Wolfenstein 3D

Last week, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds smashed the Steam peak player records. The previous record-holder, Dota 2, while admittedly made by one of the world’s biggest and most powerful games companies, began as a Warcraft mod. These days, we barely blink an eye at the idea that a game can come from nowhere and shake through word-of-mouth, clever concepts, a bit of cool technology like Portal’s… well, portals… or simply by hooking into some reservoir of good feeling, and accomplish more than any marketing budget can dream of. Minecraft is this generation’s Lego. Undertale is one of its most beloved RPGs.

Indeed, the world of indie development is now so important that it’s hard to remember that it’s only really a decade or so old. That’s not to say that there weren’t indie games before then, as we’ll see, but it was only really with the launch of Steam on PC and services like Xbox Live Arcade that the systems were in place to both get games in front of a mainstream audience, and provide the necessary ecosystem for them to quickly and confidently pay for new games.

In 1979 Richard Garriott set out on his path to buying a castle and going into space by selling copies of his first RPG, Akalabeth, in ziploc bags at his local computer store

The massive success of indie games on Steam has of course come with attendant pitfalls. The early access program gave small studios the ability to beta test their games with player numbers they would not otherwise never reach, and gave players the ability to take part in shaping games. However, a lack of guidelines left players and developers with very different expectations as was seen in the reaction to a paid expansion being released for Ark: Survival Evolved while it was still in early access. Steam Greenlight made it easier for indie games to get on Steam but became a popularity contest that was easily gamed, leading Valve to replace it with Steam Direct.

All this is largely taken for granted these days, with the big challenge for modern indie games being to stand out. Simply getting onto Steam back then could set a studio up for life. These days the market is full to bursting, with most new releases disappearing from sight almost at once.

In both cases though, it’s a world away from how the market began.

Back to the start

The exact definition of ‘indie’ has never exactly been cut-and-dry. To some, it’s an aesthetic, best summed up by the classic bedroom coder. To others, it’s a more commercial distinction, of working without a publisher. To others, it’s ultimately about the work, with an indie game standing out more for being not the kind of thing you get from a commercial company, rather than really focusing on who made it. 

There are many definitions to play with, and few hard lines to draw. The poster-children of ’90s shareware, id Software (who you may know courtesy of a little game called Doom), began working under contract for a company called Softdisk, cranking out games like Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion, Hovertank 3D, and Catacomb 3D, before moving on to make games with/for shareware giant Apogee.

In the very early days of gaming, just about everybody was indie to some extent. In 1979 Richard Garriott set out on his path to buying a castle and going into space by selling copies of his first RPG, Akalabeth, in ziploc bags at his local computer store (one of those copies then ended up in the hands of California Pacific, who offered Garriott a publishing deal). Sierra On-Line began in 1980 as just husband and wife team Ken and Roberta Williams, making simple adventure games like Mystery House that nevertheless pushed the boundaries of what people expected from games at the time—like having graphics—before booming to become one of the biggest and most important companies in gaming history.

What do you do if you don t have the money for big boxes? Ziploc bags are your friends.

Companies could emerge from almost anything. Gremlin Interactive began as a computer store called Just Micro, while DMA Design, originally Acme Software, which would make its name with Lemmings and much later become Grand Theft Auto creator Rockstar, began from its founders meeting up at a computer club in Dundee and ultimately signing with Psygnosis. Whole genres were created from a single game, such as Football Manager in 1982.

The speed of all this took many by surprise, with Balance of Power creator Chris Crawford saying in 1984, "We have pretty much passed the period where hobbyists could put together a game that would have commercial prospect. It’s much more difficult to break in, much less stay in. If you want to do a game, do it for fun, but don’t try to do game designs to make any money. The odds are so much against the individual that I would hate to wish that heartbreak on anyone."

The shareware revolution

But of course, people continued. The PC was largely left out of much of it, however, due to the relatively high cost of disks and its general perception of not being a gaming machine. In the UK, the main indie scene in the ’80s was on cassette based 8-bit systems like the ZX Spectrum, with publishers happily accepting almost any old tat, recording it to a tape, sticking it in a box, and selling it for a few pounds at newsagents, game stores, and anywhere else that would take copies. They were cheap, sometimes cheerful, and allowed for endearing weirdness like 1985’s Don’t Buy This—a compilation of the five worst games sent to publisher Firebird.

