The RPS Advent Calendar – Dec 1st: Prison Architect

What is the best management game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is …

Prison Architect!

Adam:

A great management game often has a theme that is enjoyable to play with, in and of itself. Rollercoasters, golf courses, Sexy Empires. That kinda thing. If that theme also supports a complex social or economic simulation, all the better. It’s easy to forget that the value of Theme Park’s setting was in the cynical humour as much as the actual colour and carnival atmosphere. Applying corporate management to a ‘fun’ activity exposed the tough business behind the painted on smiles.

In that sense, Theme Hospital was a natural progression. The intro, which sees a patient ejected from the operating table and dumped into the darkness beneath the hospital when his credit history doesn’t check out, is a playful but brutal swipe at for-profit healthcare. Dungeon Keeper wasn’t the only Bullfrog management game that had you playing as the villain.

Introversion’s Prison Architect is the natural heir to those Bullfrog games of old. The first time I played it, at Rezzed a few years ago, I was confused by the gap between the rather jolly graphics and the sinister, clean execution chamber that the tutorial taught me to build. The backdrop of an apparently straight tale of murder, anger and regret made that tutorial all the more difficult to swallow. Was it an ill-judged attempt to shock with no real significance, or was it a perfectly pitched gateway into a management simulation unafraid to look into the extremes of its chosen setting?

Theme Hospital’s satire has a squirty flower on its lapel and honking great shoes. It rolls up outside the hospital in a tiny ambulance that fifteen red-nosed doctors spill out of, with dollar signs obscuring their eyes. They consult the performance of their stocks instead of a patient’s charts and there’s a comedy sound effect for every illness and demise. Prison Architect happily descends into (or is elevated toward) farce, but its comedy is an emergent device, a result of rules and behaviours rather than a whoopee cushion or joy buzzer.

As to whether it manages to accommodate the grimmer aspects of life (and death) behind bars into both its simulation model and its style, I’m still not entirely sure. I can spend hours building a facility that seems like an ideal of a humane form of imprisonment, and I can spend hours constructing a Benthamite panopticon nightmare, and then nudging it toward chaos and riot just for a laugh.

It’s striking how quickly I’ve accepted that human beings are the resource I have to manage, and how it took this particular approach to the genre to make me realise that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing since I first loaded up Theme Park back in the day. Whether directing people toward the most profitable section of Pleasure Island, and ensuring that they’re dehydrated and on a sugar high when they get there, or turning an intensive care waiting room into an efficient factory line, I’ve been mining artificial people for all that they’re worth since I was a kid.

Prison Architect strips away the gloss and shows the skeleton of the genre. Mechanically, it’s beautifully efficient and adaptable, and my favourite moments are those when it feels like a survival sim. With limited resources, provide the basics to keep your crew alive. I enjoy the challenge but more than anything, I love that it is possible to create aesthetically pleasing machine-like facilities that cater to the needs of that crew. Except, of course, they’re not a crew and they’re not really mine.

On paper, Introversion’s shift from the sleek and trendy cyber-infiltration of Subversion’s procedural cities to the oppressive and functional world of crime and captivity seemed unfortunate. In retrospect, Prison Architect is exactly what we hoped for when Subversion was announced – a complex simulation of a place and its population, with every aspect working to the expression of an over-riding theme. It truly is one of the best management games since the days of Bullfrog.

Graham:

I loved Theme Park and Theme Hospital, but I think Prison Architect is better designed than both of them. In In Theme Park, for example, you’d reach a stage where you’d filled all available space, had made your park profitable, and your only motivation to keep playing was to create space for the final few rides you’d unlocked. That done, your park could continue happily forever without you – assuming you had a maintenance crew – and if you were to start a second park and try again, it’d turn out much like the first. There was still pleasure in it, but little motive.

Prison Architect is different in that it supports prison built with different philosophies: architectural, in that you might favour bunks and open spaces or enclosed cells and rigid control; political, in that you might favour corporal punishment over education-fuelled reform. There’s a broader set of ideas with which to tinker with than simply “rollercoaster or teacups”.

