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Review: Prison Architect

I’m way too late to the game (pun intended) to ever be a professional game reviewer, at least as long as I have to buy my own games. I tend to wait until games are deeply discounted regardless of how good they are, but when it comes to the newest crop of Early Access games, I also tend to wait until someone else says they’re good. Prison Architect was an intersection of both of these…it was Early Access for a while, so I was suspicious. And even after it got some degree of critical acclaim, I was still suspicious of paying full price for it.

Well, earlier this month Prison Architect released Build 2.0, and now the game is feature-complete. And as such, I played it all this weekend. It is a solidly done sim, but the thematic material goes a long way to make it compelling and a tad disturbing.

Prison Architect does not have a metaphorical or literary name. You are a Prison Architect, building and running a prison. You start with minimum and medium security inmates, and then build your way up as you can afford better security. Higher security inmates get you more grant money, but require more spending on guards, cameras, and other equipment. Then there are external influencers who will want you to encourage reform, and others who want you to come down hard on your inmates. Beyond that, you have complete control over food, scheduling, work shifts, parole, punishments, and even death row. And the inmates respond in kind.

As a bit of context, The Sims came out over 16 years ago, and was one of the first games to really attempt to use needs-based agents to simulate people. Other management games had done it in the past, but not as comprehensively as The Sims did. Critics and gamers responded, and the game was lavished with praise and gigantic sales. Now, 16 years on, we have enough computing power to perform a simulation on the level of the original “The Sims” for a couple hundred agents…who happen to be prison inmates, in this case.

The simulation of the prisoners is what makes this interesting, and has knock-on effects. You don’t need to fulfill the needs of your prisoners to keep them compliant…that’s what solitary confinement and judicious use of tasers are for. And of course, if you use violence and punishment to keep your prisoners in line, their performance in any educational programs you offer will be terrible, justifying your “law and order” approach.

I’m actually building my second prison in the game now. The first was a kind of ramshackle collection of buildings that I put together while figuring out the game’s systems, while the second is much more planned and highly built, made possible by all the money I earned selling the first prison (the ability to sell property and start over with more money is something I think every simulation game should offer, by the way). In the first, I crammed two and three prisoners to a cell, and kept them compliant by judicious use of armed guards, dogs, and severe punishments. There were still violent fights at meals and in the showers, and a prison murder every few days…not to mention the escape attempts, smuggled weapons, and host of other problems. In the second prison, I put one prisoner where I used to fit three, offered more space to move, but have also constructed the entire complex indoors in a very organized fashion, which makes it easier to deploy security and control movement. So far it’s a lot more peaceful, but it also has one fifth the population currently.

So are you disturbed yet? I’ve talked blithely about tasing prisoners in the shower, the frequency of prison murder, and intentional overcrowding, and haven’t even mentioned the fact that your little inmates can have the “jonesing for a drug fix” status icon above their heads, or the fact that you can hire snipers to watch your yards from guard towers, or the fact that there’s a “free-fire” button you can use that allows your guards to shoot to kill. The game puts out a lot of really hairy ethical decisions and then lets the player make them with no prodding. To make it even more unsettling, the art style gives all the people this kind of cutesy stick figure aesthetic, which is incredibly odd when you mouse over a bloody corpse in the shower and his status indicator says “murdered for being a snitch”. To say the game pulls no punches is kind of an understatement.

That said, the game is remarkably apolitical about the whole thing. Your choices are presented, along with their consequences, but you the player are left to make the decisions. There is a campaign with some more opinionated characters, but it’s second fiddle to the sandbox mode. This is a game all about building things and seeing what happens, and all sorts of interesting things can happen.

We’re on the borderline of being in a management sim golden age. This game, RimWorld, Factorio and others have crafted some very interesting widgets to play with and characters to torment. That said, the genre is fairly fallow outside of the indie scene, other than the occasional new Tropico game and EA continually goosing The Sims for more money. Introversion has shown with Prison Architect that it doesn’t take a AAA studio to make a good people simulator…what I really want to see, though, is someone put up a middle finger to EA’s legal team and make a better life simulator than The Sims. These sorts of virtual dollhouses have so much potential, and the interest game developers have in both procedural generation and deep simulation can only increase the amount of talent out there that wants to take on these design challenges. Prison Architect is very good, but there’s nothing that says only prisons can be simulated in this way.

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