It would be many years before most indie PC games could get that kind of placement. Instead, there was shareware. The concept dates back to the 1970s, though it was popularized by PC-Write creator Bob Wallace in 1982. Rather than having a central distributor like a regular published game, users were encouraged to copy software and pass it along. If they liked it, they’d then send the creator a check to unlock the full thing or get more of it. 

In the case of Apogee Software, and indeed what became known as the Apogee model, a game might have three parts. The first one would be free, and free to share, the other two commercial and only for registered purchasers to enjoy. (Not that anyone really listened, as the vast, vast numbers of pirated copies of Doom probably shows better than anything.)

The beauty of the system was that anyone could distribute these games, with the rule being that while you weren’t allowed to sell the shareware version, you could charge for materials. That meant games could appear on magazine cover disks and later CDs. They could be on any university server or dial-up BBS or services like Compuserve and AOL. If you wanted a relatively full choice however, you often needed to send off for them. Whole companies were set up to sell just the trial versions, sending out printed catalogues of their stock and charging by the disk. 

By the mid-90s of course the popularity of CD had rendered this relatively pointless, with ‘1000 Games!’ CDs available in supermarkets and bookstores and anywhere else there might be an audience, rarely mentioning the part about them being glorified demos. Much like on Steam today, at this point most smaller games got lost. Still, as a player, it was an almost inexhaustible feast.

Not every game could be Wolfenstein 3D and promise a fight with Robot Hitler if you paid

As crazy as sending off a check to get a game might seem, it worked. In a few cases, registered shareware games even made the jump to boxed products in stores, though that was relatively rare. Either way, shareware was hardly a license to print money for most, but it supported many a developer throughout the '90s and made others their fortunes. Epic MegaGames began with the text-based RPG ZZT before becoming the company that made Unreal. Duke Nukem began as a very simple 2D side-scroller, notable mostly for oddities like the main character wearing pink and just wanting to save the world so that he could get back to watching Oprah, but nevertheless blossomed into Duke Nukem 3D before publicly wilting into Duke Nukem Forever. 

And there were many more stars too, regularly appearing in new games or simply popular ones that kept showing up, like Skunny the squirrel and his awful platforming (and ultimately karting adventures), Last Half of Darkness, and Hugo’s House of Horrors, much beloved by magazine and compilation editors for its extremely pretty first screen, and never mind that it was all made of clip art and every other room in the game was barely MS Paint-level scribbles.

The alternative industry

Shareware's big draw for players was, inevitably, free games. The downside of the Apogee model and others that erred on the generous side was that a whole episode was often enough—especially as that’s where the developer’s best work tended to be. Compare for instance the deservedly beloved shareware episode of Commander Keen: Goodbye, Galaxy! where you run around a beautiful, varied planet, with the dull space adventure of its commercial sequel. Not every game could be Wolfenstein 3D and promise a fight with Robot Hitler if you paid.

Less cynically though, shareware gave many genres their home. The PC was typically seen as a business machine, with its commercial successes often adventures, RPGs and other slower and more cerebral offerings. There were platformers and beat-em-ups and similar, but they were usually poor conversions from other platforms at best, with few worth taking a risk on. 

If the PC ever had a mascot platformer , it was Commander Keen. The shareware version of Goodbye, Galaxy! was his finest hour.

Shareware removed that risk factor for customers, while letting developers show off. The original Commander Keen, while simplistic to modern eyes, was proof that the PC could do console-style scrolling, even if it wouldn’t be until 1994’s Jazz Jackrabbit that anyone could seriously claim to be doing convincing 16-bit console-style arcade action and visuals. (Even then it wasn’t a very strong claim, but luckily by this point the PC had Doom and so didn’t care.)

This led to a flurry of games you really couldn’t get elsewhere, or that were in very short supply on the shelves, from vertical shooters like Major Stryker, Raptor, and Tyrian, to fighting games like One Must Fall, to quirky top-down RPGs like God of Thunder, and racing games like Wacky Wheels. It offered a great split. When you wanted a deep, polished experience, you had the commercial game market. For action fun, there was shareware, not least because when we did get big games like Street Fighter II, they tended to stink. Shareware supported the industry through much of the '90s.

