A screenshot of a typical game of Prison Architect. Image: Introversion Software
Show Hide image

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

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon