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Hands On: Prison Architect

A Room Without A View

This is my second time with a pre-release version of Prison Architect. You can read my first impressions right here. This time I've played a slightly more advanced version, albeit one that is not tuned for IGF judges. Fresh thoughts stockaded below.

Last time around the game landed me in the story sequence of its tutorial, and taught me quite a specific lesson about building certain things in the game. This time, however, I landed straight into a large pre-built prison, and instead of following instructions I simply took charge of what someone at Introversion – perhaps Chris, the programmer – had already constructed.

I watched things play out. As soon as I'd loaded the level up there was a fight about to break out in the showers. A huge brawl of bodies surged into the large shower complex, with one of the inmates going down quite rapidly. A lone guard, far ahead of his colleagues, waded in, and was stabbed to death. Soon after the rest of the guards bundled in, pacifying the riot and cleaning up the mess. Even before it was over I had begun to wonder at the collection of rules that must govern the behaviour of the AI, and dictate how events play out in the prison. I looked at the tiny corpses of the guard and inmate. I reloaded the level.

The brawl erupted again. This time guards responded faster to the fracas, and two of them arrived on the scene ahead of the main group. Already, within seconds, Prison Architect's systems were playing out the complex interactions of a large group of prisoners and their guards in a different way. This time the fight was quite different. One of the guards went down, but was only injured – the fighting between the inmates, however, was far more ferocious, and four of them ended up dead on the shower room floor. Grisly, despite the plain, clean, cartoon visuals.

Watching the guards clear up and carry bodies to the morgue, I swept the camera around the rest of the large prison. Some inmates were in their cells. Others in the canteen. One was still fleeing from the fight, pursued by guards. On the other side of the prison some inmates were getting exercise before wandering back their bunks. It was a large, bustling complex that I was in charge of. I swept across it, and spotted the warden in his office. He pootled back and forth, as if unsure of his responsibility. I knew how he felt.

There's something about watching these sorts of systems that fascinates. I am not sure quite why it's so compelling, but you can see it in everything from The Sims, through old Bullfrog games, and into more complicated corners of gaming, like Dwarf Fortress. Prison Architect certainly appeals to that caretaker-voyeur feeling in gaming, and I can appreciate exactly what Introversion were trying to do when they put this together.

Of course there's also the raw prison-building aspect, and I began afresh as soon as I'd bored of tinkering with the pre-made prison. There's definitely a solid theme/manager building process at work here. I was rapidly engrossed in making every cell have a toilet in the centre of the room, like a peculiar echo of the nearby electric chair. But balancing the budget at the start was maddening, too. This is one of those game development things that I am sure Introversion will have to sink endless hours into balancing, but I can already see what the game is here: the juggling of resources to take on more inmates than you will ever really have space for. I hope there's a deluxe wealthy prison option, too, so I can go to down on grand detention plans.

That said, I wonder precisely how the game will escalate beyond opening up a tech tree of facilities for you to build. Dangerous prisoners? A Charles Bronson you must contain, at huge expense? I also felt, as I built my cells and shower blocks, that there was something missing in the planning element of the game. Perhaps it was my haste to get something put up, but I kept making mistakes, and felt that my prison was less architected than it was simply cobbled together, as if by accident. “Prison Cobbler” doesn't sound quite the same.

Still, it was clear that my slam was no panopticon, and that I am more a builder and manager than I am any kind of spatial visionary for the future of keeping people incarcerated.

But these are silly, hand-wavey quibbles. The truth is that Introversion are building something that sits within a familiar heritage for PC games, and they are doing it with style. The game's systems are fascinating, and the blue-printy style is bang on, well complimented by the dark sound effects that rumble beneath your mouse pointer.

And yet there's still clearly a long way to go, too. I am looking forward to getting my hands on a final build, and see exactly what the little British game company made instead of Subversion.

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