The high cost of indie

By the mid-90s though, there was a problem. Commercial games began rapidly outstripping what bedroom teams could do, both in terms of technology and complexity of content. While there were engines available, they were mostly poor quality, with nothing like Unity on the market and the likes of Quake and Unreal costing far too much for anyone but other companies to license.

If you wanted to play with that kind of technology, you were looking at making mods instead. This was the era that gave us the likes of Team Fortress (1996) and Defense of the Ancients (2003), but also where the indie scene became largely forgotten. This wasn't helped by the fact that indie had essentially no place on consoles at all, despite a few nods over the years like Sony’s Yaroze console, a development PlayStation aimed at hobbyists released in 1997. The PC saw its own push towards home development with tools like Blitz Basic/BlitzMAX (2000) and Dark Basic (also 2000), with the goal of inspiring a new generation of bedroom coders. However, despite selling reasonably well, none of them gained much traction or saw many releases.

Jeff Vogel s Spiderweb Software has been making RPGs since the '90s. They look simple, but fans keep coming back for their depth.

The indie scene as a whole ceased to be a big player in the market—which isn’t to say that it vanished. Introversion’s Uplink for instance was a big hit in 2001. Jeff Vogel’s Spiderweb Software started releasing old-school RPGs like Exile and Geneforge in 1995. PopCap began in 2000, becoming the giant of casual games like Bejeweled, Peggle, Bookworm Adventures, Plants Vs. Zombies, and Chuzzle—not bad for a company that was originally called ‘Sexy Action Cool’ and planned to make its debut with a strip poker game. 

And of course, there are other notable exceptions, such as Jeff Minter, who never stopped making his psychedelic shooters both for himself and others. However, it wasn’t until 2004 when Steam nailed digital distribution that the market had a chance to explode and offer a real chance of going it alone.

The turning point

Steam wasn’t the first digital distribution system, and at its launch it wasn’t even popular, with Valve forcing it on players for both Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike. However, it was the first major attempt that nailed the details, like being able to download your games on any computer you owned rather than having them locked to just one, and being able to do so perpetually, rather than simply for a year, as was the case with most of the competition. 

The results spoke for themselves. When Valve was a lot pickier, and being backed by a publisher was a distinct advantage to getting onto the system, any developer who managed to get onto Steam effectively received a license to print money. Farther afield, though games not on Steam were at a distinct disadvantage, the legitimisation of digital distribution as a concept certainly raised most boats.

And with all this came something just as important: the indie game ecosystem. With money to be made and developers flocking to indie for all sorts of reasons (being tired of the big companies, wanting to make a go of an independent project) it became viable to create tools and systems to help make the scene. Game Maker for instance, and Unity and Flash. Today, would-be indie developers have the tools to go head-to-head with even the biggest studios, albeit typically on a smaller scale, as well as explore more cost-effective options like pixel art and procedural 3D, while services like Kickstarter and Fig offer a way of seeking funding without immediately selling out. 

This also opened the definition of ‘indie’ even further, with companies seriously able to consider going it alone, without a publisher. Not everyone could be Double Fine, raising $3.5 million for Broken Age, but many have had huge successes—Pillars of Eternity pulling just under $4 million, the Bard’s Tale getting $1.5 million and in the height of Kickstarter fever, even Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe managing to raise $650,000 for a remake of the first game.

Cave Story was one of the first games to get people talking about indie releases, beyond Flash games and the like.

It’s at this point that the word 'indie' really catches on. Again, it’s not that it was never used, but until this point the scene wasn’t big and important enough to warrant a position as basically a shadow industry in its own right. The release of Cave Story in 2004 was where people really started talking in those terms, with Indie Game: The Movie in 2012 cementing this, highlighting three of the most successful titles of the time—Braid, Fez and Super Meat Boy. 

Microsoft embracing the scene via Xbox Live Indie Games played its part, as did their XNA development system, and attempts to make a big deal out of indie launches during its "Indie Game Uprising" events between 2010 and 2012. 

