Find a way to break out of a military internment camp.
PC Release: May 7, 2004
By Ian Coppock
In 1999, the Australian government opened a secret immigrant detention facility, euphemistically named the Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre. Throughout its four-year existence, the Centre was dogged by alleged human rights violations, allegations of child abuse, and a host of other grave charges. Human rights advocates condemned this Guantanamo Bay-like facility for stripping its inmates of their most basic rights, while the politicians who had opened it maintained it was the only way to deal with illegal immigrants, people smugglers and dangerous fugitives. Around the time Woomera closed in 2003, a tiny team of programmers and investigative journalists exposed the horrors said to have happened there, not with some shocking article or a documentary film, but with a video game. Few games before or since has sparked so much political controversy and bitter debate as Escape from Woomera, a game created as both a societal protest and a documentary of life inside the camp.
Escape from Woomera is, according to its makers, based on real accounts and stories from within the camp. You play Mustafa, a.k.a. Prisoner No. RAR-124. Mustafa, an Iranian, is due for deportation to his home country, where only death at the hands of the Ayatollah’s secret service awaits him. He, that is, you, resolves to escape from Woomera before that can happen.
The game is a first-person modification of my favorite game and yours, Half-Life. As Mustafa, you can explore this desolate facility, interacting with guards and other prisoners. The game is a nonviolent adventure scenario that seeks to recreate the atmosphere of dread and oppression one might expect to find in a facility such as this. Something I hope to never experience in real life. A simulation will do quite fine, thank you.
Your mission is simple: find a way out of this messed up oven of a prison before you’re sent back home to die. You must find tools, strike bargains and be a little sneaky, in a deadly game of prison break. You learn little of Mustafa beyond his impending date with death, but you can approach a few named prisoners and listen to their fears and hopes. You can select a number of questions and responses a la Mass Effect from a crude conversation menu.
Mustafa must explore a few places in the camp and come up with an increasingly elaborate scheme to get out. He has no choice; the Australian government is set to deport him. Escaping Woomera will be dangerous, but at least then, you’ll have a chance. I connected with the character out of empathy for his situation. Though paper-thin in most regards, all of Escape from Woomera‘s characters are endearing. Sure, their dialogue is questionably written and a bit repetitive, but the game’s artistic connection is pure empathy.
It was immediately clear that this game had been made by journalists, for two reasons. One: the game does an excellent job at laying an informational foundation and a compelling story through its characters. Two: journalists do not know how to code. I stand by my assertion that Escape from Woomera is emotionally and intellectually compelling, but it is one of the most poorly programmed video games I have ever played.
The AI in Escape from Woomera is basically nonfunctional. Toward the middle of this game, I had to steal pliers from an electrician while he wasn’t looking; the shakily animated thing that only vaguely resembled a human would catch me if I took them while his back was turned… but not if he was facing me. Because that makes sense.
There’s one section of the game where you have to sneak through buildings and elude patrolling guards, but these guys will literally not even bother unless you go up and physically bump into them. For kicks and giggles I decided to walk right in front of a guard, without touching him, and he didn’t bat an eyelash. So challenge is out the door.
Worst of all, the game doesn’t register the completion of an objective and makes it endlessly re-repeatable. Let me explain: I managed to grab the pliers and stuff them into a recycling bin, but the poorly worded announcement that I’d done so implied that the electrician had caught me. Little did I know that I was actually getting away with it, but the game kept letting me get the pliers I’d already collected, thus perpetuating the illusion that I was getting caught! Even though I’d stored the pliers, the objective to get the pliers from the electrician was still open and repeatable.
Does that make sense? It’s like if a video game told you to destroy a tank, and gave you the option to go back and do it again, even if you’ve opened up the level and another objective. It was confusing as hell, and added unnecessary frustration to the game. Once you’ve done a task, the game should register it as such; don’t just leave the back door open and give so much potential for gamers to get confused. Epic programming fail.
Once I realized what was happening, though, Escape from Woomera did become a lot more enjoyable. At 20 minutes or so long, it’s short, but stories can be compelling at just about any length. Portal make the gaming world go nuthouse and you can finish it in an hour. Plus, Escape from Woomera is free, and a low-budget entry into the blocky world of 1999 GoldSrc engine. My anger at this game’s failures would be exponential if it had asked for money.
Escape from Woomera isn’t the best video game story of all time, but the fact that it’s based on true events drew me to it. After the game was released, it added new fire to the controversy over the prison camp. The Australian government condemned the game and the organizations that praised it as shameful to Australia, while basically everyone else said that it was an important piece of political sentiment. A video game, stirring up controversy for something besides sex and violence. What a concept. I find it particularly ironic that the game was publicly funded by the Australian arts council; seems that not everyone in power was aboard with the Woomera facility.
Escape from Woomera is yet another cornerstone in my argument that video games are indeed art. Art is meant to convey a message, to provoke an emotion. In its basest form, it communicates to us. Escape from Woomera accomplishes all three of those things. Its intention is clearly not to be an amazing game, but rather, to illuminate a human rights travesty to the world at large. Judging by the controversy it stirred up, it accomplished its goal. Books, movies and television do this all the time. Video games ascended to this lofty position of power with titles like Escape from Woomera. Escape proved that video games can evoke emotions just as effectively as other, more traditional works of art.
Escape from Woomera is not the best game ever nor the most compelling, but it is one of the most important video games ever created. This little mod proved a big deal. For that, I played it, and retain in my collection. Though the game is a bit broken, it won’t crash. Go find it on Desura or Mod DB and download it. At the very least, 20 minutes of your time is a small price to pay to learn about this controversy and the larger arguments surrounding it.
You can buy Escape from Woomera here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.