abraham on their way to destroy Soddom and Gomorrah, and some stranger stuff-- before the flood, some angels came down from heaven and married human women to create a race of heroes and warriors, the Nephilim. But sometimes when they appear, they are described as to not have free-will. For example, the narrator in the Abraham-meets-angels story flips freely between saying that Abraham is talking to angels and he is talking to God. They are just intermediaries. (And in Hebrew, "angel" just means "messenger".) In the later Jewish books, there are hints that will imply other types of angels, orders, etc. but not well-developed.

      In the books lost to us between Judaism and Christianity (some of which are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls), you can see the further development of angels. The Book of Enoch that I mentioned, for example, has Enoch being given a tour of heaven by specific named angels and I think dozens of them are named, each with different functions. There are some that come very close to Greek myths; I remember one that taught humans fire, for example.

      Christianity emerged from all of those now-lost books and has a more developed angelology from the start. I am not an expert on angels in Christianity so I do not want to press my knowledge further than it can go here, but there are lots more types and the handful of one-off references to types in the Jewish scriptures are expounded on. I assume that post-biblical commentators added much more content.

      In Judaism long term the move has been to de-emphasize angels. They are there, yes, but they are unimportant-- only aspects of the divine with no free-will of their own. They are like God's fingers and have no more individuality than that. Again, this comes from a deep-seated distrust of polytheism in Judaism. (Never mind the ones that married human women. Let's not talk about that...)

      In Christianity, believers already balance polytheism on the head of a pin thanks to the trinity, so angels fit right in. Some angels have become saints (which is strange since "saint" just originally meant "in heaven", so presumably all of them would be...) and some denominations pray to/through angels for intercession. The Latter Day Saints movement, if I understand correctly, allows for pious humans to become angels in the afterlife, but I don't know much more than that.

      But that is a very long way of saying that you are absolutely correct. :)

    6. Adding to Joe's already quite complete history of angels, one possible source of influence on Christian angelic hierarchy could be Neo-Platonism, a philosophical school very influential in last centuries of Roman Empire and having a sort of love/hate -relationship with the early Christian thinkers. Neo-Platonists had their own celestial hierarchies, which with first writers consisted of more philosophical abstractions, like One and Reason, but as decades went by, new philosophers of the school would add to it more "robust" gods and lesser spirits, often taken from some pagan religions. One possible line of influence might go through the so-called Pseudo-Dionysius (named thus, because the anonymous person was early on identified with a certain figure in Bible) who was apparently well acquainted with Neo-Platonist philosophers, but also was one of the first writers to systematise the angelic hierarchy.

    7. Wow, I have nothing to add except that I love the in-depth (and rather cordial) discussion of religion here. Thanks to all for making this more than just an review of an old video game :)

    8. I desperately hope that Mr. Addict will not ban me for this, but if you enjoy this sort of "geek" commentary on the bible and its contents (both Christian and Jewish), I have a blog called "Coat of Many Colors" where I write more in-depth. I do not update it frequently, both because the posts require research and also because I am balancing between three other blogs. But you might enjoy the content when I can manage to make it appear.

      It's fully non-commercial. I do not even have a "donate" button.

      You can find it at

    9. Of course I wouldn't. I'm happy to have commenters mention their blogs. I just don't like for-profit advertising.

      There's no way to ban commenters, anyway. Sometimes I wish there was. I have a couple on my list.

    10. is an excellent podcast that takes a secular, scholarly approach to biblical deconstruction. Despite his non-religion, the host has a great deal of love for the bible, and knows a ridiculous amount about it.

    11. "I have a couple on my list." - says the guy who wants to ban me. Har! I am untouchable!

      I personally prefer The Brick Testament for a light-hearted read that is highly entertaining with its adorable renderings of Biblical scens using Lego bricks.

      @Joe - I guess the name of the blog is a play on "Joseph and his technicolor coat", eh? What with your name being Joe and all?

  8. I only know of Dante from his role in celebrating the reign of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII. I wonder if Henry appears in the game.

    1. I did not see him, but I missed an era on the third level.

  9. "Moaning Lisa" as a pun for "Mona Lisa" sounds like a Simpsons thing...

  10. We had that discussion above. In this context, it's clear that they're using a Nazi swastika and its emblematic of evil.

  11. "[C]ertain weapons don't work in certain locations. This doesn't happen in any logical way; you're just suddenly told that only "simple weapons" work in this section, or you notice that guns abruptly stop working in another area."

    According to the walkthrough by Ed "Buzzard" Reedy on gamefaqs ( - ROT13'd in case others reading this want to find out by themselves):

    "Tbyqra gevqragf ner fpnggrerq nobhg gur ynaqfpncr bs Uryy. Gbhpuvat gurfr gevqragf punatrf gur gvzr senzr bs gur tnzr fb gung qvssrerag zbafgref ner zber cerinyrag naq pregnva jrncbaf jba'g jbex (vr. Hmv naq ZNP 10 FZTf jba'g jbex orsber gurl ner vairagrq)".

    Do you recall if you experienced that mechanism and realized (others of) its effects (also mentioned in the walkthrough)? Sounds like an interesting idea I think I see for the first time here.

    BTW, since said walkthrough is marked as (c) 1991, it could even be seen as a kind of another contemporaneous review. He closes by writing: "The mediocre ending left a bad taste in my mouth, but I'm sure Richard Seaborne's next effort will be better."

    Artwork by Alan Murphy for the game can be seen in his portfolio here:
    Not having played it myself, I don't know if all of it was actually used in the final version or if there are also unused elements (like for "Fountain of Dreams").

    It's surprising that this game is not mentioned in this quite extensive list:


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