Elsewhere, the IGF (Independent Games Festival) launched in 1999 was also going from strength to strength, drawing more attention to the likes of Darwinia, Monaco and Crayon Physics Deluxe. We also saw more overtly indie friendly portals like itch.io, and the Humble Indie Bundle, offering new marketplaces and ways of selling games—even if many later bundles proved a dead-end.

Perhaps most excitingly, it’s now that we start to see whole genres and styles largely associated with the indie market either flourish or come into existence, not least the ‘walking simulator’—games primarily about exploring a space and a story through environmental detail and voiceover. The first big name here was Dear Esther, a free mod released in 2008 and later remade in 2012, with later examples including Gone Home, Firewatch, and Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture.

Braid helped prove that indie games could be artistic works of love, equal to any commercial release.

There’s also the pixel-art aesthetic of games like VVVVVV, Super Meat Boy, and the original Spelunky, and for many old-school gamers, a return to brutal old-school difficulty. And somehow I doubt we need to say much about Minecraft. (It’s been quite popular, and influential.) Classic point-and-click adventures also saw a resurgence outside of Germany, largely spearheaded by the Adventure Game Studio creation engine and the success of Wadjet Eye Games’ The Blackwell Legacy, Gemini Rue, Technobabylon, and the upcoming Unavowed.

But it’s of course reductive to pick specific genres. The joy of indie games is that as long as the money can be raised somehow, a passionate team can take on more or less whatever they like, free of publisher interference or perceived wisdom, allowing for arty games like Limbo and Bastion (distributed by Warner Bros, but only as a publishing partner), throwbacks to lost genres like Legend of Grimrock, exploratory pieces like The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide, or completely new concepts like Superhot, where time only moves when you do, and the ferociously complex Kerbal Space Program, where difficulty really is a matter of rocket science.

The downside is that as ever, it’s not enough to simply make a game. An indie title buffeted with word of mouth can sell millions, but far more are doomed to languish largely unplayed and discussed in the depths of Steam’s increasing piles or other services’ far less traveled shelves. The initial gold rush is very much over. Still, plenty of gold remains. It’s impossible to predict what game will be the next Spelunky, the next Minecraft, the next Undertale, or the next Super Meat Boy, but absolutely no risk at all to bet that whatever it is, it’s already on its way.

PC Gamer

Wolfenstein 3D is primarily a game about shooting Nazis. Occasionally you'll shoot dogs too, but they're Nazi dogs. Occasionally you'll steal treasure, but it's Nazi treasure. Nazis are a common foe in videogames because they're unambiguously bad, thus triggering no moral quandaries among those who digitally shoot them.

But what if you could, uh, try to talk them out of being Nazis instead? Rather than fight fire with fire, what if we had an Earl Grey and a chinwag? Dialogue 3D —a "hack" of the original Wolfenstein 3D by Ramsey Nasser—offers one fairly convincing answer: You'd probably not have much luck.

The game comes amid much online debate relating to how people who are not Nazis should treat those who are. Some suggest having a discussion, whereas others are happy to punch them from here to next Sunday. I think it's fairly clear which side of that conundrum Nasser inhabits, and he makes a pretty strong case—albeit via a shallow 1990s videogame.

The game is free, only 7mb, and thoroughly unenjoyable to play. But you might as well give it a shot anyway.

Left 4 Dead 2

Originally published in August 2016, this feature makes a return for Food Week.

I don't remember which game we were playing, but it was the kind of Japanese RPG that listed everything you needed to know about its characters down the side of the screen. Magic points, coins, food, all summed up with helpful numbers. Only one of them was abbreviated: HP.

“What does HP stand for in this game?” I asked my friend, an expert on JRPGs.

“Health pineapples,” he confidently replied. “You have to knock all the pineapples off before you can hurt someone.”

HP, whether it stands for hit points, health power, or indeed health pineapples, is one of many mechanics to come to video games via the original tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons. However, the idea of representing the amount of punishment a character can take with a discrete number of points is much older than D&D. And while we might all know what the abbreviation means, it turns out that what hit points are meant to represent isn't quite so obvious.

