Developer: Introversion Software
Publisher: Introversion Software
On a rare Saturday that I have off, my wife has a migraine, and I join her on the sofa so that she can place her head on my lap as I rub her hair to ease the pain. As a character flaw,I am incapable of sitting in one place and doing one thing, so I peruse my Steam list of games for something that only requires one hand to play. FTL: Faster Than Light came to mind, but trust me when I say that looks are deceiving—playing FTL correctly requires two hands.
My cursor hovers over Prison Architect. A serendipidous Humbe Bundle sale resulted in its purchase as it was not previously on my radar. However, I have always had an interest in Sim City and Tycoon games, but never played them due to a combination of pricing and shady business practices. Notwithstanding I fired up this sim, not knowing what to expect in the slightest.
Violence: Generally speaking, violence is limited to sprites that are little more than husky stick figures knocking into each other. Some wield two small circles as fists, others find screw drivers and knifes, and guards can carry guns. The is no gore to be found (unless one counts the rare morgue photo), but injuries and deaths are indicated with blood splattering, and depending on how the player-warden handles things, the screen can become painted. Cutscenes are particularly violent. Prisoners can be murdered or should the player-as-warden choose, executed in the electric chair.
Sexuality: Sprites undress when showering. Male prisoners sport lines on their backsides to indicate buttocks, while cartoonish breasts and a colored “V’s” on female prisoners indicate pubic hair in case there is any confusion concerning their gender. While I am not sure if this is a bug or a core feature, some prisoners walk around and “post” in the yard area of prisons “on gang business.” Additionally, one of the game’s opening cutscenes includes an illustrated photograph of a man and woman in bed before they are murdered.
Language: Story cutscenes feature plenty of profane words not only of the four-letter variety, but also crude references for “sexually progressive” women and such. Expect a few choice words of the four-letter variety. Note, however, that during sandbox mode, incorrigible prisoners may let a “$#@%!” or two slip.
Drugs/Alcohol Use: Considered contraband in Prison Architect, these items are of great value to prisoners, who use cigarettes, booze, and drugs to cope with their condition, because they are addicted, or as an economical means of exchange between other prisoners for weapons. It is possible for inmates lethally overdose.
Spiritual Concerns: Player-wardens can build the equivalent of a Universal Unitarian chapel where “religious leaders” rotate. I have seen rabbis, the Dali Lama, and imams. I cannot recall a Judeo-Christian leader except for the priest from the campaign. To build a chapel, one must include pews and prayer mats (I point mine East as a gesture of tolerance).
The fact that people commit crimes is simply fact of life, yet how individual players run their prisons shall inwardly reveal the direction that their moral compass points. Player-wardens may use tactics to utterly suppress their inmates by building smaller cells, limiting freedom, denying parole, malnourishing them with few, meager meals, or creating an execution farm. Or, player-wardens can choose to embrace reform over punishment, with large and luxurious cells that include their own showers and radios, workshops for the acquisition of a trade, chapels for spiritual fulfillment, classrooms for the attainment of GEDs, libraries for intellectual stimulation, and recreation rooms with pool tables and televisions for entertainment, all of which contribute to the decrease in probability an inmate will re-offend when paroled—good for both the prison’s reputation and for the community.
Indubitably, the Prison Architect is a game that will ascertain the mark of one’s moral compass.
In a stroke of astute game design, story mode in Prison Architect doubles as a tutorial, opening with a man on Death Row after being found guilty of a double homicide after catching his wife with another man “in flagrante delicto.” The worden and CEO take turns prompting the player to begin making accommodations for the dead man walking. After following each step with building a foundation, walls, toilet, cell door, bed, bookcase, electric chair and relevant wiring, a pugnacious corrections officer and patient priest accompany the inmate to the execution room where the player must manually flip the switch to complete the scenario and move on to the next sortie.
Prison Architect presents each chapter in similar formulaic fashion. In the opening minutes, there is some pressing matter to attend to such as a fire, riot, or overwhelming shipment of prisoners who will all need cells. Once the apparent catastrophe has been averted, the game shifts over into exposition relative to why it requires players to build a medical facility to heal wounded staff and inmates, or additional solitary cells, or a classroom, and so on. The balance in the narrative of Prison Architect between inferring that some people cannot be rehabilitated but only repressed, while others would thrive and become productive if they were given an opportunity, is striking. Of course, repression is far cheaper than liberty, yet providing prisoners with freedom increases the risk of them taking kindness for granted. Decisions, decisions!
Much of the gameplay comes from the day-to-day operations of the prison, where the objective of every prison outside of those in the campaign is to become profitable, and the best way to become profitable is to maintain a high prison population. Every prisoner comes with an initial and daily profit margin, and the more dangerous the prisoner, the more money they are worth. Because of this, player-wardens might be tempted to populate their prisons with exclusively maximum security prisoners, but that is one of the fastest ways to lose control of the prison via riot after a prisoner shanks a police officer and encourages his mates to set the canteen on fire, raid the offices to take hostages, and smash the gates to escape. Hiring enough enough security to repress such a population results in diminishing returns on investment, and it simply would be more productive—and fun—to bring in a mixed population of low, medium, and high security prisoners.
Surprisingly, Prison Architect is an equal opportunity game. After completing the campaign feature all male prisoners, I spent the next 30 hours building a women’s prison, welcoming the challenge of accommodating mother prisoners—women who arrive on site carrying infant children. This feature fascinated me more than any other, influencing me to read some high-brow stuff on mothers and their infants in prisons IRL. In my prison, women with babies would arrive into my reception room and remain there until I created a special prison cell called a “family cell” attached to a nursery. I went the extra mile of creating several “nursery block,” with each cell including a full assortment of amenities, including TVs, radios, private showers, and toilets. I connected these cells to a central area full of cribs and play mats where food is delivered from the canteen (assigned through the logistics UI).
Female prisoners do not possess the physical fortitude of their male counterparts, and are easier to suppress when they get out of line. However, they are more…”needs intensive.” Introversion Software became endearing to me, ironically, when I started googling Prison Architect after encountering a glitch telling me that I needed more cells when I had already supplied enough of them. I found a series of YouTube videos in which the primary developer and producer recorded together, and the combination of their sincere zeal had me hooked. I started watching religiously after Update 2 (as in, I watched approximately 30 alpha videos published prior). There, I attained a lesson in game development from a pair of intelligent devs concerning how to “balance” a game in meaningful ways that do not venture into the realm of sexism. How shrewd!
The necessity of building structures different from those of male prisons illuminates the intuitiveness of the UI. Options for structures and objects are are color coded in the selection menu, and also when they are being placed on the map. I am just thankful for a search option. Through a series of sub-menus, I might be able to create a confidential informant who can squeal on other prisoners concerning contraband, or let me know if someone is about to get ‘whacked because they were a snitch (likely a plea deal) or an ex-cop. I can then assign those individuals protective custody and change their regimen to avoid the general population…especially shower rooms where the unsuspecting can receive shanks in the flanks.
It is not necessary to address the myriad of features in Prison Architect, for the sandbox design of the game allows for virtually limitless experimentation. In fact, the team at Introversion Software relish the fact that players have been discovering hidden features. The developer’s dedication to improving Prison Architect with updates on a monthly basis (hot/cold and weather cycles have been added in the time that it took me to draft this review) demonstrates a sort of passion that we expect from indie developers with their labor of love. Prison Architect is a game recommended for those who wish they could make a difference in the world through prison reform, or for individuals who wish for deviants to suffer mercilessly.
The Bottom Line
Prison Architect is in good company with games like Papers, Please, providing great entertainment value without obstructing its sobering social commentary.