There’s a short and simplistic platforming game I’ve been aware of on the internet ever since an online friend brought it to my attention a few years ago. It’s named ‘Don’t Look Back’, and despite a soundtrack that’s barely 4 minutes long, graphics that would look at home on the Atari 2600, gameplay that only uses the arrow keys and the space bar, and an overall experience that can be beaten by a new player in 20 minutes or less… it’s actually quite a well-known, and more importantly, well-made game.
The game was designed by Terry Cavanagh, who is famous for making many other free games on the internet, as well as ‘VVVVVV’, a retro puzzle-platform adventure currently available on Steam and well-received despite the undeniably silly name. He has a habit of composing games with minimalist colour schemes (‘Red Sky’ and ‘Best Years’ are good examples of this,) and as such Don’t Look Back is almost entirely coloured in red and black.
Reviewing a flash game is always a bit of a challenge because I can’t say much more about the developer or the expectations people had of the game. But despite this, Don’t Look Back is one of very few flash games available from the internet that has its own Wikipedia page (found here) which is something rarely seen for games not as widely known as QWOP, Submachine, or I Wanna Be The Guy.
It does hold one advantage though; if you have not yet played Don’t Look Back, please do so now. The link is here and I can guarantee that even on your first play-through, it should not take you longer than half an hour. I can’t ask you to play through Resident Evil 5 for the sake of reading a blog about it, but a free game on the internet? Go on, you’ll probably enjoy it! Really, try it, I’ll just wait here until you’re finished and ready to resume reading. I’ll be fine, I have my DS.
Back already? Finished? Well, alright then, now I can go into more detail. Actually, this blog could use some music, here’s a medley of all the tunes in the game, it should be nice for the background. Speaking of the music, it’s the only part of the game that isn’t retro, and it’s amazing. It’s kind of depressing, but in a mournful way, not a ‘listen to this then kill yourself’ way, which is surprisingly common in online games (Looking at you, ‘Every Day The Same Dream’.)
So without further ado, let’s look back on Don’t Look Back.
For starters, you may need some background information on this, because despite the simplistic design of the game, it’s actually a retelling of an ancient Greek Legend – the tale of Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld. I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely confident that someone who writes about Flash games on the internet is the right candidate to present an abridged version of a classic myth, but I’ll give it a shot.
Orpheus, a legendary musician and poet, suffered a horrific tragedy when his wife, Eurydice, was killed – poisoned by a viper that bit her heel as she fled from a Satyr. Upon discovering her body, Orpheus was overcome with despair, and played such mournful music that nymphs and Gods wept alike. On their advice, he travelled to the depths of the Underworld itself and his music even saddened Hades and Persephone, enough that they would let him return to the surface of the world with Eurydice – on one condition.
On the way out of the Underworld, Orpheus was to walk in front of Eurydice, and until they arrived to the upper world, he was not to look back at her, not even for one second. As Orpheus travelled, he began to doubt Hades’ honour, suspecting a deceit. Eventually, Orpheus reached the surface, stepped out into daylight, and turned around to face his love; but Eurydice was still in the Underworld by mere steps, and Orpheus saw her fade before his eyes, this time vanishing forever.
There have been many additions to the story and interpretations of it – Plato’s representation presents Orpheus as a coward for trying to bring his wife back to life rather than join her in death, and later myths say they were reunited in the Underworld at last when Orpheus himself was killed by the Maenads on order from Dionysus, but whatever you think about the story, I just wanted to make it clear that it is a classic piece of literature.
In other words, this free online game is based on the same myth that paintings and statues are modelled after. So the source material for this:
Is also the source material for this:
So that’s what the story is based on, but for obvious reasons the game presents it in a simpler fashion. The game opens with a figure stood before a grave while rain falls around him. When you gain control of the character, you move right and soon figure out how to jump, and how to… fall. Although it’s never mentioned, the game definitely involves the ‘descent’ into the Underworld considering how much you travel down.