"They didn't care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn't want the monster to kill them in one blow." D&D co-creator Dave Arneson

In a 2004 interview with GameSpy, D&D's co-creator Dave Arneson explained that the earliest version of the game didn't have hit points. The rules had evolved from wargames he and fellow D&D inventor Gary Gygax played, in which a single successful attack was all it took for a soldier to die.

That changed when they started experimenting with having players control individual heroes rather than entire armies, as players identified with them much more strongly. As Arneson put it, They didn't care if they could kill a monster in one blow, but they didn't want the monster to kill them in one blow.

Arneson had previously made his own rules for a naval wargame set during the Civil War called Ironclads, and together with Gygax had collaborated on a Napoleonic naval game called Don't Give Up The Ship! Both games had a mechanic that allowed for ships to take multiple hits before being sunk, which they'd borrowed from the wargaming rules designed by author Fletcher Pratt in the 1930s. They borrowed those rules again for D&D.

In his book about the history of simulation games Playing At The World, Jon Peterson explains why hit points were such an important idea: Hit points introduce uncertainty and variance [ ] In Dungeons & Dragons, even when the prospects of a hit are near certain, the damage dice provide another potential survival mechanism via endurance, another way of forestalling death and increasing the drama of combat.

Art for Gary Gygax's Advanced Dugeons & Dragons Monster Manual, predating the earliest D&D PC games.

From table to screen

Like D&D, video game combat discovered a new sense of drama with hit points. Early arcade games like 1978 s Space Invaders typically killed players with a single successful enemy contact, using multiple lives to prolong the experience. Replacing that with the ability to survive a set number of hits before dying added a finer-grained rise in tension. It removes the frustration of being reset to the start of a level every time a player is so much as brushed by an enemy, and as the number of hit points remaining falls your anxiety rises in direct correlation.

Being on your last life may make you cautious, but there's a smoother transition with hit points. You gradually shift between playing more carefully as you approach half-health, biting your metaphorical nails as it dwindles below that, and sinking into erratic risk-taking when only a sliver of life remains.

Video games inspired by D&D were the first to copy hit points, as far back as 1975 games PEDIT5 and DND, which were coded for the PLATO system designed by the University of Illinois. DND was also the first game to have bosses, who could have hundreds or even thousands of what it called Hits.

Early RPG Dungeon (1982) for the PDP-10, which called hit points "Hits." Image via the cRPG Addict

The first official adaptations of D&D to PC were the Gold Box series begun by SSI with 1988 s Pool of Radiance. They followed the rules of what was then called Advanced Dungeons & Dragons closely, which meant beginning characters had very few hit points. Playing around a table there s always the option to fudge dice rolls to prevent deaths from feeling too arbitrary, but the computer was never so forgiving and players got used to reloading frequently.

Games that weren t licenced had no such problem. The first Ultima began players with a tidy 150 hit points, and the second with 400. Important non-player characters like Lord British had totals so high that killing him became seen as a challenge, and by Ultima III players were luring Lord British to the beach so they could attack him with cannon-fire, as if he was one of the naval ships in the wargames hit points came from.

Arcade games tended not to represent hit points numerically, however. Memorably, in the platformer Ghosts 'N Goblins (ported to the Commodore 64 in 1986) Sir Arthur lost his armor on taking damage, continuing to fight in his underwear.

One of the first game to represent hit points with the now familiar life bar was Dragon Buster, a 1985 dungeon crawler by Namco with a Vitality meter that changed from blue to red as you took damage from its bats, snakes, and cave sharks. While red life bars would go on to become standard, other ways of visualizing hit points have been tried with varying degrees of success.

Atic Attack from the Rare Replay collection, Health Chicken half-eaten.

1983 ZX Spectrum/BBC Micro game Atic Atac had a slowly depleting roast chicken that tracked your starvation, and dinosaur fighter Primal Rage used veins leading to a heart that exploded at the moment of defeat.

Other games have tried to make their life bar a part of the game world, as in first-person Jurassic Park game Trespasser where it's a heart tattoo on the protagonist's breast you have to look down at to check. In sci-fi horror game Dead Space the life bar is represented by lights on the back of your armor, which would be very useful if you had a doctor standing directly behind you. Each of these visualizations is just a way of integrating a hit-point counter into the world, but in doing so they free the player from having to correlate a number with something that should feel real and immediate. They re all still the same old hit points, under the surface.

