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Prison Architect [official site] emerged from its long stint in Early Access earlier this year and recently clinched the Best Management Game accolade in RPS’s Advent Calendar 2015. Now it has, finally, added female prisons. Luckily, there’s more to it than simple sprite swapping, as Introversion’s Chris Delay and Mark Morris detail in the accompanying video featured below.
Along with our group-selected 2015 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen one game to commend as one of the best.
Early on in my first game of Prison Architect, I found I had to readjust my thinking. I'd been playing the good warden, being as attentive as possible to my growing population of inmates, constantly checking their list of needs to see how I could improve things for them. Were they missing their families? I built payphones, a mailroom, and scheduled time for visitations. Were they looking for ways to improve themselves? I built classrooms, a library, and acquired grant money for alcohol and drug rehab, workshop training, and other life-enhancing programs. I added a second kitchen and cafeteria after noticing some prisoners weren't getting enough time to eat, and I put bookshelves and TV in every cell to ensure they weren't bored. For a while, I treated Prison Architect like any other building and management sim. If I kept everyone happy, surely nothing could really go wrong.
Then five prisoners escaped. They'd been digging a network of tunnels at night with tools they'd smuggled from the workshop, and they dug their way to freedom right under my wall. That's when it finally sunk in: Prison Architect isn't really like other sims. Sure, there's the same management tasks like planning, construction, power and water distribution, budgeting and schedules—but no matter how hard you try to satisfy the needs of your civilian population, it won't change the fact that they're prisoners. Work hard at creating a humane facility and there may be no outright complaints, no violence, and no major disasters, but there will never, ever be real happiness. No one wants to be there, and even the best of wardens can't change that.
Prison Architect works well on both a large and small scale. The planning and construction of buildings is enjoyable and challenging, and I'd even find myself mentally planning projects when I wasn't actually playing. It can also require a laser-like focus on specific issues and even on individual inmates. After a virus swept through my prison, I had to check each individual prisoner for illness and lock the sick ones in their cells, one by one, to avoid spreading the disease further. Another time, an informant told me one of my inmates had been targeted for a hit because he was a former prison guard. I put the target in solitary while I set about planning a new protective custody wing to keep at-risk prisoners safe from other inmates. I eventually realized I hadn t paused the game while planning my new annex, and that he d been released back into gen-pop. I found him just in time to see him being stabbed to death in the cafeteria. Oopsie.
Trying to keep your prison free of drugs and weapons is a huge challenge until you learn a few tricks, and every time you turn around you'll find cellphones, drugs, and weapons arriving concealed in deliveries, smuggled in from other buildings, even thrown onto the grounds over your outer wall by visitors. Even when things are running smoothly it's hard not to feel paranoid and unsafe, leading to metal detectors at every door, tapped payphones and security cameras, frequent shakedowns and lockdowns of cellblocks, as well as an army of informants who provide good information but may wind up dead if anyone catches wind. It's an interesting feeling, staring at what is essentially a city similar to the ones in other simulation games, yet knowing every tiny little cartoon man on the screen hates you, is plotting against you, and wants nothing more than to leave your carefully constructed paradise far behind.
As grim as it all sounds, it's still a joy to play, a deeply engrossing exercise in planning and management, and there are plenty of ways to have additional fun, such as when I tried to escape from a modded-in Star Wars prison, and the time I built a prison to cater to a single inmate.
As far as Early Access games go, Prison Architect [official site] is one which did it right. Over three and a bit years, developers Introversion Software have added, tweaked, and tuned, and now it looks and plays now so very different. It may have left Early Access and formally launched in October, but Introversion are still fiddling away and yesterday released the first post-release update to add even more. Naturally, they have another long video developer diary explaining what’s new too:
In Prison Architect, I'm always anxious when I'm done building my prison and the first inmates arrive. Have I forgotten something? Do I have enough of everything? Is this going to be a complete disaster? I'm feeling that doubly so today: I've spent ten game-days and hundreds of thousands of dollars to build a very special prison. A luxury prison. It will house a single inmate, and he's due to arrive in a couple minutes.
The idea here isn't simply to build a prison for one inmate and see what happens. As I explained in my review, the first time I had prisoners escape my prison it genuinely hurt my feelings. I'd been trying very hard to meet the needs of my residents, to keep them calm and satisfied, and when five of them tunneled out I felt betrayed and embarrassed that all my humane efforts had been for naught. With my new prison, I want to see if it's possible to make an inmate so damn happy and comfortable that he never tries to escape, never hits a guard, never busts up the place, and never breaks any rules.
