A morbid introduction involving a death row inmate’s crime followed by a discussion on the ethics of capital punishment was not what I expected when I first started Prison Architect. On the surface, it appears to be a typical goofy simulation game with cartoony characters and simplistic art style. Yet beneath its lighthearted exterior are ambitious gameplay elements and an interesting form of storytelling.
Upon attempting to start a new game, you will be redirected to Prison Stories mode, which functions as the game’s tutorial. Unlike the typical tutorial in simulation games, this is not simply a checklist of tasks to familiarize the player with the game’s mechanics. Instead, it presents something of a guided story mode with an interconnected set of events. It’s brilliant, because it encourages the player to learn more about the game while also participating in a narrative. The inclusion of photo-like snapshots to highlight the more morbid scenes in the game give some of the crimes an unsettling touch, which really works to involve the player in the story.
Prison Architect appears to have slipped in commentary on the American prison system, which is a mostly unexplored concept in games. Regardless of the player’s stance on the issue, the game presents an intriguing plot I was eager to delve into. Regrettably, the sound design really doesn’t compliment the story mode or even the general gameplay. Most notably, the sound mixing is atrocious, particularly whenever a fire starts. Given that the second tutorial level begins with a fire in the prison, I’m baffled that no one noticed how deafening it is.
Simulation games are no strangers to micromanaging, but I was still impressed by Prison Architect’s commitment to it. Calling the game an appeal to details-oriented people is quite an understatement. Want to know every individual prisoner’s backstory? Complete with family information, criminal history, their estimated chances of repeat offenses, and a pie chart detailing how much time they spend on various activities per day? Would you like to establish individualized punishments with defined locations and time frames for every infraction, from complaining to killing an inmate or guard? For those of us that don’t derive great enjoyment from doing our taxes, of course not. Luckily, there are many management options that are not prerequisites for success, but simply serve to make the player more involved should they choose to be so.
The standard game mode where the player creates a prison from scratch has a number of welcome additions. The player can adjust the amount of money they have available, the size of the prison, randomly generated objects, and can even turn off failure conditions so they can play however long they’d like. In addition, there is a variety of available wardens with different strengths. Unfortunately, many of them are geared towards the general area of reducing aggression in prisoners, with only a handful having unique benefits they bring to the table. This element feels like wasted potential, but the other options provide a decent amount of customization.
For all the praise I will give to the story-driven tutorial, the in-game notifications are seriously lacking when it comes to the more finicky details. For example, the first prison I built had a hole in one of the outer walls that I didn’t notice. Naturally, the game doesn’t want to let prisoners out of their cells when there’s such an obvious escape route, but the game didn’t tell me this. Instead, I was notified that no prisoners were assigned to the canteen, and therefore could not eat. I checked the logistics tab and confirmed that all of my prisoners were assigned to the canteen that I had built. Not only did the game not notify me of the real problem with my prison design, but it fabricated a false problem which drew my attention away. Prison Architect trusts the player to micromanage extensively, and those seeking to indulge in its detailed mechanics will need patience and awareness. The tutorial is insufficient to explain the game’s mechanics when building a prison from scratch, resulting in a frequent trial-and-error process. There are also issues with people getting stuck in geometry and being unable to move, particularly as the prison becomes larger and must accommodate more people. By-and-large, however, this is a relatively rare and non-serious issue.
While the lack of direction and minor hiccups are forgivable in the grand scheme of things, I stress the impressive depth of Prison Architect’s options because it leads into the primary reason this game fails. All of the attention to detail, the investment of time and satisfaction of progression can become worthless at a moment’s notice due to Prison Architect’s technical problems. The game devolves into a buggy mess when given enough time – and occasionally occurs almost immediately – with some of them being absolute game-ending problems. One consistent issue I found involved the workers, where they would occasional stop working, gather into one room and stand around uselessly. Perhaps the developers are also providing a commentary on poor work ethic, but the most likely scenario is that this is simply a bug. This happened so often even in pre-made prisons that I decided to try a number of different methods to fix it. Simply restarting the game and reloading didn’t work and the only success I found came from more obtuse methods. If there was one process that I could call consistent, it is fast-forwarding time while doing nothing else. After several in-game days, the workers would generally continue doing their jobs. The unfortunate problem is that while this is something of a solution, it requires a significant amount of time in a game that can’t be wasted doing nothing.
Prison Architect walks into the room proud of its narrative tutorial and ambitious gameplay depth, but immediately trips over itself and lands face-first onto your new glass table. The game is intriguing and offers a unique experience; however, none of its well-executed ideas are worth anything if the game simply doesn’t function properly. At its core, Prison Architect’s appeal comes from long-term success through micromanaging every detail of your prison. When technical issues arise in the form of game-breaking bugs, the experience is thoroughly ruined. Simply put, this is unacceptable in a full release. Prison Architect succeeds in concept, but I cannot in good conscience recommend a game in which I spent as much time bug-testing as I did actually playing it.