Spoiler warning: If you’re set to play The Prison, don’t read this, just go in blind. It’ll be great!
The Prison. My friend Chris Amherst had been ranting about this game and ran it at Consequences UK. I signed up mostly out of curiosity. It didn’t seem like much fun on paper:
The Prison is an adaptation of an emotionally intense and immersive Russian freeform focusing on class and identity in the not-so-distant yet plausible future where a new social order has been established. Unlike other games, players as their personas will decide who among their fellow ‘prisoners’ will be executed. Those selected for ‘execution’ will leave the game space until game wrap. As such, your play experience may last only for 40 minutes or may last upwards of 3+ hours. The ‘executed’ will still have an opportunity to influence the story
Before the game, people talk excitedly about negotiations and back stabbing. “Shit,” I think, “I’m playing the freeform version of Are you a Werewolf?”. I worry about the bright red sweater I’m wearing. Everyone else has dressed in dark prison colors, I stand out like a big target.
We all get sorted into four castes based on some unknown criteria. It seems personal, though. It feels personal, even though the GM isn’t even looking at us as he sorts us. Maybe especially because he’s not even looking at us.
I get sorted into Omega caste, the lowest of the low. Other than me, my caste is filled with burly men. Although we all arrive in the prison as strangers, we bond instantly over our common fate and over how all the other castes spit on us. The GM starts giving characters to the Alpha’s first and then goes down in rank. It’s a long time before he arrives at our corner. We are made to feel our rank.
Finally The GM gets to us. He says “I know you best, Jules, I’ll give this one to you” and hands me a character. My character, Number 15, is casteless, eta, untouchable. She is 18 years old, and has stuck been in the prison system since age 6 for killing her two twin brothers, waiting until she was old enough to be executed. She is mentally retarded. Woah.
I contemplate asking for a different character, but I know I will regret it if I do. I think on how impressionable and easy to manipulate this character will be, just as the guy next to me exclaims “Oh look, I am a pimp!”. Oh boy! This is going to be interesting.
I go to the bathroom to look in the mirror and adjust my body language. I wring my hands into my sweater constantly, hunch my shoulders, untidy my hair, look fearful and take tiny, shuffling steps.
I get back to my Omega buddies. We time in and it takes about 30 seconds for the toughest, most hardened criminals of Omega caste to turn into my biggest protectors. They harass anyone who wants to come peer at the casteless curiosity. There’s a lot of caste warfare coming up in the first hour of the game.
Alpha Scientist: Surely we are all in the same boat now?
Pimp: Are we, love? When was the last time you had a hot meal?
I am called upon to pick someone for execution along with the Alpha Scientist. If we don’t pick anyone, the lot will be drawn between the two of us. It quickly becomes clear I am unfit for the job. All I do is repeat “I don’t want anyone to die” over and over again. “It’s a bad thing”. “We” pick an easy target: the psychotic actor who is badgering us. He yells “I will not be judged!” and gets dragged out by the guards. The Scientist breaks down and never recovers. The next round she accepts her execution without protest.
The Pimp is a very chatty character and calls people ‘love’. I cling to this, the only sliver of affection I have, and it becomes the start of a very close relationship. The Pimp has taken a lot of youngsters under his wing on the streets, and he happily does the same for me, Number 15.
Later on, I ask the Pimp if he wants to be my new daddy and he says yes instantly. He doesn’t even seem shocked. He explains that once we get out of here, I can live with him and his two sons. I feel really bad, knowing what happened the last time I had brothers, but I can’t bring myself to tell him that. I haven’t told anyone what I did, and when people find out I did “The Bad Thing” at six, they stop asking.
I meet the Doctor, a very cold man who stares you in the eyes as he talks to you, and rarely blinks. He tries to determine if I can be helped. For my part, I try to help him.
Number 15: You look people in the eyes when you talk to them.
Doctor: Yes, I was taught to do so in medical school to establish rapport with my patients.
Number 15: You never … look anywhere else?
Doctor: I may have overdone it. I’ll admit some have found my bedside manner to be lacking.
Number 15: You can blink your eyes, like this. *blinks*
Doctor: I’ll try to remember, if it makes you feel better.
Number 15: I’ll help too.
The Doctor is the only person that comes close to finding out my crime. He asks if I have any good memories… “Perhaps from your home… your parents… your siblings?”. I freak out and get away from him, and he assumes it is his demeanor that upset me.
Unfortunately, we both quickly turn out to be irredeemable in each others eyes. The Doctor is not doing the blinking thing at all. I try my best to incriminate the Doctor to the others but sadly the best argument I can come up with is “He has a really creepy” voice.
