I am fascinated by prison. Granted, I have less than zero intention of ever going there, but there’s something about the dynamic of so many people living in constant close contact, stripped of most of their everyday freedoms that strokes my curiosity. And, judging by the glut of shows like Lockup and Lockdown, I’m not exactly alone. However, it was the work of one single, solitary programmer that finally allowed prison to become interactive for those of us with spotless criminal records, giving us this bonus edition of the Big Steaming Pile, Hard Time, released in 2007 by Mat Dickie.
Hard Time puts you in the rubbery, laceless shoes of a newly coined convict at Southtown Correctional Facility. You create a character, dishing out attributes like Strength, Agility, and Intelligence, and selecting what crime you’ve committed, which (I believe) dictates the length of your sentence, roughly between 45 and 60 days. Your goal, true-to-life, is to survive your sentence, which doesn’t sound terribly difficult, just keep your head down and stay out of everyone’s way, right? Unfortunately, you will quickly learn upon your entry to prison that everyone here is completely out of their friggin’ minds.
Yes, other inmates are looking to scrap with you, usually over the dumbest reasons imaginable. Your Agility stat is too low? FIGHT! Your crime isn’t hardcore enough? LET’S THROW DOWN! That guy wants your push broom? He’s gonna take it by force! Aside from your standard punches and kicks, you can also grab other inmates and guards and perform wrestling moves like bodyslams and bulldogs for big damage. Now, why would a prison simulator feature wrestling moves, you ask? Because the designer simply took assets from a wrestling game he made and put a prison around it, which is some creative recycling, to say the least.
Now, you have two meters to pay attention to, first of all, your health, which is pretty self-explanatory, although if it runs out, there’s a chance you can get a second wind and hop back to life. The second is your sanity meter, which goes down when you’re bored, working, or studying. If it runs out, your character will break down, you will lose control over his actions, and he will literally run around fighting anything that gets in his path, inmates and guards alike, so it’s best to try to avoid that situation if possible. You can boost your sanity back up by sleeping at night, watching TV in the common room, or, sure enough, by smoking cigarettes or shooting up drugs you find on the ground.
Even though you’re in prison, you still have the opportunity to better yourself. You can improve your attributes by partaking in different activities through the prison. Working out in the exercise yard can improve your strength, running around or shooting hoops can improve your agility, and reading in the study can boost your intelligence. Strength and Agility are pretty obvious, but Intelligence unlocks a number of features that you may find useful. For one, you can use the various computers in the prison to learn about your fellow inmates, like what cell they’re assigned to, what their stats are, and what they’re in the joint for. Your Intelligence stat also allows you to perform better jobs for more money; morons can’t do much more than sweep or cook food for a few bucks, but brighter prisoners can sort files or even mix chemicals in the infirmary for big bucks, which can be used to buy some protection or bribe the guards, if need be.
Since this is prison, there is a pretty strict schedule to adhere to. Inmates have to be in their cell blocks by 10 pm and are jarred back awake at 7 am. Chow gets served at 1 pm, and if you don’t hustle to the canteen soon after, you’ll be out of luck, and seeing as food boosts both your health and sanity, it’s a bonus you don’t want to pass up. Despite all the weapons lying around, you’re not really allowed to walk around with them, and the guards will confront you if you’re walking around the halls with a samurai sword. If you violate prison rules, the wardens can and will haul you off before the judge to try to get more time tacked onto your sentence, although weirdly enough, the judge is a total crapshoot and it seems to be 50-50 as to whether he actually finds you guilty, no matter how blatant and obvious your offense was.
Of course, there’s also a lot of randomness amongst all the structure. The phones ring in the common room, and you could be given a job like locating an inmate and passing some information on to him for some easy money. If your stats are high enough, you might be offered an invitation to join a prison gang and have some backup. The prison will occasionally be targeted for a terrorist attack, so you’ll have to dodge some random explosions (which is less fun when you’re at low health). You might even be tasked to clip another inmate, which is way harder than it really should be, and not because they’re hard to fight, but more because they’re hard to actually keep down. That second wind feature I mentioned above? The AI prisoners are some serious beneficiaries of this, as you might have to “kill” someone three, four, even five times before they finally stay down for good, and if you’re attacking with anything besides a gun or a sword, this is a very time-consuming process.
It should be noted that Hard Time isn’t a graphical fiesta; figures are very blocky, animations look kinda wonky, and you’ll notice things like the Disney font being ripped off for some of the signs you’ll see. Dialogue is handled with text boxes and super goofy-looking mouth animations, and the locations themselves are very squarish, with most everything in this game being a 90-degree angle, which I suppose makes sense, prisons aren’t generally built with high priority on cutting-edge architecture, but it’s still not terribly fun to look at. Damage models are basically comprised of just adding cuts and scrapes along a model, although you can actually maim other inmates and lop off fingers or arms and even a leg if you’re feeling particularly brutal. While the game isn’t terribly fun to look at, it should also be noted again that this was cobbled together by one man in a three-month stretch, and that’s a fairly impressive achievement even if corners had to be cut.
Hard Time definitely holds a place by itself in the gaming community. I certainly can’t think of any other prison sims, let alone one made by a single designer using recycled assets from a wrestling game. Despite its flaws, it’s actually quite competently done on the whole, and seeing as it’s free, there’s not a cost obstacle to keep you from at least giving this a try. I’d recommend it if you’re looking for some interactive incarceration action or if you want to see a project made by the indiest of indie developers (and maybe check out some of his other projects as well). It’s definitely a unique concept, and even if it’s not available on Steam proper, it’s definitely worthy of inclusion in The Pile.
Current Price – Free, available for download here.
Is It Worth It? – All it costs is 21 megabytes of memory space, so most likely yes.