Videogames have always had pretty wonky ideas about what people want. From games about children losing their prized timepieces to giant mutant blobs ‘blowing a sparky’, whatever the heck that is, the early days of gaming were whimsical and unusual. As the years passed much of this artistic pioneering spirit developed into something that, for the most part, made a little more sense. But still, once in a while, you find yourself spending your leisure time doing something you didn’t know you were interested in until you’re doing it. I wonder how many people had been waiting in earnest hope for a game where you play an octopus pretending to be a family man. Or, for that matter, architect of a prison.
But when that reassuring little Darwinian logo appears, it’s comforting. Introversion have made some wonderful, quirky games over the years, always with a kind of effortless understanding of what makes a game fun no matter how off-the-wall the concept might be. They’ve been riding the alpha-wagon pretty hard with Prison Architect - when the game is finally released it’ll be a wonder if there’s a soul left outside of the actual prison population who hasn’t already played it in some form or other. So far, the game’s developing into an interesting management-sim. Contrary to what the name might suggest you actually do plenty more than just laying shower-block foundations. It’s also up to you to hire staff and make sure that there is enough power to run the electric chair as well as the refrigerator in the kitchen. You need to make sure that there aren’t riots going on when little Jimmy comes in to visit his dad – or, at least, that if there are riots happening, you keep it out of sight.
The learning curve is smooth and expertly handled by the designers. I mean, most mistakes are apocalyptic enough to cause you to quit altogether and start again, but that never feels like a chore. First time out you’ve built a small, cramped holding cell and a gigantic kitchen before running out of money. Next time, your designs are much more tight and well-planned but you end up with far too many workmen, mostly just hanging around wasting your money. Next time you’re much more careful with your hiring and firing, but you forget to finish the outer fence before the inmates turn up and they all leg it. Finally, it all falls into place, and you have a nice cell block with TVs in every room, and suddenly the power blows out and you’ve not got enough money to add a new generator to your power grid. These are the challenges of building and administrating an effective prison.
Stellar graphics are not really Introversion’s style, and the simplistic, cartoony style detracts nothing from the gameplay. When actually planning out wall positions and the actual architectural stuff, there’s a nice kind of “blueprinty” style which overlays the main graphics. In an inspired move, game backers (notably not through Kickstarter but directly through the devs) have got their names and, for certain generous backers, a little bit of backstory into the game in the form of the swarms of inmates who come in and leave their grubby footprints all over your shiny new prison. This is smart because it doesn’t just help generate money, it also helps generate character. And, of course, for fifty dollars down, you can be safe in the knowledge that someone, somewhere is cursing your name to the heavens as your in-game representation beats up one of his guards and breaks out of his beloved jail.
Prison Architect is in alpha, but is available for purchase through Steam. There is still some development yet to be completed – the game currently just offers a short, intriguing tutorial level and a completely open prison construction level, and is notably lacking a campaign mode. But the Steam Workshop is already thriving, so there’s already plenty to look at. All being well, Prison Architect will finish being built and will be released later this year. We’ll watch with interest.