The Prisoner [1980]

(Content warning: torture mention.)

In the 1300s, there was a game called Obligations. It was played in the early Latin Christian universities by the friars, the bishops, the Franciscans, the students and teachers and such, and its structure informed much of the underlying phrasing and logic of the century’s theology and philosophy. Obligations is a kind of sophistic debate club game in which there are two players, the Opponent and the Respondent. The Opponent begins by putting forward any “positio,” or logical proposition, typically one that is outright false, and the Respondent must concede that it is true. (There are variations where they don’t, but ultimately a negation is as useful as an affirmation.) From there, the Opponent continues to bombard the Respondent with further statements formed according to the rules of Aristotelian logic, and it is the burden of the Respondent to correctly concede, reject, or doubt (that is, judge irrelevant) each subsequent proposition based on what has already been established in the Opponent’s string of statements. First instinct, to modern eyes, is to see this game as a way of exploring counterfactuals, perhaps as a path of liberating or at least limbering up the mind — but the logic we are speaking of is formal logic, not unpacking the imagined natural implications and ramifications of what it would mean for say, Rome to be in France. In the structure of Obligations, you can get from any arbitrary statement to any other arbitrary statement in 3 steps: it’s a garbage-in-garbage-out system.

No, the utility of the game seems to be internalizing and becoming adept at the nature of formal dynamic logic before algebraic notation was popular. Far from liberatory thought, Obligation’s pedagogical aim is to mechanize it. If you are an atheist, you can read it (perhaps too uncharitably) as a recreation of the deep-seated anxiety of grappling with the false premise of God in the face of our fetishized faculties of reason. Even if you are not that severe, though, it is clear how the game’s emphasis on formalism over substance to the explicit end of shaping our way of thought serves the purposes of cultural hegemony. Obligations reveals formal logic to be not just a technological process but a game, and is a substitution of rigorous extrapolation for rigorous interrogation. This damns the generative and imaginative capabilities of fiction, logic, formalism, and play, at least within tightly-closed rules as opposed to the possibilities of open play in Calvinball xor House: they are no escape from society. Computerized games are founded on and operate by necessity entirely within this same larger game of obligatory formal logic, in the binary of true and false, and the irrelevant discarded.

So how exactly do you make a computer game about social resistance?

Swell Maps – Secret Island [1980]

In one room of The Prisoner [1980], there is a trio of slot machines — those reductions of games to their bare essentials of input. You do not stand to win anything by playing them. In fact, you stand only to lose. The slot machine on the right is free to play, and asks only for “A PIECE OF YOURSELF.” If you play it much, you sacrifice the secret numerical resignation code that serves as the computerized fingerprint of your nevertheless private and internal identity, and not just mindlessly but passively. The slot machine on the left takes the in-fiction currency and rolls arbitrary, scrambled positios drawn from 1984 [1949], like “WAR IS SLAVERY” or “IGNORANCE IS FREEDOM” or even “FREEDOM IS STRENGTH.” These slogans are cleanly comprehended and disregarded through a straightforward ironic lens, as in-fiction as the currency you place in it. The implication is that the unseen owner-operators of the Island and everything on it want to trap your thoughts inside of their marching orders, and they care more about that hierarchical dominance and your position as the Respondent than the actual content of what they get you to accept. Simple enough, but far more sly is the way it’ll also occasionally offer up game hints like “THE KEY TO ESCAPE IS THE KEY TO ESCAPE.” For some reason, we aren’t as quick to question the providence and legitimacy of these marching orders despite coming from the exact same place and leading, ultimately, to wild goose chases. There is a whole running plot with a revolutionary cell that need not even deliver on its telegraphed twist of betrayal, since, after all, they are part of the computer program too. Even our acts of petty rebellion must be conducted within what is explicitly carved out for you to do and according to the computer program’s exact directions to get any response, in contrast to the self-motivated defiant nonsense resistance of The Prisoner [1967-68]’s strong man of will and action Number Six in Hammer Into Anvil from which it cribs subversions. Here, we are not a free man, but a number. Here, we are complicit in upholding and enacting the systems of our own oppression. The slot machine in the middle is, you are told, a way to escape. This is not true. It only tosses you back into the darkness in which you began stumbling around in.

