Part uhhh of a recurring (?) series of words about games I bought on Steam when they were on sale. Today: Prison Architect, available in pre-release Alpha version for half-price at the time I picked it up.
Games! You like games, right! Well, how about architecture? Who doesn't like making buildings! And prisons, you like prisons? Um. Games!
Prison Architect is the latest project by floating-brain-in-a-jar games developers Introversion Software, who previously made one of my all-time favourite games: DEFCON, the lo-fi, high stakes game of nuking your friends into oblivion and back. DEFCON was a game of bluffing, planning, and hair-trigger timing, aiming to get your precious missiles launched into your opponents' soft underbellies before they could repeat the trick on your delicate civilian populations. DEFCON put you in charge of one continent in an escalating global nuclear confrontation. At each of the game's five DEFCON stages, more of the game's choices were revealed: at the lowest level, players place their installations and fleets. In the second, radars get turned on and players can start eyeing each other warily. In the third stage, conventional weapons - fighters, bombers and fleets - are unlocked and the jockeying for position began. Four is the calm before the plunge - and what a plunge. At DEFCON five, all hell is unleashed as the nuclear weapons are unlocked. From there, only one objective remained: do as much damage as possible while protecting your own populations. Points are scored per million of population wiped out. It's... that kind of game. It was amazingly atmospheric; the action played out on a Dr. Strangelove war-room style map, each side represented by glowing cities and stylised military installations. Nuclear detonations appeared as bright blips on the map; the ensuing fallout spread over the continents with a poisonous green glow. Accompanying this was a beautifully evocative soundtrack of soft, ethereal music and the faint sounds of a tense command bunker - squeaking chairs, radio chatter, and coughing. It's as grim and pointed as games come, and it's superb fun to play with good friends.
So Prison Architect comes with a fine pedigree, which is probably the only reason I decided to take a punt (at a reduced price) on a game which is currently in a pre-release state. It's at least as pointed as DEFCON: the player must design and run a prison for a profit. The perfectly harrowing tutorial - which has the player constructing an execution chamber to carry out the punishment of a murderer whose crimes are recounting in lurid, heartbreaking - sets the tone of proceedings fairly clearly. Your charges, guards and sundry employees may appear as cheerful little blob-people, but a light-hearted romp this is not.
Gameplay consists of defining buildings, assigning workers, managing resources, and juggling the demands of your prisoners for things like security, privacy, clean clothes and something to do with the necessities of ensuring they're adequately punished (or rehabilitated) and, most importantly from your standpoint, ensuring as few of them escape, or overdose, or shiv one another in the showers, or riot, or...
It's a little hard to get to grips with. Buildings aren't exactly intuitive: you need to define a zone of foundations, add in entrances, and then start subdividing the interior into offices, cells, kitchens, what have you. You have to do this on a tight budget, and the game doesn't make entirely clear from the outset exactly how it is one gets ones hands on more money. It turns out that the player can apply for grants, which come with objectives for handy pointers to progress, and, of course, you make money from the prisoners themselves; the higher their risk level, the more reward.
So once you do get to grips with making sure you've got plenty of buildings, walls, guards and so on, and your first few jumpsuited charges are buzzing around from cells to showers to kitchens to the yard to back to their cells, the basic puzzle of the game is revealed. You need money to hold prisoners; you need prisoners to get money. You can rehabilitate them, but that takes a lot of cash. Otherwise, you can try and milk your inmates for all they're worth by having them churn out products for sale, or else to undercut your other employees and reduce your wage bill by putting them to work in the kitchens and cleaning cabinets - but to do so you'll need to train them, which costs money, so you'll need more prisoners (who need more cells and more facilities) or to make cuts elsewhere, so think hard. And then there's the unintended consequences of good deeds: you can run drug-rehabilitation programmes or put your inmates to work to cut their chance of reoffending, but you'll soon fund that some of them are taking the opportunity to steal supplies, sometimes with deadly consequences. You can try and put a stop to an absurd volume of illicit spoon-smuggling from the canteen, but guess what? Metal detectors, the electrical wiring to power them, and the workmen to install them, all cost money! Balancing all this is a pleasing challenge, at first; you feel trapped by your tight budget and, while you may well start out with the best intentions for your inmates, the need to always secure the necessary income forces you into more and more cynical decisions. I made my cells smaller so I could squeeze in more prisoners; I kept them suppressed and compliant by deploying armed guards and dogs. I researched tax-avoidance strategies using an accountant. And so on. It's a beautifully cynical game.
But. That word "game" is contentious, because, actually, there isn't much game here yet. After a while I worked out the systems enough to build a prison which, while not particularly aesthetically pleasing, ran like a pretty well-oiled machine. I'd researched everything there was to research. There were no problems. Everything just... worked. At that point, the game's dead. You can watch your charges mill around, day after day, but there's nothing to do except add in more and more inmates for more and more money and - at this point - there isn't enough to spend it on, or enough to go wrong to force your hand.
Maybe this will be fixed in the final release. I certainly hope that many of the bugs will be. At the moment there are some severe pathfinding problems which mean workers, prisoners, guards, or some comically unlikely pileup of all three can get lost or stuck. The queueing of tasks follows some whimsical formula incomprehensible to man or beast. The game is still a little ugly; the research screen especially is uninspiring, and many prisoners are lacking in art or coherent descriptions; furthermore, while the flavour text on their past offences feels like it should give them more personality and force you to care about them more, it doesn't. There's too many blob-convicts, too many names, and they're all milling around all the time, so it's hard to really develop any attachment. Their actions and proclivities don't seem to be based on their criminal background, either.
Prison Architect is, at the moment, a distracting toy with an absorbing financial balancing act at its core, but not enough to keep you playing. There isn't, as yet, a game. You can build prisons and share them to your heart's content, but, honestly, unless you really like that sort of thing - and if you do, what the fuck is wrong with you? - I'd give it a miss until it's got more of a direction.