Serious and seriously good, Prison Architect is the game you never knew you wanted

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Prison Architect is the game I never knew I wanted. Some of the best games are games I never knew I wanted until I played them. And then I thought, “Of course! This is a game I should have been playing all along, but I just didn’t know it.” That’s pretty much what happens within the first hour of booting up Prison Architect. You’re all, like, oh yeah, a game about running a prison is a fantastic idea. It’s a feeling that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t go away.

After the jump, doing serious time.

So what makes Prison Architect work so well? What is it about running a prison that fits so well into a management/strategy anthill/builder? Why did I want this game all along?

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For starters, the us vs. them of managing an unwilling and often unruly population is a perfect setting for a game. In a citybuilder, you’re just growing various systems that want to work. Traffic wants to flow, trash wants to get collected, commercial districts want to sell, schools want to educate young residents. It’s all about establishing harmony and balance, about meeting needs, about crafting order from cooperative parts. Even crime and fires don’t push back so much as remind you that you need cops and firefighters. Or consider those great Bullfrog games like Theme Hospital or Dungeon Keeper. Or Chris Sawyer’s brilliant Rollercoaster Tycoon. Or the underappreciated Startopia. Even those games are about systems getting in tune with each other, about using your resources to piece together a clockwork where the teeth for all the gears fall in line and clack agreeably. Order, harmony, profit, expansion, repeat as needed.

From the very start, Prison Architect feels fundamentally different. Your primary job is to contain. And what you’re containing does not want to be contained. Vehemently. Sure, you want to establish a harmony by making sure the lights are getting electricity and the showers are getting water. Sure, you need to maintain a positive cash flow by balancing the cost of social programs with your federal subsidies. Sure, you’re meeting demand for things like beds, toilets, break rooms, and office space. But all of this is in the service of an antagonistic relationship. The beginning of any prison is a small group of shackled guys on the side of the road who want nothing more than to leave. Your first order of business is, essentially, cages. This might sound crass, but not even something like Zoo Tycoon, which is about containing things that are wild, manages this concept of containment. Give the animals the biome they want and all is well for zoogoers and zoo denizens. Animal escapes are a cute touch, not an existential mandate. This sets Prison Architect apart.

Then there’s the economics of feeding, housing, and even clothing your prisoners. Well, washing their clothes, at any rate. All of this plays out very much like a Bullfrog game, and Introversion provides a nearly flawless interface to manage everything (I could use more hotkeys, but there’s hardly a game on God’s green earth that couldn’t use more hotkeys). The economy is pretty simple. Your income is a fixed federal subsidy, plus a subsidy determined by the number of prisoners you’re housing. An advanced prison can export license plates for extra money, hire a lawyer to shave the tax rate, or even build a shop where prisoners can spend their money. It’s a mostly straightforward matter of staying profitable.

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But there’s another economy at work that ties into the idea of containment. Prisoners have their own money and they’ll spend it to get contraband. Shivs, drugs, escape tools, cigarettes, cell phones. Among the crazy data Introversion lets you examine is the journey of any particular piece of contraband. You can track how a bottle of poison was introduced, hidden, traded, and stolen among your prison’s population. Is this information useful? Sure. You can then crack down on individual prisoners, putting them in lockdown in their own cells or carting them off to solitary for however long you feel is appropriate based on their infractions. It’s not necessary to micromanage your prison this way. But if you want them, Introversion gives you an abundance of power-user tools to try to achieve the perfect prison.

So why would you want to perfect your prison? One of my initial complaints about Prison Architect was that it had no metagame. You could either play the short campaign or the formless sandbox. It seemed like an oversight that the sandbox had no objective to reach, and therefore no ending. It had failure states, to be sure. What good is an antagonistic relationship if the antagonists don’t have real teeth? But otherwise, it seemed like as sandboxy as a sandbox could get. You just kept playing and kept playing and kept playing, and nothing came of it but the act of playing.

But I was wrong (like many of Prison Architect’s coolest features, your overall goal is something you have to discover by poking around in the game or by reading a wiki). A prison doesn’t have an objective in the traditional sense of meeting goal A, then goal B, and then goal C, at which point you’ve “won” (i.e. get to stop playing). Instead, a prison is a for-profit enterprise built to sell to someone else, which you can do at any time. Your prison’s valuation comes down to how many prisoners it can hold, with a penalty if any of them escape or get killed, both of which are bad for business. When you sell the prison, your warden gets the money, minus any shares you sold to investors. Did you sell any shares to investors? That’s a great way to get easy cash, but it’ll cost you in the end. With the money your warden made, now you can start a new prison with a substantial headstart. Similar to how you’re trying to make your dictator rich in the Tropico games, the metagame in Prison Architect is trying to make your warden rich.