That room is called the Castle: another allusion, this to Franz Kafka’s The Castle [1926]. Kafka’s works share concerns with The Prisoner about things like the mechanization of society and thought and the place of the individual, but significantly, Kafka’s protagonists are always stuck outside, isolated from society and experiencing oppression on an existential level. K never gets in the Castle, only asymptotically closer even once he is literally technically inside the Castle. #, our player character, is taken into the Castle and tries to find a way out, finding they all lead back in, like jumping the wall only to book a train that railroads the player to the start or end of the line. The Island is another quite dramatically exaggerated, arguably epitomic, take on the hostile gameworld. Quoth the designer, “I wanted to make a game in which you needed to do the opposite of everything that games were at the time. So, I made The Prisoner using abstract graphics, disharmonious sound effects, and rules and user interfaces that constantly changed. In particular, I wanted to create a game that you could, in theory, win immediately, since the game’s main theme is that we are imprisoned by authority because we choose to be imprisoned, and that we could escape imprisonment merely by realizing that we imprison ourselves by following convention.” Your imprisonment on the Island has less to do with the literal conditions of actual prisons (although not nothing at all,) but more the meme-Foucault sense of society as a prison of the mind. # is not suffering the path of the outsider, but of the insider, the subject, the conformist.

The Library functions like a personality quiz like you might find online, or more apt yet, like the Pepsi Challenge. It asks you to choose between books, such as “A GUIDE TO BUSINESS SKILLS” versus “APPRECIATING KNOWLEDGE FOR KNOWLEDGE’S SAKE”, these loaded oppositions to test your personal and political principles for that conformity. A lot of these are real books: “THE HOUSE OF USHER” makes an appearance, even. More than any of its sources of explicit inspiration, with their odd constructed atemporal non-places mostly-free of direct reference to contemporary life, The Prisoner [1980] distinguishes itself by its density of reference, dipping into pastiche in places, including its relationship to the TV show The Prisoner [1967-68] in the established tradition of video games, like Death Race [1976] to Death Race 2000 [1975]. Ah, what can be done with a complete disregard for copyright… When the game wants to provide a revolutionary, seditious text, it does not invent an Emmanuel Goldstein, it provides you point-blank with the above choice of “THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO.” While Cold War East-West tensions informed a lot of the Western pop culture of the decades it ran in (see also the game Missile Command [1980]), the anxiety was often made less specific, more diffuse and implacable, dodging anything like a specific ideological or economic contention in favor of generalized paranoia of the other. Here, the spectre is raised directly — and moreover, the implicitly correct choice is The Communist Manifesto! To The Prisoner, your own society and its ways of warping your mind to fit its ideology is a much greater threat than the external enemy. The Communist Manifesto is not championed for anything in particular that it says, but just for the sheer nose-tweaking free-thinking non-conformity of it in an American midcentury context, like how Anarchy In The UK [1976] is not anarcho-punk. In the linguistic oppositional mind of the Library, nothing escapes being crushed into a mere formal symbol, signals of social alliance, simple tokens. It also mixes in advertising slogans, rhetorically placing both books and jam as mere objects to be consumed. Shortly after, the books are, in a fire.

The Prisoner’s depiction of its own capitalist economy is a bit more of a gentle ribbing than a committed Marxist would cook up, and revolution is not even raised for consideration — violence is not even an option. There’s no materialist angle to its social commentary, you start with enough money it’s hard to think of ways to run out. The concerns are internal, even spiritual. Its deepest-cutting economic commentary is more along postmodern lines, in the requirements for a loan being the mere proper affect, in the form of possessions, including a coffee percolator and a Christian cross, a canny way to give thematic weight to the basic mechanic of the simplest inventory puzzles: its fundamental agnosticism about the substance of any object. All money is used for is not, say, rent or vital necessities, but useless frivolities. The gag where you buy a map of the Island is particularly excellent: as you already know by this part of the game, the world is structured in a perfectly regular grid, and that’s exactly what the map shows, like, what did you expect?

