By Fabrice Stellaire / July 14th, 2017
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent oprainfall as a whole.
Over the last few years, developers have made great prison-themed video games, such as Prison Architect or The Escapists. But two decades ago, we already had an example of an awesome “escape from jail” game called The Great Escape. While the game does not use the plot of the famous movie which shares the same title, the story takes place during World War II, in a German camp. Prepare yourself to think carefully and observe your surroundings to spot any opportunity. Forge alliances with those who share the same tragic fate, steal items while remaining unnoticed, and you may escape.
Here we have another good game published by Ocean in 1986 that was ported to Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum, and DOS, with little to no difference between the ports. The graphics are plain and the game does not use many colors. The environments and characters are all black and white, and only some items are colored. This is a very interesting choice to depict the daily life of a prisoner in a camp, and the design creates a calm, mesmerizing atmosphere. You will not hear any music, and the only sounds you will notice are the sound of the bell and the noise produced when you pick up an item. The immersion is enhanced by an interesting concept, the automated routine. Your prisoner cannot always do what he wants and has to eat, sleep, and exercise at specific hours. In order to do that and to follow other prisoners, you have to stop controlling your character for a few seconds. He will automatically walk and follow other prisoners to perform his duties. Of course, you cannot and must not do that all the time. You have to find a way to escape, and your morale will deplete every day. If your morale, symbolized by a flag, reaches the bottom, you will completely lose control of your prisoner and he will become an anonymous, broken prisoner.
The flag is also used to state if you are allowed to be in a specific area. Depending on the time, prisoners are allowed or banned from specific areas, and if a guard spots you in a red-flagged area, you will be arrested and all your items will be seized. But your worst enemy is the commandant of the camp, who knows all the guards and can see through any costume. It is incredible to think about the feeling of freedom the game conveyed, despite being set in a prison camp. The camp looked immense, and there was room for exploration. Once again, using a black border screen proved to be a clever way to make the game looked bigger than it actually was, an effective trick that was used in other games like Batman. Items could be used to open doors, dig tunnels, and convince other prisoners to help you; it took me a lot of time to figure out the use of most of them. The opportunity to use a tunnel felt really exciting, and was useful to explore distant places and hide items. During the night, the spotlights of miradors would sweep the camp, while threatening dogs would protect the wires. Finding a way to escape was not easy, especially in a time where the Internet did not exist.
Denton Designs, the developer of the game, showed us that technology is not the only way to make a game immersive, and they created a credible prisoner camp for microcomputers. In 1986, not many games had introduced the concept of morale in gameplay, nor the opportunity to turn NPCs into your allies. Since the game was published by Ocean, a company later bought by Atari Inc, which was itself later bought by Infogrames, I can only assume that The Great Escape license is currently owned by Atari SA. It is very hard to compare the game to other software as it was really unique back then, and the only similar game I could name is Where Time Stood Still, made by the same developer and released in 1988. I think modern players looking for original games would like The Great Escape and that the game would not require much change. Its art, its atmosphere, and its gameplay symbolize the best of what was made in the 80’s on microcomputers, and it would probably be well received by nostalgic fans.
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