Prison Architect – are you a merciful god?

In the era of big AAA games, a smaller title is rising steadily to prominence. Prison Architect is a prison construction and management simulation game by the British game developer Introversion Software. You may know Introversion as the creators of Darwinia, Uplink, and DEFCON. Introversion’s latest hasn’t even officially launched yet, but it has sold more than 1million copies since its original public release in September 2012.

If you like to experiment in a sandbox environment, without another pesky player trying to destroy all the beautiful things you have planned and constructed with care, this might be the game for you.

Prison Architect allows you to build the prison you always wanted, and show the government you can do it better. You design the layout of the cells, facilities, utilities as well as manage the finances, hire staff that you need keep content and create an environment where the inmates feel safe and can develop into useful members of society. You also get to manage the prisoner’s program, try to rehabilitate them with reform programs that reduce the specific prisoner’s repeat-offender rate. You should think ahead, as your institute keeps growing and new facilities and cell-blocks are added, you might find yourself with a chaotic building, where your visitors have to pass near the max security area to get to meet their loved ones and then the cell doors open to let the inmates go to dinner, but Dusty “The Lamb” McCreepy decides he wants visitor stew today and things get ugly…

There’s a stark contrast between the cartoonish, cutesy visuals and the actual gameplay itself, since these convicts are dangerous criminals, sentenced for horrible crimes, but the game doesn’t take itself so seriously and lightens the mood by adding funny descriptions of the inmates in their rap sheets. There are also some extra features that allow you to rename your convicts and customize some biographical aspects, for example you can name a prisoner after yourself and watch him get bullied by other inmates and guards.

The fun aspect for me is that you can create your own story, you can make everything run like clockwork and indulge the slightly OCD part of yourself, or you can go the other way and keep the prisoners in solitary for 24 hours for no apparent reason, wake them up with 3 AM shakedowns, then keep them in the showers for a good amount of the afternoon. The downside is that if you go evil, you might find your favorite inmate in a pool of blood, but your perception of the game might change which, in my opinion, is a testament to the games complexity that isn’t apparent at first glance.

I think one of the attributes of a good game, is that the world is immersive and that it can reveal something about the player, make him ponder upon a few things, like how well one should treat these criminals? Are you making their lives as good as possible just because it’s the way you usually play games like these or because you believe it’s the right thing? Is it wrong to lock even the most depraved of human beings in an overcrowded yard with no grass or trees? Should you let them have visitors, knowing that if you do, it increases the chance that they obtain weapons or drugs with which they can hurt other inmates or even guards? It can turn into an experience and this is one of the appeals of the game.

The game is available on multiple platforms including Windows, Mac and Linux and the studio stated that they are planning both console and mobile editions of the game. Currently you can find it on Steam as an Early Access release, updates are released monthly. Since it is still in alpha, it might be clunky and bugged in places, but still worth the investment. The proper commercial launch is due sometime later this year.