Not too long ago, around mid-November 2011, Konami had finished work on a title known as “Escape from Merrywood”. This particular game was more of an experiment in design and advertising rather than a triple-A project, not given any advertising or knowledge to press of any sort, and initially only released in a few locations as a test release.
Due to the minimal cost of its development, such an experiment was not at all costly… at first. The game, released on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (no Wii version, for reasons that will soon be obvious), only in a few select GameStop stores peppered throughout the states of Massachusetts and Maine, included with a special code to be entered into their website, which would allow direct feedback to the marketing and PR departments.
The experiment was an overwhelming failure, out of the feedback given, approximately ninety-eight percent of the people who bought and finished it were extremely negative, and in some cases violently angry.
As damage control, the game was pulled from shelves, a complete product recall issued that would return the customers’ money at double retail price, as well as hefty donations given to the stores and employees to keep quiet about it, the game stricken from any records and those involved in its development were even given bribes or threats of termination as a gag order.
Of course, any attempts to ask Konami about the game will just get you denials and sent across phone trees until you give up. That’s why I’m the one willing to talk about the game; I never gave up my copy for the recall, and thus have not received any sort of silencing bribe, leaving me free to speak as I wish.
Feedback on the game’s content notwithstanding, the marketing for Escape from Merrywood was absolutely brilliant, being that there was none at all. Not a word of it had ever reached me before finding it sitting on the shelves of my local GameStop. What caught my eye though, more than anything, was the box-art, which looked like a chalkboard with a scribble of a weird, human like creature on it, like a jointed stick figure, though one arm was bloated and claw-like.
This creature was the only thing on the box, not even a title across the top, nor on the spine, hell the price tag hadn’t even been put on it. Curiosity gripped me like a vice, not knowing what the game was about, or even called, sent me right to the counter with it in hand, forking over my sixty dollars and jetting home as fast as possible.
Starting up the game would be the standard affair, Konami logo and all that, leading to a rather nice menu screen, keeping the chalkboard motif that was on the cover. There aren’t many options to choose from, being a single player only game, you really only have new game, load and options.
After selecting New Game, you are immediately thrown into the game after a short, rather haunting jingle. The first thing the player would notice is the beautiful, surreal, and rather terrifying graphics style, everything looking as if it were drawn with crayons, the player lost in a forest of black and green, the night sky depicted in red.
The second thing one would notice is that white creature from the box right in front of them... and charging with a horrific scream. Such an abrupt beginning led to quite a few players dying immediately, as being touched by that creature results in a brutal mauling, made even worse by the game first-person perspective.
What you are supposed to do is actually quite clear if the shock of the creature doesn’t paralyze you, simply turn and flee. The character’s sprint, while not unlimited, is swift enough to carry the play for a good thirty seconds or so, and they will eventually come across a village of poorly drawn huts and stick figures.
Upon reaching this village, the creatures stops chasing the player, and can be heard lazily walking away back into the darkness, its heavy thumping footsteps slowly receding, while the player’s character collapses from exhaustion and the screen fades to black, thankfully the game auto-saves at this point.
When the player regains control, the time of day will have shifted to morning, the red sky now a pleasant blue, the childishly drawn sun having a smile on it even. Walking around the village, the stick figure people will inform the player that the creature is known as “Merry”, a guardian of sorts who seems to enforce a curfew on the villages of the forest, attacking anyone who leaves their homes at night, or tries to leave the forest entirely. From here, the player is given quite a bit of freedom, able to buy a sword and even a handgun from the village, and go off into the woods.
I admit, the first time I went out of the village during the day, I nearly had a heart attack, as I encountered Merry almost immediately. Thankfully, when the sun is up, Merry will not harm the player, and even chat with them.
“The sun is so nice! Don’t look directly at it though!” he’d chirp, all the voices in the game being garbled gibberish. Mostly, Merry’s dialogue is either exclamations of how nice the day is, how cute the animals are, or generic advice one would give to a child, such as, “Don’t talk to strangers!”
