ENTERTAINMENT | GAMING
An immersive, disturbing escape from unreality
By TED ZACHARIAS
Friday, November 7, 2031, 4:48:50 PM EST
Developer and Publisher: Slipstream Games, Inc.
[Mr. Zacharias, who has returned to Stanford University to pursue a master’s degree in computer science, sold the video game rights to the story of his imprisonment in the Labyrinth to Slipstream three years ago. He served as a fact-checker but was otherwise uninvolved in game development. He declined compensation for this article. —Ed.]
On March 21, 1963, the infamous prison Alcatraz was permanently shuttered. Located in San Francisco Bay, the desolate island fortress has become an immensely popular destination for millions of tourists.
As it turned out, Alcatraz was only the beginning. A top-secret directive from the Nixon administration led to the formation of the supermax penitentiary Labyrinth, the direct successor to Alcatraz, deep underneath Siberia, a tiny ghost town in the Californian Mojave Desert. In 2025, after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake shattered the facility, I managed to escape and tell my story to the Los Angeles Times.
My imprisonment served as the basis for Albatross, a first-person, total immersion (TI) exploratory game. The starting point is a familiar one for TI fans, a cold, tiny cell with blinding fluorescent lights, accompanied by the clank of an unappetizing-looking tray of microwaved food spat out through a slot in a wall. I had been incarcerated in 24/7 solitary confinement for approximately two years at this point, with an hour a week allowed for exercise in a common room with other prisoners. Disorientation was the norm.
There are no visible guards – the environment is monitored electronically through dozens of cameras hidden behind small black domes. The only doors leading outside are sealed shut, without even a keypad or visible lock. It’s otherwise quiet for the first twenty to thirty minutes, giving you an opportunity to interact with five other inmates in your area.
Then suddenly, everything goes sideways. Within seconds, all of you are being jostled around like laundry in a dryer, all while the PA system calmly instructs everyone to return to their rooms. Lights flicker, a fiery explosion goes off, and you black out. You wake up (again) to the wail of alarms and the harsh fumes of electrical fires. Your fellow inmates are dead. But now, you see a pathway out.
Obviously, escape is your first priority. I played through the game twice, and I can say that there is a degree of randomness to the collapsing ceilings, the out-of-control fires, the presence of obstructing piles of debris, and other environmental obstacles, making each playthrough fresh.. The drones and other electronic surveillance programs pervasive in the lower floors exhibit occasional variability in behaviors, presenting dangerous, dynamic challenges. Considering that the best “weapon” you’ll find for most of the game is a rock or piece of pipe, avoiding surveillance is paramount. Taking damage is about as realistic as a game can get: no health bar or hitpoints, and your field of vision darkening, reddening, or blurring, or your haptic suit’s responsiveness declining with sufficient damage. Just a few scattered items are available to regain health or address injuries, and these take valuable in-game time to use, highlighting how Albatross is supposed to be played: carefully, stealthily, and efficiently.
From groundbreaking in 1972 through the next half-century, the mission of the Labyrinth evolved as successive presidential administrations assumed control and stamped their identity on the complex. Entire wings, along with their supporting infrastructure, sprouted like roots. The newest areas, where you begin your travels, are deep underground and furthest away from Siberia, but also the most high-tech. In one of the more unusual early sequences, you’ll enter a zone of automatically moving containment rooms and hallways that fit together like a 3-dimensional jigsaw puzzle, haphazardly operated by a now-malfunctioning virtual intelligence system. Unable to bypass this completely, you’re forced to either identify a pattern in the building’s movements and time your own actions accordingly, or find a method of suspending the superstructure in place.
Yes, this was a real location.
As you ascend, the environment and technology regress, reflecting the earlier eras in which they were developed. In contrast to the space-age whites, grays, and blues of the lower levels, the upper floors have a more retro look, from the ugly orange and brown décor to the clunky-looking computer mainframes and monitors crammed into too-small offices. Electronic deadbolts are replaced by unadorned keyholes, combination locks, and heavy safe-like doors more fitting for a classical Old World bank. Patrol drones and robots are exchanged for a veritable army of armed guards and ancillary staff. Fortunately for you, most of the guards are themselves eager to escape the facility, and sometimes a disguise is all that’s needed to avoid their attention.
Having been abducted by the US government to a heretofore unknown rendition site on American soil was preposterous on its face. I became a credible witness due to having brought a substantial amount of information with me during my escape. Albatross provides numerous ways to accrue evidence: photographs, video/audio recordings, paper documentation, computer drives, and more are scattered across more than 100 floors, turning you into an investigative reporter of sorts. You’ll have to find a way to gather the evidence, all while trying to escape, and in RPG-like fashion, your inventory capacity has limits.
Additionally, the game doesn’t quantify the credibility or value of the information you carry, so you’ll have to make an educated guess as to whether it’s enough. (Slipstream says there is an internal formula for gaming purposes.) But suffice it to say that practically anything that made it into the public record, including actual declassified congressional hearings and on-the-record media interviews given by me and others who eventually came forward, is available in some format in Albatross. Labyrinthine activities yielded everything from DARPA’s Omnibus computer network intelligence, the successor to the “Combat Zones that See” initiative, to Operation Calm State, the domestic black-ops program sponsored by the Department of Defense and the one responsible for my imprisonment. Brush off your civics lessons: watching news programming and US history channels may well help you complete this grim task.
