Crapshoot: Hard Time, a real-time prison sim where you're the prisoner

From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, crime meets punishment, only to end up in a head-on collision with the prison whose only regular break is with reality.

Hard Time is the only game I've ever played whose character creation screen lets you choose to be a child abuser, a terrorist, or a rapist. You don't have to be, of course. You can simply be a drug abuser, a vandal, or in trouble for prostitution—though Hard Time doesn't specify what part of the transaction led to your arrest and incarceration at the brutal Southtown Correctional Facility.

It also doesn't tell you what drugs are in the water supply. At a guess? All of them.

The story so far

In a dystopian future not even apparently run by the Conservative Party...

From The Manual: In a bleak future where there are more criminals than citizens, one prison hopes to redress the balance with short doses of HARD time! Take your punishment like a man and try to endure the grueling regime of "Southtown Correctional Facility". Create your own inmate from scratch and rub shoulders with up to 100 fellow convicts throughout the sprawling prison complex. With each passing day, every action taken and every word spoken will sculpt your own unique identity—as you attempt to juggle the physical and mental demands of prison life. You'll soon find that "reputation" is the only currency that matters in this world! Having one keeps you alive, but avoiding one keeps you sane.

Non-Manual Addendum #1: Sometimes you'll glitch and become someone else by accident.

Non-Manual Addendum #2: That probably won't even be the strangest part of your day.

Prisoner Diary: Stuart Brown - S-018

Crime: Prostitution. Sentence: 35 Days

34 Days Of Sentence Remaining

Showers Taken: 0. Showers Planned For Next 34 Days: 0

Southtown. Dump, obviously. Not as expected. Much more space, for starters. Giant, empty halls housing just a handful of prisoners and a few guards. One of those guards was walking around with a cleaver. The others had guns. Pretty much as soon as I'd been processed and assigned my cell, one of them walked up, hit the one who'd just been talking to me, and the two got into a fight that ended when one unloaded a whole clip into the other. The other four guards in the room didn't seem to care.

Jail is going to be much rougher than I thought. And much, much sillier.

Guards didn't seem interested in cleaning up the corpse of their former colleague, never mind me, so wandered into the cell. "Welcome" present waiting in my cell. Been warned to expect that.

Hadn't expected it to be free sticks of dynamite.

I don't get to do much with them though. Immediately, a guard runs up and demands I drop them—not, it must be said, without cause. Unfortunately for a penal system employee, he looks like this.

I try not to laugh. Fail. But figuring it's a bad idea to offend the screws on the first day, I hand it over. It's OK. What was I going to do with dynamite anyway? Escape? That would be immoral.

Unfortunately the other prisoners see this weakness and dive in to establish the pecking order.

I stand my ground. All I have to do is show one guy I'm not to be messed with, and all the rest will fall into line. Look at this guy. He's a tough-looking chap. Warrior, I bet they call him, or Skullcrusher McDoomCock. The Thundernator. Mr. Big. The Muscle Mountain of Marrakech.

With a name like that in prison, there's only two ways you can go. Good ol' S.T. has taken the second. The entire cell-block erupts into open warfare, with the one single solitary guard's method of pacification being to pull out a knife and start laying into anyone in sight. 

I run to my cell and hide in the corner, hoping not to be noticed. Inevitably though, the PA announces that Tragedy has struck Southtown.

Alas, poor Sugar Tits. I knew them not at all.

33 Days Of Sentence Remaining

Mood: Really Quite Depressed. Music: Johnny Cash - Hurt

Morning starts with the news that someone called "Wussy Lee" has been killed, in what I assume is natural causes for someone in prison with the nickname "Wussy Lee", but turns out to have been the result of a dispute with the warden, Warden Peace. Warden Peace. Seriously? Whatever.

As I get out of bed for 'rehabilitation', I'm immediately mugged by a prisoner in a pink tie—part of a gang called "The Powers That Be". The Powers That Be Shopping at Primark, apparently. There are five others at work, including The Suns of God, who wear sunglasses and can't spell, The Peaks, who want peace, and the Avatars of Allah, because this prison was designed by the same guy who wrote The You Testament. I wonder if there's a prison library, and if so, whether they need any help shelf-stacking.

Something I can't help notice is that everyone seems to be wielding a knife, and the guard doesn't seem to care. I wait until a fight breaks out and retrieve a pair of sharp-looking scissors. I am, after all, surrounded by the most vicious, realistically written thugs ever to do their porridge.

I hurry into the Main Hall to get away from these people, interrupted only by a guy telling me that he doesn't like me because I'm Asian. Despite, uh, not being Asian. At all. Maybe I can find him some glasses. It can be a Quest! I wonder how much XP you get from helping racists.

Luckily, things are a little more civilised in the Main Hall, as a prisoner wielding a cardboard tube helps the newbie out with what there is to do around here. In short, watch TV, use a computer, or get stupid phone-calls. So, basically like being a freelance journalist then. I assume, only with catering.

Thanking him by actively not stabbing him in the face with my scissors, I'm immediately accosted by a a tattooed guy who is apparently Bill Gates' bitch. This is confusing, especially when he shows how cross he is with a demonstration of his fighting style—punching me so hard that he ends up on the floor.

