Hello, and welcome to our new series which picks out interesting things that we'd love someone to make a game about.
This isn't a chance for us to pretend we're game designers, more an opportunity to celebrate the range of subjects games can tackle and the sorts of things that seem filled with glorious gamey promise.
The first time I escaped from prison was back in 1996. I was on the moon at the time, and things were beginning to look hopeless.
I was being held in the Lunar Penitentiary New Alcatraz: "Easy to get in, impossible to escape." So said the prison warden, a humanoid reptile sneering at me through a monitor in the cell wall. I believed him. How could a prisoner of intergalactic war like me ever hope to make it past the high-tech security systems of an alien jailhouse?
And yet, mere seconds into my orientation, a jailbreak was underway.
As I watched the warden through my monitor, something entirely unexpected happened: a hand holding a pistol emerged from frame left. I held my breath. The warden barely had enough time to widen his eyes before the muzzle exploded at the side of his head. Whoever my mysterious benefactor was, he'd left a pistol in my locker and unlocked the door to my cell. Gun in hand, I ran headlong (read: strafed awkwardly) down the low-res corridors of New Alcatraz, an airy sense of freedom swelling in my heart.
Fade To Black: my very first jailbreak.
I've foiled many forms of incarceration in the intervening years. I've kicked down doors, filed through iron bars, faked my own death with a ketchup bottle- I've even ripped a hole or two through the spacetime continuum. What I haven't done is spend any time doing any of the things actual prisoners do.
Perhaps the explanation for this is obvious: video games are supposed to be fun; prisons are not. Prison breaks are simply an expression of a desire to break the rules society imposes on us: anyone who's ever been told no dessert until you've finished your vegetables is psychologically primed to enjoy a good prison break. But I worry this fetishisation of incarceration comes at a cost, namely a rejection of the idea that anything meaningful ever happens in prison. This is simply not true, as anyone who has ever listened to Radiotopia's Ear Hustle will tell you.
Co-produced by Nigel Poor, a visual artist, and Earlonne Woods, a former inmate at San Quentin State Prison, Ear Hustle is a podcast about life behind bars. Each episode is truly revelatory.
An early favourite of mine is 'Unwritten', which begins by introducing us to Drew Sabatino. At the time of recording, Drew had spent five years in prison for assault with a deadly weapon. During that time, he has turned his hand to party planning. "I have 168 birthdays in my calendar," Drew says, "and every single one of those people get cards for their birthday." He makes decorations out of coloured markers and toilet paper. Towards the end of the episode, we meet George Cole, aka Mesro, who carries a handmade Magic: The Gathering deck with him wherever he goes. According to Mesro, he and his fellow gamers have created one of the prison's only racially neutral zones: "Everybody's welcome to come over there, and if they want to come and hang out with the gamers, by all means, come and see us."
In another episode, transgender inmate Lady Jae explains how she crafts her own makeup: "You can take a magazine that has a high content of pigment on the paper and you can just shave the colors off the paper, right, and you mix that with a little bit of water, not, just a drop. And you mix that. That become your shadow, your lips, and your rouge."
I imagine a game that has more in common with Fullbright's Gone Home than Mouldy Toof's The Escapists. And if inmates like Drew, Lady Jae and Mesro were allowed to consult on its design, I imagine they might populate the environments a little bit differently. Fewer bars of soap, fewer shivs stashed under mattresses. More toilet paper party streamers, homebrew makeup and playing cards. More humanity, in other words.