This geography, where you have 20 identical buildings to poke into and each contains a different amusement, which is reminiscent of a carnival midway, or a candy box of mystery treats, or 2 x 10 Beautiful Postcards [2019], or sketch comedy, or a museum, or you know, an arcade, would be notable even it were just a half-baked set-dressing for a dull minigame compilation. In 1980, the Singular Activity game (like Space Invaders [1978]) is still dominant, and while game worlds are becoming more elaborate with the impetus of Colossal Cave Adventure [1975/77], adventure games are still very consistent in terms of how you interact with the world. The Prisoner makes a point of changing interfaces constantly, and for obstinacy’s sake not even telling you the new controls. This is, after all, a game fundamentally about information asymmetry, the dark edge of the truism “knowledge is power.” Its gallery structure also opens the door to a collage mentality that is then fully leveraged. The many segments of The Prisoner are intended to reflect upon each other and be understood as parts of a whole statement. While a few some of them are nearly full games in their own right or at least seeds, most are at liberty to be only semi-interactive in making their points. The Prisoner sees the player-responsiveness of the medium not as defining & necessary but as a structuring tool and one to generate not only engagement but complicity with. Most obvious is the theater, which ridicules passive entertainment by reducing it to the flashing lights of a flicker film [epilepsy warning] and the empty placation of nursery rhymes. (There’s more to it, later. Things not being what they initially seem is a bit of throughline.) The building-scenes are not often wholly isolated, but rather interdependent with at least one other place: you can get falsely accused of murder at the bar, and get absolved at the church. That’s a penitentiary inside a penitentiary.

The church is directly inspired by the early chatbot psychiatrist Eliza [1966], which has been mentioned a few times on this blog now. It’s a natural intuitive leap: there is a strong family resemblance between Catholic confession and the psychiatrist. You may also speak with the Caretaker, the Island’s warden, in the same exact fashion as to the game’s spiritual authority, and they are even likewise explicitly positioned as a mere present intermediary between you and the unseen, ineffable ultimate authority, the Master. While the content of what they say is vastly different, they are only good shepherd and bad cop, waiting to welcome you back to “THE FLOCK” at the Game Over screen. What separates church and state? On the Island at least, nothing. It doesn’t quite matter if Eliza or The Prisoner or any other example quite measure up to raise the anxious implication that computers could take on not just math but perhaps the wielding of power and soft social skills many humans did not even realize we considered our exclusive domain until it was encroached upon. For centuries, it was near gospel that it was our rational faculties that separates man from beast, but in the modern era there’s yearning for the irrational or what have you to find out what separates man from machine. The TV show provides the answer to the question with a question when a sinister computer is defeated by simply asking it “why?” No such easy, reaffirming recourse here. Is there nothing too holy or mystic to be automated? What separates deus from ex machina? (The game asks you to type that phrase in elsewhere.) Part of the Celtic model of the confessional sacrament (from sometime in the 6th century to their condemnation in the 9th and beyond to the 16th) was the penitential, books kept and circulated among confessors that served to standardize your response to sins, how many Hail Marys and whatnot for various mortal and venal such-and-such, though they themselves were not standardized. This opens the door of the confessional booth to a theoretical Chinese Room situation, in which algorithms determine your sentencing.

Queue The Prisoner’s Trial: more Kafka, in which the Prosecution and Defense both speak in BASIC that whizzes by at an incomprehensible clip (a solid gag) and you are then challenged with stammering out a single intelligible word for yourself in the form of a game of Hangman which all still results in an as-far-as-I-can-tell random verdict on your guilt. This resonates deeply with my own personal emotional experience of being judged by others for my failures on an official basis: that opaque fog of bureaucratic procedure that makes your fellow man your alien superior; that can make a motormouth like me clam right up in shame and fear; that makes consequences strenuously mediated, no natural ramification of an action, justice immaterial.

These are not your only encounters with the authorities, naturally. What kind of The Prisoner game wouldn’t give you the chance to outrun Rover, even if Berzerk [1980] does too? Also drawn from the show is a clone plot, where once set in motion, the fuzz steps in to interrogate you, asking you to prove not your innocence or guilt but that you are you. When your identity has been reduced in the eyes of the Island to your resignation code, to a number, there isn’t any way to succeed. It’s not the end of your complication of self, either.

