There’s an alarm blaring, guards are rushing around the corridors brandishing batons while discarded food trays splatter food across a canteen floor. A crazed murdered, having been released from solitary for no more than half an hour, begins to stab everyone around him with a spoon. In quick succession he kills one guard and incapacitates one. The inmates around him see his victories and join the fray. What started as a fracas in the mess has turned into a full blown riot. Low-security prisoners and informants scurry from the mob of criminals as they make a rush for the armoury.
I sigh and click “new game”. Such is life when you attempt to run a correctional facility in Introversion’s prison sim Prison Architect. The game combines the best from classic top-down sims like Theme Hospital and Dungeon Keeper to create an engrossing take on management games that can often slide completely out of control.
You take on the role of a new warden at a budding prison – charged with building holding cells, offices and kitchens for inmates that will arrive by the busload every in-game day. Depending on your stipulation (or how confident you’re feeling) these cons will be minimum, normal or maximum security prisoners. Each has differing levels of needs, addictions and aggressiveness. You’re paid into your bank account depending on how many you take on, which in turn gets spent on cell blocks, yards, security offices and those all-important guards to keep your prisoners in line.
The game’s beauty is in both its complexity and its simplicity. Getting to grips with the needs of your prison – electricity, water supplies, connecting hallways and corridors, staff research – can be difficult at first. When mastered, however, the game becomes a fluid experience in which hours of real-life time will drain away as you try to reform your disarmingly cute prisoners before they tunnel out, arm themselves with spoons or jump at each other’s throats.
A measure of challenge is added in the form of grants – objectives you can take on for a monetary boost. For example, you can take on the mantle of a small detention centre bent on reforming those who come through its doors into productive members of society. Conversely, though, you can turn life inside your walls into a living hellhole where the guards hand out regular beatings and searches and prisoners are cramped six-to-a-cell.
I found myself trying to act benevolent. I set up workshops, classrooms, kitchens and lessons for my cons, and made sure they ate well and got plenty of exercise (thanks to Prison Architect‘s impressively in-depth “regime” and “reform” panels). In return I was rewarded with multiple escape tunnels, contraband flowing through the halls in rivers of whiskey and drugs and rampant on-guard violence.
Getting the balance right can take a few tries, but once you do the game rewards you with a highly efficient prison filled with scurrying actors that sometimes you just want to sit and watch go about their day.
The game is still in alpha, and has been for quite some time, yet the developers have taken a pro-active approach: they release regular YouTube videos detailing every planned change and every new feature, meaning the fanbase are never left in the dark.
It currently lacks any form of end goal, which can mean that after a while you begin to run out of ideas for your facility other than just adding more cells. Alternatively, you can go out of your way to start riots and fires, like I did (cackle).
Prison Architect can be picked up in the current Humble Bundle package for $10 (about £6.20) and considering you get a batch of other great games in with that, you can’t say no – especially as I can only see this game going from strength to strength in the future.