MIDI Maze, a 1987 first-person shooter on the Atari ST, was an early example of both the deathmatch shooter and the idea of representing hit points visually. Each player was a floating smiley face, like a three-dimensional Pac-Man, and an icon of that face at the top of the screen became sadder as they took damage. Later shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom would copy this idea, their protagonists' faces growing more bruised and bloody as they absorbed bullet after bullet.

On the next page: hit points through the 90s and 2000s with regenerating health and more twists from their D&D origins.

Halo is remembered for its regenerating shields, but it had traditional HP, too.

The regeneration generation

MIDI Maze is an early example of another change in the way hit points worked, as it also had regenerating health. It wasn't the first, however. The action-RPG Hydlide, released on Japanese home computers like the PC-88 in 1984, gave players back hit points when they stood still. Where other games had food and first-aid kits that functioned as magically as the healing potions in fantasy RPGs, regenerating health though no more realistic at least took health items out of the game world. It made healing an abstraction like hit points are, rather than requiring players assume Johnny Medkit has wandered the world ahead of them scattering healing items like seeds.

It was Halo: Combat Evolved that popularized regenerating health, which is ironic because it didn't really have it. Halo's hero Master Chief wears an energy shield that regenerates after a short interval without taking damage, but once that's gone he has a traditional life bar that can only be refilled with medkits.

However, the recharging energy shield was what gave Halo its famous 30 seconds of fun that happened over and over and over and over again as designer Jaime Griesemer put it, letting players pop out of cover to shoot aliens and then duck back to recharge and reload, and that's what had a lasting impact.

Hydlide for the Japanese PC-88 was one of the first to have regenerating health. Image via Hardcoregaming101

The idea was copied and modified by plenty of other games. Call Of Duty has become the flag-bearer for regenerating health, taking the blame for its propagation though it wasn't introduced until the second game in the series. Even in the mid-2000s as it was first becoming widespread, regenerating health was criticized by old-school shooter fans for removing some of the drama and tension that hit points represent. It's still enraging comment sections today.

Three games released in 2005 and 2006 all tinkered with ways of making regenerating health retain the sense of rising tension that hit points were first introduced to create. Condemned: Criminal Origins, Prey, and F.E.A.R. all set a floor on automatic healing so that if you take enough damage to fall below around 25% of your hit points you can't regenerate back above that line. It models a difference between taking a serious wound and the kind of graze action heroes can just walk off, and adds grit to more serious games.

Regenerating health was criticized for removing the drama and tension that hit points represent.

When the Just Cause games toy with this, only letting you regenerate a percentage of the most recent damage you take, it can seem at odds with their over-the-top action.

Horror games have also tweaked the way they use hit points to suit the genre. Zombie game Left 4 Dead slows you down the more you're hurt, making it harder to run away from the infected as if you're a movie character being worn down by the chase. In Silent Hill 4: The Room you regain health in your apartment, but when that safe space becomes tainted it stops healing you, a mechanical sign of its corruption that ensures you feel the same dread the character would.

A custom medkit skin in Left 4 Dead 2, via GameBanana.com

Back to the source

Still, across all of these games, what hit points represent isn't entirely clear. Are they purely the injuries you endure, as the suffering face of Doomguy suggests? If that's true why is it so easy to get hit points back, whether through healing items or regeneration or drinking Fallout's irradiated toilet water?

In The Lord of the Rings Online hit points are replaced by morale, which explains why singing a jaunty tune helps top it up. In the Assassin's Creed games it's synchronization, a representation of how accurately your digital simulation is recreating historical events although that raises the question of why being hurt during events where your historical analogue was also hurt doesn't improve synchronization.

Even in D&D it's unclear what hit points really are. In the Dungeon Master's Guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition, Gary Gygax wrote that hit points reflect both the actual physical ability of the character to withstand damage as indicated by constitution bonuses and a commensurate increase in such areas as skill in combat and similar life-or-death situations, the sixth sense which warns the individual of some otherwise unforeseen events, sheer luck, and the fantastic provisions of magical protections and/or divine protection.