Not that your warden is much of a character. When you start playing, you can pick from a set of wardens. The default warden is just a default warden. The other wardens have special abilities. For the most part, a warden just sits in his office, conferring his special ability. Wardens don’t even have names. In fact, no one on your staff has a name. Your guards don’t have names. Your psychologist doesn’t have a name. The lawyer who halved your tax rate certainly doesn’t have a name. Everyone working at the prison is a nameless commodity. The only thing they experience is getting tired, which will be alleviated with a handy break room.

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The human element of Prison Architect is focused solely on the prisoners. This is where you find the detail and the drama. Each prisoner has a name (given the overlap among prisoners who aren’t related, Introversion needs either a longer list of names or a better randomizer). Some of them have nicknames based on snippets of backstory. All of them have a rap sheet listing their crimes. All of them have needs and specific desires. Some prisoners pine for freedom. Or drugs. Or God. Parole boards sometimes reject a prisoner’s appeal for an early release. Some prisoners have unique traits. Most of these prisoners have families, including wives (there are no women in these prisons) and children, who come to visit.

In Rollercoaster Tycoon, you can peer into the minds of your customers to find out what they think of your rides, prices, and landscaping. The happier you make them, the more of their money they’ll part with. And that’s pretty much the end of that. But when you peer into the mind of someone being punished for doing something so horrible he’s being deprived of the basic human right of freedom, it elicits something different. Yeah, this guy deserves to be locked up. Oh, look, he has a family. Oops, he just got beaten by a guard because he tried to escape and now he’s in the infirmary. This guy has twenty years to go but this guy only has two. And this guy will be executed. By you. He may even be innocent. You can approach this the same way you approach minimizing the wait for a ferris wheel in Rollercoaster Tycoon. But does it make you feel the same way? Probably not. Neither is it part of the same feedback loop in which happiness means money to instill more happiness to make more money. In Prison Architect, your business is arguably misery.

The fact of the matter is Prison Architect is a dark game. That’s part of its appeal; it’s darker than its cute whimsical graphics. It’s entirely serious, unlike the Bullfrog games that obviously inspired it. There are almost no jokes or funny snippets of text. Injury and death are a part of the game. A morgue is an important part of some prisons. The single player campaign has its share of R-rated language and even sex. During one of the campaign missions, you have to put down a riot. It plays a bit like an RTS as you move around squads of guards. Do you want to limit yourself to batons? Or would you rather go in with shotguns? Prison Architect won’t judge you if you do. You can build prisons that will subject inmates to your choices of deprivation: filth, starvation, despair.

But it’s only dark to a certain degree. You’ll never see prisoners who have been charged with sex crimes. GrossIndecency and Voyeurism are as close as it gets. Instead, you’ll only see the more palatable stuff like fraud, burglary, kidnapping, and murder. I’ve seen DeathByDangerousDriving and DrivingUnderTheInfluence a few times. Plenty of assaults. I’m not sure what to make of GrievousBodilyHarm and ViolentDisorder, but they’re in there.

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Now you’ve seen Oz, right? Nothing was off the table in HBO’s unflinching prison series. Can you tell where I’m going with this? Norm MacDonald has a well-known bit about prison. He muses that the scariest part of prison is the anal rape. His intonation italicizes the words “anal rape”.

For a fascinating book called Newjack, writer Ted Conover worked as a prison guard for a year. The New York authorities had repeatedly refused to cooperate with him for an article about the prison system, so he figured he’d apply for a job instead. His application was accepted, he went through training, and then he worked for several months at Sing Sing. Newjack is his account of that year. Conover never encountered any incidents of prison rape. He writes:

The famous punk-protector system of popular lore seems to be outdated or exaggerated. Several longtime inmates I spoke with thought it was almost a thing of the past — for several reasons. One is the willingness of courts to hear inmates’ lawsuits against states. This trend, which began in the early 1970s, is said to have forced states to make protection of vulnerable prisoners a high priority. Protective custody (PC) is now a big deal. Inmates who ask for protection but fail to get it can make expensive claims.

Another factor is the decline, to some degree, of the cons’ code of ethics. Longtime inmates seem to agree that in the old days, rape victims would never speak up, because that would mean informing on a fellow inmate. Now, however, though the code of silence is still normally in place, inmate lips seem looser and officers’ use of snitches more widespread.

