Introversion Software previously made a game called DEFCON [official site], a strategy game in which you launch often unprovoked nuclear attacks upon other countries. Global thermonuclear war is the core of the game, and necessary if you’re going to defeat your opponents, but it never revels in the wanton destruction you’re carrying out. As the death toll rises into the millions, the grim reality of what’s happening is gently communicated through the stark white alerts of how many millions have been killed and through the addition of quiet coughing to the game’s soundtrack.
I’ve killed million and millions in DEFCON. I’m not sure I could bring myself to kill just one person in Prison Architect [official site] using update 31’s newly introduced execution chambers. There’s a video below showing how the process works.
The current alpha build of Prison Architect has long included the beginnings of a story campaign in which your first objective is to build an execution chamber, but the linear structure of it means that the player is absolved of some of the responsibility due to their inability to do anything else.
It’s different in sandbox mode where players choose what kind of prison they want to make, and it’s clear that Introversion have thought long and hard about how to include executions in a way that both communicates their grim reality and prevents players from ever reveling in the act. “It was very important to both of us that death row wasn’t frivolous,” says producer Mark Morris during the video. “I absolutely didn’t want there to be banks and banks and banks of electric chairs.” Chris Delay agrees: “We didn’t want to see a factory execution system where every prisoner was on death row, because it’s not realistic. It doesn’t work like that. Death row inmates are on death row for decades sometimes before the execution goes ahead. It would just be extremely bad taste for us to make the game mechanics open enough to allow you to do such a thing.”
Executions therefore mimic some of the processes that wrap around the system in real life American prison systems. Each death row inmate within your prison has a “Likelihood of Clemency” rating, which is a percentage stat that tells you what chance the prisoner has of having their death row sentence reversed. As time progresses in the game, inmates go through multiple appeals – they’ll meet with lawyers in your parole office – and as those appeals are rejected, the chance for clemency will go down. You can execute the prisoner at any time, but if you do it before that chance reaches zero, you risk being punished should information later come to light that would have seen the prisoner’s sentence revoked. However, if you wait for the chance of clemency to reach zero and then execute, you might still discover that evidence later came to light that would have changed their sentence, but you won’t be punished for it because you followed protocol.
Which is cold and terrifying. The time this process requires also means it should be extremely difficult to build a prison based entirely on executions, and that min-maxing players will have umpteen faster routes towards profitable, endgame-style prisons.
Once the appeals process is over, the actual steps of carrying out the execution is similarly stark, as you first lock down your prison, proceed through a series of safety checks, then move the prisoner to the execution chamber and accept both his and his victims’ families into your prison in order to watch it happen. While DEFCON and Prison Architect differ greatly in terms of the scale of their killing, they both find resonance in evoking death’s cold machinery; they’re unusual as games in that they contain the taking of life not from a position of impassioned fury and noise, but from a place of cold, mathematical remove.
Watch the video below for more detail and discussion from Morris and Delay as to why they felt the feature was necessary and how they’ve approached it. I think it’s been added responsibly and I am glad that it’s optional. Death row chat starts at 12 minutes and 45 seconds: