Six of One, Half a Dozen of the Other

February 23, 2009

Patrick McGoohan, star, creator and mastermind of The Prisoner, one of television’s premier experiments in thought provoking entertainment, has been dead for about a month. Having been turned onto McGoohan’s trippy, Kafka-esque spy-thriller long before, I’d have written about it if I hadn’t been busy about the business of trying to actually get a job somewhere or another. But seeing as I’m feeling just about as hopeful as Number 6 usually is at the end of one of his abortive attempts to escape the Village, I fugured there’s no time like the present to take a second look at this seventeen episode masterpiece, and as I’ve been rewatching each instalment (and trying to figure out exactly what order they should be played in) I stumbled across a strange realization I’m embarassed never to have noticed before.

Patrick McGoohan wasn’t just an actor, writer or director– he was also a game designer.

Granted, to a certain extent all dramatists are game designers, because in essense, there’s something very game-like about conflict, or at least the way that a story usually presents itself as a contest of contrasting wills– two parties want something, and only one can get what it wants, resulting in one side winning, the other losing. A pair of warriors can fight, with only one walking away alive. A love triangle can develop, in which the best of all possible outcomes is bound to leave one person with a broken heart. All storytellers are more-or-less presenting their audience with what can basically be described as the recorded outcome of fictional games, and while many of them may go out of their way to point out the commonalities between games and conflicts, few of them ever go out of their way to embrace the connection and establish it as a forefront theme.

Fritz Lang is probably one of the best examples of this type of storytelling– he often described his films of warring criminal masterminds, police detectives and other such victims of fate as gagenspiel— opponents at play. In everything from his landmark Dr. Mabuse series, the classic early-talkie M to even his latter-day Hollywood projects like Hangmen Also Die or While the City Sleeps, Lang often visualized and dramatized his stories with an eye, ear and mind for the gamelike qualities of his stories– not only did it help articulate the action of the story, helping the audience keep clear of everyone’s motivations, positions of power and strategies, but as a thematic device it was a way to invite the audience into the priorities of the main characters, making them spectators of whatever dramatic sport he put on the screen. Staging his thrillers as games made it that much easier to encourage filmgoers to root for one side or the other.

Moreover, however, he often presented actual games in his films themselves– usually connected to gambling, most visibly in the silent Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (The Gambler), in which a criminal mastermind manipulates the idle-rich of Weimar Germany into financial ruin through rigging games at casinos and the stock-market. His choice of games was important, and expressive– to Lang, a game was a set of rules, a system by which two players competed, and whether or not one turned out victorious was all a matter of how well one knew that system, and was able to put it under his control. If all Langian cinema is about men vying with fate, then Lang’s more Mabusian films were about warring factions vying against fate and each other, with fate itself as the game which everybody plays.

In Mabuse’s own words– “Expressionism is a game. Everything to day is mere passtime!” Lang was one of the first and best ones to articulate this kind of message, and from his example countless storytellers have used games and game-like narratives to hammer home their messages. From George Lucas and the holographic chess-board (“Let the wookie win”) to the creators of Lost and backgammon (“Two sides– one light, the other dark”), games are instrumental to storytelling as plot-devices, structures and metaphors. Of all the storytellers who’ve used games in their works, however, I don’t believe I can think of any who did so as deeply as Patrick McGoohan, because he did something relatively rare– he didn’t just stage his drama as a game, or present games within his drama. He also introduced new rules to old games, or new games entirely. Within The Prisoner, he participated in game design itself.

Two episodes stand out to me, in particular– “Checkmate”, in which McGoohan’s Number-6 stages one of his many abortive escape attempts with help from an aged chess-master, and “It’s Your Funeral”, one of several games in which Number-6 plays an elaborate game involving boxing gloves, trampolines and a pool which McGoohan himself devised called Kosho. There are many other instances in which Number-6 and other characters may play games, or compare the existential nature of a captive spy’s life in the Village as a game, but these two instances stand out, because are inherently original game-moments– where McGoohan either presents an entirely new game (Kosho) or provides a subtle alteration to a pre-existing game (Chess) to prove a point in the course of the story.

In the case of Kosho, McGoohan’s creativity is applaudable, but the game itself is rather simplistic, and not all that interesting– opponents duel in a sort of gentle martial-arts combat, exchanging mild blows with gloved fists and safety helmets as they bounce on trampolines with a pool between them. The object, naturally, is to push your opponent into the pool. It’s a clever sport, and an occasion to marvel at the sublime surreal streak running throughout the entire show, but not very revelatory when it comes to game-think, in and of itself.

McGoohan’s interpretation of Chess in “Checkmate”, on the other hand, is sublime (I should point out the episode’s writer, Gerald Kelsey). At the beginning of the episode, Number-6 takes part in a game of living-chess, where various inhabitants of the Village stand on a lawn-sized chessboard, following the orders of two chess-masters to play out the roles of their prescribed pieces. The major dramatic moment comes when one of the Rooks rebels and disobeys his commands (prompting his immediate arrest and torture-induced re-education), but the most important game-moment can be observed at once, and is discussed later on– none of the “pieces” in the living-chess match wear different colors. It’s impossible to tell any of them apart.

Immediately, this set my mind buzzing– imagine playing a game of Chess in which both players use pieces of an identical color. Many commentators have speculated that Chess may be a “broken” game, but with that addition, there’s suddenly an element of memory that comes into play– if you can’t tell your pieces apart immediately just by looking at them, you have to go back and remember where you moved which piece, and make sure you don’t accidentally kill one of your own. I imagine the rules could be simple– each piece has a color on the bottom, to tell them apart. First, you choose a piece you want to move, then you check its color. If the color isn’t yours, you lose a turn, but if it is, you get to move it. If  you happen to kill one of your own pieces, tough luck. As a conceptual feat, it would be extraordinary to watch, with the possibility of shoddy-intelligence and friendly-fire built into the structure of the game, making Chess not just a game about war, but the fog of war.

Later on, McGoohan and Kesley elaborate on the theme as a chessmaster who Number-6 allies with explains the motives behind the game– why should two different sides be able to tell each other apart by different uniforms or costumes in a game when they can’t rely on such artificial differences in real life? In a show dedicated to the shadowy Cold-War world of espionage like The Prisoner, such considerations are fundamental to the themes of exactly how much an individual can depend upon people who claim to be friends or enemies. Instead of relying on colors, the chessmaster says one must tell who-is-who “by their disposition, by the moves they make,” a philosophy which is put to the test as Number-6 attempts to judge which of his fellow prisoners can be trusted to join him in an escape attempt and which ones are enemy agents based on their behavior throughout the Village.

Of course, as I said, there’s countless other moments throughout The Prisoner which can be related to game design– Number-6’s various attempts to escape, the Village’s various attempts to break his spirit, as well as all sorts of civic rituals related to the Village, mostly pertaining to how they determine their figurehead leaders, the rotating-door cast of Number-2’s. There were even a pair of early-computer adventure games based on The Prisoner written by David Mullich that sound absolutely interesting, and saddeningly out of print and unemulated. My games of conversation and interrogation all betray a certain debt to creators like McGoohan, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other game-designers who shared a similar link to his work. As such, I doubt there’s little more I can say to elaborate on what The Prisoner can offer critics and practitioners of game development alike, so I’ll let that be the end and simply insist that anyone who hasn’t go ahead and check out the series– a phenomonally easy feat, now that it’s all been put online for free. In that spirit, until next time, pleasant dreamers– be seeing you…

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