While storytelling in games is improving, it’s still relatively rare for one to provide you with genuine moral concerns or actual insight into the murkier elements of the real world. If I were to pick a genre that’s likely to provoke these kind of feelings, construction and management simulators would probably be low down the list, yet Prison Architect manages to have you questioning your morality from the first chapter of the tutorial-come-campaign, when you have to build an execution chamber for one of your inmates.
There’s five chapters to the game’s campaign, and the first four present you with scenarios that are equally dark. While the stories from each chapter of the campaign feature their own story, they are loosely connected together and there’s a neat move where you revisit the prison from the first chapter in the final chapter, only to see it demolished so you can build a more modern facility in its place.
Although Introversion have done well to bring a story that asks real questions of the player into a sim game, it’s likely not why you’re here. As the game’s title so able suggests, you will want to get busy building your own detention facility and Prison Architect is an able simulation in that regard. While many will, entirely reasonably, compare Prison Architect to Theme Hospital, in some ways it’s more reminiscent of a game like Cities in Motion, layering systems and components on top of each other to create a game that’s truly complex while only focussing on one element of society.
Sure, building a holding cell is easy enough – it’s basically a room with a bench in it – but then you have to make sure your prisoners have food or you’ll have a riot on your hands quickly. That means you’ve got to get an electrical and water grid in place if you want to cook anything, as well as making sure you’ve got a canteen and cooks. Then, of course, you need guards to patrol your little prison and a staff room for them to relax in, as well as office space for your clerical staff and an infirmary to deal with any of your prisoners who don’t come out on top of fights.
After gradually adding each element, you suddenly realise that you’ve got a thriving little community on your hands, a community that’s ready to riot because you haven’t built enough cells to cope with ever growing population of your prison. It turns out prisoners don’t like staying in an overcrowded holding cell for all that long.
Building more space for those angry prisoners isn’t a case of simply selecting the “cell block” button and plopping down a building. No, you’ve got to lay down the foundation first, then lay out the internal walls and cell doors before you fill it with the required furniture to zone each room as a cell. Each step requires your construction workers to lug in the required materials and put it all together, a process that can take quite some time if you’re building something a long way from your delivery or storage areas.
If you don’t satiate your prison’s population quickly enough then things are going to go bad, fast. Once things progress to a full scale riot, the bodies of your dead guards will quickly pile up, and if you haven’t built a morgue yet then their bloody corpses will continue to litter the ground even if you do manage to get the prison back under control.
What’s interesting is that the game changes heavily if you have to regain control of a prison you’ve lost. Instead of being a management simulator it becomes more of a squad-based RTS, as you have to call in the riot police and deploy them throughout the complex to take back your prison room by room. Alternatively you can for maximum retribution and bring in armed police, who’ll quickly turn things into a real blood bath. There’s even paramedics you can call upon to patch up your police if they take a battering from the prisoners, and firefighters who’ll combat any blaze the disgruntled prisoners start.
Ideally you don’t want things to get to the point that you lose control, and it’s entirely up to you how you achieve that. If you want to build an armoury and kennels so you’ve got armed guards and dog handlers roaming the grounds then you can. Feel like punishing a random prisoner to set an example? There’s an option for that too.
Alternatively you can go in the complete other direction, building a cushy common room with TVs and a pool table, as well as setting up rehabilitation programs. It’s entirely up to you which approach you take to keeping your prison under control, and whatever you select will have real consequences on not just your prison but society at large. If you get things right then you’ll see the repeat offender rate drop, although that will mean lower profit for your private prison.
The fact that you’re managing a privatised prison is mentioned heavily in the campaign, and is probably one of the darkest and most thought provoking elements of the whole game. Do you really want to provide the best for your prisoners when running education programs or setting up recreation cuts into your profit margins? It’s questions like this that really make the game interesting and, at times, deeply depressing.
If you get bored of managing a prison, then you can actually play on the other side of the fence, trying to escape from a prison. You can see how tricky it is to break out of one of your own creations, but the game also has Steam Workshop support, meaning that anyone who feels like it can share their prison with the world. While escaping is fun, it’s also a little clunky and compared to the main sandbox prison building is more of a neat extra for those who want something a little different to play for a while.
On the technical side of things the game performs very well, although you’d expect it to given its simplistic, 2D presentation. The only real issues that come into play are occasional pathfinding problems, where your construction workers might find themselves stuck between a fence and a wall. These are very minor glitches though, and generally there’s nothing that gets in the way of you setting up the prison of your dreams.
Even if Prison Architect didn’t come with a thought provoking, if short, campaign, it’d be easy to recommend to anyone with an interest in management sims. That addition not only brings some depth to the game, but it also serves as one of the most enjoyable and comprehensive tutorials I’ve ever played in a game. The only missed opportunity is the potential for more stories in main section of the game, perhaps coming as random events when a new prisoner arrives.