Despite the developer’s original intent, Prison Architect isn’t just an addicting prison management game; it’s also tells a bold and player driven story about the problems and economics of the modern prison system.
Prison Architect tasks the player with building an ever-expanding prison to make homes for a growing group of prisoners. The player is given limited cash to work with, and the clock is always ticking for when a new batch of prisoners will show up.
Prisoners won’t just stand around either. They need a cell to sleep in, food to eat and things to do. The player has to build a facility that’s functional and keeps prisoners alive and healthy. Prisoners have lists of needs that can be met, or ignored, depending on how the player manages their prison.
There’s always something new to do in Prison Architect, whether it’s building new wings to accommodate more prisoners, upgrading older facilities, or making sure the prison is well run. It wasn’t often that I needed to fast-forward to the next event.
The game also offers a lot of creativity in how players choose to design their prisons. Prison cells can be cramped, with only a bed and a toilet in it, or they can be more spacious and have things like radios and TVs to keep prisoners occupied. When prisoners begin to cause fights, it’s up to the player to decide how they want to deal with that. Do they build a classroom to keep prisoners occupied, or use armed force to suppress them? Does the player choose a rehabilitative approach or a punitive one?
While Prison Architect colours your prisoners with needs and preferences, it’s also strangely dehumanizing. In order to maximize profits, players may choose to have smaller cells, forcing more prisoners into cramped spaces. The player can apply for government grants to obtain more cash and improve the facilities, but this often feels like trying to keep a healthy bank account rather than fulfilling prisoner’s needs. The game asks the player to balance their checkbooks against the needs of criminals and forces them to think about how their prison system really works.
That’s not to say that Prison Architect is necessarily a deep or complex experience, though it can be. Players can decide to just plop down rooms and hallways, or they can customize guard paths, the eating routines of their prisoners, and adjust tax rates and income. Prison Architect starts out simple, and can stay that way if you want, but is the most fun when the player is constantly thinking about their next move and how to improve their facilities while keeping their bank account in check.
While there is a campaign mode that acts as a tutorial, it’s not very good at introducing the game’s mechanics. The campaign jumps between different prisons where the player deals with specific issues in each one. The problem is that a lot of the game’s mechanics rely on waiting for things to be researched, built, or delivered, and since you’re not necessarily managing an entire prison but dealing with a few separate issues, these levels feel slow and tedious. If players wish to skip the tutorial, there’s plenty of alternative ways of learning about the game online. The main menu of the game even links to the Prison Architect Wiki.
The campaign offers a story, but it feels forced in there. Text-boxes and hand-drawn Polaroid photos tell the stories of what goes on in the prisons you visit, but the player creates more interesting stories themselves. At one point my prison ran out of money and I was forced to fire a bunch of my staff to stay afloat. The quality of my prison dropped dramatically, and while I did bounce back, that period made me second-guess every choice I made with my funds later on. Maybe some prisoners attempt an escape, or some of your guards are killed in a riot? These are the most interesting stories Prison Architect delivers, and it delivers them in a non-intrusive way.
The price tag is steep for an indie game, costing $30. The game does go on sale often though. I recommend this game to anyone, whether they enjoy these types of games or not, though the price could scare some people away.
I didn’t expect Prison Architect to be such an interesting experience. It’s not only incredibly addictive, challenging, and fun, but also an experience in learning about the prison system, and how players perceive and act out how their prison system should be.