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Guvnor': Hands On With Prison Architect

The Shawshank Mile

The cancellation of Introversion's Subversion has at least borne some fruit. Our interview with lead programmer Chris Delay explain that a prison breakout level in Subversion, combined with a visit to Alcatraz, gave rise to an idea for a prison management game, Prison Architect. I've been playing some of the IGF build of that game - so far from release, but totally playable - and I've written up a few impressions below.

The game, as it is right now, launches straight into a tutorial. While the core of this involved tasks such as building a new block in the prison, wiring it up, and sorting out the functionally-necessary furnishings, I was surprised to learn that it told a story. The tutorial doesn't just tell you what's what about putting inescapable man-boxes together, it also tells the brief and disturbing tale of a man sent to the electric chair for shooting his wife and her lover. That's where these little "Polaroid" style art snippets we've seen in the treasure hunt come from. It's not clear how much this stuff will appear in the full game, but it's a fascinatingly grim and emotive twist, and not one I was really expecting.

This opening sequences gives you a good glimpse of what is going to happen in the full game. While your tasks are very much based on building, there's quite a lot of other stuff going on, with prisoners being fed, showered, and let out into the yard for some exercise, and the guards and so forth going about their business. This fully working prison has a bunch of important things to warn you about what will need to be taken care of later in the game, such as a power grid, and security to keep the prisoners in. The presentation is all fairly minimalistic, with 2D, boxy characters milling about, but it does give the impression that there's a lot going on. A big prison is a complex system to take care of.

Anyway, once the basics have been taught it's possible to get on with a far more sandboxy mode, which is simply running a prison - choose small, medium, or large - which you build from scratch to accommodate a certain number of prisoners. You can decide the structure of the buildings, right down to placing windows - elements like these will apparently have some effect on the prisoners themselves, and the tutorial instructs that you can think about this stuff (provide your prisoners with books and so on) if you "care" about them. It looks like this will ultimately be a sort of cash trade off, dependent on whether you actually want to spend money on other things, like guards, electricity bills, and security fences. While it's here that we can see the depth the game has - the long tweaky game of making brilliantly architected prisons that keep both accountants and inmates happy, it's also the point at which this preview build seems to run out of finishedness. The game's undeveloped areas seem to be evident as I plunge into this, but even so it's certainly got enormous promise. The game is - as Delay suggested in his interview with us - one that can be understood almost immediately, but also offers scope for a fair bit of creativity. It certainly their most approachable game since Defcon, and could be even more appealling, given its single-player nature.

Crucially, I suppose, Prison Architect does have the feel of the classic "Theme" games, and I can see it eating the same sort of mass of hours that Theme Hospitals and their ilk got through. Little dudes milling about, albeit in grim circumstances. (Just as Theme Hospital's people were sick but cute.) Because of this peculiarly cartoon cheeriness, however, it does not feel like an Introversion game, if that means anything at all to say that. Perhaps the last of the bedroom programmers are finally moving into a new phase. Unless Introversion decided to dramatically cancel another game, we'll find out next year.

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