When you think about it, there aren’t really that many games centred around prison life. There’s Prison Architect of course, but that’s more about the construction side of things rather than actually being stuck in there. Some games may touch on prisons and jail cells as a side theme, such as Red Barrel’s phenomenal horror game Outlast, but while your character is given a sense of being trapped, the prison aspect isn’t really thrown in your face, with the possible exception of a couple of levels.
So here comes The Escapists, a game that is so wrapped up in cute visuals that you often forget that there is a serious and somewhat dark agenda behind it: to break out of your prison cell. It may be presented in a very light-hearted fashion, but it’s not a subject that is often brought up in gaming format.
The Escapists is developed by Team 17, who I would imagine many of you know as the creative minds behind the unbelievably popular Worms series. Evidently, Team 17 have a thing about creating games with tiny playable characters.
The Escapists follows the role of a particular inmate who’s objective is to find a way to escape from his Incarceration. What’s not made obvious from the offset is exactly how one goes about busting out of prison. The game begins with you waking up in your cell and being immediately ordered to a morning roll call. The guards interrogate and regale you and the other prisoners with asinine glib remarks, followed immediately by random cell searches.
Boom. The game begins and there is positively no way to know what the hell to do. Oh sure, there’s a basic tutorial in which the core concept is squashed into a brief introduction, but basically you’re on your own. And this simple mechanic speaks volumes for the game. When you begin anew in a prison cell, you are outwardly confused about your predicament, but you’re left with the notion that you must escape. But with no immediate goal, your life becomes this regimented ballet of prison rules; following orders and sticking to schedules until you become insane with repetition.
Well, maybe not insane, but the narrative speaks for itself: you are not free until you make it your decision to become free. Until then, you are left to live a (admittedly cartoonish) prison lifestyle in which you eat, work, exercise and sleep on schedule, ducking institutional politics and taking back-handers for dirty deeds.
Welcome to prison!
What you must do is work alongside prison rules while side-stepping suspicion in order to mastermind your plan of escape. By swapping items with other inmates, crafting rudimentary tools and weapons to assist you (yes, crafting is indeed a mechanic that is not going away any time soon), you must formulate and execute your plan with precision and expert timing.
With each passing day you gain a little more knowledge. You earn the trust of your fellow prisoners as well as some of the guards and you improve your physical, intellectual and monetary stats so that you can build your pedestal higher and higher until the time is right. What you don’t do is forget what your goal is and you certainly don’t forget where you are. Your brains see past the prison lifestyle, but you must not become ignorant. You can trade items with inmates, earn money from prison jobs and create whatever devious items you need to help you get out, but you are still working in a tightly run ecosystem. And it’s a system you’re looking to upset.
It becomes a cat and mouse scheme in which you must acquire what you need while hiding your antics from the authorities and making sure they never find your contraband. It requires a semblance of discretion and even sacrifice.
Looking at The Escapists, it immediately doesn’t strike one as the kind of game that can instil such heart-pounding adrenaline and certainly not something that you feel needs to be taken seriously. Its pixelated visuals make it feel like a run-of-the-mill point-and-click game, but during play, it becomes a low-res game of chess. It’s not about busting out of a jail cell with mere explosives. It’s about using the system against itself so you can exploit and eventually conquer your prison. You will be surprised at how much thought needs to be put into these plans. You won’t escape in a day, and you might not even be out in a week. But your life becomes fixated by the idea of leaving your cell for good.
The Escapists has such an easy method of play as it doesn’t depend on skilful keyboard or mouse dexterity. It plays more to the strategy and fun of prison escape than it does to visuals and fancy presentation. Controls don’t go beyond the necessary W,A,S,D movement configuration, and the right and left mouse click actions may take some getting used to, but will not perplex most gamers. In fact, its simplicity is what also gives it its complexity, because by playing it safe with the controls, Team 17 can concentrate on making you think way ahead about your moves and put you in the position of a pixelated villain who’s looking to make his escape.
With the added feature that you can only save during sleep hours, The Escapists is a title that is purposefully regimented to make you feel like you are genuinely trapped. You cannot escape the game until you have saved and you absolutely cannot disrupt the natural order of things in any obvious way.
A subtle mind and a determined heart will win. But be warned, it will take time.
How can you go wrong with a game like The Escapists, a most wonderful and unique prison escape adventure title? Answer: you can't.