The first thing that needs to be addressed when writing about a game that uses a prison as its setting is to figure out what it is saying about prison. For the United States, we can point to the contemporary prison-system as one of our great shames, and if the future is marginally better in any way then the descendants of this country will look back at the way we use prisons as both racist and classist weapons that turn populations into profits for private companies as a grand collective failure of this society.
There are games about prisons that have something to say about them. Prison Architect, at least in its unfinished state as an Early Access title during the last year, made a comprehensive argument about the inertia of the corporate prison system. That game showed that once a prison was being depended on by the State, there was very little for it to do other than grow while cutting costs in order to accommodate more prisoners to keep the cycle going. It is an illustration of a system that props up our contemporary world, and we can learn something from it.
On the other end, there is something like the failed Kickstarter game Prisonscape, which is intriguing in the way that it suggested that prison life be approached as a totalizing RPG system. Rather than the abstraction of a systemic game, Prisonscape suggested that following the model of a show like Oz in another medium would allow for a particular look into how prisons operate.
I don’t think that there is any kind of content that games should not touch. Games are too wide a medium, literally encompassing thousands of different forms, and I think it is more important to think through the ways that certain kinds of games express certain kinds of content rather than approaching some kind of blanket ban on what games do or do not have license to talk about. I think that we need games that explore, and expose, the contemporary prison system for what it is.
This brings me to The Escapists, a game that drops the player in the middle of a simulated prison and demands that they escape from the premises in whatever way that they can manage. After a short tutorial, the game opens into its full expression, and the player can use any method at their disposal to liberate themselves from their incarceration: they can dig out, they can try to cut through the fence, they can start a prison revolt, or they can steal keys from guards to create dupes in order to walk out the door. I’m sure there are other options, but that list should help you understand the breadth of solutions that the developers of The Escapists wanted to accommodate.
I’m choosing the word “solutions” very carefully here, because at the end of the day The Escapists is a puzzle game. The act of playing the game is something like this: you obey the heavily regulated prison day schedule while gathering items and doing favors for other inmates in order to facilitate your escape. You steal things from those inmates, as well as from your prison job, in order to use them to cut through fences or dig and support tunnels. You then perform certain actions in a sequence so that you can finally reach freedom.
The Escapists is a game for patient people. It requires you to scout locations, figure out the shape of the prison you are locked in, and demands that you understand the social dynamics of that prison as much as you do the materials of it. Angering other inmates by beating them up or stealing their gear will provoke them to attack you randomly, often ending you up in the infirmary at their hands or the batons of guards. Worse yet, it can end in “illegal” and necessary items being confiscated from you, setting your plans back several days of in-game time.
I found the game profoundly difficult because of this. I often felt like I was treading water, merely going through the motions of prison life so that I could spend the last ten minutes of my working time using a trowel to dig five more feet of tunnel under the building I was working out of. After that, it was back to the same schedule until I could dig again.
Sometimes the crafting system alleviates this, but there are relatively few ways to learn recipes from the max-three item combination system. One is using money earned from performing favors or menial labor on a payphone to get hints. A second is pure experimentation. Once you have an idea of how to make a thing, you still need to increase your “intelligence” statistic far enough to create your item. This multi-tiered hierarchy of item and stat management made me, as a player, immediately scramble onto the internet for a listing of craftable items, and based on the sizeable wiki for the game I imagine that is a common experience.
The difficulty modulated by the crafting system reveals how The Escapists functions as a disciplinary game. It indoctrinates the player into a very particular mode of play so that she can succeed, and despite the many different paths to escaping the prisons, there is really only one actual viable methodology: watch, take small actions, and bide your time while making sure that you have crafted the correct offensive and defensive items that would allow you to have a Plan B if it all goes sideways.
This game illustrates a particular point about the contemporary prison system, albeit a point that most would already be familiar with. Prisons are compounds where people have their freedom stripped away in order to be thrown into a morass of boredom, and that is communicated well through the pure drudgery of The Escapists. This sounds like a critique, but it isn’t; it surely isn’t fun in any traditional way, but it throws the actual escape itself into sharp contrast. There is an exhilaration once your escape plan starts working that is hard to match.
In this way, The Escapists has managed to replicate almost perfectly the pleasure of watching films like Escape From Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption. Much like those films, The Escapists is a slow burn that builds to a fantastic finale in which the protagonist finally gets one over on the brutal security guards and wardens that have harassed them throughout. And this game really tries to draw that picture for you, with guards frequently demanding that you call them your king, brutally breaking up any fight with violence, and generally fulfilling the image of the dark-hearted prison guard from media history.
Replicating these beats so efficiently in game form, The Escapists manages to say about as much about prisons as those films do. It tells us a story that we are culturally familiar with, which is one of Cool Hand Lukes getting one over on the bad individuals that perpetrate violence against them. In reducing the prison to a puzzle, it isn’t able to say much other than “prison is bad,” which isn’t the worst thing to be saying in the broad spectrum of things, but also isn’t the broad systemic critique necessary to actually question prisons and the way that they operate.
There are opportunities missed with the game, though, that could have broadened the expanse of what it is attempting to do. There are (sometimes) visitor booths in the game, and they feature little moments of outside connection. There are also prison employees—a Doctor and a Jobs Officer—who (as far as I have been able to experiment in the game) cannot be knocked out and impersonated, lending to a feeling that this is really a game between inmates, guards and no one else. Finally, any kind of clever escape using the legal system, lawyers, visitors or the like is impossible, which really drives home that the prison system here is a totalizing puzzle box that has to be escaped on some very particular, physical terms.
Does The Escapists explore or expose anything the average person doesn’t already know about prisons? I don’t think so. It is a puzzle game, and if you enjoy puzzles and you have an extreme amount of patience, I would encourage you to check out The Escapists. If you’re looking for a hard, or systemic, view on prisons, I would suggest looking elsewhere.
Postscript: I had no idea how to say this in the review above, but I think this is something worth saying: I have heard people talk about how funny this game is, and the wiki of the game even plays up how funny it is, but that humor is mostly delivered via out-of-context lines seemingly spoken at random from inmates and guards. I have no idea what could be funny about them, and I’m truly left boggled by this. Maybe it is yet another layer to the prison puzzle.
The Escapists was developed by Chris Davis. Our review is based on the new Playstation 4 version. It was released for the Xbox One and PC last year.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.