Impressions: Prison Architect

By Alec Meer on November 26th, 2012 at 6:00 pm.

Prison Architect is a management game from Introversion, makers of Uplink and Darwinia. They’re currently running a pre-order system in which you get access to ongoing alpha builds. I’ve been playing virtual, invisible warden in the most recent one, which though lacking several features and an ultimate objective offers a good flavour of this game of construction and containment.

Why? Why do they hate me so? I go out of my way to be nice, to give them plenty of free time and fresh air, to give them varied meals and hot showers. I give them TVs in their rooms. They miss their families, so I build payphones that they might talk to them.

So they smash the payphones.
They smash the TVs.
They smash the showers.
They smash the meal trays.
They smash each other.

They think they’re making me pay for all the damage. It’s not me, though. It’s them – that’s one less pool table I can afford for them, one less exercise bench in the yard, one less block of individual cells for the poor schmoes stuck eyeballing each other in the holding area. Do they care? Maybe, somewhere underneath the anger and unhappiness at having their liberty taken away from them. But everything they do is an act of protest – at me a little, but mostly at the mere fact of being where they are. Imprisoned. Not free. And so they smash and smash and smash and I pick up the bill then try to spend whatever’s left on the impossible task of making them happy.

There’s a mental leap I have to make while playing Prison Architect, to embrace a dissonance from management games as I know them. I’m well accustomed to the tiny people – customers, patients, monsters – who pass beneath my birds-eye gaze being at best impassive towards me interests, and in the case of Dungeon Keeper I’m already familiar with actual unwillingness to behave. Prison Architect is something else, though – these people are jerks.

Jerks.

I don’t know or care what they did to wind up in jail: that wasn’t my decision and it’s not my place to judge now. I do, however, know all too well that they’re jerks and they’re not afraid to act like it. And from my laser-focused point of view, that of the guy who has to create somewhere for these jerks to live, eat, sleep, wash and relax, being a jerk is infinitely worse than being a murderer or thief. Killing and stealing is but one aspect of greater jerkdom. Dungeon Keeper’s monsters might have grumbled and quit and fought with each other, but they were fundamentally on my side despite that. These guys are not. They resent being in my world at all.

Whatever I do, these jerks will fight me because they have to fight me and what I’m doing to them. They may seem, temporarily, to co-operate – to trudge to the showers at showertime, to sit down quietly for meals – but it’s a ruse. Sooner or later someone will find a knife from somewhere and go crazy apeshit in the yard, or someone will have missed one measly meal and decides the communal phonebox or a passing cook is a rightful target for his growly-tummed ire. Sooner or later someone will escape, or at least try to. I strive to build them a perfect world, to meet their every need, but still they seek to leave, amid destruction and blood. I can’t win. I cannot win, not ever.

While a Theme Park or a Dungeon Keeper is a slow road to expansion, Prison Architect is a stressful struggle to maintain a closed world that’s forever being torn to bits by its foul-tempered denizens, with occasional gasping moments of growth before the next storm arrives. I don’t yet know if I’d prefer this fight to survive, contain and limit over the more traditional sense of accomplishment management games offer, but it certainly means I’m not simply repeating a familiar experience. It makes me realise there’s much more than meets the bloodshot, murderous eye to Prison Architect.

I had feared, when first hearing of it, that Prison Architect would be a mere Theme Prison or Prison Tycoon, but perhaps the fifty thousand shades of moral grey the subject of incarceration entails is what takes it to such a different place. It’s exhausting, not liberating. There’s reward in that, but it’s the reward of surviving destruction rather than creating construction.

It tricks me, too. Superficially it seems charming: its geometric, cut-out characters bobbing cutely around, showing off their line-art bums in the shower, their fists two toy-like circles when they raise them in anger, protests shown as cartoon speech bubbles. I forget to realise just what it is I’m dealing with, how awful the entire concept of crime and punishment is, what my own mixed feelings about it are.

Then, one stolen knife too many and suddenly I have a body in the morgue. And then I know. In this current alpha build of Prison Architect, that body never goes anywhere. It stays right there on its slab, a perpetual reminder. I don’t know if it will in the finished version. I almost hope not, because as it stands that morgue is a cold shrine both to my failures and to what this game really is.

It’s a document of a horrible world, a psychotic wolf in South Park clothing.

When Prisoners fight, they’re trying to kill each other, not dancing for my entertaiment.

When one of them swipes a knife, they intend to gut another man like a fish with it.

When a gaggle of them kick and punch a phone box to smithereens, they’re spraying broken glass everywhere, they’re tearing their own knuckles to shreds and they’re denying their fellow inmates the precious chance to talk to their loved ones.