While he is pleasant, for lack of a better word, the player is advised to not attack Merry in anyway, as he turns immediately hostile, and is completely invincible to damage. Getting hit by his massive claw arm results in a rather piercing scream from the player character, as well as the screen starting to rip as if it were paper being clawed at by a bear, until being entirely sliced to ribbons and falling away, replaced with, “yOu Are DeAD”, a sad face emoticon, and an option to continue or quit.
However, as long as you do not attack Merry, attempt to go past a certain boundary on the map (helpfully outlined with red), or leave a village at nighttime, the player can pretty much ignore him, though they may also talk to him to get new dialogue, which will be explained later.
Upon reaching the second village, either by following the map or simply wandering about, the player character will come to learn that Merry is indeed invincible, and can only be killed by any damage he inflicts upon his self. The player will also be laughed at for asking the likelihood of Merry committing suicide, as he is, “The happiest thing alive.”
In case that last sentence didn’t hit you like the brick it is, let me spell it out for you; the objective of this game is to escape the woods, by finding a way to make “the happiest thing alive” kill itself.
From here on, the player’s duty is to wander the woods, searching for any “artifacts” scattered around, as well as searching for things called, “Merry’s happiness shrines”, which are crudely made altars adorned with flowers, trinkets, and even candies.
The player finds these altars, and must destroy them with complete and utter malice, smashing them, ripping the flowers apart, stomping on the sweets, etc. Along the way, they’ll have regular enemy encounters, mostly hostile wildlife, bandits with knives, and these strange guys called “Occymen”, who carry handguns (and tend to be rather annoying surprises when you get shot in the back).
In addition to breaking these altars, the player is encouraged to observe Merry, see which animals he’s taking a liking to, or what items he seems fond of, and either killing/destroying them while he is an away, or finding a way to do so right in front of him without being seen.
This is where Merry’s additional dialogue comes in, talking to him after breaking a few altars will have him talk about, “An unfortunate accident”, but the more the player does to wreck his emotional state, the worse the dialogue gets, to the point of Merry flat out saying things like, “Please leave me alone…”
Eventually, the player will come across the items necessary to complete the game, a teddy bear, a faded photograph, and a lighter. Once the player has these, they may confront Merry by trying to leave the forest, and waiting for him to come charging at them as always.
This time however, instead of being killed (which in the case of attempted escape would be instant-death via cut-scene), a quick time even will appear labeled “Present Teddy”. Upon doing this Merry will stop in his tracks, angrily ranting about how he’s started to suspect you were the one doing these awful things to him.
If you wait too long, Merry will attack and kill you, so instead, the player has to ignore his ranting and press the attack button, which will lead the character to rip off the teddy bear’s head. Merry will screech in an agonized fashion, his angry rant turning to one of a child whose pet just died, and from this point, he will not attack.
The player must continue pressing the attack button, the sequence of events following being throwing the teddy bear to the ground, taking out the photo, setting it on fire, and tossing the flaming photo onto the ripped teddy bear.
The entire time, Merry will be screaming, sobbing, saying how he, “Just wanted to make you happy!” but the player is to ignore this and continue pressing the button, which will lead to the character screaming insults, telling Merry nobody likes him, that he’d be better off dead, and flat out telling him to kill himself, and the last few lines simply being, “Do it!” repeated again and again.
After a painfully long time telling this creature to die, the weapon select menu will appear on screen, though the option “Equip” is replaced with “Offer”. From here, the player can choose anything, giving Merry a sword will lead to him stabbing himself repeatedly, giving him a handgun, he shoots himself in the head, giving him nothing, he runs into a pack of nearby wolves and lets them devour him.
The most painful to watch though, is giving him a shotgun, where the beast will clumsily fumble with it until the barrel is in his mouth, and pull the trigger with his normal hand.
Regardless of your choice though, the instant Merry falls dead, the music comes to a halt, and the graphics suddenly change, going from the crude crayon look to sudden realism.
The perspective remains in first person as the player character steps over something that can’t be seen, and calmly exits the forest, stepping out of the woods onto a highway where a beat up, old truck is waiting.
This entire time, only the sounds of footsteps, the opening of the truck's door, and the starting of its engine are heard as the player character begins to drive off, the game ending with a sudden cut to black, no credits, and booting the player back to the main menu...