Despite all my rage
Prison Architect is bleak. Within the sim-genre, if you’re as old as I am, you’ve probably done some pretty bleak things; you’ve guillotined tongues in Theme Hospital, opened unfinished or otherwise lethal rollercoasters in RCT, enjoyed the fun of an escaped lion in Zoo Tycoon, but you’ve never seen bleak like Prison Architect. I won’t spoil the tutorial as it’s so much fun, but you’ll hate yourself by the end, and judging by the last twelve months that’s the sign of an awesome game.
Prison Architect is a prison-building sim from the fine folks at Introversion (who brought us Uplink, Darwinia and the chilling Defcon) and is currently in a public alpha, that you can buy your way into for $30. That’s a hefty price for an alpha, and we didn’t pay it because Introversion provided us with a code, but is it worth thirty of your hard earned dollars or the equivalent in your currency?
For the $30 you get access to the alpha, and the subsequent updates including the release of the full-game. It’s basically the Minecraft model where by buying into the game at this stage, your helping its independent development through to completion. Like a pre-order, but you actually get to play the game until it’s released.
When you’re building a prison, you’ve got one key concern, much as you have in any sim-style game: money. You want to get as much money as you can and whatever else you do is simply a means to that end. In Prison Architect you get money through a few different paths, you get a grant depending on how many prisoners you take care of, you get grants to help you build things, and you can earn money from an on-site workshop that currently producing money just by existing.
So you build up a prison that lets you look after a few prisoners and then you reap the rewards right? Not so simple. Firstly, the prison itself is quite demanding. More akin to Dwarf Fortress than to Theme Park, you don’t simply plop down rooms or features then be done with it, instead you put down foundations and different kinds of doors, and then you assign rooms to the buildings that are created piece by piece by your workers. Much of the actual building is automated, but there’s enough control for you to build things how you want. You set tasks to be done, and it’ll be added to a queue for an appropriate worker to take care of. If they fail the task, they’ll try again later or someone else will have a go. It’s a simple system but it makes for a much more immersive experience as everything has to actually be completed, every pipe, brick and desk is delivered to your prison and then installed.
Each building also needs power, and sometimes water, so you also need to build those systems and make sure they can cope with demand. You have to consider where to use large pipes as while they carry unlimited pressure, they are also apparently big enough for a prisoner to fit through, so do you really want to end up in a cell?
Once you have assigned some basic rooms like cells, a kitchen, a cafeteria, some offices, a yard etc. then you will start taking on board some prisoners. Rather than the mindless peeps that lived in your theme parks and hospitals, these actually behave unpredictably at times and make for some entertaining scenes. Often you’ll see a prisoner sprint for freedom when he spies an open gate, or one will be acting suspicious and if he is searched you’ll discover a knife. They get upset and homesick, or bored, and some of them just want to get back to their cell and have a lie down. The lives of the prisoners are interesting and compelling, and each has his own name and backstory including the crimes he’s committed and how he pleaded.
The prisoners will interact with each other and more often that not, it gets bloody. Simple irritations like the lack of exercise equipment can quickly escalate until you have a prison full of corpses. In my last game a number of builders who had just come in to add some wiring got caught up in a knife fight and ended the night in a morgue. Things get serious pretty quickly, and unless you’re really on the ball, it’s often too late to stop it and you’ll end up restarting to try a different approach.
The graphics representing all of this are simple but extremely effective. Everything is clean and recognisable immediately, so it’s easy to tell what kind of character each one is and what the function of each item is. Within half an hour you can have a function prison up and running and it looks pretty impressive once every system is working properly. It brings to mind games like Settlers, or again, Dwarf Fortress, where once you have a supply chain working effectively it’s a magnificent sight to behold. There’s a day and night cycle with appropriate behaviours, and the use of lighting and night adds a whole different element to the game, although prisoners are not smart enough to hide in the shadows, yet.
And that is the key word when approaching this alpha, ‘yet’. There’s loads of features that would be nice, and they’re not in ‘yet’. It’s easy to have faith in Introversion that they will fulfil their promises, and it’s easy to see in the alpha how well the game can work together. It’s already a lot of fun to build a prison and endure it’s trials and tribulations for as long as you can, but there’s no question that this could be a complete game. There are loads of bugs and glitches, with pathing and behaviours not working or features simply not working yet. Updates are coming fairly regularly and the developer is great at communicating with the players about what they want from the game.
Right now, if you love sim games, I’d say this is a safe bet at $30. It’s fun to play for a few hours now, and then when it’s released it’ll probably be magnificent. I haven’t written much about the tone of the game, because you need to experience it for yourself, but this is a much darker game than most sims and that gives it an all important hook to keep you interested.
If you’re not a sim fan, go watch some videos and see if you like it. The sim genre has been woefully neglected for the last decade (with the exception of the Sims which isn’t quite the same thing) and you might now know what you’re missing.
The game requires planning, careful thinking, and then a willingness to watch everything to go to hell and try it all one more time. Just one more time, where it’ll be a utopia. Just one more time.