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Discussing the Plausibility of Video Game Jailbreak with a Real-Life Escapee

I speak to former prisoner "David" about Mouldy Toof Studios' "The Escapists," to see if the game reflects the reality of trying to slip the clink.

by Joe Donnelly
Aug 17 2015, 6:00pm

A screenshot from 'The Escapists.' All screens via Steam

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Prison Break was a load of rubbish.

It was semi-entertaining for, what, three quarters of a season ten years ago? And then the plot spiraled into something about a tattoo and a dead cat and then Michael and Lincoln escaped and then...

And then it ran for another three whole fucking seasons. That's 57 redundant episodes of unadulterated guff. Worse still, it seems that Fox, to my ceaseless dismay, plans to revive the series some six years after it left our TVs in what can only be described as tragic news.

In other more positive news, Mouldy Toof Studios' prison 'em up The Escapists is now available on all current-gen systems. Chris Davis, the game's creator, tells me that his first foray into the world of video game development was originally set to be a schoolyard-based game: an homage to Spectrum classic Skool Daze, a personal favorite of his.

I really like The Escapists, therefore it's through gritted teeth and with steely ambivalence that I acknowledge the following: what steered Davis towards a prison-based game in the first place was Prison Break.

"It was midway through 2013 and The Escapists originally started out as a slightly different game within a different setting—it was a school-based game," Davis explains. "I used to play a school game back in the days of the Spectrum and I wanted to make a tribute to that. It had the routines of school, you could play truant [hooky], and get in fights with kids."

"I think I was watching Prison Break or something similar one day and decided I needed to change the setting to a prison, because I could see the fun with trying to escape. It's not really been touched upon in many games."

Davis tells me how he researched cinema, books, and countless documentaries while building his debut project. He spent entire evenings exploring Google and scouring Netflix, understanding the layouts of all types of existing and historical prisons, studying the in-house rules, and reading up on famous prison breaks. The San Pancho desert prison level in The Escapists is a direct tribute to that goddamned television show. "I had quite a few evenings of locking myself in a room and researching all night," he says.

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But just how authentic is this interpretation of prison? Granted, The Escapists depicts routine, hostility, and institutionalized commerce, but it was never intended to be overly authentic. "Because it's a very light-hearted prison game, we knew that kids would be playing it," Davis affirms. Some of the escape routes on offer are quite clearly vestiges of Hollywood cinema, but is there any plausibility in the schemes the game offers conniving players?

"Escape? Well it's not like the bloody Shawshank Redemption, that's for sure," says David, a Glaswegian who once served an eight-year prison sentence for armed robbery. I spoke to David (a previously agreed pseudonym) once before about his motives for engaging in the criminal activity that led to his incarceration. During our conversation, he told me that towards the end of his time inside he was moved to the open-prison HMP Castle Huntly. According to the Scottish Prison Service, there have been no recorded escape attempts in the last few decades. Absconding however, failing to return from temporary release, falls under the same bracket. With minimal supervision, such is the nature of open-prisons, David was granted day-release just months before the end of his sentence. He chose to abscond.

"I absconded, as they call it, which [means] that I basically didn't do what I was told," David says. "I went to my mum's who was still living at the time, and then I went to my mate's who was looking after my dog. We had a few beers and a smoke so I'd already breached my bail conditions so I thought, fuck it, and stayed out. You see stories in the papers of guys fleeing the country to Spanish islands or wherever these days, but I was young and daft—I was hauled off my mate's couch in a flat in the Saltmarket (an area in Glasgow's city center) the following day."

"I'd never even been to an airport back then, so Spain wasn't on my mind, but I probably should've put more thought into it. I ended up getting my sentence extended by six months, which was almost unheard of back then—most folk got a slap on the wrists. I think the bastards had it in for me!"

I ask David if he ever considered attempting escape when he was housed in regular security prison. "Everyone thinks about. Everyone talks about it, in fact. But actually trying it, and succeeding, well, that's another thing. It's not like the movies like everyone probably thinks. It's not that straight forward."

Watch on VICE News: Inside El Chapo's Escape Tunnel

"What about video games?" I ask, before explaining the premise of The Escapists. Given the nature of our last conversation, David remarks that I appear "obsessed with relating everything to computer games." He's absolutely right, but he nicely decides to entertain me nonetheless as I show him three successful escape videos depicting various levels in The Escapists, before asking his opinion as to their credibility in reality.

Escape from Center Perks (courtesy of YouTube user DaStormBringa)

Plausibility: "This reminds me of open prison, in that the inmates are given a lot of space," David says. "I'm not so sure about cutting a hole in the fence, given that it'd probably be just as easy to walk straight out the front door, but if you had time to do it out of sight of the guards you might get away with this one. Again, as it's an open prison I reckon getting someone to drop off a wee pair of wire cutters would sort you out—going through with plastic knives would take forever."

Escape from Shankton State Pen (courtesy of YouTube user Shambles11)

Plausibility: "This looks a bit further fetched, but to be honest I still think it could be done with the right preparation," says David. "I'd never manage it," he laughs while patting his belly, "because you'd need to be fast once you're out in the grounds. One thing I think is strange is that there's no one looking to grass you in. You know yourself, Glasgow's always had a bit of a gangland culture and it was worse, as far as I'm concerned, in the 1970s. It's the same inside."

He continues, "There was a guy from my street that I was always fighting with out here, but he was my best mate when we were in there. We're from The Calton (an area in Glasgow's East End) so we stuck together. When I met him in [a nightclub] a few months after getting out he stuck the nut on me! It's just one of them things. It's different rules.

"But aye, this is getting a bit Hollywood, but I dunno. Could be done."

Escape from HMP Irongate (courtesy of YouTube user Roarke Suibhne)

Plausibility: "Are you fucking mad?" David asks. "Did I not say it's nothing like The Shawshank Redemption? A fucking grappling hook and a homemade boat? You'd be as well sneaking in a gun or a machete and fighting your way out—there's more chance that'd work for you! I'm telling you, man."

In the absence of gangs and snitches, David asks me if the game includes another element that was more than consistent with his time in prison: drugs. Chris Davis admits that he "...kept away from the more grim side of prison life—the drugs and so on," and there are also no in-game gangs. Again, he points to the fact that kids might play it, and thus didn't want to lead players down routes that might reflect darker themes. Besides sleeping pills, there are no drugs whatsoever in The Escapists.

From VICE News: Going Inside a Maximum-Security Prison That's Rehabilitating Criminals

"I was offered more drugs in there than I've ever been in my life, particularly in the open prison," David says. "One day I was lying in my cell during rec hours, minding my own business, and some idiot asked me if I wanted a couple of eccies. Eccies were this new thing back then but, 'What the fuck would I want with a couple of eccies if I'm in here?' I told him. Think he was planning to break out and head straight to the dancing!"

"Na, all joking aside, I did see a few guys who were as clean as a whistle drug-wise going in, and coming out the other end more or less junkies. These days there's AA and drug counseling and whatnot in there, but not back then. It's rife."

Altogether, The Escapists never tries to be an ultra-realistic interpretation of prison life—a fact reflected in its pixel characters and funny one-liners. It's a video game mirroring Hollywood's depiction of an institution, which just so happens to include elements that resonate with a former inmate—most likely down to Chris Davis's extensive research. From what David's shared—and as you'd probably imagine—prison sounds brutal. He assures me he regrets the decisions that led him there and that I should behave and seize any opportunities in life that'll keep me from following his path.

Which is no doubt good advice. But the thought of an impending fifth season of Prison Break makes me wonder if I'd benefit from some time away.

The Escapists is out now for PC, Xbox One, and PS4.

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