Prison Architect – What We Think:
Prison Architect, the controversial jail simulator from Introversion Software, is finally out of Early Access. While certain elements of the game’s thematic choices might be questionable, the gameplay itself is not. Its models of complexity lend toward creative solutions, whether you choose to run your prison as an oppressive dungeon or champion the rehabilitation model. More importantly, it’s a lot of fun, bordering on addictive.
American’s Next Prison Design Star
The game combines both building and management sim elements; you’ll start off creating buildings and filling them with a variety of objects (each cell, for example, requires a bed and a toilet, while offices for your administrative staff require desks and file cabinets). It gives you plenty of leeway to choose your flooring, window placement, etc., and it’s easy to get lost in the little details. (Idea for a freemium mobile tie-in: Prison Interior Decorator.)
You’ll even need to manage your wiring and pipes, via a special Utilities screen. For whatever reason—probably the metallic clunking sounds of your little workmen laying down sections of heavy cable — this is one of the game’s most satisfying elements. (More freemium mobile ideas: Prison Electrician and Prison Plumber; if Introversion Software were feeling more mercenary, they could probably make a mint on those.)
To Be or Not to Be (A Tyrannical Jerk)
Get your foundations down, and it’s time to manage your prisoners and staff. That’s where things get complicated. You’ve got to keep your prisoners fed, washed, clothed and even happy. Let anything slip by the wayside – maybe you forgot to build a laundry room, and your inmates’ uniforms are starting to stink – and pretty soon you’ll have a riot on your hands.
Depending on how you choose to play things, you’ve got multiple options for managing your inmates’ lives. Progressive and civic-minded? Focus on rehabilitation by offering educational programs, occupational training and psychological treatment. Prefer a pessimistic tough on crime approach? Arm your guards and let them shoot misbehaving inmates on sight.
You’ve got lots of choices that you can unlock through a sort of bureaucratic technology tree; most of them also require special rooms and facilities. Which direction you take will not only affect your prisoners’ behavior, it’ll also affect your public perception; you could get politicians riled up at you if they view you as taking too soft an approach on crime. There’s even a Grants system for obtaining extra government funds. (I found this last bit almost frighteningly realistic, given that I do grants administration at my day job, but luckily Prison Architect doesn’t make you fill out actual paperwork.)
Given the complexity of the systems at play, you might need a bit of hand-holding along the way if you’re not an expert in building and management games. There’s a mode for that: a five-level campaign that walks you through various aspects of prison management, from the basic interface to managing crises like riots and fires all the way up to building a prison from scratch.
Orange Is the New Pale Gray
That’s also where the most obvious thematic problems come into play. The developers aren’t trying to make light of America’s prison-industrial complex; on the contrary, Prison Architect attempts to call attention to its more problematic aspects. The problem is that its attempts at social commentary are so uneven.
During campaign mode, various storylines – a depressed inmate’s attempt at rehabilitation, a Mafia family’s succession struggles, a prison riot and hostage situation – play out through Polaroid-style pictures illustrated like ’60s comic books. It’s not so much that this clashes weirdly with the in-game graphics, which are stylized and resemble Fisher-Price Little People toys, but that the storylines are both trite and weirdly silent on some of the biggest issues.
In one particularly memorable scene, the prison system’s for-profit status is treated as a shocking and horrific revelation. Corporate exploitation of the prison system is a major problem, but it’s hardly a secret. On the other hand, Prison Architect makes very few references to the drug wars and no references to race at all.
It doesn’t help that Prison Architect tries to throw in comedic elements, most of which fall fairly flat. Click on an individual inmate, and you’ll see the charges he’s been convicted of. Alongside assault, robbery and murder, you’ll also find “indie game piracy.” We at IGR loathe indie game piracy as much as anyone, but it certainly does detract from the message, such as it is.
Keeping Our Heads Down and Doing Our Time
Introversion would have been better off either committing to social commentary completely or ignoring it altogether and simply presenting Prison Architect as a hypothetical jail simulator devoid of moral implications. Admittedly, either approach would have garnered criticism, but with what they’ve actually offered feels so noncommittal you get a frequent sense that the developers were constantly hedging their bets to avoid getting yelled at on the Internet.
Social critiques (or lack thereof) aside, Prison Architect is a brilliant game, especially once you get past the more awkward parts of the Campaign mode. Better yet, go straight to Sandbox mode and start from scratch. Whether or not you agree with how the developers have presented the prison-industrial complex, you have to be impressed with the amount of detail, complexity and style they’ve included in the game. It isn’t suprising, given their history with games like Darwinia, Multiwinia, Uplink and Defcon. Chalk this one up as another must-have for diehard simulation fans.
Watch the trailer for Prison Architect below: