Breaking Out of Prison Isn’t the Coolest Part of The Escapists

Confession: I am the world’s worst The Escapists player.

When I undertook the assignment of previewing the PC version of Mouldy Toof Studios’ (which is quite possibly the best studio name in the industry) long-in-development prison escape title, I hadn’t the faintest idea of how difficult it would be. Trailers and gameplay footage don’t accurately portray the emotional toll that being a pixelated prisoner can have on you. You go through the motions, stick to your schedule and try to make sure that you’re ready for any opportunity that presents itself. The problem is, a great deal of these opportunities don’t readily present themselves; you have to think on your feet, much like a real prisoner. Here’s the thing though: being terrible at The Escapists allowed me to evaluate it from a different perspective. While escaping from prison is the ultimate goal, the most exciting aspect of Mouldy Toof’s unique title is how it changes its players. The Escapists manages to turn the player into a prisoner themselves, causing their motivations and penchant for risk-taking to change in extreme ways. The result is a game that doesn’t just function as a massive, mind-bending puzzle, but works as perhaps the most accurate prison simulation game of all-time.

At its core, The Escapists is a test of wits. Rather than forcing prospective puzzlers to complete coded sequences or put blocks together, it manages to turn an entire game into its own living, breathing brain-teaser. Even though I’ve never spent time in a penitentiary at any point in my life (terrible gatherings with half-drunk strangers aside), I’d imagine being tortured by the idea of everything always being the same. For every time someone leaves, someone enters. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are always at the same times, and always feature the same handful of lackluster meals. I’d be required to shower at a certain time, and if I didn’t want to miss out on free time, I’d have to spend it when others determine it’s acceptable. The routine and monotony are often said to be the worst parts of the prison experience, so it’s exciting to see a game tackle it so well.

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Some would argue that making every prisoner look roughly the same would ruin the experience, and there’s a certain part of me that understands this argument. However, the best part of The Escapists is falling into the prison routine, feeling trapped, and having your motivations change as a result. You’re always looking for a way out of prison, this is a game with “escape” in the title after all, but it’s crazy to think how quickly a pixelated prison simulator can give players full on Stockholm Syndrome. In the early parts of a playthrough, it’s pretty common for players to always do exactly what they’re supposed to, but as the action progresses, monotony can lead to some pretty crazy snap-decisions. Why did I just stab that guard with a toothbrush shiv? What motivated me to turn my free periods into a designated time to steal everyone’s stuff? Am I really prepared to lose everything I worked for in order to get a random inmate a teddy bear?

What makes The Escapists fascinating isn’t the actual act of escaping, it’s the act of existing. In real life, prison certainly changes people dramatically; The Escapists finds a way to change the way people play video games. I tend to be the jerk as much as possible in games because of a deep-seeded belief that all forms of entertainment force heroes upon us far too often. My first playthrough of all three Infamous games involves utter destruction and evil, simply because it was acceptable. I was a fly-covered savage who took the Jack of Spades’ evil mask for himself in the original Fable. I let the hostages die in Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s first mission instead of setting them free and getting rid of the time-delayed gas bomb. In my day-to-day life, I try to be as honest and by-the-book as possible, but in a virtual realm I find it entertaining to play as the embodiment of evil given the opportunity. The Escapists manages to flip this on its head by branding the player as “bad” from the start (unless, of course, you view prisoners as quality human beings). Instead of starting a player as an inherently neutral or good individual and allowing them to become bad, The Escapists finds a way to take an inherently bad person and let them become better or worse.

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There will be numerous speedrunners and Let’s Play savants who zoom through The Escapists‘ overarching puzzles with precision and ease, but those with less skill might wind up reaping the greater reward. Mouldy Toof has crafted a title that makes you consider your motivations, question what’s truly good and bad, and use monotony as a tool to become entertained. This is a title that has been in Early Access for quite some time, so a detailed discussion about mechanics, art and structure wouldn’t necessarily do it justice at this point. If you’re looking for a game that treats morality as the grey area that it should be, look no further than The Escapists. You might not be the best pixelated Andy Dufresne, but you just might learn something about your own internal motivations.