When my guards head towards a troublemaker while wielding their harmless-looking Lego-like truncheons, they’re using them to beat a man unconscious.

When an aggressive prisoner is dragged off to solitary confinement he’s having light, company, hope ripped away from him.

When my workmen wander through genpop to install a light or pipe somewhere, they’re probably fearing for their lives.

Prison Architect chills me to the bone. If played haphazardly it can be a wonderful farce rich with hilarious anecdotes, but played patiently and carefully it’s a horror game, a top-down voyage into the heart of darkness, an eternal raging fire I forever try but can only fail to douse. But I have to try. I feel compelled – I feel that, given enough time and money, I can solve this awful situation. I can make everyone happy. Can’t I? That’s why I can’t put it down, that’s why I can’t wait to see what the next alpha brings, that’s why it ultimately seems – for good or ill – brave, vital and ingenious despite the superficially obvious concept.

Ugh. I need a shower. Ideally not one taken next to a guy who’s probably got a knife hidden up his anus, though.

Prison Architect can be pre-ordered, with instant access to the alpha, now.

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76 Comments »

  1. Perjoss says:

    This game looks quite captivating

  2. corbain says:

    Open call for prison architects. Send me your blueprints ASAP Stack the walls such that I cannot breathe.

  3. Hahaha says:

    They added more game?

  4. MOKKA says:

    So far I only played for a few hours. I managed to built something which for me looked like a suitable Priso, but found myself quite suprised when I realised that I forgot to built a wall around my buildings. The Prisoners, probably as suprised as I, happily walked across the street into their freedom.

  5. Blackseraph says:

    Those bugs are fairly hilarious.

    • Emeraude says:

      Those aren’t bugs ! They are human beings ! Just because they’re prisoners doesn’t give you the right to treat them like ants in a bottle farm !

  6. Emeraude says:

    Fascinating read. Almost made me reconsider my “wait till final release” position.

  7. MadTinkerer says:

    is there a win state? I suppose the “score” would be how many inmates survived, were genuinely rehabilitated, served their sentences and didn’t end up back in prison, etc.

    As for the whole game itself, prison is not a nice place. It can never be a nice place. It can never be a place people want to be. It can be tolerable and beneficial, however. There are prisons that are considered “successful” in the real world.

    • StevoIRL says:

      No, you can’t even rehab inmates so unless you check off an option you get a constant stream off inmates every day without anyway of getting inmates out of your prison.

  8. Rolpege says:

    Haven’t played this and haven’t really read about all of its features and such, but based on this impressions, I hope not all prisoners are just simple ‘jerks’. You know, they could add multiple personalities: the scared one, the non-guilty one who’s been wrongly imprisoned, the jerky one, the silent one (serial killer :D), etc.

    • Alec Meer says:

      There is a psychology system in there but it doesn’t really seem to do anything as yet – suspect it’ll be fleshed out in a later version

    • lordfrikk says:

      I definitely expect them to do this sooner or later because I was surprised by how many details they thought and I didn’t. I am confident they won’t let the prisoners stay as homogenous as they are now.

  9. Soon says:

    “So they smash the payphones.
    They smash the TVs.
    They smash the showers.
    They smash the meal trays.
    They smash each other.”

    Each man kills the thing he loves.

  10. apa says:

    I am not a number!

  11. LionsPhil says:

    But can you just put each of them into solitary with a feeding chute, and kit out your guards in properly tyrannical peacekeeping equipment?

    It sounds more efficient than all this treating them like they have feelings malarky, if you can just keep it hush-hush from all the bleeding-heart liberals.

  12. KDR_11k says:

    Are there any rules for proper inmate treatment? Do you care if the inmates kill each other or could you just as well build a Coliseum where the convicted fight to the death for our amusement and any escape routes just end in machine gun kill zones?

  13. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    The bit in the video with the prisoners all wielding electric drills is terrifying.

  14. sinister agent says:

    “Prisoners take their lunch to the shower block, get undressed, and eat naked.”

    This made me laugh more than is probably healthy. I kind of hope that stays in to be honest.

  15. dE says:

    The sociologist in me has got to ask:
    Can you build a Panopticon?

  16. CantankerousDave says:

    Does it include options for giving kickbacks to judges for sending prisoners your way, bribing politicians to push for harsher mandatory sentencing laws to fill your bunks, or making backroom deals with immigration officials to house everyone caught up in roundups of people arrested on suspicion of being brown? Hey, or how about helping your bottom line by cutting the number of guards and paying off an inmate gang to enforce order for you? Oo, or how about a Pay Phone Kickback Scam DLC or a male rape mini-game? That’d be awesome.