Slipstream has advised that there’s a play timer, invisible to the player. Although several endings are possible, based on how long it takes to escape and what you bring with you, failure to escape before running out of allotted time always leads to the undesirable one. Think of it this way: news of the prison break will eventually find its way to federal authorities, who seek to cover up the disaster by any means necessary. You’re not going to survive being swarmed by highly-trained, masked soldiers wielding automatic weapons and explosives, or in a truly over-the-top scenario, a tactical nuclear explosion.
Although Albatross can be run on a basic home computer setup, the game deserves to be experienced with a VR headset, haptic feedback suit, and a 360-degree motion detector rig. You’ll sense the chill air of your prison, the sting and burning odor of lasers on flesh, the scorching heat of fires, the blunt impact of falling or thrown objects, and even the weight of your inventory. You’ll also be able to hear PA announcements, short-range radio transmissions, and other noises in your immediate environment.
Albatross utilizes sophisticated, deep-learning chatbot algorithms, allowing you to hold realistic conversations with any human character in the game. (Easter egg alert: talk to the right person in-game and you’ll learn how the game got its namesake.) Conversations are a blend of preprogrammed scripts and spontaneity, but don’t abuse the system too much – in other words, avoid excessive swearing or nonsensical speech – or other characters will ignore you or even become hostile. It’s also worth noting that Slipstream’s reputation for programming realistic human-based NPCs remains stellar. The characters of Albatross are authentic not only in behavior and speech but also appearance. Everything from facial animations to physical movements are fluid and humanoid, generally successful at avoiding “uncanny valley” problems that often plague TI games. I didn’t experience any significant graphical, auditory, and other programming glitches, even with over a dozen active characters in my sensory field.
For those seeking a thrilling FPS experience, Albatross isn’t for you. You’re quite literally outgunned for nearly the entire trek, as I was, and Slipstream has hinted that excessive violence on the player’s part will negatively impact the ending. That being said, should you choose to fight head-on, enemy behavior programming in Albatross ranks among the best in the current crop of first-person TI games, even providing ample opportunity for in-game evolution based on your own tactics. Prison guards and later, military units are alerted to your presence through sight and sound – both of which also can be used for some effective misdirection. They’ll utilize a variety of methods to hunt you down, including ambushes, sniping from well-hidden alcoves, and liberal use of frag and gas grenades to flush you from cover, all while coordinating their squad movements via radio. If you happen to pick up a suitable firearm and have good marksmanship, the enemy will even perform tactical retreats and call for reinforcements.
In general, Albatross encourages less combat-oriented interactions with other characters. Conversing with other people, particularly prisoners, is an integral part of the early and middle game. While most prison staff will attack you on sight, encounters with other inmates provide more fodder for tactical decision-making. If they ask or you convince them to join you, will they speed you up or slow you down? Will it be harder to sneak around undetected? Most importantly, can they be trusted? Sometimes prisoners can provide valuable clues during conversation, such as where to go next. Other times, they may simply stab you in the back. Remember that your weaponry is limited and melee damage output is rather weak, so getting into a scrape with fellow detainees poses substantial risks.
Is there replay value? Absolutely. Seeing the colossal facility in a single playthrough is practically impossible. I obviously didn’t see the entire Labyrinth during my time there; Slipstream took artistic liberties with the environment based on electronic blueprints and photographs that I provided to the authorities. The developer randomized select areas of the Labyrinth, as well as the location of many of the items, characters, and evidence. Whether this means that every playthrough attempt is “winnable” is unclear.
Some have asked me if it’s too soon to be monetizing the story of my incarceration in the Labyrinth. The facility itself was designated a National Historic Landmark only last year. Jordan Johnston, the founder of Slipstream, received enormous flak when the first preview of Albatross appeared at the E3 Expo two years ago, even facing down (successfully) a defamation lawsuit from the estates of two former US Cabinet members who committed suicide during the Labyrinth hearings. The game also doesn’t acknowledge what brought me to the attention of the federal government in the first place – accusations, now disproven, that I led a so-called hacktivist group responsible for breaking into classified networks run by the Departments of Defense and State.
But judgment isn’t what Albatross is about. What the game does instead is successfully fictionalizes a landmark event in modern American history, turning it into a dark yet necessary exploration of a shameful past.
SCORE: 4.5 / 5
Story closely mimics actual, publicly known events and does reasonable job of not glamorizing controversy
Game endings favor non-violent, stealthy, exploratory play
Hyper-realistic character models, visuals, sounds, and game environment and physics
Cutting-edge NPC and enemy behaviors
Multiple aspects of game are randomized, allowing for unique experience with each playthrough
Somewhat short: single playthrough can be completed in 4-6 hours
Source material may be too disturbingly real-life for many players; not suited for children under 18 years of age
Requires very high-performance gaming rig for full immersion