The controls are simple enough; left and right to move, up to jump and also climb ladders, and the space bar to shoot (once you pick up a gun.) If I’m honest, I’m not sure whether the controls are above or beneath complaint – I mean, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, but I’m not sure there could’ve been given how simple they are, although phrasing it like that doesn’t make it sound like a compliment. Which it is. I think.
The aim of the game is a mixture of platforming and I suppose combat, since there are enemies you need to defeat and two boss battles as well. Considering that combat consists of pressing space and watching a pixelated bullet hit an enemy, most of the variety comes from either the kind of enemy or the environment. Some enemies rush at you, others fly at you, others jump, and some even fall from the ceiling.
As for the environment, there’s not too much in the way of hazards, although there are a few disappearing platforms and projectiles that I always thought looked like balls of ice although I now realise that given that the colours are black and red and the player is literally going through hell, maybe they might just be rocks. A few screens near the beginning of the game completely black out the scenery which also leads to some interesting gameplay.
On the one hand, some of the screens are quite difficult, in particular the second boss, but considering that dying on any screen simply starts the screen again, I absolutely cannot say that this game is too hard for anyone. A partially blind man with one arm could beat this game if he kept at it, and I know this because I had to play the game one-handed to get this following print-screen of the aforementioned final boss.
It’s Hades, he takes 5 hits, if you can land 5 successful attacks really quickly then he can be killed in 10 seconds or less, before he has time to really do anything troublesome, like summon some other enemies or make stalactites fall from the ceiling or shoot rocks at you.
Still a better boss battle than God of War 3 though.
So you beat the final boss, and the game is over. Overdue for more gameplay that is! (I’m sorry.) After defeating Hades, you find the spirit you came to claim, Eurydice. This is where the title begins to make sense, as you turn to leave the Underworld, but if you look back, Eurydice gasps and fades away, so the following advice is really in your best interest; Don’t Look Back.
There are no enemies in the last part of the game, just ropes to climb and obstacles to avoid as you make your way back to the surface via a different, higher route than the one you arrived by. It doesn’t take much getting used to, although you should at least once have the following thought-process ‘Whoops, didn’t grab that rope in time, oh well, I’ll just go back and – Oh sugar puffs, she evaporated.’ Still, like the rest of the game, it’s not too hard. It’s well-used enough to be a gameplay mechanic instead of a gimmick.
The game ends when you arrive back at the beginning, at the grave you were mourning at to begin with. Normally I’d say something to the effect of ‘Spoiler Alert!’ but given that you could’ve and should’ve played the game by now, I’ll spoil it. Orpheus and Eurydice arrive back to the grave only to see that it is being mourned by… someone who looks exactly the same as the Orpheus, standing in exactly the same way that they were at the start of the game. Orpheus and Eurydice then both fade away, and the game’s menu returns, the cycle starting anew.
There have been many interpretations of this, but I’m disappointed to say that mine seems to be concurrent with the most popular. Although the game is based on the Orpheus legend, it tells a different story of a man mourning the tragic loss of a loved one who finds himself imagining the entire game as some bizarre mixture of escapism and hope in which he can bring her back with a straightforward quest, but upon reaching the end of his fantasy, when he conjures the image of himself returning to the surface with his love, he is confronted by reality, and sees only himself, still standing at the grave, and his lover, her fate unchanged, vanishes alongside his fantasy, leaving him to be confronted alone with the uncompromising, remorseless and inevitable nature of death.
So I give this game a big thumbs-up!
The story is minimal, which I’ve realised lately I really like because they tend to be the most-effective and the most-dependent on building a relationship between the player and the characters, the graphics are simple, giving it a nice retro feel, the soundtrack is melancholy but not suicidal, and the gameplay is classic. Even with limited enemies and environments, the game never feels unoriginal, and although it’s very linear, I find myself playing it several times over just because I think it’s a really great game.
Overall, ‘Don’t Look Back’ is one of those ‘As close as feasibly possible to being perfect’ games that I enjoyed so much that I just wanted to write about it. So if you’re reading this, then as always…
Thanks for reading!