(Charmingly, the rules then went on to explain that Rasputin would have been able to survive for so long because he had more than 14 hit points. )

Pool of Radiance (1988) was the first cRPG adaptation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Constitution, skill, sixth sense, luck, magic, and divine protection are a lot of things to bundle into one number, and raise further questions about why, for instance, poisoned attacks cause extra damage to your sixth sense . When asked about what hit points really are at conventions Gygax was dismissive, giving different answers to the question each time. Sometimes he said hit points represent the way swashbuckling movie heroes survive so many fights, or that they were an entirely meaningless number that represented nothing more than a way of making the game's combat more enjoyable for players.

That second answer is perhaps the best explanation. Given that hit points started out as a way of simulating the ability of a ship's hull to weather cannon-fire, it's only natural that there's going to be some vagueness and necessary abstraction when we apply that same concept to our video game heroes. They may as well be health pineapples, after all.

Half-Life 2

No one wants to end up in jail, but there’s something fascinating about life in the clink. There have been some great fictional prisons in literature and cinema—and video games too. The following hoosegows are some of the toughest, most brutal, and hardest to escape from in gaming. Some horrible prisons, both new and old, have made their way onto this list since we first wrote it.

From freezing Russian labor camps to max security space-jails, these are scariest imaginary prisons on PC.

B.J. Blazkowicz had to shoot an awful lot of Nazis to escape from the labyrinthine Castle Wolfenstein. As prisons go, Wolfenstein does offer some perks: ample access to weaponry, secret Nazi treasure, and delicious, hearty meals. On the downside, the dogs aren't very friendly and there's a giant Nazi with two machine guns standing between you and the exit. If you take too many bullets, you'll have to resort to eating dog food. Yuck.

Batman famously has one of the best rogue's galleries in comics, and his nemeses inevitably end up in Arkham, Gotham's prison for the criminally insane. 2009's brilliant Arkham Asylum makes the prison itself the star, imagining it as a densely interconnected 3D playground in the vein of Super Metroid. As Batman gains new bits of equipment he opens up new ways to explore and unlocks new shortcuts. In the end, Arkham Aslyum has some great depictions of Batman's villains and the dark knight's abilities, but mastering the asylum is the true joy.

The Souls series has some of the toughest prisons in gaming. Dark Souls starts you off in one, the Undead Asylum, which is guarded by an overweight demon that ruins newcomers on the reg. Dark Souls 2 has the Lost Bastille, a prison made entirely of cold grey stone, patrolled by undead knights and exploding mummies, and wraps with a boss battle against three nimble suits of armor. But Dark Souls 3’s Irithyll Dungeon is the prison-iest of all (most prison-y?). It glows a sickly green and greets you with the Jailers, spooky robed guards that lower your max health just by looking your way. Explore the cells and eventually you’ll run into the wretches, grotesque human-dragon hybrids, botched experiments of the Lothric family. Deeper in you’ll find giants taken prisoner, massive sewer rats looking for a snack, a downright mean basilisk ambush, some items that sound off a large scream when picked up to alert nearby enemies, a gluttonous humanoid with an enlarged hand for a head called—what else—the Monstrosity of Sin, and some sewer centipedes. Don't Google them.

It’s an awful place that folds over on itself in a disorienting search for one key after another, delaying your escape just beyond its rows and rows of thick iron bars. Get in, save Siegward, and never return. 

Protagonist Vito Scaletta gets busted for selling stolen ration stamps and ends up in the clink. This is an act break of sorts, separating the game’s 1940s and 1950s chapters. The slow walk through the gates, being yelled at by jeering prisoners, is straight out of The Shawshank Redemption. You pass the time by punching people and scrubbing toilets, before emerging into a terrifying world of quiffs and rock and roll.

JC Denton defects from UNATCO and becomes a wanted man. He’s captured and wakes up in a mysterious underground cell. With the help of a creepy AI calling itself Daedalus he manages to escape, only to discover that the sinister prison facility is located below UNATCO’s Liberty Island headquarters. Most people who mess with Majestic 12 end up dead, but JC uses his nano-powers to break out and flee to Hong Kong.

