I wish I could tell you that Prison Architect is a brilliant tycoon game, one that could go toe to toe with genre classics like Theme Hospital and Rollercoaster Tycoon. I wish I could tell you that it does an impressive job of creating sympathy towards prisoners, whilst also highlighting the hardships of those put in charge of an entire facility of delinquents. I wish I could tell you that Prison Architect is utterly addictive, even when it makes you feel like a heartless pig mistreating prisoners for profit.
I wish I could tell you all of that. And I will. Because it’s true.
Prison Architect is unsurprisingly brilliant. It was brilliant when it first entered Early Access a few years ago, and it’s still one of very few games to truly enter in to the spirit of that development scheme – it worked enough to provide countless ours of fun in Alpha, but it was tweaked and built upon considerably in order to create something that couldn’t have existed without fan intervention. What was then a deep and absorbing prison-management game is still just as effective at what it does, only now some of the minor flaws in its UI design and occasionally steep learning curve have been completely ousted. It also accomplishes what all good tycoon games should: it creates an environment in which you can’t help but revel in greedy capitalism, and simultaneously one in which you become increasingly disgusted with its impact on those less fortunate than yourself.
Prison Architect feels rather dense at first, since it give you a vast toolkit to play with in order to set up a prison from scratch. The best way to get to grips with this is with the introductory campaign mode, which introduces basic prison structures (giving examples of successful prisons is helpful even to veteran players), the hiring and firing of staff, building and placing objects, laying down plumbing and electrics, and the management and pacification of unruly inmates. It’s a really comprehensive tutorial, one that outlines everything you need to get started with building a prison of your, but it also accomplishes some simple yet effective storytelling.
Set across several prison facilities, the campaign explores several interconnecting characters, including armed robbers, murderers, doctors, wardens and mob bosses, the actions and behaviours of whom are the catalyst for your own tasks within the prison. This isn’t the subtlest crime drama in the world, but it doesn’t need to be. It offers up a more narrative driven example of what Prison Architect later explores systemically. In short, this is a game that has you question the nature, the morality and the financial aspects behind mass incarceration.
This first comes into play when you’re ordered to execute a “cold-blooded killer”, a man who recently shot his wife. He’s a sullen individual who has allegedly done “nothing but cooperate with the authorities”. While the chief and a visiting priest argue over the benefits of executing the man, we see a flashback detailing the man’s crime. He shot his wife after he found her cheating on him. Of course this doesn’t change what he did, but it makes you pity him a little more as he’s trotted off to the electric chair, and quite possibly brings you around to the priest’s more empathetic way of thinking.
In sandbox mode, this concept is just as effective, but is expressed systemically rather than through cutscenes. Every decision in Prison Architect affects your wallet, and your inmates. Though it’s your job to keep both in check, it’s inevitable that one will become more important than the other (and it’s usually the former). You can try to be a benevolent prison warden, offering up rehab programs and teaching the inmates new skills, but what happens when the very men you took under your wing start a riot, and leave several members of your staff dead or injured. They’ve cost you money, lives, time, and earned themselves a place in solitary confinement.
You can’t relax security, but putting pressure on the prisoners can lead to more discomfort, and more rioting. It’s a complex puzzle, one that is left purposefully unsolvable by Prison Architect.
Of course it helps that the game is so well presented. The simplistic, almost matryoshka-style character models might at first seem silly, but they’re much easier to understand and manipulate than more complex drawings or 3-D models might be. They also lull you into a false sense of (maximum) security – they appear innocuous, even cute, but when they start bludgeoning a guard to death because he’s found the alcohol under their bed, they don’t seem quite so harmless.
Dragging and dropping items is easy from a bird’s-eye view, and unlockable cloning tools make major construction projects significantly easier to swallow. Every effort has been taken to make the nitty gritty of Prison Architect easy to grasp, so that the strategic and moral quandaries within become the real challenge.
It’s not a game you can ever really “win”, because it gives you a real life job that can never truly be completed. In fact, it’s probable that you won’t even get a minimum security facility up and running on your first one or two tries, such is the difficult nature of running a detention centre like a business. It isn’t possible to run a perfect prison, no matter how efficient your policies, or how hard or soft your rules may be. Prison Architect throws up tunnelling prisoners, random fires, narcotics hoarders and cafeteria brawls, some of which might seem unfair, but all of which confidently reflect the real life machinations of a large prison facility.
Prison Architect takes a very serious subject and boils it down to its key elements, but it does so in a way that’s unbelievably satisfying. It presents you with tangible, systemic choices that have an impact on loves, lives and profit margins. It has you question your own ideas about money and imprisonment, then makes you forget all that because OH GOD THERE’S A FIRE IN THE KITCHEN AGAIN AND ONE OF THE DOG PATROLS JUST KILLED ANOTHER INMATE.