I don’t know the first thing about prison. Not even Hollywood’s version of prison. Oz, Prison Break, Orange is the New Black—I bounced off every one of those TV shows. I’ve only regarded prisons from a distance. Driving by on the freeway, perhaps, gawking at their high walls, their rolls of razor wire, their yards lit up like football stadiums, their road sign warnings not to pick up hitchhikers. So it seems that Prison Architect is my introduction into the world of correctional facilities, detention centers, penitentiaries, whatever you’d like to call them. You’ll have to pardon me if this video game doubles as a learning experience. I don’t see why that can’t be a good thing.
Each and every prisoner walks around with needs. Like, 18 separate needs. There’s the familiar, like food and sleep, hygiene, comfort, and a tidy environment. But then it separates bathroom breaks into both bladder and bowels. And then it gets into deeper issues, like drug dependency, spirituality, and literacy.
That’s the stuff that’s been blowing my mind about Prison Architect. Before I’d played it, I was fairly certain that it’d have a more straightforward building model. Like in SimCity, for instance: Build a residential zone, build a commercial strip, then get some industrial jobs in there but not too close.
No, the ecosystem you build in Prison Architect is so much more intricate. Very few video games prepared me for it. It’s complex. Not in the sense that it’s complicated. But there are layers to prison building that I had no clue about, going in. Addressing every level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is done through infrastructure, the stuff you build. You’ll build them a place to eat, a place to sleep, a place—interestingly enough—to feel safe. But in addition to that, they need a place to get some fresh air, to visit with friends and family, to read, to work, to pray. Not all inmates do all of these things, but all inmates do some of these things.
If I'm being honest, I didn't expect to like Prison Architect all that much. I'd reviewed its second cousin, The Escapists, enjoying its slick soundtrack and confident 8-bit graphics, but never falling in love with The Escapists’ escape-the-room shtick.
Despite near identical top-down floor plan visuals, The Escapists and Prison Architect are different species entirely. Prison Architect is a deep, deep sim builder with roots reaching into in-depth reporting, logistics, staffing, top-to-bottom construction, and emergency countermeasures. The tutorials ramp up. It’s not long before you’re staring at a very full plate.
There are bureaucratic levels extending in every direction. There are tech and research trees that cover everything from the obvious, such as security, maintenance, and death row, all the way to the not-so obvious, such as routing the prison’s income into an offshore tax haven, or getting a psychologist on payroll, or running educational reform programs.
The real hook for me, at least in the beginning, is the storytelling. I had no idea it'd be like this. I mentioned that there's a tutorial, but that's only part of the deal. Yes, the tutorial is a gradual introduction to all things Prison Architect, but it's a story mode, too. Looking at the visuals, I didn't expect a whole lot of narrative to be going on. I thought I’d get a pat on the butt and a "Good luck, kid" to send me on my way. But no, there's drama. And drama on a level that has games like Grand Theft Auto and Hotline Miami in mind when it comes to its brazen nature. Prison Architect's story mode has a shank or two hidden up its sleeve. I mean, it seems obvious, considering the source material, but there are 187s, mob boss family ties, corruption running up and down the spine of the prison system.
I'm working on the architect part of the simulation. The game is wide open in some ways, but quite specific in others. Like how you can't just place a chair and move it a few feet to the left to make room for a bed. You have to, essentially, put in a work order for that chair to be moved, then you have to wait for an available workman to make their way over to the chair, then the workman physically moves it. Watching each individual workman lay a foundation or erect a wall is great; watching them swarm a job site to put up a new structure gets slow, but never old. It feels a little silly, however, when nobody’s available for those smaller jobs, such as rotating the garbage bin, or moving the staff room's pool table a smidge to the right.
The depth of this simulation is staggering. My head is full. So much to learn.
I like running across random, unscripted events. Like the security guard marching past the dead inmate in the lunchroom. Or the kitchen worker stuck in a hallway with an armful of empty food trays, never getting any sleep that night. Or inmate Riley sitting on top of inmate Creaser in bed—in what’s supposed to be a solitary cell.
The sound of the prison conveys a lot with a little. Usually, a decent level of peace and quiet exists in any one section of the prison. But then you scroll around and hear the rising sound of angry voices. Their speech is indistinct, but you can hear the menace in their tone. If you didn’t know something was wrong before, well, now you know.
While it's great watching individual workers piece your prison together, brick by brick, tile by tile, it’s a bummer watching them get stuck on objects so frequently. I watched three construction workers get themselves stuck between a washing machine and a laundry basket for a full 10 minutes. I watched an entire team of builders stumble around in the dark because they'd walled themselves off inside of a building. One guard never figured out how to close that door to a solitary confinement cell.
In some instances, I’m left with a few flimsy theories. Like when my prison went into a near riot because everyone was angry because they weren’t seeing their families enough. I hadn’t placed any restrictions on visitations, so I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. But a lot of inmates got angrier, which caused them to lash out, which made my guards lock down the prisoners, which meant they really weren’t seeing their families, which meant they were angrier about not being able to see their families, which…
You get the point. It’s a downward spiral.
Also, at some point, dozens of prisoners were injured and starving—again, for reasons not clear to me—so the prisoners bumrushed the infirmary. At the infirmary, they got logjammed at the door, forming a Katamari-sized ball of prisoners that couldn’t do anything except take swings at each other while handcuffed, creating more injuries for my doctors to treat, all while the prisoners are going hungry, rolling around in this amorphous ball of orange-suited angry people. Prisoners and paramedics alike were being shoved through brick walls into parts of the prison they shouldn’t be in. My gardeners used rakes to sweep blood off the gravel around my power generators—a place where no prisoners should be, at all, ever. Literally dozens of inmates were healed of their wounds, but couldn’t get back into a routine in prison, so they starved to death. The bodies laid there for days. The guard dogs sniffed at them as they passed by. The janitors swept up the blood and puke that never seemed to stop issuing from the dead bodies.
So, that kind of thing can be distressing.
Unexpectedly, I developed an empathy for these prisoners. Yes, they sometimes stabbed each other. Maybe a couple of them got unruly because I was slow to get a library going. I bet a few were ready to kill somebody if I hadn’t gotten that church set up. But I wanted those prisoners to, as well as could be expected, be happy. I wanted to provide programs that would educate them. I wanted to provide places for them to get physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy. And so that motivated my designs as a Prison Architect. It didn’t matter how good the money was—if my prisoners were unhappy, I was unhappy.
And that’s the part I wasn’t expecting. That empathy. I haven’t watched much (if any) of Hollywoods’ many depictions and spins on prison life. But already I’m enlightened by the complex simulations drawn up in Prison Architect.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile