Prison Architect’s Alpha


I don’t normally review games until they’ve hit version 1.0, but I’ll make an exception for the Early Access game that’s been on the lips of many. Introversion Software’s Prison Architect takes a remarkably simple premise: you are responsible for building and managing a functional prison. That doesn’t sound so complicated, does it?

If you answered yes, you don’t know anything about the prison system. There’s a brief tutorial which, aside from a few unnecessarily long cut scenes to help remind you that everyone in your prison has a backstory, teach you how to build and run the basic utilities. What it doesn’t tell you is that your prison is not built with the goal of keeping and rehabilitating dangerous criminals. It is built to make money. You can finish your game of Prison Architect whenever you want, and you do so by selling the whole thing to a large company or an ambitious CEO.

The government pays you per prisoner, and pays a higher rate the more dangerous and skilled the prisoner you hold. The difference is important: an 18-year-old in for petty theft and vandalism couldn’t hurt a guard with a knife, but a 35-year-old veteran-turned-terrorist with twelve separate counts of murder will take down SWAT with his bare hands. From these mechanics we’re left with a basic income economy: take as many prisoners as you can possibly hold. But there’s more! The government (and private companies) can provide generous grants to help your prison meet their standards (or human experiments), and it quickly becomes apparent that safety, humane treatment, rehabilitation, and other cute ideas become entirely optional in the face of governmental support for simple checklist-based objectives.

Most of your prisoners should be fed, but really, who are they going to complain to? Their relatives? Not if you refuse to build phone booths and a visiting area! Instead, why not use those funds to build classrooms and workshops, where you educate your prisoners in the art of menial labor, and make them work sweatshop hours on gruel under the caring eye of men armed with military grade hardware?

Prison Architect has gotten some flak for being “irresponsible” and “trivializing” the issue of the prison industrial complex, but really, I couldn’t disagree more. Nothing makes one realize the incredible disenfranchisement and raw capitalistic tyranny of prison’s byzantine bureaucracy like running your own private prison. If I want to, I can authorize my guards to use lethal force and lock my prisoners alone in a room with no light or people for days. Then, when my prisoners rebel against me, I can make the death penalty legal policy in response to bad behavior. Meanwhile, the rest of them are spending their time in the workshop, manufacturing new, superior items that will go straight back into the self-sufficient fiefdom I have created. Of course, you could always give them roomy cells, three meals a day, and full rehabilitation suites, but then my prison would only be worth a few hundred grand. I can sell some CEO a kingdom for a few million instead.

Prison Architect is still in alpha, but its complex, addictive, and completely terrifying. I can’t wait to see what version 1.0 brings.

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