Prison: it's the one place I absolutely never want to visit, yet I'm strangely curious as to how one would survive being locked up in an environment filled with criminals, guards and half-a-century’s worth of television shows and movies, many of which paint it as the worst place on Earh.
Is it really as corrupt and as violent as television show Oz made it out to be? Or can it be a civilised place?
If Introversion Software's latest game Prison Architect is anything to go by, civility is certainly low on the priority list for a maximum security prison.
One-part Theme Hospital, one-part The Sims (and add in a dash of Prison Break for good measure) and this is how I would describe the overall feel of Prison Architect.
Players fill the shoes of an architect who must not only build but also manage a prison as it expands, over-populates and moves criminals in and out of the system.
The tutorial really sets the tone for a game that explores dark humour while asking some rather thought-provoking questions from the player. During this tutorial the player is thrust into an already functioning prison, given the task to construct a death chamber for an inmate sitting on death row. We are given some insight towards why the inmate landed himself in jail through a number of polaroids. It turns out he caught his wife cheating on him, and he happened to kill her along with her lover in his own bed before breaking down. Now, here he sits on death row, and you have to construct a room to kill him in.
Yeah, it’s just as messed up as it sounds.
Yet Prison Architect doesn't address the severity of the events about to take place. Instead you’re given a crew of hilarious-looking workmen ready to construct your room, and a warden who has plenty of cash to splash in order to make this atrocity look pretty with marble floors and and some lighting.
We soon learn that the inmate simply lost his mind in a fit of passion, he has repented for his crime, and he is ready to die. Finally the deed is done, the house lights come down, and the tutorial is over.
It's pretty heavy stuff, and I sincerely love how none of it is overtly obvious. Introversion want you to feel bad for this inmate, they want you to question the death penalty, they want you to question the prison system in general, but they never tell you to do so.
Once the tutorial is over, the player is given free reign on an empty block of land, left to create a prison as they see fit. Players start off with a set amount of cash and a team of workmen, with 8 inmates arriving in one day's time.
While you have a little cash to splash, it's always better to have a goal. Opening up your handy clipboard will reveal that the local government is willing to give you cash advances if you agree to meet certain objectives. For example, they'll throw $10,000+ at you right away for building the essentials: a holding cell, a set of showers, a canteen and a kitchen. You'll also want a warden, so by accepting the Administration grant you can build some offices, hire some staff ... and you better get some guards, too, while you’re at it. Before long you will have chewed through half of your setup time before connecting the first light.
Players will also need to provide running water pipes and electrical conduits to each room in order to provide power. The game quickly becomes a town planner's dream as you setup symmetrical buildings, lay down your power grid and place fencing around the prison. Before long you will have guards patrolling and inmates arriving to their new place of residence.
As the game progresses you will build medical facilities, high security cell blocks, exercise yards, death chambers and more. Despite currently being in Alpha, Prison Architect is surprisingly full of features, which has me salivating at the thought of a full version with even more content on offer.
It's the inmates that provide the real entertainment, however. They will get cranky, they will drop soap in the shower, they will kill each other, start riots, try to escape and even try to hurt your guards. Keeping everyone happy, your prison staffed correctly and within your limited budget becomes a satisfying mix of strategy and micro-management that is fun rather than headache-inducing.
I could go on for hours about how much fun I've had locking down my prisoners and fixing the damage they have caused, but I fear I will be stepping on your potential playing time of this gem. For $15 you can jump into the action right now by pre-ordering at the official website. If games like Theme Hospital are right up your alley, and you're willing to accept some brilliant dark humour, than Prison Architect is one to watch!
Official Website: introversion.co.uk/prisonarchitect
By Stephen Heller