Prison Architect is a management game from Introversion, makers of Uplink and Darwinia. They're currently running a pre-order system in which you get access to ongoing alpha builds. I've been playing virtual, invisible warden in the most recent one, which though lacking several features and an ultimate objective offers a good flavour of this game of construction and containment.
Why? Why do they hate me so? I go out of my way to be nice, to give them plenty of free time and fresh air, to give them varied meals and hot showers. I give them TVs in their rooms. They miss their families, so I build payphones that they might talk to them.
So they smash the payphones.
They smash the TVs.
They smash the showers.
They smash the meal trays.
They smash each other.
They think they're making me pay for all the damage. It's not me, though. It's them - that's one less pool table I can afford for them, one less exercise bench in the yard, one less block of individual cells for the poor schmoes stuck eyeballing each other in the holding area. Do they care? Maybe, somewhere underneath the anger and unhappiness at having their liberty taken away from them. But everything they do is an act of protest - at me a little, but mostly at the mere fact of being where they are. Imprisoned. Not free. And so they smash and smash and smash and I pick up the bill then try to spend whatever's left on the impossible task of making them happy.
There's a mental leap I have to make while playing Prison Architect, to embrace a dissonance from management games as I know them. I'm well accustomed to the tiny people - customers, patients, monsters - who pass beneath my birds-eye gaze being at best impassive towards me interests, and in the case of Dungeon Keeper I'm already familiar with actual unwillingness to behave. Prison Architect is something else, though - these people are jerks.
I don't know or care what they did to wind up in jail: that wasn't my decision and it's not my place to judge now. I do, however, know all too well that they're jerks and they're not afraid to act like it. And from my laser-focused point of view, that of the guy who has to create somewhere for these jerks to live, eat, sleep, wash and relax, being a jerk is infinitely worse than being a murderer or thief. Killing and stealing is but one aspect of greater jerkdom. Dungeon Keeper's monsters might have grumbled and quit and fought with each other, but they were fundamentally on my side despite that. These guys are not. They resent being in my world at all.
Whatever I do, these jerks will fight me because they have to fight me and what I'm doing to them. They may seem, temporarily, to co-operate - to trudge to the showers at showertime, to sit down quietly for meals - but it's a ruse. Sooner or later someone will find a knife from somewhere and go crazy apeshit in the yard, or someone will have missed one measly meal and decides the communal phonebox or a passing cook is a rightful target for his growly-tummed ire. Sooner or later someone will escape, or at least try to. I strive to build them a perfect world, to meet their every need, but still they seek to leave, amid destruction and blood. I can't win. I cannot win, not ever.
While a Theme Park or a Dungeon Keeper is a slow road to expansion, Prison Architect is a stressful struggle to maintain a closed world that's forever being torn to bits by its foul-tempered denizens, with occasional gasping moments of growth before the next storm arrives. I don't yet know if I'd prefer this fight to survive, contain and limit over the more traditional sense of accomplishment management games offer, but it certainly means I'm not simply repeating a familiar experience. It makes me realise there's much more than meets the bloodshot, murderous eye to Prison Architect.
I had feared, when first hearing of it, that Prison Architect would be a mere Theme Prison or Prison Tycoon, but perhaps the fifty thousand shades of moral grey the subject of incarceration entails is what takes it to such a different place. It's exhausting, not liberating. There's reward in that, but it's the reward of surviving destruction rather than creating construction.
It tricks me, too. Superficially it seems charming: its geometric, cut-out characters bobbing cutely around, showing off their line-art bums in the shower, their fists two toy-like circles when they raise them in anger, protests shown as cartoon speech bubbles. I forget to realise just what it is I'm dealing with, how awful the entire concept of crime and punishment is, what my own mixed feelings about it are.
Then, one stolen knife too many and suddenly I have a body in the morgue. And then I know. In this current alpha build of Prison Architect, that body never goes anywhere. It stays right there on its slab, a perpetual reminder. I don't know if it will in the finished version. I almost hope not, because as it stands that morgue is a cold shrine both to my failures and to what this game really is.
It's a document of a horrible world, a psychotic wolf in South Park clothing.
When Prisoners fight, they're trying to kill each other, not dancing for my entertaiment.
When one of them swipes a knife, they intend to gut another man like a fish with it.
When a gaggle of them kick and punch a phone box to smithereens, they're spraying broken glass everywhere, they're tearing their own knuckles to shreds and they're denying their fellow inmates the precious chance to talk to their loved ones.
When my guards head towards a troublemaker while wielding their harmless-looking Lego-like truncheons, they're using them to beat a man unconscious.
When an aggressive prisoner is dragged off to solitary confinement he's having light, company, hope ripped away from him.
When my workmen wander through genpop to install a light or pipe somewhere, they're probably fearing for their lives.
Prison Architect chills me to the bone. If played haphazardly it can be a wonderful farce rich with hilarious anecdotes, but played patiently and carefully it's a horror game, a top-down voyage into the heart of darkness, an eternal raging fire I forever try but can only fail to douse. But I have to try. I feel compelled - I feel that, given enough time and money, I can solve this awful situation. I can make everyone happy. Can't I? That's why I can't put it down, that's why I can't wait to see what the next alpha brings, that's why it ultimately seems - for good or ill - brave, vital and ingenious despite the superficially obvious concept.
Ugh. I need a shower. Ideally not one taken next to a guy who's probably got a knife hidden up his anus, though.
Prison Architect can be pre-ordered, with instant access to the alpha, now.