Awfully cunning animal, the human. If you don’t believe me, just try locking one up. Given a long enough timespan, they’ll violently turn their environment against you in service of escape—fail to ply them with creature comforts, that timespan diminishes rapidly. That’s what I’ve learned from Prison Architect, anyhow—and I believe the lessons it imparts because of how deeply it simulates the act of building and running a prison.
All management games use abstractions to streamline gameplay and make the overall process coherent, but the amount of minutiae that Prison Architect decides to simulate is staggering. Like me, you’ll likely notice it during the campaign (a tutorial-in-disguise), where a simple task to build a room begins with workmen receiving pallets of supplies, with individual members of the hive making repeated treks to-and-fro as your blueprints come to fruition.
This dense simulation is quite a marvel, even though the game doesn’t do much to help you understand some of the behaviours happening within your ant-farm. Initially I was confused by workers bunching up at a door, until I realized that they were waiting for someone with keys to arrive. With most games, attention to detail serves no explicit gameplay purpose beyond immersion, but these small details in Prison Architect can be matters of life and death.
Prisoners have needs, including food, clothing, relaxation time, visits from family—almost 20 separate meters to satisfy. Indulging each need requires space, time, staff, and various other resources that are often in scarce supply. There are programs and grants available that will refill your coffers, but for the most part, taking in a higher volume and higher threat-level of prisoners is the best way to make money.
The prisoners will become displeased for a number of reasons—they’ll feel harassed if security is too tight, or bored without access to entertainment, or if they lack opportunities for self-actualization (Maslow would be proud). Prisoners will riot, and when they do, that’s when the richness of the simulation pays off. Hapless janitors locked on the wrong side of a door will meet their doom, materials pilfered from construction pallets will be weaponized, and the general lack of oversight will result in lots of angry men running around with pointy things they nicked from the kitchen.
Riots can spill out of control quickly, and the game takes on some real-time-strategy elements, introducing a fog-of-war that really underscores the dire need to retake the facility. Riot police (optionally flanked by paramedics) are a less-lethal option, or you can opt to bring in an armed response and squash the riot with a show of force. While the game’s failstates preclude a full-blown turkey-shoot, the game doesn’t judge you for the type of warden you choose to be.
The story is a bit dour for my tastes—at times it’s rather strident in highlighting the amorality of an industry predicated on locking up society’s outcasts—but the vignettes are tied together with a whirlwind tour of the game’s many systems. While it’s a bit on-the-nose, learning how to connect appliances to the grid by preparing an electric-chair moments before an execution, most of the concepts introduced sensibly, and most allow some flexibility to bump up against the edges so it feels more like guided learning than following instructions rote.
Prison Architect isn’t going to appeal to everyone; the simple graphics and initially overwhelming influence may scare off those hoping for something as immediately accessible and fun as Theme Park. Those who persevere will find an incredibly complex simulation that will gradually reveal more and more layers of strata as the hours invested pile up.