At Play in the Carceral State is a week-long series investigating play in, around, and about prisons and prison culture. Learn more here.
Strobe warning: This game contains flashing lights.
I never got my Morse code badge in Webelos, so when this tiny browser game called The Prisoner said it would be communicating exclusively in the ancient telegraph language, I had to find my own solution. I'd encountered a lot of browser tools for converting text to Morse back in the ilovebees days, so there's probably something for going the other way, right?
It ended up being a bit more complicated than that. The Prisoner, which tasks the player with determining a prisoner's innocence based on an extremely brief series of statements and yes-or-no responses, doesn't provide unicode strings of Morse code that can be pasted into a converter, as one might expect. A flashing light, accompanied by telltale dits and dahs, relay the prisoner's message as would be done in real-world Morse communications. Shit's real.
Sufficiently intrigued by the idea of a game that not only lives one layer of abstraction beyond that of a text adventure, but also requires the player to solve a meta-layer puzzle before even engaging with the actual game, I spent about 30 minutes looking for something that could decode the code.
My first attempt was to transcribe the dots and dashes myself, but my hearing was not up to the task, and the resulting scribbles couldn't produce anything coherent. I then found this tool, which uses your computer's microphone to listen to the message and attempt a translation. This was also unable to yield legible results, although it's unclear whether that was due to the decoder's beta status, or my lack of experience with this level of audio science.
It's downright creepy, and vitally, it works.
The next step was to investigate iOS apps, and while there is a litany of free Morse training and translation apps, only one claimed to take real Morse signals and turn them back into text. It's listed as Morse Utility on the App Store, but once installed it shows as Dot Dot Dash on the homescreen. Its stark, utilitarian design makes it look like something from an alternate universe where smartphones were invented in 1980s Soviet Russia. It's downright creepy, and vitally, it works.
With my phone camera firmly affixed to The Prisoner's blinking square, a conversation with said detainee slowly trickled in like letters from a ouija board. A bit garbled at times, granted, but it was there, and I was genuinely unnerved. Something about having to do the work to solve this myself, and to then receive a message through an unrelated app on a device completely removed from the game, made me feel like I had actually tapped into something secret, something lost and desperate to be found.
This is, unfortunately, where the experience started to break down. Once you're in, the game itself is very short, offers nothing in the way of story and gives only the slightest indication as to whether the player has made the correct decision as to the prisoner's innocence. It's tremendously anticlimactic, considering what it took to get there.
That's assuming, of course, that the conversation with the prisoner is the goal of the game, and I'm not convinced it is. The alternative interpretation is that the real game is getting there, in solving a real-world problem with your own knowledge and abilities. In this sense, The Prisoner is a crystal-pure distillation of what drives every good ARG, and I loved every second of it.