Filling all available space is a rare accomplishment all on its own, but even if you do it, the simulation is rich enough and the design smart enough that there’s always something new to balance. New prisoners arrive which add extra strain to your system; mayors call with demands that you strip out vital parts of your calm, discipline or reform loop; the deep skill tree tempts to let in higher security prisons, to stretch yourself further.

And if you get bored or get stuck, you can try again and build something completely different.

I understand people’s discomfort with playing a prison game, though I think it picks a careful, considered path through that minefield. But I’d go a step further than Adam. Prison Architect isn’t just what I hoped for from Subversion, but what I want from Introversion: a smart, best-in-class take on traditional British game design.

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

35 Comments

  1. Vandelay says:

    I must admit to not putting too much time in to this. Although I do hope to correct that at some time, I ultimately just became too frustrated at how the workers seemed to just stop doing what I wanted them to do. There seemed to be little control over getting them to the right places and they would regular become stuck on some geometry or door. This was happening on story missions too, so it was how I was designing the prison that caused issues.

    Which was a shame, as it was clear there was a fantastic management game under there, but the workers are so intrinsic to actually playing the game that the way they regular bugged out on me made it unplayable.

    • australopithecus says:

      The workers in Prison Architect aren’t tools at your disposal, they are actors in the simulation, much the same as the prisoners. You have very limited direct control. Instead, the design of the prison and management of its settings is what will allow efficiency or gridlock.

      In this way Prison Architect is very similar to Dwarf Fortress. It’s not about controlling the actors, but building the stage.

  2. BluePencil says:

    It doesn’t feel very adventy with the game title in the heading. Make us click through! You know, like when you have to open the little door on the calendar.

    • Morph says:

      My first thought too.

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      Ross Turner says:

      Is this the first time readers of blog have *wanted* the content hidden behind the fold? Well done RPS!

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      John Walker says:

      As fun as that was, it was also absolutely useless for readers once advent was over, and complete SEO suicide for us. We missed the advent calendar last year, so this seemed a good compromise for bringing it back.

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        Skabooga says:

        I think that strikes a fine balance. The Advent Calendar post is bookmarked, and will be my first port of call every morning!

      • kwyjibo says:

        Can’t you do something a bit fancy with CSS to keep the SEO yet hide the name behind the advent window?

      • AngoraFish says:

        Given the risk of this turning into a ‘vote’, I’ll just say that I much prefer that the title is in the heading.

  3. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Woohoo! Advent calendar! Starting off with a good un too. Unfortunately even though I waited til full release before playing, PA was still a buggy mess that broke a tutorial mission and then wouldn’t let my first tutorial-less prison venture past a holding cell because all the workers just down tools and stare into space. There’s clearly something great here but I’m scared to try again for the time being.

    • BluePencil says:

      Sorry to Hear you’ve had a bad experience. I *haven’t* played it since full release, only during the beta and the workers were doing a fine job back then.

  4. LordCrash says:

    Wow, not Cities: Skylines for best management game? I’m surprised…

    • MiniMatt says:

      Category titles in the advent calendar are (typically)… inventive.

      It’s eminently possible that Skylines will win “Best Unintended Somerset Levels Simulator: ‘Did you really want to put that hydro dam there?’ Edition

  5. Beefenstein says:

    I’m not sure this is a game: for me it’s more of a badly-run fantasy prison simulator.

  6. raiders says:

    I’m not sure how you would pick this over Rimworld unless you’ve never played Rimworld.

    Day 1 is a fail but you got 30 more days of redemption.

    • raiders says:

      I’m sorry. Only 23 left. Oooooooh……

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        Jiblet says:

        Rimworld isn’t released yet and we don’t preorder around these parts mister.

        • Alamech says:

          True, but we also don’t edit around here, and I’m not sure that’s for the best in all the cases either.

        • Belsameth says:

          As you can clearly see by the millions of articles about PA while it was in Early Access… (not that I mind. I love PA!)

          • captainparty says:

            But that’s why its Management Game of 2015, not 2013.

            Rimworld will have its day in the sun of the RPS Advent Calendar Blog Post when it’s got a full, finished release

  7. GameCat says:

    I’ve secretly hoped for Life Is Strange as first game, so I could come up with witty comment how this list is wrong right from its start.