I doubt Introversion seriously considered this aspect of prison lore (by the way, they do include protective custody and snitches). But it seems realism is on the side of ignoring prison rape, which is what Introversion does in an otherwise exhaustive approximation of prison ecology.

Besides, is realism even a goal here? How much is this putative tycoon game an accurate representation of our prison system (the developers are from the UK, but the setting is clearly the US)? For instance, how many of our prisons are privately run? Not many, it turns out. The prison system in the United States is mostly run by the government. But back in the 80s, when Reagan kicked off a widespread privatization trend, the prison system got a small piece of the action at the discretion of individual states. Although slightly more than half of the states allow privately owned prisons, less than 10% of our prison population is housed in these privately owned prisons. But this is clearly what you’re playing in Prison Architect, given that the goal is to make your warden rich.

You might not have considered whether privatized prisons are a good idea. Prison Architect could change that, which is a pretty cool thing for a videogame to do about any real-world topic: make you consider it. Because one of the constant tensions while you’re playing Prison Architect is between punishment and rehabilitation. Every prisoner has a “customer feedback” page where they rate their experience on a ten-point scale in each of four areas: punishment, reform, security, and health. Tooltips break down each value point by point. The first two, punishment and reform, are a yin/yang of the prison experience. Ideally, you want both values to be high, but focusing on reform reduces the punishment score. And focusing on the punishment score to the neglect of reform increases the likelihood the prisoner will be back.

Oh, wait, how is that a bad thing? You want prisoners to come back, don’t you? You make money based on how many prisoners you house, so doesn’t reform dry up your potential income? Not that there’s any shortage of prisoners. Regardless of your stance on reform, there’s always a constant supply of prisoners, far more than you can ever hope to take in. All you can do is decide how wide to open the spigot.

What’s more, reform programs cost money and time. While they make prisoners easier to manage, so too do extra guards, tight security, and strict rules. The primary consideration for reform is reducing recidivism rates, which are clearly indicated for any prisoner. A big fat number gives you the percentage chance he will re-offend. A tooltip even tells you what it was when he arrived; in other words, how much of that percentage chance is a direct result of your prison?

But Prison Architect doesn’t put any gameplay value on this (final campaign mission excepted). Just as it’s in the best interest of a privatized prison to keep prisoners coming back, it seems to make the most financial sense in Prison Architect to adopt the same policy. So is Prison Architect a) realistic, b) cynical, c) the product of a country less freaked out by the similarity between the words “social programs” and “socialism”, or d) confining gameplay to the prison experience to the exclusion of the larger social ramifications? My guess is all of the above.

My feeling is that any industry that would phase itself out of existence if it were successful shouldn’t be a for-profit industry. Health care, for example, makes money when people get sick. It therefore has no financial incentive to prevent or cure sickness. The financial incentivization of healthcare is therefore fundamentally flawed. The same is true of the prison system.

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And here’s another way that Prison Architect is so remarkable as a game. Sure, it’s fun. Sure, it’s lively. Sure, it’s got unique charm. It works as a city builder, as a bustling anthill, as a strategy game, as a picaresque cast of characters in a virtual terrarium, as a sandbox of emergent properties stuffed with personality. It’s another feather in the cap of the folks who brought us the horrors of nuclear war in the hauntingly minimalist Defcon and the atrocities visited on the Darwinians in a couple of real time strategy games. With its cute classically indie graphics, Prison Architect is an animated portrait of the pressure cooker vibe of a prison. The skulking, the eager jostle of meal time, the grumbling as the inmates come in from the yard, the blurted expletives, the guards bustling about with their keys to manage the flow of people, the rough and tumble when someone finally cracks.

But playing will probably mean thinking about issues that you probably didn’t think about. This is something that should be valued in a videogame. I’m as content as the next guy to mindlessly shoot a hundred dudes in a Call of Duty. But I also value games that make me think about something I wasn’t thinking about yesterday. Games that make me feel a way I don’t usually feel. Games that aren’t afraid to present complex subjects in all their complexity, wrangling gameplay into a thought-provoking exercise that is both entertainment and edification. Games like Prison Architect.

  • Prison Architect

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • You'll need a canteen, infirmary and a guard room, oh, and don't forget to plumb in a toilet, or things will get messy, but what about a workout area? Or solitary confinement cells? Or an execution chamber? Inspired by Dungeon Keeper, Dwarf Fortress and Theme Hospital and with over 1 million players having spent time inside, Prison Architect is the world's best lock-em-up.
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