There is a harrowing scene that means to recall the Milgram Experiment, that famous study of power, complicity, obedience, and machine distance, but here it is framed as no experiment at all, just flat-out torture to extract information. Perspective abruptly, and disorientatingly, shifts: you are now playing the one in a position of power, administering the shocks, but it’s ambiguous to the bitter end what role exactly you are now occupying. Certainly, this is a glimpse of prison-keeping from the warden’s perspective, but are you shocking your normal player character # as the Caretaker, or is # themselves playing the Caretaker’s role as well, delivering electric pain onto some third prisoner at your behest? More importantly: what does it matter? You must drop the pretense of character in the confusion. You the player are for once allowed to feel that you have power and control over the computer’s world and being after it’s made such a point of toying with yours. It feels ungood. You are hopefully disquieted by this depiction of human depravity. Like many games to come, it means to play on the line between simulated and real violence. Here, the connection is strengthened by its canny allusion to another technological simulation that nevertheless spoke to the participating human’s behavior in real situations, one that indeed hinges on the very fact that they, like a game player, implicitly opted to continue participating. Do your acts in computer space carry any moral weight?

The germane difference, to me, is that here you know it’s all fiction. We do not generally think that Macbeth’s actor playing Shakespeare’s script should feel culpable or guilty in real life for Macbeth’s fictional actions, unless you’re super into method acting. In games, the actor is also the audience. The player usually engages emotionally and intellectually with the game before them on both those levels in some proportion. I can not divine if the game intends to engender guilt-through-complicity. It does not press that angle, but it certainly means to evoke it. This was — is — a test people fail when consequences are real, but not real enough to them. When they operate under malicious authority. The Milgram Experiment is often interpreted as some kind of supplementary commentary on the Nuremberg Trials. Though I lend it about as little credence as I do the idea that Lunar Lander [1979] was used as NASA training, urban legend has it that The Prisoner was used as CIA training.

In the Town Hall, you are at least unambiguously textually playing # playing the role of Caretaker. This is the most “gamelike” segment of this game, and one could be tempted to say it could have been its own standalone game, except in a way it was. It’s iterating on another 1960s program that keeps coming up but which I never wrote directly on, The Sumer Game [1964] and its BASIC descendants, but the obvious comparison is SimCity [1989] and its descendants. Another reason it can not be severed from its context in The Prisoner’s established fiction is that within that, it serves casually as an absolute evisceration of SimCity, the likes of which takes others like me whole essays. The entirety of The Prisoner operates in a satirical mode, one in which the player must keep a triple-consciousness of their own goals, the Island’s goals, and the designer David Mullich’s goals on what we are to gleam from the Island’s false surface authorship. Nowhere is this comprehension more central to navigating play than the Town Hall (and similarly, I feel the Town Hall is the very heart of the game, the third reason it must not be extracted.) # is presented with a simulation game designed by the Island, and of course you and your character alike immediately set to work breaking the game-within-a-game, as all video game players do. To do so, one must develop an understanding of the interdependencies of the statistics on offer of leverage: food, water, security, surveillance, etc. Losing, failure, is absolutely crucial to understanding — when you get the game’s true ending it will even tell you “TO LOSE IS TO WIN.” If you defund the police state or reduce the water supply, riots, street fights, and sabotage break out like a rash, and the bodycount climbs higher and higher and higher until we are told that maybe now we understand how hard the Caretaker has it. There is no reason put forward why things should be this way, why humans with all their material needs met would behave worse than wild animals and repeatedly destroy each other and their own water supply past all sense. It is simply asserted that people need cowed, and laundered through the false natural objectivity of abstract mechanics purporting to represent real life. When we decide we’d rather win the game, the path is straightforward (if a bit finicky to get the game to recognize): Do nothing, or next to nothing. Maintain the status quo. Either the Island is perfect or things just have to be this way. Not only is there no escape from society, there is no alternative. It is a depiction of power from power’s own diseased perspective. Lucky for us that this time around we are heavily cued to see how the game is rigged.

Further games-within-a-game are deliberately rote to the point of blurring the line between structured and directed gameplay and the buildings that are closer to cutscenes. You visit the Hospital, but their interest, as is too often historically the case in real life, is not in caring for you but in enforcing your normality to their expectations and standards. Disembodied, you are administered psychological tests with obscure means and ends, reminiscent of the above segment of the show, such as “free association” under pressure of penalty for incorrect thought. There’s a flash card segment where the screen literally flashes at you as you are challenged to pick one of 5 random symbols, which certainly feels like it’s doing something sinister to your brain. Either underlines again the persistent jaundiced view of the player’s performance of following orders and orientating their behavior towards success and reward, just like the meaningless (this time on purpose) points system that gleefully dips into negatives and always randomizes what the top potential score is out of so it’s out of reach. Although oddly, it rewards its points for disobeying the Island and thus acts as the same straightforward do-what-the-designer-has-in-mind incentive structure as in Berzerk or Space Invaders. Skepticism about David Mullich’s sculpture is not so foregrounded, but in this way he inserts and implicates himself as using the same game tools to guide thought as the Island, just to opposite ends.