The Pit Fighter
One of the Omega’s, Savage the pit fighter, is chosen for execution. He won’t follow the guard meekly like the others did. He plants himself in the middle of the room, smiles and says “You want me, come get me”. The fight is not pretty. The guard has tear gas and a taser, Savage has his fists… It’s scary and brutal. We all secretly admire Savage, but no one helps him. It’s no use. There’s fifty more guards where this one comes from. Someone yells at him “Please don’t let Number 15 see you die”.
Two new judges are chosen, and the entire process begins anew. The only difference is that people get to know each other better and better. Some judges need to know what everyone did. Some break down. No one chooses easily.
The Socialist refuses to chose. He will not be a part of this, and refusing to choose is the only authentic option he has left. It is not him who is killing these people, it’s is THEM, in this perverted little game of justice. The refusal is made, the lot gets drawn, and the other judge is executed. The Socialist becomes one of the judges again for next turn. Will he make the same choice again and watch all this fellows die? You can see what it’s doing to him.
The atmosphere turns very, very dark. I shuffle over to the Socialist who is pacing back and forth, furiously.
Number 15: Are you sad?
Socialist: No, I refuse!
Number 15: You’re angry.
Socialist: Yes. Yes, I suppose I am.
Number 15: Are you going to have a fight?
Socialist: I might punch the wall a few times.
Number 15: You can’t fight a wall.
He doesn’t respond to that. He just stands there, his hands are trembling. I slowly reach out, carefully take his hand and hold it.
Number 15: Your hands are cold.
Socialist: They used to be warm.
A few rounds later, he is executed.
By now, prisoners don’t just march out silently to their fate. They are stopped by fellow prisoners who want to say goodbye to them, to apologize, commiserate, or share one last moment. They are getting harder, so much harder.
Our little group is getting smaller and smaller, and we all know each other’s stories by now. Everyone’s story except mine. People are coming forward now to volunteer for execution, because they don’t want others to die. Thanks to the volunteers, there’s not a lot to talk about. People tell stories of their life before their arrest.. they recount their happiest memories. The memories are warm and loving, or bleak and stark.
There are a lot of people now that want to see me walk out of here. They call me “the innocent” and talk about me like I’m not here. People come up to me and give me addresses of places I should go, where I’ll be safe. People I should talk to.
Then someone suggests The Pimp for execution and I throw a small fit, sobbing “I don’t want you to die” over and over and clinging to his arm. This was coming all along, of course. We can’t both walk out of here together. For me to leave this place, he has to die. I only half realize this and the thought of losing him is terrifying.
Pimp: We have been over this, say it with me: Number 15 looks out for number 15. Say it.
Me: Number 15… looks out for number 15.
Activist: That’s right
Me: But I don’t want you to die!
Pimp: I promised I will get you out of here.
Activist: We will help keep you safe because we love you.
Someone said they love me! About there is where I realised that this was probably the best day my character had ever experienced in her remembered life. That was a pretty twisted truth, and I cried, and we sat in silence for some time.
And that’s how dawn found us. The prison guard came and announced that dawn had brought amnesty. We, the remaining six, were free to go.
No one moved. No one had hope or energy left to move.
We were free, but we had lost so much.
Playing number 15
I felt a little out of my comfort zone playing a mentally retarded person, but that quickly passed. It’s not something I’ve ever done before. I played her as a lot younger, with a limited range of thoughts (I repeated a few choice lines over and over), some trouble moving around, and a limited willingness to touch others.
I discovered fairly quickly that I could provide a lot of emotional resonance to the story, and started remarking on people’s emotional states through small observable details. That worked very well. I also decided on a small moral stance: “Killing is a bad thing”, though that was probably the conclusion of 12 years in prison more than an innate morality. I never chose anyone to get executed, though I repeated the numbers people wanted me to repeat.
In the latter part of the game, people started treating me differently. They would talk about me while I was there, and they would hug me, cuddle me and kiss my head. In the end, they didn’t call me by my name anymore, but referred to me as “The Innocent”. I had stopped being a person and having agency but I had become a symbol instead. And me, Jules, knew that I would make it out alive. Or, if I didn’t, that a part of everyone would die with me.
Pretty powerful stuff. Chris explained that Number 15 is often one of the first to go, and that it is often seen as a mercy killing.
Playing the Prison
I can be brief here. This was one of the best LARP’s I’ve ever played. The players, our location (a spartan and cold brick room), the characters, everything aligned perfectly. People played hard, the judge pairs were heart-wrenching, it was all perfect.
It’s a shame that we missed out on the last part of the game due to time constraints. Chris says the last part of the game is the most intense. I can only imagine. Still, I’m extremely happy with the game we played. I can recommend it dearly to every freeformer who wants to push their boundaries.