Build your own prison-industrial complex with Prison Architect

Prison Architect is a management game of sorts, akin to Dungeon Keeper or Dwarf Fortress. Your primary task is to design habitats for your “citizens”—living quarters, kitchens and cafeterias, showers, and so on. Of course, these are prisoners, in a prison, so caveats abound. Your charges will stop at nothing to escape their fetters, which means erecting lots of fencing, designing cell blocks that’ll keep hardened criminals and prison staff separate, and hiring plenty of guards to keep the peace. You’ll be responsible for keeping them fed, entertained, clean, and sane. Or toss morality out the window and force them to slave away in workshops for your profit, sending in the riot guards if they get unruly.

The game is the brainchild of Introversion Software, creators of Uplink, Darwinia, Multiwinia, and DEFCON—all excellent games if you’ve yet to check them out. It’s been in development for quite some time now and while it’s still in an alpha state, it just hit its 11th update milestone and is shaping up rather nicely.

Making decisions about prison management is harder than it sounds when you're doing things like planning optimal routes to gas chambers.

Every prison has a schedule you can customize: there are set times for meals, for showers, getting out into the prison yard for a bit of fresh air and exercise, and set times to sleep. Here’s where design issues come in: prisoners generally need to be shepherded about your complex, so travel time is key. If a guard hiking from one end of your labyrinth to another takes too long to open a door, your prisoners will lose out on a precious meal—or recreation time. As more prisoners go unfed or unentertained, you’ll eventually have a riot on your hands. You could always hire more guards (which eats into your operating budget), but you’ll be better off design tight, compact prisons to pack as many souls in as efficiently as possible.

And that, right there, is what gets me. The game makes no effort to preach about the evils of the prison-industrial complex or what have you. But within minutes I find myself treating these (virtual) people as mere cogs in my machine. You’re granted a bit of income for every prisoner you house, which all but encourages overcrowding, jamming as many cells into your prison as possible and to hell with the details. The game is ostensibly about rehabilitation, and you can hire a psychologist to survey prisoner needs and improve their standard of living. But a more cost-effective approach could be to send your erstwhile peons off to crank out license plates for a few hours, and use those funds to expand, hire more staff, and beef up your facilities to keep your ever larger prison-industrial complex in some semblance of order.

Yikes.

Prison Architect is still being developed, and it's got plenty of bugs and shoddy design elements.

Being an alpha, there are plenty of details that have yet to be fully fleshed out. The user interface is still a bit rough around the edges, there are no real penalties in place for things like dead prisoners or escapees, and some functions—like teams of lawyers or the execution chamber—don’t actually do anything yet.

That said, it’s well worth your perusal. It’s a real shame there’s no demo as the $30 asking price from Introversion’s website may seem a bit steep, but it’s also available on Steam and does go on sale from time to time. The game is available for Windows, OSX, and Linux PCs, and while there’s no word on when it’ll be feature complete, updates have been coming along rather regularly—check it out.

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