7 Things a good prison level does in a game

Hey, what happened to prison escape levels? You know, those levels where in the middle of a game you go to prison and all your gear is confiscated and then you have to escape and get your equipment back. I liked those levels, but you don’t see them around much these days I don’t think. Maybe you do. I don’t know. Point is I want to see more of them. More good ones anyway. I guess some people say that games shouldn’t have prison levels because they are offensive to real prisoners. Good point, good point. Also, other people complain that prison levels are a frustrating intrusion into the normal flow of the game. Whatever. They don’t know what they’re talking about unless they’re talking about badly made prison levels, and then they do. Skillfully designed prison levels can strip the game down to its pure roots and present the player with a simplified microcosm of the game as a whole. But wait, you don’t want me to blandly go into prose about this. I know what you want. You want me to explain it through a list, don’t you. Everyone on the internet loves lists, right? Well, so did the Nazis. Enjoy your list, Hitler!

Table of Contents:

Page 1: List and analysis

Intro Paragraph

Table of Contents

7 Things a well made prison level does

  1. Strips the game to its simplest and purist form.
  2. As last level, can create unique endgame level.
  3. Reestablishes usefulness of gear/weapons/etc.
  4. By returning gear over time, it acts as a microcosm for entire game.
  5. Focuses and condenses the game (down to a prison cell).
  6. Creates new gameplay or storytelling possibilities.
  7. something

5 things bad prison escape levels do

  1. Removing gear, then returning it all at once.
  2. Force narrative down player’s throat.
  3. Create an obstacle for an obstacle’s sake.
  4. Change the game mechanics for one level only.
  5.  Duplicate a real prison’s boring architecture.

Page 2: Endnotes (recommend you open this in separate tab as you read along)

  1. Vague definitions of “prison level” and “prison cell”
  2. Portal; the whole game is a prison level
  3. Marathon: Infinity; one of the best made prison levels
  4. Halo: CE (last level)
  5. Riven
  6. Another World
  7. Marathon 2
  8. Machinarium
  9. Elder Scrolls
  10. Return to Castle Wolfenstein
  11. Oblivion
  12. Deus Ex
  13. Escape From Butcher Bay

(For vague definition of “prison level” see Endnote #1)

7 Things a well made prison level does:

By removing gear:

1) Get’s back to the core of game; strips game down to its purist form.

The game is honed down to its basics. The excess gameplay accouterments are pruned and the gameplay is cleaned up. The game is simplified to necessary variables only. This can allow for cleaner and more focused level design as well as more focused narrative. (See #2: Portal.)

1a) Let’s player work on his fundamentals.

In the beginning of a game the player is learning the game engine, as well as the gameplay mechanics, as well as the story, etc.; he’s trying to get a handle on multiple things at once. By the middle of the game he has become comfortable with everything, most likely, unless he’s a total dweebus. But, he may have missed some mechanics or tactics  early in the game, or he may have forgotten about them as the game progressed in complexity. A prison level let’s the player fall back on and develop his fundamentals at a point when he is already fluent with the engine, story, and various rules. (See #3: Marathon: Infinity.)

A simple room in Portal

About as simple as gameplay can get.

2) Used at or near the end of a game this can create a relaxed, simplified, yet still challenging last level. It can create the gameplay equivalent of a denouement.

Removing gear could create a sense of closure as the last confrontation mirrors the gameplay at the beginning of the game. Or, because the gameplay has been simplified, there is less for the player to worry about. The player can focus on one task which and on having fun. (See #4: Halo’s Last Level)

A jeep from halo bouncing around

Can you figure out how this relates to this article?

By removing gear, then returning it over time:

3)  Reacquaints/recontextualizes/reestablishes the usefulness/utility of abilities/gear.

Similarly to a previous point, by stripping the player of all his gear, and then returning it one item at a time, the player gets to explore his gear at a time when he is fluent with the game engine. He gets back in touch with some basic tactics that he way have forgotten or never got a grasp on. Since he is given one weapon at a time he has a certain space to experiment with each one; the usefulness of his less powerful gear is reestablished and the player may now be aware of a wider range of game options. (See #3: Marathon: Infinity)

4) Acts as microcosm for the entire game.

As you progress through the prison level, collecting your pieces of gear one at a time, you are basically mirroring what you’ve been doing through the entire game, but in a more succinct form (especially considering that prison levels in combat games usually are balanced so the enemies become progressively more difficult as the player acquires new items, just like in the full game). The prison level is essentially a shortform version of the game as a whole. I think the implications of this are obvious. Also, the last portion of a really good prison level could easily foreshadow what you’ll be experiencing in levels to come, an aspect of prison levels that I don’t believe has ever been explored.

4a) Creates multiple rewards for the player.

For some reason players like getting things. They even like getting completely irrelevant things like achievements. So, after taking away their gear, they will be tickled silly to get it back. Each time they get an item they will get a thrill from becoming more powerful. A prison level could potentially provide the same series of empowering thrills as the full game, except in a much shorter span of time.

Chicago Bungie had a knack for making cool prison levels.

By trapping player in a small area:

(This relates to prison cells, gameplay moments where the player is constrained to a tight area in the game. For loose definition of “prison cell” see endnote #1.)

5) Can be used to concentrate and focus the player’s attention into one tight conceptual area.

As with removing gear, removing playspace prunes the unnecessary elements from a game and focuses on the most important variables. It can create a more focused, coherent, and even a less frustrating experience. The game becomes succinct and less complicated. The player knows that everything he needs to succeed is within his sight and within easy reach. (See #8: Machinarium.)

Prison level in Machinarium

A desire for cigarettes is a universal trait among inmates of any species or construction.

