Features & News

Hands on: Prison Architect

August 9, 2013, Author: Neil Hickton

I’m an impatient soul. I was simply not content with waiting for the full release of Introversion’s 2D overhead resource and build game, Prison Architect, before giving it a go. Seemingly being developed with a mantra of ‘it’s done when it’s done’, it’s now in an ‘Alpha 12’ release.

What this means, fair reader, is that it’s got a lot less bugs than in the initial releases, but don’t blame us when you find a bug. It also means there are some new fancy features, flexing their criminally fantastic fingers at you. Now say that last sentence out loud while eating.

Introversion have taken a certain amount pride with the bugs that have been found on the path to Alpha 12, and considering the humour and chortles that these code demons can generate, I think their view is allowed. They’ve a video trailer for Prison Architect, I’m sure you’ve seen it already, where they make grandiose statements about some of the specific funny things that have happened along the way. One can’t help but smile when you play it; it’s all so cute and fluffy. Then your first task is thrown at you in the opening tutorial: construct an execution chamber. Nice.

While at Rezzed this year I was lucky enough to speak to none other than Chris Delay, the lead designer at Introversion.  I’m not sure he’d actually remember me, though he did ask me an interesting question when we spoke about the possibility of children playing this game. “As a parent, what bothers you the most: the violence (specifically referring to the game’s story-based cut scenes in the introduction) or the nudity?” Oddly my answer came very quickly: “Nudity” I said, almost proudly, but immediately I realised the preposterous nature of my answer.

I look back now at this comment as my most throwaway and ill thought-out response ever. “Interesting”, Chris replied.  He was right; it was a bit of a dick answer.

Stupid answers aside and establishing myself as the loon from This is My Joystick, we spoke of the possibility of female prisoners, or prisons. Chris hinted they were perhaps considering this in future. I think it’s fair to say the game is rather the sausage-fest at the moment and the potential dynamics of adding the fairer, more intelligent sex could cause some interesting scenarios to occur. Easy now; I’m not on about all that naughty stuff, just that you wouldn’t be able to play the same way you did with men, spicing up the gameplay and opening up possibilities.

The main thing to note about Prison Architect, if you haven’t seen past the cutesy graphics already, is that the subject matter is really quite nasty, gruesome and rather adult in nature. This is something Introversion have ensured to keep at the forefront of the game. After all, prisons are not nice places; strangely enough they are full of criminals. Assuming this is suitable for kids to play would be the same mistake many parents made when South Park first arrived on the scene. Letting kids play on Prison Architect is a mistake, I have to add, I made myself. Luckily my parental radar went off well before anything more than plotting a foundation had been submitted.

…kids games don’t get any better than the odd partial nudity and double homicide

I first try to play Prison Architect as I do many other resource management games and find myself failing. I have to be more careful with my money; I have to take care to read everything and make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be. Okay, this is how one is meant to play games, but I’m the kind of person that never reads a manual. Luckily there is no manual here to worry about, so I get stuck in.

I don’t immediately connect with Prison Architect as I don’t really understand what I’m doing; prisoners escape, power failures strike and people die. They’re all criminals (sure they probably deserved it), but they’re all so cute I want to save them all, keep them safe and nurture them. A bizarre mixture of repulsion and desire to appease your prisoners’ basic needs and more. For something so cute, I hadn’t expected to have to think about things quite as much, and in so much detail too.

I’ve long gotten used to patronising and long drawn-out tutorials in most of the games I play. Unfortunately it seems I do need to be drip fed initially, until I can walk around myself.  This is my problem and not Prison Architect’s, as it does give you an introduction. Yeah, that introduction I mentioned with the requirement for the execution chamber, the result of a double homicide.

Then it all clicks into place. There are grants you can use to give you more money to expand. There’s a thing called a cafeteria you can build so prisoners don’t riot because they’re hungry; who knew!? You can build a visitation room so the jail dwellers’ family and friends can visit them, so they won’t riot and kill everyone. You can create an area called ‘a yard’ so the monkeys behind bars can get out and exercise, so they won’t riot and kill everyone. Most importantly, there are things called fences you can build around your prison to stop the light-footed buggers running away.

Prison Architect really doesn’t hold your hand at all, and apart from the introduction I found you have to work things for yourself. It’s definitely a game where you shouldn’t be afraid to click on everything that’s available and see what it does, experimenting as much as possible. It should be noted that other than the inherent need to build and appease the caged posse, so they don’t riot and kill everyone, there are seemingly no goals. I assume this is mainly down to the fact it’s simply not finished yet. Introversion will be adding more as time goes on for sure and this goals thing is really the icing on the cake; it can wait.

prison architect

Now there are plenty of right ways to lay out your prison, and then there is my way… this is attempt fifteen

They’ve been working hard, this much is obvious, to create a game that is familiar, but so different from what you’ve ever played before. Sure, you’ve experienced whiny kids at theme parks and rubbish doctors in hospitals and goblins running wild, but you’ve never had to try to keep nasty people happy, so they don’t riot and kill everyone. It’s quite the motivation to get things right, I can tell you.

Designing a prison is a fairly simple affair, though the art is in how you design a prison and in what order. First you plot an area to build, taking care to place an entrance to that new area. Once your construction staff have built the foundations you can then start to define uses for the different areas. Don’t forget the walls between. Cells need a bed and toilet. Toilets need to be connected water pipes. Water pipes need a pump. A pump needs a generator, which in turn needs cabling to be distributed evenly around you prison to power everything electrical.

It’s all very simple in theory. You know the concepts that are required, but you don’t have a clue what order is needed without learning the hard way. In its current form it is definitely a game about learning from experience, adapting and improving.

I’ve been enjoying playing Prison Architect as it stands, though I have to say I look forward to seeing how they will expand it further. With the recent addition of contraband (yes your prisoners can obtain stuff illicitly and cause you even more chaos), it has even more depth than before. If anyone is looking for an architect to design a prison, I’ll happily give it a go. I’ll even put fences around it.