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

MARK GERSON
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It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain