A screenshot of a typical game of Prison Architect. Image: Introversion Software
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Prison Architect and the subversion of the god game

The innovative Prison Architect tasks you with building and controlling a prison - and the definition of success requires choosing to harm those you're tasked to help.

In Prison Architect you play a god. Not a particularly powerful god - some sort of oddity from the lower tier of a polytheistic pantheon, down there with the Spirit of Wednesday and the Dancing Squid That Hordes Lost Car Keys - but a god nonetheless. You are god of a prison. You build it, you run it and you eventually sell it to make a new one.

Definitions of game genres are always a bit of a thorny point, but if your abilities in a game include being able to make fully trained and equipped prison staff appear instantly anywhere on the screen, you’re into the god game side of things rather than management simulation.

Like similar minor-god games such as Dungeon Keeper, Theme Hospital or Theme Park you are mostly trying to look after the people in your world. The duty of care is always paramount in a god game, you build a nice place for your charges and you keep them happy in order to see them thrive and succeed for your benefit, either by making you money or, in the case of Dungeon Keeper, defeating heroes that would enter your dungeon. For all the implied evil of the early Dungeon Keeper games (as opposed to the actual evil of the newest version) you were still compelled to be good to your monsters. Look after them and they’d look after you.

As such I approached Prison Architect in that same way. I started out with a small but comfortable prison. One large cell block to house about twenty prisoners for starters with a disproportionately large kitchen, laundry and other facilities attached, so that I could expand the population gradually without needing a new infrastructure. I would run a model prison, I thought, and because my prisoners would always be happy they would never cause me any trouble. No need for batons and beatings in my prison, I thought. This is, I told myself, just another god game, and once I get the hang of keeping everybody happy I’m sorted.

In most games of this sort that would have been enough. Typically a god game like this you build the required rooms of the required size for your level and the place runs itself after that. In Theme Park, the visitors would amble around, spend their money, go on the rides, puke, get it cleaned up, and things would progress happily. In Dungeon Keeper, as long as you let your monsters win most of their wages back at the in-dungeon casino you’d built for them they’d be happy. Maybe you would have to micro-manage them for larger incursions by enemy heroes, but mostly they’d look after themselves.

In Prison Architect it didn’t work out that way. By creating a comfy prison with a laid back regime I had created an institution that had a spectacularly high reoffending rate and that barely broke even. Prisoners liked it so much they wanted to come back. And there it was; the secret of Prison Architect, the twist to it all. This isn’t a game about building a happy little world for the characters. You have to punish them.

Of course that seems like a statement of the obvious, but this is a very subversive idea. There are plenty of games that give the player power over the lives of the people in the game world and many of these games will allow you to commit acts of casual sadism to them, whether it takes the form of an unfinished rollercoaster/people launcher in Theme Park, to brutalising characters in The Sims to see how far they can fall. That’s not new, but what is new is having that cruelty built into the game as something you actually have to do to the population at large.

This of course raises questions about punishment versus rehabilitation and best practice for operating prisons in the real world, a question few can comfortably answer. A small team of games developers can therefore be forgiven for not really trying to answer the question and instead making a game mechanic out of it. In the game you need to rehabilitate your prisoners by keeping them healthy, keeping them safe and training them for the outside world, but you also have to abuse them enough that they are happier on the outside.

The element of unpleasantness in my own game of Prison Architect was something that crept in once I realised I needed to make more money. The prison was barely making any money, so I took some grant money to add more cells. Capacity grew from a relatively small group of prisoners to over a hundred. More prisoners meant more money, which meant better security options, which meant that instead of having to accommodate the needs of the prisoners as comprehensively as I had done, I could just have armoured guards with Tasers and dogs in the main corridors to scare them into compliance. Metal detectors outside the canteen and workshops caught anybody trying to smuggle items and the original relaxed policy to punishment was abandoned. A brand new solitary confinement block meant I could lock up prisoners in solitary for longer periods for more trifling offences, which meant less prisoners making use of the already overstretched facilities. A solitary confinement cell only has to be half the size of a proper cell and doesn’t need a toilet or a bed.

I then found that I could cram prisoners into the communal holding arealong term rather than providing individual cells. The lack of privacy eventually got to them, angering them, but that was okay because a fraction of the money earmarked for new cells went on a couple of big lads with shotguns and a brand new morgue. Problem solved and profit made. I increased the length of the working day at the expense of meal times because it was more efficient to only feed three quarters of the inmates at each sitting rather than allotting the extra hour to feed them all. They didn’t like it; I hired more guards.

Within hours my well intentioned prison plan had turned into an oppressive machine, efficient, uncompromising and profitable. The reoffending rate for the prison dropped and the prisoners were both suitably miserable and beaten down enough not to fight back. I had gone from Barraclough to Napper Wainwright in one fell swoop, but though the prison was making decent amounts of money it felt like a hollow victory, built on compromise and coercion.

Prison Architect is a work in progress, still on early access at the time of writing, but it is shaping up to be a brilliant game. Though it can be difficult to get started the systems of the game are uncomplicated and intuitive, and there are few complications that can’t be solved with a quick Google search. I didn’t run into any issues that had not been asked and answered somewhere before. The presentation of the game shines, the faintly cutesy characters and the often comical biographies and rap sheets of the prisoners perfectly offset what can at times be quite grim subject matter, especially if your maximum security prisoners are feeling the urge to shank people.

Earlier builds of the game had a perfunctory, formulaic feel to them, as if you were painting by numbers to get a working system rather than being creative but with more flesh on the bones the game allows for more diverse styles of play, this bodes well for its further development.

There are comparisons to be made between Prison Architect and Papers, Please, in terms of how they portray the power that bureaucrats can wield over the lives of others, even when it feels like they are just doing something mundane. Prison Architect doesn’t parade its quirkiness so openly though, while it is a challenging and thought provoking game it doesn’t preach or try to provide answers.

While Prison Architect can be seen as a spiritual successor to the likes of Dungeon Keeper, it surpasses those old classics by having a greater internal conflict. In Dungeon Keeper the enemy came from outside the dungeon, in Theme Hospital the enemy was illness, and in Theme Park the enemy were those kids who just wouldn’t stop vomiting after they went on the rides. In Prison Architect the enemy are the people you’re meant to be looking after. It’s weird, but it works.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser