“Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment, and will die here like rotten cabbages!”
Being a player of games, I am often examining the works of fiction I enjoy in other mediums and wondering how they would fare in my beloved medium of the videogame. Rarely do I get the chance to see it happen, and when it does it is often disappointing. Adaptation decay, they call it – the spark that made the tv show, film, or book so engrossing or thought provoking is lost when the game designer burdens it with clunky game mechanics that don’t fit. The last such encounter I had was Deadly Premonition, a fairly unsubtle re-imagining of Twin Peaks that destroyed the pacing and atmosphere of its inspiration by throwing the player into drawn out combat-heavy “nightmare” sections whereupon you fought wave after wave of zombies who had probably never set foot in the Double R.
I began to wonder why this happened. The setting of Twin Peaks, I thought, would make an enthralling setting for a game – and Deadly Premonition’s Greenvale certainly lived up to that aspect. The townsfolk were interesting, and I definitely felt drawn into uncovering their numerous secrets and their relation to the case I was investigating. I realise now that the themes that made Twin Peaks so interesting didn’t communicate well into the videogame medium: The corruption of innocence, the presence of evil in a familiar, nondescript, setting? Removing the combat situations from Deadly Premonition you find yourself wandering around triggering cutscenes. Those mechanics don’t speak particularly strongly to the themes the game was emulating, but the combat makes it all too blunt also. As entertaining as Deadly Premonition is, it unfortunately pales in comparison to its source material.
Leaving that behind, I was watching The Prisoner the other day when it suddenly dawned on me that The Village would be a fascinating location to set a game. From that rather “fanboy” pondering came a much deeper truth – all games are set in a Village, of sorts. I hypothesise that the central themes of The Prisoner, and their presentation through allegory, make it the ideal work of fiction for a videogame adaptation. Once I explain that, I will go on to explain why I think most games unwittingly are already half way there.
The Prisoner is a 17 part TV series that ran from 1967-1968 here in the UK. It was co-created, written, produced, and sometimes directed by it’s star, Patrick Mcgoohan. It follows the exploits of a spy who, as shown in the opening titles, resigns from his job but who is then kidnapped and held prisoner in a mysterious coastal village where his every waking moment is monitored and manipulated by his captors in the attempt to discover why he resigned from his position.
All of that is of course a set up for the star of the piece, The Village. An allegorical fantasy land where the opposing philosophies of individualism and collectivism fight it out through the cipher of one man, struggling to maintain his identity in a place where everyone else has had theirs stripped away – or at least that’s how it seems, as uncertainty and misdirection are the key weapons The Village possesses. A place that is so overtly over-friendly, and positively Orwellian in its approach to civil liberties, The Village was initially based on a stately home used to house and monitor spies after WW2 who knew too much to be allowed to dissipate back into civilian life. As the setting for a psychodrama about one’s sense of self, and what it means to be individual it is an inspired master stroke in evocative story telling.
The protagonist, issued reluctantly with the title “Number 6” upon arrival, is the one struggling against the tide of uniformity, conformity, and the pressures of his environment. Everybody, Number 6 is the player character in most games ever.
Why The Prisoner needs to be a game..
Before I go on I should mention that in 1981 the company Edu-Ware released a text-based graphical adventure game called “Prisoner” that was based loosely on The Prisoner, but was not officially licensed (Their process was astounding – they wrote to ITC, the copyright holders, enquiring to see if they would object to a theme restaurant being opened that used elements from The Prisoner – when ITC said it wouldn’t be a problem Edu-Ware went on to make the game! Imagine that happening now!). Wikipedia cites that the game was reportedly a training tool for the CIA, and that it features a maze which procedurally generates indefinitely until you hit the “escape” key, which makes it very interesting indeed. I have only just found a version playable online and hope to share my thoughts on it when I am finished.
Forgetting about that for now let me explain how I would make The Prisoner as a game, and why.
Through your eyes…
In the series, the viewer learned precious little about Number 6′s life before he resigned his position. This isn’t an accident, Number 6 is – as he says – a free man. His affairs are his business, and the viewer is in some ways no better than the captors, for we are monitoring his every action too, wanting to learn more. In a game this is a very different dynamic. We have to be the prisoner, and so we cannot be someone else. The player character therefore won’t be Number 6, or at least the Number 6 we know in Patrick McGoohan. To make it work as a game it is our identity that has to be at risk. Here is where I would employ something that the majority of players may find superficial and pointless: I would integrate a character creation system for this game despite the fact that A) it will be in the first-person, B) no-one will ever refer to your character by the name you give them, and C) if you play well you would hopefully not provide any details at all.