    I’m sorry, the whole concept for this “game” makes my skin crawl, and the makers should be ashamed of themselves for trying to turn it into entertainment.

    PS. Everything is paragraph 1 is real.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      You are being a wee bit cantankerous

    • AlphaCentauri says:

      What’s wrong about this game and the theme it chose?

    • maxriderules says:

      Prisons may suck, but they beat the hell out of the alternative. Also, having played the alpha, I have to say that it treats the subject matter bloody well, without just making a vapid, insulting farce. So what’s your complaint? That it features keeping convicts in prison? because I don’t see what’s wrong with that. Or even featuring that in a game.

      • Emeraude says:

        Which alternative ?

        • Delusibeta says:

          I’ll speculate that he’s either thinking of anarchy or the death penalty handed out en-mass.

          • Emeraude says:

            My main problem was more with the assumption that there is only one alternative to the completely corrupt and morally bankrupt model presented in the post being answered to.

            As for anarchy, I’ll never get how it came to be used as a synonym for social chaos. I mean how did people go from Proudhon’s mutualistic society of contract to what the word entail today in the mind of people ?

        • maxriderules says:

          Not having a prison system. I don’t know what society would be like for society sans prisons, to be honest. Possibly summary executions for convicts? Putting them in the stocks? Who knows.

          • aleander says:

            Put them on a ship and sail them to Australia.

          • Spoon Of Doom says:

            >>Put them on a ship and sail them to Australia.

            Where they get eaten by giant spiders and other monstrosities that the rest of the world doesn’t even (want to) know about. Now that’s a creative way of execution!

    • Snakejuice says:

      The features in your first paragraph really should be in the game.

      • Just another user says:

        A lot of those features would be really interesting additions. Having those such evil options available could be a way for the developers to make their understanding of the prison industry’s moral bankruptcy clear. It would certainly raise the player’s awareness of such issues.

    • LTK says:

      It’s perspective like this that upholds the image of games as frivolous time-wasters with no potential for providing social commentary or encouraging critical thought about real-world events.

      If someone wrote a book about being a prison warden, would you dismiss it as shamefully trying to turn a horrible thing into entertainment?

    • Lanfranc says:

      I honestly can’t see it’s any different from the thousands of other games that deal with war, crime, disease, natural disasters, or any other uncomfortable subjects. I mean, Theme Hospital was essentially a game about ruthlessly exploiting sick people for financial gain. Shame on Peter Molyneux for making that? Or for making Dongeon Keeper, which is a game about helping the forces of evil literally taking over the world? I wouldn’t think so.

      It’s not the subject that matters, but the way it’s treated. If the Introversion guys were just making a mindless Whatever Tycoon clone without taking the fundamentally disagreeable nature of prisons into account, then yeah, there might be issues with it. But, although I haven’t played it, that’s hardly what it sounds like from this and other impressions that I’ve seen/read.

    • MOKKA says:

      It’s comments like yours which convince me again and again that this game should be made.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      Hmm. Like a lot of people are saying, whether or not it’s exploitative depends entirely on how the subject matter is handled. It might be a mistake to be making the Alpha public for this reason, as the nuances of tone may have been left out for the sake of developing the mechanics for now, but I haven’t played it yet so I don’t know.

      Perhaps I’m naive, but I think that there is a great opportunity here to demonstrate to gamers why it’s so difficult to create a ‘good’ prison, and to educate them about the prison system(s) in general.

      Nothing is ever just entertainment.

  17. DeanLearner says:

    I’m kind of worried about this game. I think I want to play it, but I worry about what I might become. I can imagine Theme Hospital levels of radiator spam.

    I worry that I will spam the place with TVs etc to keep them happy. But really, why should I have to keep them happy, they’re very naughty boys!

    What type of Prison manager man am I, if I let this happen?

  18. zebramatt says:

    The last time I had an open discussion on the internet about this game, it rapidly degenerated into an existentialist debate about the validity of unilateral post modernism in a scientific world. So I bailed. Man, did I bail.

  19. belgand says:

    Sadly it looks like I can’t create the prison I want: all solitary, nobody leaves their cell for any reason, and their only outside contact is with sensible counselors designed to help them get reintegrated into society and lead a future life without crime. A mix of supermax and rehab designed to keep them from causing trouble or involving themselves with other criminals, but without the psychologically dangerous isolation that can occur in such situations. Harder time with shorter sentences and no opportunities to cause trouble or escape.

    More importantly once they’re safely in their cells I don’t need to make them happy. Why would I care how happy they are? It’s prison! They’re not supposed to be happy.

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