So, I've built the most luxurious prison cell I could manage. It's spacious, with large windows, wood and tile floors, a private bathroom and shower, a pool table, sofas, a telephone, several television sets and a radio. There's just a regular door on the cell and there will be no lockdown time on the schedule—my prisoner will be able to enter and leave his cell whenever he wants.
There's also a roomy kitchen a short walk away with an eager staff of cooks on hand. There's an expansive, grass-covered exercise yard that overlooks a lake. There's a workshop, library, classrooms, common rooms, and a chapel. I've got an army of janitors and groundskeepers to keep the place tidy, and while there are a number of guards in my employ, none are assigned to rooms my inmate will spend time in, so he'll never feel like he's being oppressed or monitored. Sure, there's a fence around the jail—it's still a jail, after all—but it's hard to imagine it feeling less like a prison.
My sole inmate arrives, a 33-year-old convict named Sean Matile. He's serving a nine year sentence, perhaps ironically, for false imprisonment. He's also married and a father of four. He's guided into the reception area and searched for what I hope will be the only time during his stay here. My guard finds that Matile has attempted to smuggle a pair of gardening shears into jail, which seems an odd and incredibly uncomfortable choice.
The discovery of contraband means he won't be taken to his cushy cell but will instead spend a little time in solitary. Luckily, I've planned for this eventuality, and have a pleasant little box ready for him: bookshelves, sofa, TV, toilet and shower, even a phone. Unfortunately Matile is shackled so he can't enjoy the amenities, but hopefully he realizes this is more of a hotel than a prison.
Soon he's in his proper cell, where he slowly mopes around his new surroundings. After a look around, he drifts out to the yard for a bit, then moves to the canteen for a meal (high quality, of course). He heads back to his cell where he spends the entire night slowly pacing around instead of sleeping. I figure that's normal: who can sleep their first night in prison, especially having recently had a pair of hedge trimmers forcibly removed from his butt?
In the morning he showers, puts on a clean uniform, uses the payphone to talk to his family, and begins what will be his routine for the next several days: eating meals, watching TV in his cell, talking on the phone, and occasionally visiting the yard to stare at the lake. Soon he begins taking a workshop safety class, led by my construction foreman. He eventually passes the class—I'm quite proud—and from then on he spends several hours each day making licence plates and cutting logs. Matile has one other hobby, a mildly troubling one, which I'll get to in a minute.
There's a downside to a prison with only one inmate: it prevents me from reaching a few grant milestones, which ultimately limit Matile's options for rehabilitation. For example, since he's shown an aptitude for shop work, I'd like him to partake in a Carpentry Apprenticeship Program. The prerequisite, however, is the grant for the Prison Manufacturing Facility, which has its own prerequisite, the Prison Acclimatization and Engagement program. To complete this program I need to assign three inmates to work in the laundry, the kitchen, and the cleaning cupboard. I can't do that simply because I don't have enough inmates.
I consider constructing an entirely separate prison on the other side of the road, going as far as building a massive foundation, but then the reality sets in. That's a lot of extra work. New rooms and buildings, utilities, guard patrols, schedules and classes and staff and everything else that comes with running a real prison. It seems exhausting and pointless, especially since I've already got facilities to spare. Much as I don't want to mess up Matile's life by introducing new prisoners, I start planning a small cell block just outside Matile's hotel, capable of holding a couple dozen prisoners. Hopefully nobody will stab him to death.
While that construction is underway, the unfortunate time comes where I have to perform a search on Matile. See, he's been occasionally making trips up to the northern fence, where he mills around in the trees for a bit. These trips take place in the middle of the night. I know this is more than just a leisurely stroll.
I search his cell first (while he's at breakfast so he's not disturbed), and I also search the workshop while he's sleeping, finding nothing. Finally, I pat him down, and my guard finds some contraband: Matile has a cellphone. I'm relieved—for a guy who arrived with garden shears up his butt, I expected much worse—but I can't help but be a little disappointed. First of all, if it were drugs or booze, I might get a chance to use all those therapy rooms I built and use those psychologists I hired, who have spent weeks just hanging around in the offices I built for them. Alas.
Mainly I'm just annoyed because why would he need a cellphone at all? There are two phones in his cell—cell phones, I guess you'd call them—and several in the yard. Does he just want to play Flappy Bird or use Snapchat? Is Sprint's new friends and family plan that irresistible? Does he think I've tapped the payphones and I'm listening in on his calls?
I have, of course, tapped the payphones and have been listening in on his calls. I have an entire dedicated security room with guards assigned around the clock to monitor his conversations, which is how I confirmed my suspicions that he's been arranging for someone to visit the prison and chuck things over the fence for him. I know I could put a stop to this by building a second fence around the perimeter, but the idea isn't to prevent him from breaking the rules, the idea is to make him so damn content that he would never want to break the rules. Apparently, as swank as my prison is, it's just not enough to keep him completely happy.
