While the politics surrounding criminal punishment and the prison system remain controversial and deeply dividing, the one thing that we can all agree on is that prisons are a necessity. No one wants to live surrounded by murderers, thieves, and frauds, and so when we identify those foul characters in our midsts, we shackle them and send them off to rot in a dirty cell, far away from the gentle bosom of civil society.
If it were up to you, how would we treat those offenders once we’ve caged them away? Would you demand respect through authoritarian shows of dominance and violence? Or, would you take the Scandinavian approach to reform, and place your prisoners in a gentle field, surrounded by comfortable furnishings and at-home nature? In the brilliant prison building simulator Prison Architect, you’re free to decide the nature of punishment for society’s worst offenders. The game shines in forcing you to re-think your own approaches to handling those offenders in a way that is both adequately authoritarian and reformative.
Prisoner reform is only a small part of the incredible depth of gameplay in Prison Architect. The main function, and the part you’ll be spending the most time on, is actual prison complex planning and building. Prison Architect provides you with a team of workers, a small pool of start-up cash, and some raw materials, and leaves you to plan and build the structures you’ll need to house prisoners. You can choose to build at random, but the game also provides a “planning mode” which puts down a “ghost” version of a building, pathway, or item on the map for you to trace over.
Prison planning is completely free for the user to decide. There are a few rooms and structures that are “must-haves” to run basic facilities, but in terms of size, shape, or layout, you decide everything for your own prison. Every good prison has a few basic structures that provide the most standard of services for you and your prisoners: a reception area for prisoner intake, a holding cell for those new faces, a cell block to house those criminals, a canteen/cafeteria to feed them, a kitchen to prep their food, a shower room to bathe them, a yard to allow them to stretch out, and lastly, a block of offices for the administration.
The building process is incredibly easy to learn, and comes in a few steps that helps to allow you full control of layout as you progress. When you’re ready to lay down a building, you use the “foundation” tool to place a rectangular area in which to build. Placing foundations right next to each other will build one large structure on the shape you choose, be it just a few conjoined squares, or something more complex like a cross or X-shaped cell block. After you choose your size and shape, place a door for an entrance into the building, and the workers will do the rest. Once the building is erected, the game automatically places lights throughout the structure (though you can turn off this feature if you choose).
Once a building is up and running, you have a few ancillary tasks that have to be completed. The utilities page will show you the water and electricity flow throughout the building, with water showing as a blue color in the pipes, and a “circuit board” style overlay showing the coverage of electric power. Once you’re powered and running water, you can start to fully build the inner details of your prison. Building rooms is a two-step process. First, you select the type of room you want to build by clicking the “room” tool and dragging the area you want to create. There are certain parameters that must be met to make the room operational. Size restrictions, particular needs for items, inside/outside restrictions, and accessibility all play a part in allowing a room to work or lay dormant.
Prisoners are delivered to your prison every 24 hours, and you can choose the number and type of prisoners that you want to accept into your jail. You can also close the prison to new convicts for an extended period of time. Accepting prisoners pays you in a lump sum upon delivery, and also provides you with a daily payment for each day the prisoner remains in your control. You are required to hire staff members to handle the day-to-day goings on of the prison.
That is but a brief skimming of the surface of how deep and fully controllable to prison building capabilities are in Prison Architect. The game has a great progression to it that takes you from basic lights and guards, minimum security-style structures to supermax punishment compounds with roaming armed guards and closed circuit television systems monitoring every movement on the prison grounds. You choose the depth to which your prison develops, and you can ultimately create your own vision for what a prison should be. The game is one of the most simple to learn in the simulation genre that I’ve ever played, so it is a rare title in the genre that will appeal to the most veteran simulator game fan as well as those poor folk who couldn’t ever get past the districting phase of SimCity (example: me).
Often times with my own prison, I would find that the decisions I was making, that I believed would help the prisoners, were only causing more problems (problems in this game being brutal stabbings), and often I would have to rethink the very philosophy that I was employing. The game doesn’t out-and-out punish you for doing things any certain way, but if you don’t plan well, you can find the choices you make are not the right ones in the long run. Making narrow corridors to help limit prisoner wandering may backfire, causing prisoner clogging and irritation which leads to stabbings. Building one large mess hall for all prisoners instead of separate ones for each class of prisoner may save on space and time, but will also lead to the mingling of bank fraudsters and serial murderers, which leads to stabbings. Stabbings are just a part of life in the prison world. At first you may feel like you are failing the game when a prisoner dies, but time reminds you that these little digital people you’re dealing with aren’t exactly saints.
The game doesn’t limit you to just building the mess halls and cell blocks. Prison Architect gives you access to almost every single aspect of prison administration. Prisoner reform programs can be established, and prisoners can begin to be educated and learn skills for both real-world and prison labor purposes. Regiments are set for when prisoners sleep, eat, work, have free time, are locked down, etc. and these “regimes” can be set individually for each security level. You can micromanage things like punishments for petty events, meal quality, and parole acceptance parameters. Making little decisions can determine the grades your prison receives as time passes on, and can help you to maintain the right amount of control over the inmates.
The game doesn’t suffer from many problems, but there are bugs present that can gum up the works with building and planning. The biggest issue is with a glitch that causes the “danger” level of the prison to lock at high, which will make all non-prisoners frantic and stop all progress from taking place. The game simply needs a reset, but without knowing that, the first- time users may tear apart their prison trying to solve the issue. That is just one of several little bugs that are present in the game, and hopefully future updates can help to fix the glitches as they are discovered. Other than those unfortunate (and minor) glitches, there are no noticeable design flaws with any of the goings-on in Prison Architect. The game simply nails it on all fronts.
The overall design of Prison Architect is a positive as well, but it really isn’t anything particularly special. The buildings and items are decently detailed, and are animated as they operate. The character sprites are funny little wedges with bobbing heads, which makes it all the more surreal that many are hardened criminals. The game doesn’t do much automation of events, so visitors to the prison are actual sprites that visit with their criminal family member, and the cooks and prison labourers physically perform their tasks, so logistics of the layout of your prison can be overcome by just hiring more help. The game also has a campaign mode that tells a fairly interesting story while teaching you the basic and advanced ways to complete tasks in the game. The new release also includes a new mode called “Escape Mode” that puts you in the shoes of a prisoner, with the sole task of escaping one of the many user-created prisons on the Steam Workshop.