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 ...
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.
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.