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‘Prison Architect’ Lets Me Take Digital Cruelty to New Lows

‘Prison Architect’ Lets Me Take Digital Cruelty to New Lows:

In Prison Architect my goal is not really to acquiesce my inmates, but instead try to make them riot. I’ll download existing prisons built by other players and do something mean, like lock everybody in their cells but not feed them. I did this in a prison without a morgue once—with too many bodies to deal with, the staff would leave them in their cells and then force new prisoners to just deal with it.

I told producer Mark Morris and designer Chris Delay about this hell I’d created, assuming they’d heard of that scenario occurring at some point in the years the game has been in available in Early Access mode on the digital PC game marketplace Steam. They assured me they had not.

“One of the best things for us when we make a game like Prison Architect is looking at what players do with it. You build the simulation and it goes into the wild and you see what they do with it. To my mind, structure and order is everything [with regards to Prison Architect],” Morris said.

“We could have a very interesting conversation about what the game should do within that context,” he continued. “Because is it impossible to think that in a really horrible, overcrowded prison somewhere, where there wasn’t a morgue or anything like that, that the guards might be like, ‘Just get in there’? Probably the failure in the simulation is the prisoners probably should have dragged them out, they should have a desire, a need, not to have a dead body in their cell.”

Granted, the simulation isn’t perfect.

PRIMED FOR LAUNCH

Launching a game is a big deal. Launching a game, officially, that you’ve been selling and people have been playing for years is also a big deal, but in a different way. That’s where we are with Prison Architect, released initially in 2012 as an “alpha”, and this week becoming an official fully featured video game release.

An old school “management simulation” game from Introversion Software, Prison Architect has moved more than a million copies in the past three years. Achieving version 1.0 is a landmark for the small team at Introversion, but it’s also just an extension of business as usual. Since unleashing the first “alpha” build in 2012, they’ve updated it monthly, one piece at a time. The culmination of that cycle is 1.0, Prison Architect’s largest update, introducing a campaign, telling a series of intertwined stories across several prisons which double as a tutorial, and adding Escape Mode. The normal game casts you as prison architect and warden, building the facility then managing its minutiae. Escape Mode, though, allows you to take control of an individual inmate and try to break out of any prison you’ve built or downloaded from Steam Workshop.

But Introversion aren’t done with it. This week marks the beginning of a new cycle, which will look pretty similar to the old one. But 1.0 isn’t an arbitrary designation. There’s a reason it happened now, after all these years of updates, rather than sometime earlier.

“Genuinely, it took that long to get to a prison simulation that we thought covered all our bases,” Morris told me. “There’s still lots of depth that we could continue to pile into it, and lots of areas we could expand. But we had a list of the minimum requirements that we wanted a prison game to support.

“Because we had these alphas, these monthly update cycles, we were working three weeks out of four, and the fourth week was lost to quality assurance, and making some marketing assets, and perhaps you can argue that QA was critical to PA coming together in the end. Because the only way we got it to work was…you think of the systems like concentric circles—they all have to work, or you can’t add another one in. The complexity would be unmanageable.”

Introversion being a small team, with five individuals working on Prison Architect, Morris meant that literally. And so over the past three years they really did just do one thing (more or less) at a time. Morris described that sequence like so: “Right, the laundry system is now working. Now let’s talk about contraband. How is the contraband system going to work, and how is the contraband system going to work with the laundry system? And then after that, how’s visitation going to work with contraband and the laundry system?”

I find that process fascinating because it almost sounds like it could be a response to a common excuse thrown out by game developers when some technical aspect of their game goes horribly wrong or just doesn’t work in a way anyone expected: you never know how dynamic systems are going to work together. Which is true, but there are ways to mitigate the fallout. Prison Architect’s Early Access cycle, where they added in pieces one at a time until, voila, here’s version 1.0, is an example of one way.

ESCAPE AND VENGEANCE

prison architect

This is not to say that Prison Architect is some impeccable bastion of flawlessness and predictability. As with any simulation, things will get weird sometimes. Which is good for me, because I’m not much into order (as you might have guessed already). Rather than build things, I prefer to destroy what others have built. Sim games like Prison Architect, while seemingly having the search for order as their central conceit, have always facilitated my destructive urges. The difference between most sims and this one, however, is it’s abnormally personal in Prison Architect—and thus extra horrifying when things go bad. I want my inmates to riot because I honestly feel kinda guilty about what I do to them. I want them to get some payback.

The game’s new “escape mode” is a perfect vehicle for encouraging some vengeance. In this mode you take control of a single prisoner and attempt to escape. You can go it alone or form a gang, and you’ll want to strengthen your character(s) using reputation points you earn by stirring up shit.

There’s no dialogue or anything like that, and you can’t drag the dead bodies out of your cell, as the mode really isn’t built for that sort of complexity. But in my hell prison, I didn’t need words to spark a violent revolt. You get everybody in the canteen for lunch and take a swing at a guard in that hellhole, and it escalates very quickly. This is the greatness of Escape Mode, for me—not because I really care about winning, but because it’s an exciting new way to mess with the simulation. An escalation, even.

Grand enough for 1.0, anyway.


Phil Owen is a freelance journalist and critic based in Los Angeles. He tweets for free at @philrowen.


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