The Prisoner: A Loose Thread Worth Pulling

The Prisoner (1980) is a game unlike any other that I've played.  You puzzle your way through a series of bizarre scenarios and enigmatic encounters, only to find your character dumped right back to where they started from.  You will find yourself spontaneously losing the game for reasons that only become apparent in retrospect, and the narrative will occasionally break the fourth wall in ways that leave it unclear exactly where the game world ends and the player's world begins.

My first instinct is to interpret The Prisoner as a petulant middle finger to established video game conventions; an anti-commercial statement that aims more for art that entertainment.  The reality, however, is a bit fuzzier than that.  Its creator, David Mullich, acknowledges "...trying to break the rules that I saw in games of that time..." (see his video interview), but the PC game industry had barely just gotten started in 1980, and any conventions established in contemporary games would hardly have been written in stone.  For context, this game was released in the same year as the first graphic adventure game and a year before Ultima and Wizardry would popularize the CRPG.

Instead, to understand the Prisoner, I think it makes more sense to step back and look at the broader cultural landscape.  Video games may have been in their infancy in 1980, but narrative fiction most definitely was not.  The television show the game is based on is arguably one of the most bizarre ever created, a surrealist drama so outside the '60s mainstream that its creator had to go into hiding after it concluded.  To create a straightforward narrative based on the show would have been silly, so Mullich rightly tried to create an experience that would be confounding in such a way as to reproduce the feelings he got from the television show.

And I think he succeeded, but the passage of time has made it easy to misunderstand what he was doing.  When we look at it today, we see the crude ASCII graphics and odd interface, and probably think that this was just a designer who didn't know what he was doing.  But The Prisoner was actually fairly successful for its time -- not Space Invaders successful, but successful in the small hobbyist community that already owned personal computers.  Why?

Bear in mind that, in 1980, computer owners were mostly intellectuals and tinkerers, and such people were often looking for something that challenged their minds.  Your average person on the street had no interest in computers and saw no need to have one in 1980, so heady games like this were going to control a larger share of the market than they do today (the early text adventures were cut from the same cloth).

Viewed from this perspective, a modernization of the game's graphics and mechanics would probably improve it less than you'd think, and might even detract from it.  For example, you might think of replacing the "#" sign with a humanoid character to represent the player, but the "#" avatar is actually an effective abstraction here, in that it robs the character of any individuality and reinforces the notion that he is nothing more than a number in this island dystopia.  Or maybe you would add carefully designed backdrops to pretty up the theater or the wilds, but then the island becomes more like a rich fantasy world rather than a psychological prison.

Admittedly, there are times when the game's idiosynchrasies seem to lack a thematic purpose.  For example, I don't know why you use the U/D/L/R keys to navigate some areas and the N/S/E/W keys to navigate others, nor do I see a good reason why tracking inventory and money would need to be so difficult.

But if you're confused by the images in the theater, the activity in the bar, or the fact that the game is so difficult to "win", then I can tell you now -- you're supposed to be.

The Prisoner is not a masterpiece, but I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to game outside the box (and you should want this).  The themes here just ooze with possibilities -- there's a reason I spent seven entries fictionalizing my playthrough -- and it's a shame that other developers didn't build on these ideas in the '80s and '90s.  There was a sequel, but even Mullich himself admits that the original wasn't very influential.  Under different circumstances, The Prisoner might have been the first step in a captivating branch of game design.  Unfortunately, the mainstreaming of video games meant that the big businesses that took over the gaming industry were unlikely to pick up where Mullich left off.  Its legacy is therefore much murkier, seeming more like a loose thread in video game history.

Times are changing, however.   Games like the brilliant Rusty Lake series prove that there's an appetite for surrealism in video games.  What's more, with independent game developers now reaping the benefits of free distribution, crowd-sourced funding, and a plethora of low-cost tools, somebody can make a game like The Prisoner without having to get on their hands and knees in a high-rise office.

Here's to hoping that they do.


  1. I first read about this game in a book about computer game history way back in 2006 or so - I really wish I could remember what it was called, because it was a big influence on the way I think about gaming - at the time, I felt DOS = old computer games, and had no use for games on other computer systems unless they had been ported to DOS, (with very few exceptions such as the early Sierra games on Apple II). At the very least, this book planted a seed of interest, which eventually came to help me learn about and better appreciate systems like the Apple II and C64, and in general is likely the reason why I try to play all games on their original platform now. It was definitely computer-focused, had little or no console coverage, was heavy on graphics, tended to group games by the same developer together, and I don't recall it going much further than Doom.

    But I did try to play The Prisoner, thanks to reading about it in that book. I remember an anecdote about how there were rumors that the CIA used this game to train agents. I was pretty intrigued, but I couldn't find any copies that worked, except for one copy of the sequel. And then I just got frustrated and confused, feeling utterly directionless. I'd solve the maze, then get dumped on an island full of buildings, some of them inaccessible, some of them leading to minigames where I had absolutely no idea what the rules were or if I was making any progress or if I had won or lost or even affecting anything at all, or be rebuffed with demands like "YOU NEED A CLOWN SUIT" but no indication of how to get one. I was pretty curious how the game might trick me into giving up that resignation code, but never encountered any of its tricks, and from the looks of your playthrough, it sounds like the game didn't do a whole lot with that particular arc.

    1. It actually did do some tricks, but I was having trouble thinking of ways to put it into the story because when they trick you, the game immediately ends, so to address it, I’d have to end the playthrough (or awkwardly revive it).

      For example, there was one point where they have you doing a memory game where you’re repeating numbers. Sometimes they randomly throw in your resignation code as a number to repeat, and if you do, you lose.

      The most clever trick is one that would be missed by non-Apple II-gurus. The game pretends it has crashed and gives the offending line number as your resignation code. Most of us now would just restart the game, but if you were inclined to try to debug it, you would lose the game as soon as you try to view that line.

  2. The sequel is actually a remake, containing a couple of new ideas but more or less remodeling the original game. I reckon that the title must have been chosen for marketing reasons.

    1. Thanks, I was going to play it through, but if it would be mostly redundant, then I won't bother.

    2. The differences between the two versions are quite striking, so I think you'd find a lot of worthwhile aspects to blog about. I'd give it a shot, at least.

  3. Your take on this game is spot on and I really liked the fictionalization. Also, props for spending so much time on games that are generally regarded as “classics” while few newer analyses go beyond playing them a little and saying “must have been nice but Last of Us 2 has better graphics and is therefore automatically more immersive” essentially. Your take on “Phoenix” goes to show why the game is really well crafted and works so well some forty years later. It’s one of my favourite shmups to this day.


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