As infractions go, it's not a major one. With no metal detectors or supervision, with no one restricting his movements or needing to open doors for him, Matile could have been smuggling kitchen utensils and workshop tools all the live long day, but has chosen not to. I guess that's a plus, and when his family arrives for a visit I don't think he'll have much to complain about.
I put the new cellblock online and receive a bunch of new inmates, which is strange for what has been feeling like a luxury hotel built on a college campus. Naturally, the whole place becomes more like a prison immediately. I begin finding drugs and booze in cells and thrown over the fence, there are brawls in the showers and regular tazings (at least my team of doctors finally have something to do). Luckily, Matile barely mixes with the new inmates. He's got a short stroll to the canteen and is done eating by the time the crowd arrives, and then he either goes back to his cell or to the workshop. Nobody messes with him, possibly because he's simply not around them enough.
In the end, Matile does escape my luxury prison, but in the legit way. He's paroled. On the one hand, it's nice to see him free. On the other, I'm left with a worrying thought. Will he have trouble adjusting to life on the outside, not for the usual reasons but simply because there aren't enough sofas and TVs and good, hot meals? I made his prison stay so damn comfortable, filled with freedom and luxury, it might be in his best interests to come for another visit.
Be good, Sean.
I never intended for that picture to become the official header for What Are You/We All Playing This Weekend, you know. I found myself in charge of this section one week and thought I’d find a nice picture of a pond – which was where I intended to mostly spend my weekend. Finding nothing in antique illustration archives (we have our whole antiquated Britishness schtick, yeah?), I turned to what else> I’d be doing: appearing in visions, indulging my nymph side, and firing cannons at ghastly moustaches.
Anyway, what are you playing this weekend? Here’s what we’re into:
What is it? A sim about building and managing a prisonExpect to pay: $30/ 20Developer: Introversion SoftwarePublisher: Introversion SoftwareReviewed on: Intel i7 x980 3.33 GHz, 9 GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 960Multiplayer: NoLink: Official site
I was several hours into my first game of Prison Architect when I found myself humiliated. I'm talking genuine, utter, red-faced humiliation, complete with a trickle of perspiration and a vaguely sick feeling in the pit of my gut. I've been humiliated plenty of times in online games, but this was an entirely new experience for me in single-player.
I'd been playing Introversion Software's prison construction and management simulator the same way I play any other sim, by slowly expanding my network of buildings—cells, rec rooms, storage closets, administrative offices—while keeping an eye on my finances, staff, and current goals. Most of all, I'd been doing everything I could to meet the needs of my ever-growing population of inmates. If they complained about being hungry, I'd expand the kitchen, serve higher quality meals, and allow more time on their schedules for chow. If they complained about hygiene, a lack of recreation options, or that they missed their families, I'd stop everything and construct new facilities or activate new prisoner programs to accommodate them. As a result of this close attention I'd experienced no riots, no fist-fights, no unpleasantness of any kind. Everything seemed to be going great.
Then I received a notification that an escape tunnel had been found. Five prisoners in adjoining cells had smuggled in tools and burrowed to freedom right under my nose (and right under the prison's exterior wall). I immediately felt betrayed. I'd been bending over backwards to meet their needs, to run a clean, efficient, and extraordinarily humane prison. How could they do this to me? That's when the embarrassment hit, because something important and incredibly obvious simply hadn't dawned on me until that very moment: meeting an inmate's needs isn't the same thing as making them happy. Prison Architect isn't like other management sims where you deal with a restless and fickle population. There simply is no happy state for your residents. Maybe they don't want to start fires or lay into a guard with a power drill, but that doesn't mean they actually want to be there. It's prison. It's right in the title. No one wants to be there! Lesson learned, too late.
Building the prison of your dreams (or an inmate's nightmares) is accomplished in the same fashion as many other sims: drag an outline of a foundation, add doors, and pull electrical cables and water pipes into place. Designate the type of room it is and plop in the required equipment: cells just need a bed and toilet, offices need desks, chairs and file cabinets, and so on. Then, watch as your tiny workmen swarm around constructing it. The complexity sets in when you want to use these rooms. Kitchens and canteens can be designated to serve specific cellblocks, security cameras need to be connected to consoles in a command center, and guards need to be hired and assigned to monitor them. Building a workshop takes only a moment, but once it's in place you'll need to train inmates to work there, which requires an instructor, scheduled classes, the assignment of graduates (with work schedules), and an area to deliver license plates to for exporting and sale. It can be overwhelming at times, as your to-do list grows and grows—and as prisoners start walking out with tools under their jumpsuits—but it's also satisfying when all the pieces fall into place.