I hit him with the scissors, only for a guard to decide that this has to be my fault. "You shouldn't be fighting!" shouts the guard. "Let alone with weapons! Put that down or there'll be trouble."

And so I lose my precious scissors. And then, for some reason, my mind. Without actually doing anything except falling prey to stress, I lunge forward and grab the guard in a headlock. He tries to calm me down with jazz lyrics, but even though I 'Aint Misbehaving and am ready to answer when he asks Why Don't You Do Right?, his friend brings the blues with his assault rifle.

Things go about as well as you'd expect from there, unless you think assault rifles shoot cake.

FILE S-018: Prisoner died in custody. And incredible pain. Annoyingly early.


Let's try that again, shall we? With someone a little tougher.

Random character generator, roll!

Prisoner Diary: Maverick - E-001

Crime: Murder. Sentence: 58 Days

58 Days Of Sentence Remaining

Probability Of Getting Dessert: 3.14. Dewey 314: General Statistics Of Europe

I think the Warden is a Vampire. This is going to go well.

42 Days Of Sentence Remaining

Warden Bribery Target: $10,000,000 2. Pillow Holding Capacity: $46.31

Here's how to survive in prison. Keep your head down. Do your time. Don't make waves. Unless you find a katana lying around, in which case the world can line up to eat your shit.

How do you persuade the guards to let you carry a katana around the world's most secure prison? It's a relatively simple fix, probably best summed up as "be holding a katana at the time".

...and not have more than one guard Challenging your Authority at once...

Of course, demonstrating your skill can have... unforeseen consequences.

You got it, boss. Next time, I'll kick your arse twice as quickly.

Man, I'm going to be so freaking rehabilitated after this.

37 Days Of Sentence Remaining

Resemblance To Peter Stormare In Prison Break: 76%. Accidents In Workplace: 7

It's not just violence you've got to worry about, mind. There's keeping your strength up, and healing after injuries. There's reporting to the dining hall on a regular basis—though that's OK. For a prison, the food's surprisingly good. See? I think they just want us to go to sleep afterwards. I'm down with that.

Other prisoners, and even wardens, sometimes show up with offers of favours. Me, I've got a reputation of 97% around here, which means I fear no man. Though often it seems they don't fear me much either. Like this guy. Dude. Go pick a fight with one of the burglars or something. They're more your level.

How do you kill time, the one thing a katana won't handle? Well, there's the TV. Usually though, some idiot shows up and wants something after a while, whether it's to pick a fight or demand you improve yourself in some way. The Exercise Yard's where that happens. For instance, shooting hoops.

With a ball, not a gun. Though it's not hard to get a gun if you feel like trying it the other way.

28 Days Of Sentence Remaining

Sugar Tits Memorial Service: 3PM. Party: 3:05 Until Late.

So, I was walking through Main Hall after a couple of quick fights when this suddenly happened.

Thankfully, it happened right by the Hospital. Un-thankfully, the hospital of this prison is weird, even by its own standards. 

Anyone can come in and grab a bed any time they want, but they've got to get back to their cell by lockdown. There are no doctors, just a guard. Drugs are handed out pick-and-mix style, to the point the Wardens even encourage you to experiment a bit if you feel like it.

Too ill to go all Walter White on this prison though, I opt to crash as long as I can, and hope the guard accidentally gets stuck behind a bed for a few hours. You might not think that happens very often. Please. These idiots can get stuck even without a bed in the way.

In this case though, he's in an active mood and really insistent I clear off after lockdown to go back to my cell. I hide under the bed,... but I never was very good at stealth.

Things don't work out so well, really. Not when he plays his trump card. Guns, I can handle. Dynamite is for wusses. Another person with a katana? I can deal. But the words "You're Under Arrest" are my Kryptonite. In retrospect, that's probably why I wasn't a very successful murderer...

Interlude: The Trial

Guest Director: Franz Kafka

Odd. I'm having a sudden sense of deja vu. Remind me how this went last time? Oh. Yeah.

Please don't bring up the katana please don't bring up the katana please don't bring up the katana please don't bring up the katana please don't bring up the katana please don't bring up the katana please don't bring up the katana please don't bring up the katana please don't bring up the katana

Or something. Honestly, I'm a bit distracted by that girl in the front row of the audience who forgot to put her shirt on this morning. Not asking you to do anything about it, you understand. Just saying...

(Drum roll...)

What? Objection, mi'lud! Even if I am the beneficiary of this, you are clearly a complete arse! Miscarriage of justice! Burn him! Burn him! Come on, everyone, join in the chant!

Well, there goes the last of my faith in the system. Right there. Last drop. Blip!

28 Days Of Sentence Remaining

Regrets: A Few. Bodies Who Know The Trouble I've Seen: 0

You know, prison life could definitely be worse. Hard Time? Er... uh... not so much.

On the plus side, at least you can genuinely say you never know what's going to happen next—and how often does that happen? Not enough, that's how often. And it's definitely going to be a more entertaining way to serve a sentence than actually having had hit someone in the face with a katana.

Unless that someone was Jeremy Kyle, obviously.

File E-001: Prisoner got bored and went to watch Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs again.