Introversion Software is a development team with a knack for utilising dark subject matter to create engaging game experiences. In Darwinia we saved artificially intelligent polygons from a computer virus and more recently we committed genocide on a global scale through thermo-nuclear war simulator DEFCON. Their latest effort, Prison Architect, promises to be another intriguing blend of dark themes and entertaining gameplay.
A top down management game, Prison Architect gives players the opportunity to construct and maintain a prison. Players juggle building facilities with managing staff, prisoners and finances. As the prison expands so does the number of staff and buildings needed. It's an interesting take on a popular genre. We've built theme parks, railroads, farms and cities in similar games, but never with such controversial themes involved.
There's a couple of different ways to play, campaign mode and free mode. The campaign is like an increasingly difficult tutorial. Framed by intermittent story sections, it introduces the games mechanics and objectives in an easy to follow way. As things stand there's only one chapter in the campaign but Introversion are promising more levels with increasing complexity by the time the full release comes around.
Free mode is probably where players will end up spending the most time. Building a prison from scratch requires a delicate balancing act. It's important to consider how much everything costs and what the most effective strategies for development are. Get too ambitious too soon and the bank balance rapidly dwindles to nothing, cut too many corners and prisoners will rebel or escape. Operating costs such as staff salaries must be factored in and it's important to hold something back for inevitable emergencies.
Even if finances are kept under control, stopping prisoners from acting out is never easy. Inmates are a demanding lot, the more provided for them, the more they want. They get homesick, dirty, uncomfortable and bored. Refuse them their demands and they get increasingly angry, eventually erupting in a rage that causes them to start fights, vandalise objects or even kill each other.
It takes a hell of a lot to keep prisoners from knifing each other in the lunch queue. I built a maze of fences to keep my prisoners secure. It did a good job of keeping them out of trouble, but caused no end of problems for my staff. When a power cut hit all manner of carnage broke out and prisoners started attacking my workers in an attempt to steal their tools. With the workers fenced in and guards having so many doors to navigate, by the time they got to the incident I had 20 inmates awaiting solitary confinement, five dead bodies and doctors that were too afraid to treat the wounded.
Whatever goes wrong, and a lot will, there's never a game over screen. The prison isn't supposed to work perfectly- that's the challenge. Players decide on the morality of their institution and try to adhere to their own standards. It could be a super prison where order reigns and prisoners are rehabilitated to the highest standards or a hellhole where prisoners are lucky if they survive until the end of their sentence. There's no right answer and Introversion never tries to convince anyone otherwise.
The cartoon-like visuals are simplistic, but there's a lot of charm to found in them. Prisoners are little more than a head and torso but animations reveal distinct personalities amongst them. The in-game design is complemented by strangely affecting comic book panels that deliver story. The music and sounds share a similar style, simple but affecting. The art style, moody musical score and difficult subject matter create a distinctive atmosphere. For example, despite the whimsical presentation, the first time a prisoner is condemned to death is a poignant and evocative experience.
Prison Architect has been in alpha testing for some time now and Introversion has been updating the game based on player feedback. Updates so far include a categorisation system to help identify high-risk prisoners from low-risk ones, improved controls, more services at your disposal and numerous bug fixes.
The game is showing a lot of promise. Anybody who enjoys management sims will probably find something that appeals. With improvements and innovations on-going, Introversion are reluctant to give an exact release date but with more than $1,000,000 already taken in pre-orders, when it is released, Prison Architect is set break out from the indie scene with a bang.