More shockingly extreme self-reflexive design is found in the School. Rote pedagogy has been a notion for a long time that never seems to totally die off no matter how distasteful and discredited culture at large finds it. Here, it is extended to absurdity. This school is, like in The General, a wholly-computerized one that can not teach you anything useful, but instead only tests your ability to memorize and regurgitate absurdly useless and long strings of numbers. It wants to make you a computer, too: an ideal and pliant and reliably predictable respondent, a goal of the schooling system at large since at least the early Industrial era. (Schools also rhyme with prisons.) The School’s paranoid point exists somewhere at the intersection of education and computers, that in some ways, they are at cross-purposes. This is remarkable, because this game was commissioned and published by Edu-Ware, which as the name implies, is a company whats main line of business is educational computer software! This fraught self-criticism is defused and redirected by the entire rest of the game towards less-sophisticated non-Edu-Ware titles that do not aim to engage you about the world outside computer thought, from, in the manual’s words, “the many mindless carbon copy programs that are out there, to software that […] has something to say or teach about the global village in which we live.” I leave it as an exercise for the reader to what extent they’ve truly earned such a smug brag.

The end of the game takes its cue from Fall Out, that infamous finale episode where The Prisoner [1967-68] abolishes itself in a spectacle of gleeful surreal anarchy operating now entirely on a non-literal level. The Prisoner [1980] does not go nearly as far — imagine my disappointment! Instead, it’s one of those endings that feels inevitable, the thesis point to which this essayistic video game has built. The player comes to realize that the Island that has them trapped is nothing more than their complicity in the game itself, which naturally follows on from the self-sabotaging metatextuality tying critique of form to critique of society which doesn’t come from the TV show at all. If we’re talking 60s, it’s more reminiscent of friggin’ Godard. It’s the same curtain-pulling artifice-drop as Colossal Cave Adventure. To win the game, to escape it, is to turn outwards. To abandon that script you’ve been following. This has been and can be seen as a kind of kiss-off to video games, but it simply centers thinking and living out in society as bigger than video games, art as subordinate to life. It’s only a spit in the eye if you begin from a strong arrogant baseline assumption that it isn’t so. It’s practically a pat on the head for reaching Nirvannic post-material enlightenment. David Mullich certainly wasn’t leaving the medium in disgust, he stayed active as a designer until 2010. His last hands-on code was scaffolding for The Prisoner 2 [1982], and he later headed up I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream [1995], a more conventional adventure game adaptation of 1960s techno-paranoia.

Two weeks ago, I implied Adventure [1980] was the most ambitious game of the year… but it really does depend on what your definition of ambition is. The Prisoner’s manual also proposes to school teachers ways they could teach their class using The Prisoner on subjects like civics and psychology, or less laughably, a circa 1980 Games As Literature unit on critical thinking and literary devices. That’s a remarkably ballsy and cocky proposal, fitting right alongside how it punningly declares “If you want a quick shoot-em-up, look elseware. This is a psychological assault, and such things take time,” but it’s not really… wrong, to propose the game as a subject of serious study. It’s like it’s tailor-made for this blog. Not that I think I’ve even said all there is to say about this game in my 4332 words. I’d go so far as to say if you are interested in examining games as a form, you should play this game. The Prisoner is a slap and a half.

Please help real Prisoners kidnapped by an unjust police state and hostile, nonsensical society by donating to protester bail funds and helping out however else you can wherever you are.

5 thoughts on “The Prisoner [1980]

  1. This sounds amazing. I just watched a Joe Strummer tribute where George Harrison’s son signed off with the ‘be seeing you’ hand sign. When I was in a mental hospital, I recited the ‘I am not a number, I am a free man’ thing…

    Liked by 1 person

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