[State of Play is a series of semi-regular articles where we catch up with games that are in ongoing development – perhaps an MMO or other popular multiplayer game (or mode), or a title in a prolonged Alpha or Beta status.]
Prison Architect is not an easy game.
It’s not a finished game either, technically; Prison Architect was released as a playable Alpha-build in September 2012. What this game is, is an incredibly moreish place where you can pour hours into a game without realizing it. When you stop to think about just how good this game is already, despite it being unfinished, you have a truly exciting prospect on your hands. Introversion, the team behind the game, are releasing (almost) monthly updates which add a ton of content and bug fixes, build by build. Back in January 2014 we shared with you the release of Alpha Build 17, which brought guns and armed guards to the table, but we would like to take a few minutes to give you a little more of an insight into this game, and tell you why you should be excited about it.
Most of us have either played or watched someone play The Sims at one point or another. There is always that one guy who just will not do what he is told; that irritating little Sim that gets in the way of your master plan. Many of us have built four walls around that Sim; be it out of sheer frustration, to keep the damn thing still, or simply because you wanted a funky gravestone in the house and you are basically God. Either way, we found a way to end that simulation.
Well, what if instead of outright killing him, you could incarcerate him instead? Well, Prison Architect has got you covered.
Prison Architect is a top-down construction and simulation game where you design, build and run your own prison from scratch. You start with a very brief story-led tutorial mission where you are forced with building an execution chamber for an inmate sentenced to walk the green mile. After the execution, you are effectively promoted into the real game. You are given a plot of land, a sum of money, 8 workers and 24 hours. That’s it. Get to work. Build a fully functional prison.
We’re not just talking four walls and a door here. We’re talking four walls, a door, plumbing, electrical wiring and a power generator capable of running the prison at the size you build. We’re talking cooks, guards, doctors, admin staff, a shrink… when Introversion say a fully functional prison, they are not messing around.
At first, this may seem a little daunting – and to be fair there is a bit of a learning curve. You will probably spend your first few hours racing against time to erect a holding cell with working showers and a kitchen attached. You need to be ready for the inmates which are coming in the morning, watching the clock, nervously as you struggle, and probably fail, to get your cell ready on time. A quick mental calculation tells you that funds will allow you to build the 8 individual cells that your prisoners need, complete with beds and working toilets. Relieved, you sit back and smile as your workmen finish their task, and you let your inmates out to go to bed. Oh shit. You realise at the same time as your prisoners that your workmen didn’t finish building that really expensive perimeter walls around the cells, and watch in horror as your prisoners run away as fast as their invisible little legs will carry them.
So you start again. Sod that prison for a game of soldiers, we are going with a whole new design. This prison actually has outside walls, as oppose to the few scattered buildings of your previous folly. It’s a nice prison. It’s fully functional, or it will be when you finish laying the cables and pipes to in your brand new hell-hole which you have built special, just to spite your previous escapees. Unfortunately, you over-spent. You cannot afford the guards to transfer your prisoners from the delivery area to the holding cell, and you’ve already lost the game. Again.
Round three. This time I paused the game and hunted through my paperwork (your in game menus) to find out if I could deny entry to my prison until I had an actual prison.. I could, and I did. I spent an entire in-game month building this giant complex, taking money from the federal government in the form of grants as I worked. I sat back and watched my workforce build an entirely operational prison, ready to hold the toughest of criminals. When they finished, I fired the lot of them and I went for a walk, leaving the game running.
I came back, hired some new staff with the wealth I amassed over my walk, and opened my gates to worst that the game could offer me. Honestly, getting through that first day without the prisoners starting a knife fight in the canteen brought a real sense of satisfaction. I had done my job.
This game is already bloody brilliant, but still far from perfect. That is the one thing you need to understand going into this game. As the game is an Alpha Build, it is riddled with bugs. Think of your favorite Bethesda game, and multiply it by Skyrim; that is what Alpha means. During the course of writing this article, one prisoner tried to escape repeatedly. After he hit one of my guards with a hammer he stole from the workshop, I set the prisoner as the highest level of security, changing his prison uniform from his original low-risk grey to the bright red of maximum security. I did this partly to get more money from the government, but mainly so I could keep an eye on him. I also stuck him in solitary confinement for 12 hours, just for good measure. What happened next? He turned invisible and tried to escape. Seeing as he was invisible, my guards really struggled the next time he tried to escape.
There are plenty of other bugs too – some of these the developers already know about, like the shadows the delivery trucks make appearing at weird angles. Others, like the invisible guy I just mentioned, they may not know about – but I’m confident that these will all get addressed in time as people add bug reports to the game forums. There’s still a lot of content to come with the game that isn’t currently implemented. The eventual idea is that you can run your prison like you would in real life – either as a full-on hell hole where you rule with an iron fist, or as a relatively relaxed area focused on reintegrating these miscreants into society. There will eventually be a way to reform some prisoners, but others will be entirely immune to your efforts to make them better people. There’s already a plethora of jobs which you can order your inmates to do, making you the cash you need to keep your prison running, but as the development team at Introversion adds to this game every month, more jobs are added.
As it draws closer and closer to the eventual finished product, you can see a true evolution in the game. If this interests you, you should head over to Introversion’s YouTube page to check out the Build Update videos they put out with every patch. At a half-hour per video, they can be a little long, but it is interesting stuff, and the videos are a way to lessen that learning curve I mentioned earlier.
You can be sure that we will review the finished game here at Continue Play, but we have a while until then. In the meantime, we’ll keep you posted on updates to what is turning into one of the most original and captivating games I have ever played.