Prison… A place where people go when they commit crimes against humanity. In Prison Architect, it’s up to you whether you follow the course of liberal human rights activist, giving prisoners the chance to rehabilitate while offering them opportunity or to slam them in concrete cells with nothing but a toilet to stare at for the rest of their sentence and the threat of 10,000 volts to the brain if they’re particularly nasty…
I chose the latter, seeing as my first batch of convicts in the sandbox mode were a motley crew or murdering, raping monsters that needed the correctional touch, rather than pampering and five-star holiday spa treatment. That might be slightly inhuman of me, but then again, these men seem to have given none of that mercy to their victims and it’s up to you how you choose to rectify their lifestyle choices.
Of course, it only works for so long and you can’t hope that your armed guards will keep these fellas in check for their entire stay…
Prison Architect will make you change the way your idea of a working prison should run. It’s a constant juggle of maintaining prisoner’s mental health, so they don’t turn your highly functional jail into a gladiatorial arena. It’s also a battle of not being too soft on the dregs of society, or they’ll run rings around you like Sonic tied to a lamp-post. Add the fact that you have to micromanage your budget, specific prisoner needs, educational and work programs and also try to build as much as you can that will be helpful without your bank account ending up in the red. There’s a ton of obstacles other than a few shower shankings that must be dealt with unless you like the idea of a large-scale prison guard massacre and the Mayor on your back to add insult to injury.
When you fire up the game, you’re thrown into the campaign. It sort of works as a tutorial on how to build, how to meet certain needs of both your prison and it’s staff and inmates. It also gets you ready for potential crises like riots and fires and how to handle them. It also offers a bit of narrative on prison life and it’s possibilities, offering a look at life in prison from the perspective of both the nasty and the downtrodden. Okay, it’s not hard-hitting drama, but if gives you a reason to play on and iron out the issues with being a governor in one of the most demanding jobs in the world.
The best stories are told when you dive into sandbox mode. You essentially start with a bit of wasteland in the middle of nowhere, are given a modest budget and the tools to build your first penitentiary. You’ll be told there are some new prisoners arriving the next day and you have to set up your bare bones facility before they arrive. You can plan the prison’s architecture with the planning tool and then build around it to suit your requirements, generally getting a small holding cell up and running and making sure there’s a canteen, showers and a recreation area for prisoners to let off steam. It’s at this point where you’ll need to plan what kind of governor you’re going to be.
As I mentioned before, my first prison didn’t have any of the luxuries you would expect for the modern era of correctional duty that we see in the real world. Brick cells with a bed and a toilet, a communal shower complete with guards patrolling in case anyone got out of hand and a yard that was pretty cramped and without anything in the way of gym equipment to empower my captives. When I realised that the men were getting a bit restless, I decided to add a small common room with a library so that they could get a bit of education, but a day or so of its grand opening, a convicted kidnapper and murderer named Lacey, decided to go on the rampage and start beating other prisoners to death with his bare fists.
Five prisoners and three guards dead, two in a hastily built infirmary and the expensive addition of solitary confinement later, everything had calmed down. I had however lost a few good men and a few bad, not to mention quite a sum of money. It’s then that I realised that I would have to think out of my justice-fuelled box and offer something a bit more entertaining to the prisoners, rather than the odd bout of blood-lust.
So, with in a few days, I had taken on a few grants that offer money in return for achieving certain goals within your creation, made some money by building education facilities and a work yard for the men and allowing visitation rights to those who behaved themselves well enough. Things start to look up when your men are happier, busier and tired at the end of the day… Or so I thought.
For some reason, a good few prisoners ended up on the receiving end of a power tool or five after my eighth day as chief. Only figuring that these tools had come from my on-site sawmill, stashed behind toilets by some of the sneakier bastards that had the privilege of being allowed to work their way to freedom.