Butcher Bay is a space-prison for the galaxy’s toughest, gruffest space-bastards. Escape From Butcher Bay sees the titular Riddick, played by Vin Diesel, breaking out of this maximum security sci-fi prison by stabbing, choking, shooting, and sneaking past its small army of guards. But, even though escape is his top priority, he still finds the time to enter bare-knuckle boxing matches and shiv other prisoners.

“It used to be a high security prison,” says Alyx Vance, gravely. “It’s something much worse now.” She always was good at introductions. Nova Prospekt is an old prison that the Combine have converted into a facility for processing any ‘anti-citizen’ who fights against their tyranny. ‘Processing’ meaning being turned into a hideous half-machine monster. A grim place indeed, but no match for Gordon’s gravity gun.

The Suffering is a mostly forgotten 2004 shooter from Midway, set on the twisted Carnate Island off the coast of Maryland. The penitentiary itself, where you're on death row, is just the beginning—the whole island has a dark history, including an insane asylum and a whole lot of executions. Hell breaks loose immediately when an earthquake calls up hordes of twisted monsters, who proceed to wreak havoc on the prison. It all may sound like standard horror fare, but The Suffering stood out thanks to some fabulously creepy designs by Stan Winston Studios. Those are monsters we would not like to be trapped on an island with.

Probably the toughest prison on the list, Vorkuta is grim Russian labour camp and one of the most memorable levels in Black Ops. With help from Viktor ‘Gary Oldman’ Reznov, your fellow prisoners, a mini-gun called the Death Machine, and giant slingshots loaded with explosives you battle to freedom and destroy half the prison for good measure. Shame about that rubbish vehicle section at the end.

The prison ship Purgatory, operated by the Blue Suns mercenary company, is where unstable biotic Jack finds herself. Commander Shepard, hunting for the galaxy’s baddest asses, flies there in order to recruit her. Before it was a prison, the ship was used to transport animals, which explains the tiny cages masquerading as cells. It’s not all bad, though: if it gets crowded, the Blue Suns will dump you on a nearby planet.

This desert prison used to be a peaceful coal mining town, but now it’s a hellish jail. Cloud and co. are dumped here after a misunderstanding, and have to earn their freedom by entering, and winning, a chocobo race in the Golden Saucer theme park that looms over the prison. As far as I know, this is the only time in gaming history where you escape from jail by riding a giant chicken. Hopefully it’s not the last.

That’s not a very nice name. Why not Warmridge Prison? Dishonored protagonist Corvo Attano is sent here after being wrongly accused of murdering the Empress he was charged to protect. It’s an imposing building—designed by the same guy who dreamed up Nova Prospekt, Viktor Antonov—and serves as the game’s tutorial. Murderous inmates, brutal guards, and rats are among this foul place’s residents.

This Alaskan military base isn’t technically a prison, but Solid Snake finds himself imprisoned in a cell there during the first MGS. There are a few ways to escape, but my favourite is spilling a bottle of ketchup and lying down next to it. The idiot guard thinks you’ve killed yourself and rushes in to help, giving you a window to break out.

Only slightly harder to endure than listening to the band Bastille, this famous French prison was notorious for its brutal treatment of prisoners. It’s here that the foppish hero Arno Dorian learns how to fight, and ultimately becomes an assassin. After the French Revolution it was demolished and replaced with a monument, but it will live forever in the decidedly average Assassin’s Creed Unity. C’est la vie.

Hell's Prison, posted on Reddit, is just one of thousands of devious, depressing prisons concocted by Prison Architect players. There's probably a harsher prison lurking on a hard drive somewhere, but Hell's Prison is a good example of how totalitarian Prison Architect lets you be as a warden. 

"At any given time about 90-100 prisoners are in the initial stages of starvation and taking damage," reads the description. "The entire prison is one giant infirmary so that doctors automatically tend to them. Prisoners who are close to death are brought to the medical beds by the guards. I have yet to lose a prisoner to starvation."

Prison Architect's Steam Workshop is also full of fantastic creations and recreations, like Alcatraz. Now that's a tough prison.

One of the most famous video game prisons, this is where you start your adventure in Oblivion. You don’t know what your crime was or how you ended up there—you’re supposed to fill in the blanks—but a fateful encounter with the Emperor of Tamriel leads to your escape and transformation into a hero. You can return later and take the opportunity to teach gobshite Valen Dreth some manners.

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