The Past Within Is A Mind-Bending Escape Game That Should Not Work

It’s been an incredible year for escape room games. From Escape Academy, to Escape Simulator, to the grand finale of the We Were Here series in We Were Here Forever, co-op puzzle adventure games are having a moment. If you’re a fan of any of those, you need to check out The Past Within, a short, two-player escape game that seems to be going under the radar, but deserves a lot of recognition. It does something I don’t think any game in the genre has ever done before, which opens the door for a lot more cheap, innovative co-op games in the future. The Past Within is a two-player game that does not require an actual internet connection between each person’s game. In reality, it’s played completely alone, but it creates a perfect illusion of playing together.

It explains all of this to you when you first start the game, but I still struggled to wrap my mind around it. In other escape games, both players physically inhabit the same space. You can see each other, you can solve puzzles together, and sometimes you can even interact. In The Past Within, you and your partner do work together to solve puzzles, but you never actually connect your games. One player can be on PC and the other can be on an iPhone or tablet, and you can turn your internet off and still play together.

It manages to do this with a few clever tricks and sneaky design methods that are so effective, you almost immediately forget that the other player isn’t actually in your game. First, The Past Within separates both players in time. One is in the past, playing as a woman at her father’s funeral, while the other is in the future, playing a scientist with a mysterious puzzle box. The box, as you soon discover, contains the Past players entire play space. The scientist can peek inside the box and see the funeral and the other player. Together, your goal is to use instructions on the puzzle box and elements hidden around the funeral home to perform a ritual and resurrect the dead father in the future.

The way it manages to keep each player in sync is usually pretty straightforward, but it does some cool things to keep the illusion alive. The scientist will find a code that the daughter needs to input somewhere, which reveals information that scientist needs in order to manipulate the cube, and back and forth, ensuring that both games stay in sync. Occasionally when something happens in the funeral, the scientist will see the effects of that change happen outside of the box too. On rare occasion, one player will need to tell the game directly if the other player accomplished a goal – something you wouldn’t need to do if the games were actually connected – but these moments are the only giveaway.

I can only imagine how much time and money this approach must have saved the studio, and for such a small cost to the experience. Without the need for network engineers, security, cross-platform certification, and all the other hassles of creating an online game, the developers of The Past Within got to put all of their resources directly into the player experience. This feels like a breakthrough that can enable other small studios to deliver more innovative, offline multiplayer games – even ones outside the escape room genre.

If you’re comfortable with some creepiness, The Past Within is a great way to spend 90 minutes with a friend. The puzzles are simple but well-designed, the setting and story are compelling, and there’s some great surprises and jump scares to be found. It’s an excellent cap to an already great year of escape games, and I’m excited to see what other pseudo-offline multiplayer games it will inspire.

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