Too Long; Didn't Play: Prison Architect

Condemned By: Prozac

Time Served: 2 hours

Get-that-dirt-out-of-my-hole review:

A cute, cartoony game with a dark undercurrent of brutal violence that makes the game a good deal less cute and cartoony.

Kind of like Tom & Jerry, now that I think of it.

Put-my-dirt-back-in-that-hole review:

When I first heard about this game, I was a little put off. It felt like one of those no-win sorts of games where even if you satisfied the victory conditions you’d still feel like you lost. Who wants to be a prison warden? Nobody likes prison wardens. There isn’t a lot of fiction where the operator of a prison is shown as anything other than a scurrilous, corrupt bastard. It’s like being a grand vizier. The want-ad posting might as well say “Wanted: Corrupt, megalomaniacal bastard who lacks empathy. Sadism is not required but preferred and can be learned on the job in any case.”

Based on that, and the fact that the game is explicitly about private, contract prisons, I assumed that the game would be a preachy message-piece about how awful you were for even wanting to play the game. Why would you want to play a game about corporate prisons? Don’t you know how awful you are?

Imagine my surprise, then, when I fire the game up and am presented with the ability to play a benevolent warden. Sure, you can be the brutal authoritarian, filling your prison with armed guards and dogs. You can also fill your prison with library books, work-study programs and substance-abuse support groups. Indeed, for the completionist in gamers like me, being the benevolent warden was actively rewarded with extra mission objectives that could be ticked off.

Well, chalk that up to one more lesson about making assumptions. (To quote Samuel L. Jackson: “When you make an assumption, you make an ass out of you … and Umption.”)

So, having established that you don’t have to be an awful person to like Prison Architect, let’s talk about the mechanics. I could make the assumption that you have never played a tycoon or base-building game and therefore go into great, boring detail about how the mechanics work, but we just learned about assumptions, and I don’t need to be beaten with a mop handle to learn my lessons.

You click things from a menu, place them in your prison and watch whether it makes your prison population happy enough to not riot the next time the laundry service is late.

I’m a fan of base-building and always have been. Prison Architect is a good example of the genre, but there are some foibles and rough edges that bear discussion. Setting up utilities is more opaque that it should be. Twenty minutes of my two hours of play time was spent figuring out how to connect water pipes to a kitchen sink. The solution turned out to be running pipes underneath the sink. That seems logical enough, but is never explained and is not suggested by the visual representation of the pipes, which give cues that the pipes connect from the side. I still haven’t quite figured out how routing electrical conduits works. My kitchen shows big yellow lightning bolts over my electric stoves, but the cooks seem able to use them just fine. If that’s a bug, it’s a confusing one.

Likewise, I’m not entirely sure how to set up guard patrols. I’ve plotted routes and had guards take them up immediately, and I’ve plotted other patrol routes and had them just lay there like big tongues saying “awwwl” while all of my other guards aimlessly mill about the common areas.

Which is all very odd because the game features a hefty campaign mode that seems designed to educate the player on such things. I suppose I should be grateful that the game explains that certain things are possible at all, unlike some other base-building games (*cough* Fallout 4 *cough*), but putting an objective up on the screen and requiring the player to search the game forums to find out how to actually do that objective just makes the game feel unfinished.

That aside, there’s a lot to like in Prison Architect for fans of base-building games. From the first two hours it looks like it takes the subject matter seriously, but it balances that with gameplay that’s interesting, and an art style that belies that seriousness. Imagine if Shawshank Redemption was made by Pixar but directed by Quentin Tarantino and rated PG. This isn’t a lighthearted romp through the back end of the justice system, but it isn’t depressing to play either.

That is a singular accomplishment in and of itself.

Have I served my sentence?

In spite of what I just said, I’ll probably not spend much more time with Prison Architect. I can recognize it’s well done, but there are other examples of the genre that I enjoy playing more. As most of you know, what usually holds my attention in a game is humor, and there isn’t much funny about prison. I’m glad the developers didn’t try to make it funny, but that doesn’t mean I want to play a lot of it.

I think of it like Shawshank Redemption: It’s a very good movie that I can only watch once every couple of years because as good as it is, it’s also very heavy and I need to be in the proper emotional state to enjoy it.

Is it the Devil Daggers of prison-management simulators?

Aside from the hiccups I mentioned where the game tells you what to do but makes actually doing it clunky and unintuitive, the learning curve of Prison Architect is comfortably slow without being boring. Everything you can do is easily trackable, and it’s usually obvious whether something you’ve done is working or not.

The only thing I’d add to my comments above is the confusing way the developers labeled the required dimensions for rooms. Room size requirements appear to be given in square-feet, but are not. When it says a room needs to be twelve feet square, I made a room that was three feet by four feet and then sat there wondering why the game kept telling me my room was too small. What they really meant was the room was a square with twelve-foot-long sides.

The interesting part of that little anecdote is that the way they mean the dimensions actually makes the game easier than the way I thought they meant them, but I’m still giving the game a bump to the difficulty score because they made me waste money and materials figuring that out.

Five of seven daggers.


Great article, Greg. I've been interested in this game, but after hearing some commentary elsewhere and your article, me thinks I'll spring for Rimworld, instead.

I played Prison Architect as an experiment to see how bad a taste it left in my mouth.

The answer turned out to be: very, very bad. Didn't help that at the time, my girlfriend was teaching a creative writing class in San Quentin, and would regale me at great length with soul-crushing tales of her experiences.

It's just not a topic that can be enjoyed, for me. I don't want to play a game about profiteering off human misery and misfortune, just like I don't want to play Kitten Decapitator 2016.

Theme aside, it seemed like a reasonable game with an overly clunky interface, although it was still in Early Access at the time.

Was that before they added in/buffed the "good" path?

wordsmythe wrote:

Was that before they added in/buffed the "good" path?

It was before much of the "story mode" got put in, I think. It felt pretty sandboxy.