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.