The game is against you. The game is The Village. That point cannot be stressed enough.
As you play the game you may be faced with the same situation Number 6 is faced with in “Arrival”, where he is presented with a psychometric test, that is actually a symbolic show of power from The Village (when presented with a round peg and a square hole, the hole changes shape to accomodate, and capture, the round peg). The character creation screen has echoes of this, but I wouldn’t want to force the player to sit through pages and pages of tests until the game has a mark on you. I’d much rather integrate the Village’s monitoring of you into the game itself. Thus, I propose the game presents you with situations not too unlike the psychologist encounters in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. Remembering that you are trying to defy your captors I would expect players to answer questions, and perform tasks in a manner contrary to their actual feelings, and take that into account when managing their outcomes down the line. As Number 6 does in that scene in “Arrival”, storming off in a huff will be a valid response. What I want impress upon the player is a sense of a paradoxical “free captivity”. You are a free-range hen. Wander around as long as you like, eventually you will come upon the chicken wire, and the only way is back.
This is where the advantages of being a first-person game come to the fore. Also, where my idea of implementing a real-time system (a la Pathologic) add to the player’s engagement in the situation in a way I think a text-based adventure would miss out on.
In a graphical adventure game you aren’t really interacting with a world, you’re interacting with an interface, and while that’s essentially true to any game, a first-person game with the full range of movement (an FPS without the S) is, to me, a more fulfilling way of exploring a place and getting a feel for it. The foot travel between locations, having to interact with the world hands on, I think makes a huge difference. Another game that had a real-time system but the interface of a point-and-click was The Last Express, and while it was a wonderful concept I often felt like I was just clicking around rooms back and forth waiting to trigger cutscenes.
The reason I want you to be able to explore the world fully, in detail, is because I want to make the environment (grounded in inherent unreality of a videogame map) feel as authentic as I can. It will have manicured lawns, and be unrealistically clean because The Village is unrealistically clean – it’s a place where stubbing a cigarette on the ground could have you imprisoned. I don’t expect anyone to think of the environment as truly authentic, but I want them to think I’m aiming for The Village’s level of authenticity when I pull the rug out from under them.
Plus, look at this map for a location. The possibilites are endless, The Village is full of potential for an interesting game to unfold. The fact that there is a sea but no seaworthy boat, and the place is surrounded by ominous sounding “mountains” makes this place strangely familiar to anyone who has seen an outdoor game map before. Even if you go to the areas inbetween to escape, The Prisoner comes with its own device for such circumstances: “Rover”, the big white suffocating balloon.
As I mentioned earlier, videogame worlds are synthetic from the ground up (which gives a great semiotic justification for the incidental “extras” having the same character models – as they have forsaken their identity and slipped into the background). Literally nothing has to behave the way it does in the real world. The fact that The Village is allegorical and surrealist makes it easier to exploit that. You, the player, will gradually come to understand that you have no real agency in your surroundings. You will have to be especially cunning to affect control of them. To give an example from the series opener No. 6 attempts to commandeer a helicopter, only to find that after a certain distance the helicopter stops responding to his controls, and the joystick is wrested from him – steering the helicopter and landing it back from where it was taken. No.6 wasn’t going to succeed with the tools he is given (a sequence that would be mesmerising in a first person game, but lacklustre in a point-and-click I might add).
This creates an interesting conflict to the designer of an adaptation. It is unfair to pit players in a world that is completely beyond their agency. It is more fair to leave things like physics as close to their natural counterparts as possible. Let the player be certain that simple tools will behave as you would expect, but that they cannot expect a quick-fix solution like the helicopter. Reward creativity, reward their individualism in the mechanics while coercing them to comply in the narrative.
“What was that?” you gasp! “Ludonarrative dissonance!?” Why yes, it was. The designer really wants the player to win by overcoming the voice of conformity, the challenges put forth. That doesn’t mean we have to motivate them with a friendly character telling them so. The reason this is, is that a success and failure state is practically impossible to impose when planning a game where the interface itself is the kindly antagonist of The Village. The sooner the player realises that the character they control is the only trustworthy thing in the game, the sooner they will realise that any positive or negative re-enforcement beyond that is meaningless.