So began the cell search from hell. I clicked on the button that got my guards to invade the private spaces of the prisoners, turning up all sorts of contraband, from shivs and mobile phones all the way to a bottle of poison and a set of keys that must have been lifted form one of my guards… While this got rid of a lot of dangerous tools, the convicts didn’t like the fact that I’d ripped their living areas to shreds and decided to go on full-scale riot. The biggest problem? I must have missed a lighter and before I could call in the emergency services, my entire day’s work looked like the final scenes of Carrie…
While the style of game is typical to most simulation/tycoon games, Prison Architect goes much, much deeper than catering to low-level needs of the chosen consumer. Instead of making the AI happy, you are constantly at struggle to keep a very varied group of individuals from losing it and it’s relatively tough compared to say, Theme Hospital, where you juggle a few shallow needs while buying the right equipment to cure patients.
The prisoners genuinely don’t want to be there and they’ll do anything possible, happy or not, to find a way out or to entertain their wicked whims at your expense, even if you’re treating them under humanitarian values. It takes a lot to check up on every inmate while doing everything possible to keep your books balanced and even then, you’ll always have a rogue element that doesn’t care that he’s got a shiny TV in his cell and he can speak to his dear ol’ Mum whenever he likes. It’s utter chaos.
This is what makes Prison Architect worth playing though. It builds its own stories around your decision and while they’re not played out as in the average game with cut-scenes and graphical wizardry, you will genuinely become attached to some of your little basic men, both staff and convict. There’s some amazingly funny stories on Steam about people’s time as a prison manager and they show just how much is possible, while the usual experience of simulation games will be pretty similar on most playthroughs.
Building is a matter of creating rectangular rooms, hooking them up to a power generator and water supply (if needed), labelling the room’s use and fitting it with the required equipment to make it suit its name. Kitchens need cookers and fridges, classroom’s need desks and execution rooms need a great, big electric chair to fry your nastier clients with. They will also need the right staff too. If you build an infirmary and don’t have the medical staff to go with it, you’ll never be able to heal the turnkeys that get clobbered on their rounds by some of the more confident inmates that occasionally take it upon themselves to get some revenge for a cell search.
The Bureaucracy menu lets you research functions that can help you expand your prison staff each offering valuable upgrades, such as the right to ignore the human rights committee and bang up your prisoners in smaller cells, upgrading your security to allow dogs and CCTV around the grounds and find some sneaky loopholes regarding finance that will keep you up and running if you find your wallet is a bit short to purchase a life-saving facility.
You can tweak just about everything from the prison’s regime, messing with sleep, free-time and work schedules, to the educational programs that you can set your prisoners to work with. In depth reports on each and every prisoner is there for you to decide their fates with, options allowing you to send them off to solitary or punish them individually. There’s so much to mess around with that it would probably take weeks to see it all and of course, figure it all out.
For me, Prison Architect isn’t about creating the perfect prison, it’s seeing the butterfly effect of your choices spiral into disrepair and anarchy that offers the bulk of the fun value of the game. Best played when not trying to take it too serious, as it’s highly unlikely that you’ll build a masterpiece of modern justice anytime soon.
Graphically, it’s not the most stunning of games but it has a certain charm that works perfectly with the gameplay. From the squared off buildings to the human sprites, they exude a personality of their own that is perfect for its content.
I did run into a few bugs while playing, with the worst leaving you having to reload a game to an earlier point because for some reason, your connected water pipes don’t register to a cell and seemingly can’t be fixed via normal means. At other points, there will be a workman stuck in a wall that just wont be removed by any means available. It can be a bit of a pain in the arse, but nothing that makes you rage and vow never to boot Prison Architect up again. The biggest pain I had was when playing Chapter 3 of the campaign and had most of the prison secured, but the cut scene to remove some kidnappers from the canteen wouldn’t play and essentially, forgetting to save at a more recent point, I was made to restart the level.
Prison Architect is ultimately one of the most in-depth simulation games that I’ve ever seen, even from the big boys in the industry. There’s so much to build, manage and play with that it can be overwhelming to begin with, but it never seems impossible to play. As mentioned, the fun in playing comes when the seed of random chaos rears it’s ugly but genuinely hilarious head and sends you scrabbling for the emergency services, watching the madness of a riot unfold and trying desperately to stop your entire staff roster being trampled into paste while you wait for the riot squad to turn up and save your sorry arse… Again.