5a) Can be used to teach mechanics.

If a designer wants a player to learn a mechanic then a great way to do this is by concentrating the player’s experience into one small area where that mechanic is the most important element of success and all other distractions are eliminated.

5b) Can be used to create moments isolated from the rest of the game, or moments which use mechanics not used anywhere else in the game.

This is a difficult balancing act. Usually having a level where you’re using different mechanics from the rest of the game (mandatory vehicle levels) ends up being terrible. Done right, and in a small area, this can actually create really enjoyable moments that don’t have the same requirements or restrictions as the rest of the game. (See endnote #4: Halo’s Last Level, #6: Another World, and #13 Escape From Butcher Bay.)

I suppose you could call this scenario a mini-game. Do people still use the term mini-game these days?

Hanging in an alien cage in Another World.

During some playthroughs I would think about how brutal the rest of the level is, and then just stay in the cage.

By being a prison, narratively:

6) Creates potential for new gameplay or narrative moments.

Since a prison is a very different environment, architecturally and narratively, than a battlefield or a residential area it can also provide a very different gameplay and narrative experience than previous or subsequent levels. There’s the potential for all sorts of traps that you can use to turn against your enemies, but which are normally used to keep prisoners from escaping.

Also, since you’re in a prison, that means everyone else in cells is also an enemy of your enemies. This creates the possibility for one of the most fun mechanics in games: getting NPCs to fight each other. There are few things as satisfying as leading one group of enemies into another, or unleashing prisoners onto their unsuspecting captors. I’m still hoping to someday make a mod where getting NPCs to fight each other is the core mechanic used to progress through levels.

6a) Can allow player to experience narrative from relative safety.

Like the above point, this isn’t exclusive to prisons at all, but prisons do have a higher likelihood of areas that are physically, but not visually, separated from the rest of a level. This means that the player can look through bars, glass windows, forcefields, etc. and watch something happening without worrying about failing or dying, whether the events are happening outside the player’s prison cell, or within a cell the player is walking past. Again, not exclusive to prison levels, but since a prison already has these kinds of situations by default, might as well take advantage of them. (See endnote #7: Marathon 2, and endnote #8: Riven.)

A nocturnal pod village from Riven

Pod villages are the coolest.

7) By being the first level it gives narrative explanation for why you start with nothing.

Starting with a prison level is not as powerful a move as putting a mid-gaming a prison level, but it can still have some minor narrative benefits. In most games your character starts with nothing, which is weird considering that usually your character is a hero. If the character starts in prison then there’s a readily understandable reason for why the player starts with a blank slate. Also, the same slow acquirement of gear in a typical prison level can be used as a tutorial in a starting prison level. (For example see endnote #9: Elder Scrolls, and endnote #10: Return To Castle Wolfenstein.)

Solid Snake befriending a monkey, apparently.

I don’t remember anything about Metal Gear Solid’s prison level, but I’m assuming it was done well since everyone raves about the game like it’s a perpetual blowjob machine.

5 things bad prison escape levels do:

By returning your gear all at once:

1) Waste your time by preventing you from playing the real game; teaches you nothing.

A bad prison level just dumps all your confiscated equipment on you in one fell swoop. There’s no subtlety or finesse to that. One second you’re playing the game, then you go to prison and you’re not allowed to play the game, then you get your gear back and suddenly you’re playing the game again. In this case, the only thing the prison level has done is keep you from playing for half an hour; it’s almost like an unskippable cutscene, except it’s a cutscene you can fail. You haven’t learned anything new, you haven’t gained anything that you can use later in the game, nothing has been revealed to you about your abilities or your weapons, and it’s just a level where the designers jerked you around. (See #11: Deus Ex)

By trapping player in small area with no real purpose:

2) Wastes the player’s time to suit the story writer’s ego.

Since the player can be trapped in a small area some designers think this is a good time to force some exposition on the player. It’s not. If these moments aren’t long it’s usually not a problem. But, a prison cell shouldn’t break from the game; it should just bring the game into very tight focus. There’s a difference between letting the player witness the story from safety, and trapping the player to force story onto them. (For example see endnote #8: Riven.)

3) Creates unnecessary and unchallenging obstacle for player.

If your audience doesn’t gain anything from going to prison, then what’s the point. If the challenge is minimal they won’t feel accomplished; if they don’t learn anything it’ll just waste their time; so, if the prison cell doesn’t improve the game somehow it’s an obstacle for the sake of being an obstacle. (See endnote #12: Oblivion.)

By changing the nature of the game for this level only:

4) Frustrates the player by having him play a game he hasn’t grown comfortable with.

One thing that’s terrible is when a game suddenly throws a different game at you for one level. You know what I’m talking about! Vehicle level, stealth level, on rails shooter level, etc. These temporary paradigm shifts in game mechanics are some of the worst types of game design in the history of all games ever invented. Prison levels specifically have a tendency of being made into stealth levels. Which is terrible. If you’re playing a first person shooter then you should be able to get out of prison by targeting things with your reticule/cross hair and then pulling the trigger. Whether this fires a gun or creates a portal doesn’t matter, as long as the core gameplay remains the same.

There are some minor exceptions to this. One example: going through air vents which afford you total safety; you’re being stealthy but your success in this new mechanic is guaranteed no matter what. Another example: a level that let’s you sneak around and attempt stealth kills on guards, but even if they spot you, you still have a fair chance of beating them, it’ll just take longer. The reward for being stealthy is having some sadistic fun, and there is no real punishment for failing.

By being a realistic prison, architecturally:


No explanation needed.

The End.

Page 2 is examples and endnotes.


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