Prison Architect works well on a macro scale—managing your budget, staff, grants, utilities, and infrastructure, but at times requires a laser-like focus on specific issues and even on individual inmates. After a virus swept through the population I had to check each prisoner for infection (their faces turn green) and lock the sickies in their cells, one by one, to avoid spreading the disease further. Another time, an informant told me one inmate, a former prison guard, had been targeted for a hit. This inmate was important to me: I was chasing educational grant money and he was one of the very few students qualified to pass my general education class. I threw the target in solitary for an extended stay so no one could murder him while I set about planning a new protective custody wing, a tiny prison within my prison. When I was done I went to collect him from his cell but found his stay in solitary had expired because I'd left the clock running while planning my new facility. Whoops. After a frantic search I found him in the genpop canteen just in time to watch him get shivved by another prisoner. Double whoops.
Surrounding the simulation on all sides is cash. This is a privately run prison, which means the intake of new prisoners provides you with money, tempting you to cram as many bodies, sometimes too many, into your jail. The grants system, in addition to giving you more money, provides much-needed mission structure in the initially daunting sandbox mode. Applying for grants for programs like alcohol or drug addiction treatment, security training, labor skills classes, and even parole hearings and family visitations, gives you a list of criteria to meet, rewarding you in stages with cash. If you choose to play with random events enabled, you'll also experience kitchen fires, utility failures, and specific demands from the mayor, which periodically forces you to deal with a crisis, and sometimes several at once.
The tutorial campaign doesn't teach you, step-by-step, how to build a prison. Instead it puts you in charge of a series of prisons, each needing various problems solved, giving you a variety of experiences before you start your own prison. It's also the only part of the game to include human drama as you experience the personal stories of several inmates and perhaps get a chance to reflect on the tragic results of a broken system—in sandbox mode there's very little to humanize your cartoony little inmates, and no time to think about anything other than problems of logic and efficiency. The downside of the campaign is that it simply doesn't give you a clue about a large number of the game's elements and features. Once I'd begun sandbox mode, I found I had to pause the game to search Google, forums, or read the wiki to a little too frequently.
I experienced a small handful of bugs: most notably, I had to restart an entire chapter of the campaign because the game refused to recognize that I'd placed the correct number of chairs in a common room for an alcohol treatment program. PA's menus aren't great, either: every single placeable object is listed in the same menu, and the low-detail graphics make it hard to spot what you're looking for, meaning I found myself constantly doing text searches to find the right piece of equipment. (Objects in the menu are highlighted if they're needed for a room you're currently building, but if you're in the process of working on several rooms, which I often was, it's not entirely helpful.)
None of those issues prevent Prison Architect from being an incredibly engrossing balancing act, a simulation with the ability to surprise, challenge, and sometimes horrify you. While playing with a massive prison I'd downloaded from the Steam Workshop, a riot broke out because the mayor told me to remove all the TV sets from the prison or face a fine. Afterwards, while I stared at all the tiny bodies lying everywhere, drenched in blood, he called me again and casually told me I could put the TVs back. Sure, great, I'll do that once I've finished expanding the morgue. You can even experience the horrors from the other side of the bars: PA's Escape Mode lets you play as an inmate in your own jail, or one you've downloaded, and challenges you to form a gang and bust out.
Back to my very first prison. After those five inmates tunneled to freedom, my approach changed. I never became an evil warden like you see in the movies, but I dispensed with the warm and cuddly notion that I was overseeing a bunch of citizens who could be made happy with a nice library or a pool table in the common room. I instituted regular shakedowns (searching cell blocks) and bangups (sending everyone to their cells to be frisked), and closely monitored prisoners to see who was tired during the day (as the result of staying up all night digging with cafeteria forks.) I installed metal detectors outside every single door which led to a shocking number of tools and weapons being confiscated. I bullied inmates with extended stays in solitary until they agreed to become informants. I had guard dogs patrolling cellblock corridors 24/7 and officers patrolling the perimeter of the grounds, where contraband was often found, the result of accomplices lobbing things over the walls at prescribed times. How do prisoners arrange this? Probably by using the dozens of cellphones, smuggled in with deliveries, that I find every time I do a search.
Even with those harsh new measures in place, I continued to find the beginnings of escape tunnels. Guard dogs can detect tunnels, so the inmates, rather than digging straight toward the wall, were digging in circuitous paths to avoid the patrolling dogs. Clever, I'll give them that. Soon I had hounds not just walking the interior of the cellblocks but around the outside as well, and finally the tunnel-digging ceased. I haven't lost a prisoner since, except from the occasional cafeteria shanking or overdose from smuggled drugs. That's about as happy as things get in my grim little city.