I actually think it works pretty well, giving some sort of framework for players to work through before they’re turned loose. The story takes cues from Hollywood, featuring lurid crimes of passion and mafia dons and riots and stabbings in the shower and the crazy tough-on-crime mayor who maybe doesn’t have the purest of intentions. It’s a bit predictable (read: overwrought) but it’s entertaining enough to keep you going until you feel comfortable with all Prison Architect’s systems.
And to be honest, it’s more than I expected from Prison Architect. The team’s been pretty clear they’re trying to stay somewhat apolitical with the game, but much of what I saw in the campaign comes down pretty heavily on the “We need prison reform” side of the argument. State-sponsored corruption, profiteering, dehumanization of prisoners—there are some surprisingly heavy topics dealt with here, albeit in cartoon form.
Which is not to say that Prison Architect’s only merit lies in the in-your-face moralizing of the campaign. Far from it. There’s been some hand-wringing around Prison Architect, similar to Battlefield Hardline—talk that it trivializes prisons by reducing the system to a game, et cetera. On the contrary, I think Prison Architect does a pretty good job exploiting what games do best: teaching through doing.
Put aside the campaign, and Sandbox mode still provides a fascinating look into a life totally alien to many people. Prison Architect demonstrates how and why our prison system fails inmates, and it does so by reducing everything to a single number: Money.
Prison bankrupt? Bring in new prisoners. Can’t house them properly? Stick them in a holding cell. Collect money from the state for their existence. Bring in more prisoners. Do the same. Force your prisoners to work. Sell their work and turn it into profit. Scale back on optional programs—drug treatment plans, substance counseling, entertainment options.
We’re all principled until those principles are tested, and in Prison Architect they’re tested all-too-often. It’s easy to, in the process of playing and optimizing your prison, suddenly realize you’ve abandoned your core values.
And sure, it’s couched in adorable sprites and Sims-esque building tools, but the reality of the American penal system isn’t far off. Prison Architect is valuable (especially in Sandbox mode) because it says a lot about modern prison systems without long speeches, without awkward moralizing. Instead, it forces you to make tough calls and learn from them.
The question is whether you’ll apply what you learn. My main complaint about Prison Architect is that there’s more breadth here than depth. For instance, if your prisoners are bored you don’t have many options with which to entertain them: TV, radio, pool table, books, weights. And while my extremely-limited knowledge of prison life says “Yeah, that sounds about right,” the resulting game sometimes feels like it railroads you into a single solution for each problem. Your first prison’s fun to lay out and construct. Your second prison slightly less so. Your third prison rote. And so on.
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