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The Prisoner Dilemma

Can games have something to say without throwing it in your face?

One of the most fantastic, often-referenced, television series ever created was a short, science-fiction/action series called "The Prisoner".  No, I'm not talking about the recent remaked, I'm talking about the 1960's spy show that lasted all of 17 episodes, and whose creative spirit, design, and subversive message created an indelible mark on the counter-culture movement.  One of the things that made the show so great, though, is that it is far more layered and subtle than the main premise -  "No Man is a Number" - makes the show out to be.  As games embrace more and more of the cinematic aspects of film, and attempt to create more important and thematic narratives, can games create this similar layered experience?

For those that have not seen the show, and since it has recently been rereleased on Blu-Ray, I highly recommend picking it up, the original version of "The Prisoner" is a true cult classic when it comes to early television, particularly in that attempts to explore the story-telling capabilities of a relatively new medium in which more and more money was being invested.

Sound familiar to anyone?

What makes "The Prisoner" such a profound work of fiction is more than its allegorical style, rife with symbolism and unique art and production design.  It starts with an exceedingly simple concept:  A spy resigns for no reason, is kidnapped, and someone wants to know why he resigned.  Add to that each episode is so full of allegory and symbolism, and so eager to pose new questions without answering old ones that it makes the theories that abound around such recent shows as "Lost" seem practically banal by comparison.  All of this was accomplished in 17 episodes - a summer filler in the current TV market.

It isn't that "The Prisoner" is a great universe for a game - to be honest, it isn't - the dilemma stems from the exceedingly layered universe that Patrick McGoohan created and that the conflict presented in the premise is an internal conflict represented allegorically by his struggles in the Village. 

McGoohan, the creator, stated on more than one occasion that his goal with "The Prisoner" was to create something that people would want to talk about and carry away different meanings from each episode viewed.  On that account, he succeeded, as the sheer volume of websites dedicate to the show continue to see traffic on the Internet.

What can we learn from the "The Prisoner" as developers, then?

Have A Clearly Defined, Simple Premise:  This is the spine of your story structure, and without a clearly defined, explicit, fundamental concept upon which everything else turns, your story will fail.  You must have this premise nailed down, and it must drive your protagonist and antagonist.  Too often, game developers have a needlessly complex premise which requires further twisting and turning to fit the game mechanics around.  Simplify Simplify Simplify.

Commit to Story Early:  This is worthy of repeating, and the fact that it keeps coming up again and again shows that it is still a problem.  Preproduction time is spent less on game story and universe than it is system design and proof of concept.  As I was recently told:  pick out some interesting locations, and the story will spring from it.  I think that is a rather "cart before the horse" mentality - write a great story first, and use that as an inspiration for locations.

Eschew Game Immediacy:  Games are exceedingly emphemeral.  Developers never know if their titles are going to be even a modest hit, let alone picked up for a sequel.  Don't think that way - the most compelling game universes are deep, explained, rational, even if the rationale behind their existance is unknown. 

Embrace Subtlety:  So concerned are game developers that their story or message is lost in the gameplay that whatever message they want to present is shoved in their face. Establish the rules of the story and the game universe with the assumption that the player will appreciate the complexity of your creation, even if it is not explicitly presented to them.  Layer in allegory, hint at deeper complexity, and let your players fill in the blanks.

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