What's the best prison escape in a game?

(Image credit: Bethesda)

The prison escape level is a classic. It's a good excuse to take all the player's abilities and weapons away and make you prove you can get by without them, whether as a mid-game difficulty spike or an explanation for why you start from the bottom in a sequel. Almost every immersive sim has a prison break, they're a perfect match for the stealth genre, and RPGs love them too. 

Think of Coldridge Prison from Dishonored, the Dungeons of the La Valettes in The Witcher 2, the Majestic 12 detention facility in Deus Ex, Irenicus's Dungeon in Baldur's Gate 2, and the Lady of Pain's maze in Planescape: Torment. Or, you know, the prison bit from basically every Elder Scrolls game. Then there are games like The Escapists and Prison Architect, where it's not just one quest but the entire focus.

Here's our weekend question: What's the best prison escape in a game? Let us know your pick in the comments.

Evan Lahti: Arma 2 Crooks

I didn't think I had a relevant incarceratory gaming experience to share, but then I remembered an incredible Arma 2 scenario we used to play on the PC Gamer server in 2010 called Crooks (created by Icebreakr, a prolific community creator mostly known for making terrains like Panthera). Like Altis Life and the other long-form, RPG-like Arma formats that have succeeded it, Crooks is bizarre, emergent, janky joy: it's an asymmetrical 1+2v23 scenario where one serial killer picks a spawn point on Arma 2's massive map then tries to kill 10 NPCs located in different towns. Up to 23 police players protect these NPCs (equipped basically with just pistols and cars), patrolling dozens of square kilometers to find and capture the serial killer. Also in the mix are two criminal players, armed thugs who aren't the police's objective, but who can stir up trouble for the police, create false alarms, and run interference. 

Part of the reason the mode works so well is that the serial killer and police spawn kilometers away from one another, with mostly their eyes and ears to rely on. As crimes are committed, the police do get text notifications from a dispatcher (simple AI scripting) about where to rush to. But if they haven't set up a dragnet or roadblocks with their cars at key intersections, they'll constantly be behind the killer's crime spree. As the serial killer completes more crimes, it unlocks more equipment for the police, like helicopters. Some of the most intense gaming moments of my life have been being in that chopper or below it, trying to maintain visual contact with a serial killer as he darts through trees and bushes, relaying the info to squads of police cars in pursuit. No other game has replicated that sense of a genuine manhunt.

If the cops do eventually cap the killer, the serial killer then respawns in a walled-off jail area, after which the police have to return to base and execute a script that performs a "trial" by presenting "evidence." If Crooks agrees that the killer's guilty, he's then teleported to an execution zone where the police have to shoot him again to win the game. But in true, janky-as-hell Arma fashion, I remember being able to prone-roll my way through these walls, escape the jail, and steal a police vehicle, undoing hours of effort by the cops. Unforgettable calamity.

Wes Fenlon: The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay

I'm taking the cliche answer here, but there's no better or more elaborate prison escape than Escape From Butcher Bay. This Riddick game was far better than the garbage fire movie it spun off from, and much of that is down to its restraint. It's not trying to be a space epic. It's grimy. Riddick is not a hero. The setting is a prison compound on a lifeless rock, so really, the whole damn planet is the prison. The character comes from the other inmates and the sense of the culture and economy they've built up, as you do small quests and work your way to the top of the food chain to gain what you need to break out. I also remember this being one of the first games to really wow me with its spartan UI. Most of the time there's nothing on-screen. At most, a crosshair and a minimalist ammo counter. And it looked great. Damn, that shit was immersive for 2004! Anyway, here's a whole article from Samuel about how great the design of Butcher Bay is.

Lauren Morton: Dragon Age: Origins

(Image credit: EA)

I can come up with a Dragon Age anecdote for almost every weekend question (though I usually restrain myself) and this is no exception. Dragon Age: Origins has a fantastic prison break quest late in the game's story that's basically just an extended comedy break. After getting locked up either alone or with Alistair—if he was unfortunate enough to be with you at the time—The Warden has the option to either break out by their own means or wait for a help. You can choose to muscle your way out by lockpicking, fighting, or flirting with the guards but the much more amusing option is kicking your feet up and waiting for your well-deserved rescue. 

While languishing in a cell, you have the option to pick two of your party members who you suspect will save you. Based on your clairvoyance, those exact two companions will team up and attempt to bluff or fight their way through three rounds of guards. Different pairs will have different approaches to freeing you. Zevran will pretend to be delivering Leliana as an "intimate item" while Oghren and Sten will dress up as circus performers . Each character has a couple possible roles depending on who they're paired with, some being better bluffers than others. The entire fiasco is mostly just a chance to laugh at your party members as they attempt to bumble through a rescue plot without their leader at the helm. 

Andy Chalk: Thief: The Dark Project

Cragscleft Prison is a little different from most prison break missions, because you have to actually break into the prison, in order to break your friend (and fence) out. It's a big mission, and it's got a little bit of everything: It starts off in haunted caverns overrun by zombies and giant spiders, before moving up into a loud, ironpunk Hammerite factory, then the tightly secured prison, and finally the posh Hammerite quarters at the top. That mix of environments is a real test of your skills, especially during the actual breakout, which requires carrying the unconscious body of a completely different guy all the way back to the start (because, and I'm not making this up, you're hot for his sister and think it will impress her.) It's a hell of a job, but if you can break into—and out of—Cragscleft Prison, then you can break into—and out of—anywhere.

Jody Macgregor: Saints Row 2 

(Image credit: Volition)

You wake from a coma in a prison hospital. In the next bed over is someone who knows you're the boss of the 3rd Street Saints, in spite of the fact you've just used the character creator to turn yourself into an unrecognizable weirdo. He got himself shivved just so he could help you bust out, because you're such a beloved badass.

At first you get an option to either play stealthy or go loud, but even if you start quiet things escalate fast and eventually you're shooting a minigun at police helicopters from the back of a speedboat. Saints Row 2 acknowledges the fun of going on a cop-killing rampage in GTA and just makes that the game, and it begins as it means to go on.

Chris Livingston: Outward

(Image credit: Nine Dots Studio)

In fantasy survival RPG Outward I walked into a castle thinking it was the back entrance to the city I lived in. It wasn't. I talked to this friendly guy who was sitting at his dinner table as it slowly dawned on me that I was in the wrong place, and he turned out to be an enemy bandit leader who then (while still being quite friendly about it) took all my gear and threw me in his dungeon.

There was an enjoyable escape that involved gathering a few things from the prison, which was a forced labor mining camp (that's why the bandit was so happy to meet me—I was another set of hands), and sort of trading your way up to other items with the prisoners, and then gaining the trust of the guards and getting access to more of the castle. But eventually I gave up on my plans to sneak out and just jumped into a dark pit in the dungeon. I wound up on the shore near the castle, wet, freezing, badly injured, and dazed, and limped my way back home.

Not only was it cool that there was a scenario planned for what happens if a player stupidly blunders into an enemy castle (beyond just combat), it was also a fun experience and a great reminder to be completely damn sure of exactly where you are at all times when you're playing Outward.

Jody Macgregor
Weekend/AU Editor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, Five Out of Ten Magazine, and Playboy.com, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was about the audio of Alien Isolation, published in 2015, and since then he's written about why Silent Hill belongs on PC, why Recettear: An Item Shop's Tale is the best fantasy shopkeeper tycoon game, and how weird Lost Ark can get. Jody edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and he eventually lived up to his promise to play every Warhammer videogame.