  8. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    The tiny stories it tells are fantastic. I had a model prisoner who was waiting out the end of his sentence. He’d had regular meetings with his wife and kids in the socialisation wing. I was looking forward to letting him out, my first real success. Then a random check discovered that his mattress was 80% drugs by volume. His loving family had been slipping him drugs under the table. I slammed him in solitary. When he got out, he discovered his drugs were gone. He stole a knife from the canteen and stabbed another prisoner in the shower. In the ensuing riot, a guard was knocked out. He lost his key. HE LOST HIS KEY. I had to fire the guard and turn over the entire prison looking for the missing key. It was in the possession of the prisoner who had kicked it all off and must’ve been planning an escape. Such a beautiful chain of events.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      Maybe if they hadn’t join him to the socialism wing.

    • klops says:

      Huh. I never managed to see any details (and therefore personified stories) like this. Perhaps with the first 10 prisoners I had time to pay attention to single prisoners but when the number is closer to 100 or more I had no idea about anything.

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    Jiblet says:

    Rimworld isn’t releases and we don’t preorder around these parts mister.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I need to revisit this game, now that it is (mostly) finished. I’ve built a couple of prisons, but that was years ago.

  11. Mario Figueiredo says:

    Can’t agree with Day 1. Kerbal Space Program is the no. 1 management game of the year. And to prove that I’m going to launch something into space today. Have your prisoners top that, I dare you!

  12. Raoul Duke says:

    The descriptions of this game always make me think, “this would be the perfect game for me!” Then I see the graphics again and think, “oh, right”. Theme Park is a classic not just because it’s a great, if buggy, management sim, but because it is also a beautiful looking game with a very distinctive personality. It was doing retro 8-bit-but-not-really graphics before that was a thing. It also had that delightful faux-corporate plasticky thing going on.

    This game sounds like a lovely underlying concept but for me the very poor graphics spoil it. I’ve played Rimworld extensively and I have the same issue with it. At a certain point, it just lacks charm managing what amounts to a bunch of icons inside a bunch of rectangles.

    I really, really hope that someone makes a game like this or Rimworld but with actual pretty graphics.

  13. Richard_from_Winnipeg says:

    Maybe you should try playing the game in 6 years when realistic graphics are still a pale imitation of real life and you can then appreciate that these stylized icons of Prison Architect mirror the iconography of actual architectural blueprints which have been around for decades.

    Or you could recognize today that the icons serve a function and do so in a tangible and stylish way; albeit a style which is not intuitive. I think if you had the same experience as Lord Custard above you’d love the game, but you’d have to look past the graphics.

    For instance, Mechcommander is a terrible game to look at today but I still play it on occasion because I developed an affinity for it when it came out. I think you may also have the same thing happening with Theme Park.

    If you allow yourself to sympathetically engage with Prison Architect I’m sure you’ll come to appreciate it’s own particular style (if you have a love for this style of game).

    • Raoul Duke says:

      Presumably you’re replying to me.

      You are basically taking a ‘graphics are irrelevant if gameplay is good’ position, which I have some sympathy with but ultimately do not accept. Theme Park would be a much less interesting game without its charming graphics in my view.

      Nowhere did I indicate that I want “realistic” graphics, by the way. Prison architect with graphics along the lines of something like Dungeon of the Endless (or, indeed, some classic Bullfrog-esque graphics) would be excellent.

  14. caff says:

    I bounced off PA despite many attempts to get into it. I don’t have the most light-hearted of souls, but a management game where you have to build and equip an execution chamber in the first 10 minutes just depressed me.

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      phuzz says:

      I always skip the campaign and go straight to the sandbox, and while I have dabbled in building a MAXSEC wing, solitary confinement and reduced amenities, I’ve never yet built an execution chamber.

      (and in the game)

  15. Tritagonist says:

    I played Prison Architect in the early months of the year when it wasn’t yet fully released (but after a long time in Early Access). It was fun (for a while), the building templates were excellent, and the different events were nice enough. Unfortunately it was very easy at the time. Once I got a hang of the way the needs of the prisoners worked it was smooth sailing and almost as if the different categories of prisoner didn’t matter at all. This relative simplicity after an initial learning curve is pretty standard for management games, though.