A still tongue makes a happy life…
An important consideration to make when making a game with a protagonist is how they interact with the other characters. A game about identity would never work if all of a sudden your character started spouting dialogue like Duke Nukem with no prompt or option. You could argue even giving the players dialogue options is a dangerous tactic – putting words in the player’s mouth, or presenting them with binary opinions. Never mind the fact that the UI is part of the system the player is trying to defeat. You can start adding all sorts of gimmicky things to give the player misdirection – a keyword system for dialogue that indicates the subject of the response but not necessarily the tone that is then coloured in a manner to trick the player (colouring a cooperative response red when the player may think it would be aggressive or contrary). You may even want to flat out trick the player by having them click on any dialogue option only for them all to have the same response – leaving the player with no option but to say nothing. You can see how this would quickly become unpopular. The better way to look at the UI, then, is to see it as though all the things that are meant to be representative of real life things (character creation being like No. 6′s files and questionnaires) can be as malevolent as usual, but then the actual UI should remain reliable, as the UI that controls all of your character’s movement and responses is meant to be your character’s individualism. If the game tricks you into saying the wrong thing, I’d hope it’d be a real trick and not a cheap shot.
Once Upon A Time…
Okay, so we have a first-person, open world game set in real-time. Since the game is about individualism I would also suggest the ability to amass a small inventory, and perhaps some basic character levelling to enforce that your actions make who you are. After that the game essentially plays like an adventure game with action elements with puzzles, and “quest givers” – though these are essentially characters you can interact with, follow, spy on, and try to decipher. Before agreeing to do anything for anyone the player must think about their options, their motivations and the possible outcomes of their actions. As No.6 you will have to monitor the degree to which you are under suspicion of escape/insurrection (and perhaps wonder why you aren’t) and figure out your escape.
My idea would be this: There are several means of escape that are only viable after a number of preparatory tasks have been accomplished. There is a routine in The Village that runs for a week or so, and to succeed you are best served living out a week and monitoring what goes on while trying to keep your head down. All the while your captors will be trying to get you to talk, so you will have to balance the amount of cooperation you give them with the amount of resistance. If you cooperate fully you will end up giving them what they want, if you cooperate still too much you will have no free time (and cannot garner trust) to plan an escape, if you don’t cooperate at all you will be under too severe a watch to accomplish anything. As you play you will be subjected to the kinds of torture No. 6 was, for instance being drugged, having loud music play that you cannot switch off, hearing constant radio announcements, and of course being followed by Rover.
Combat, I imagine, will feature as a last resort – and like in the series, will primarily take the form of fist fighting or meleé combat. Really, though, your mind is the weapon.
And we’re already playing this, you say?
That’s what I say! In a manner of speaking. The Village I would make in an adaptation of The Prisoner is symbolic, maybe satirical, of game design tropes we already know. The most obvious is the open-world game. The world is sort of open in open-world games, but they have invisible walls and not-so-subtle ones at that. Putting that concept into The Prisoner, well it explains itself. Again, in open-world games the characters are, more often than not, two dimensional quest-givers with three lines of dialogue, or walking vegetables who exist only to be hit with a car or accidentally shot. Setting them into The Prisoner’s universe makes them thematically blank, they daren’t be anything else for fear of retribution.
In other, deeper ways, The Prisoner can bring some things to light. Having control stripped from you (like the helicopter scene) can be a good satirical look at how scripted sequences and cutscenes break up gameplay, and take the fate of your protagonist out of your hands. The same things, as well as the dialogue/silence debate I brought up earlier bring about the notion that all games in which you are expected to care about the fate of your protagonists give you precious little opportunity to exert your individuality in them. Even the better attempts at it, with RPGs that give you character creation sometimes don’t pan out – Dragon Age: Origins left me feeling a bit numb with my character, unable to project enough, despite his unique identity, to feel as though he was really mine. Mass Effect, on the other end of the scale allowed me to voice my Shepard much more, but the character was their own person. I am not suggesting The Prisoner game would be an answer to these problems, but it can at least bring them up in an entertaining fashion.
Be seeing you.
UPDATE: Check out this post by Sinan Kubba entitled “My Life is My Own” in response to my own. It brings up a couple of things I didn’t really mention… like, you know, what happens at the end.
Mike Dunbar (Follow me on Twitter at MikeDunbar and for Chronoludic updates click here)