By: Michael Dao
It is incredible in my eyes that some people still continue to debate whether or not games can possibly qualify as art. Revisiting the debate is absurd. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City currently has an exhibit of fourteen games, and will be expanding it to a total of forty titles in the future. Let us just say that certain games much like certain forms of other media, can and should be considered art, but oft times it is much more about what the player experiences rather than what the artist is trying to express. Many say that it is when we are outside of our comfort zones that we truly grow, and the medium of games is maturing to the point where talented designers are creating experiences for us that make us take long hard looks at the parts of ourselves that we are most uncomfortable with. Just recently, a title was rejected by the Apple App Store because it was a game where products were made with child labor, where the entire point of the game was to educate the player as to where some of the products that they purchase really came from. Even more recently saw the release of Bioshock Infinite, a title that unabashedly brings out America’s not so finer moments into the light of day.
Prison Architect is not a title guaranteed to entice window shoppers. It’s one of the first titles on Steam’s Early Access, a program that lets purchasers play the game while it is in an early alpha state and get to play titles as they evolve on their march to completion. Even though this title is only in a prototype alpha state, it plays better and with fewer issues than some of its contemporaries.
Introversion Software certainly pulls no punches as you play the game for the first time. The tutorial sequence shoves the player into the role of an assistant to a warden who has to prepare for the execution of a death row inmate. The player quite literally learns how to play the game by building an execution chamber, with an adjoining cell for this inmate. The inmate’s story is told through a number of animated panels that will easily remind the player of the adult nature of this game. The story is best left experienced, but suffice it to say that though it is light and not quite believable, it does question the American criminal justice system and the death penalty.
The game is actually a fantastic simulation game, that reinforces the fact that a good game need not have mindblowingly amazing graphics. All of the humans in the game look quite like the characters in any of Yahtzee Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation videos. The first task each prospective prison warden has is to construct buildings, and lay down power and water. A basic prison needs a kitchen for food, a canteen to serve the food in, a holding pen, some showers, and perhaps a yard where the incarcerated can get some exercise to stave off boredom. Prisoners get delivered, and the entire goal is to house the prisoners and keep them out of trouble, as the prison will then receive additional funds to expand. As a player designs and builds his or her prison, strong memories of laying down roads and zones in Sim City come to mind. Which may or may not be a coincidence.
As time passes and more money is accumulated, additional facilities can be constructed, such as individual cells, solitary confinement cells, common rooms stocked with pool tables and televisions for the inmates, and additional numbers and kinds of personnel can be hired for the prison too. Standard guards are replaced with riot guards, janitors can be hired to maintain the buildings, and doctors and infirmaries can be added to boot.
The great thing about the early access is how well everything works. The only things that were really missing from the core experience was some guidance on what to do in the mid to late stages of the game, and the fact that some features weren’t implemented yet. Hiring lawyers doesn’t do anything, and if someone dies in the prison, their body gets put in the morgue… permanently. So if a lot of people die, a pretty big morgue needs to be built. Aside from a few pathing problems, Prison Architect is a ton of fun, even where it is now. Introversion, who are responsible for Defcon and Darwinia, claim there are many more bugs in the game, but sadly, none were encountered.
Prison Architect will allow the player to run a shambles of a prison chock full of violence to see what hilarity will ensue, or the player can choose to manage a model facility akin to what are in nations like Norway. As it stands, it is a good amount of fun, and only more content will be added in the future. However, more than the fun that will be involved, is how the game will make the player consider what their opinions on prison and the criminal justice system.
Prison Architect will be on PC, Mac and eventually Linux, but early access is currently available on Steam.