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Prison Architect Alpha: A Post-Dwarf Fortress Sim Game
In an interview with PC Gamer, Introversion Software developer Chris Delay stated that he ‘got heavily addicted to Dwarf Fortress,’ and that they have applied the same concepts to Prison Architect. It’s even mentioned that Prison Architect seems to have more to do with Bay 12’s legendary, complex game than typical ‘theme’ or ‘tycoon’ games.
Indeed, if you’re a fan of Dungeon Keeper, or Theme Hospital, or Rollercoaster Tycoon, or the notorious Dwarf Fortress, you will already have a basic understanding of what Introversion Software’s currently Alpha’ed title, Prison Architect, is all about.
It’s a game where you are a Prison Architect. You are hired to build a facility which will house all of a state’s inmates. You (try to) build one, and you subsequently enjoy all the chaos which comes with micromanaging inmates, their cells, their meals, other rooms, staff, electricity, security, solitary confinement, and of course, the controversial death sentence.
The first items on that list are definitely recurring in the genre. The player builds stuff, organises stuff, and tries to control the characters living in the world to keep the establishment going. Even stylistically and mechanically Prison Architect is familiar; the player views the game’s prison plot from an isometric viewpoint, and uses the mouse and a graphical interface to build stuff, knock stuff down, delegate stuff, and buy stuff (including staff). This follows on from classics like Dungeon Keeper, where the villainous player must fill an underground dungeon with traps and monsters to halt heroes, or Rollercoaster Tycoon where the player must entice thrillseekers into their park.
Prison Architect, however, takes a slightly more ‘hardcore’ approach to such resources. Prisoners are shipped in bunches of 8 on a daily basis. My first three prisons were wholly inept: in the third one I realised too late that I hadn’t actually built a wall around the place and while being led into the canteen for their meal every single prisoner made a break for it to freedom, leaving me with one prisoner alone in solitary confinement.
In my first two attempts, prisoners stood around lamely outside until a guard took them inside- then I ran out of money and had to give up. On the second or third day.
Financial management quickly and clearly becomes an issue in Prison Architect. Unlike in Dungeon Keeper, where you get money by mining, or Rollercoaster Tycoon, where the player starts with a set amount and can only gain it by placing tariffs on park entry or rides, making money in Prison Architect is a whole other ball game. Players only receive money at the end of the day- and it’s barely enough to keep things running (unless you enter a menu and request your daily grant to be ten times the amount. But that’s just cheating. And is hard to find.)
The main problem with the alpha at this stage is the lack of any kind of tutorial- I’d wager that every player has a bunch of save files featuring failed or half-baked prisons, each slightly better than the last in different respects. Thankfully, the purchase-access-only Wiki is generally helpful on these terms.
It all reminds me of that game again. The game in this article’s title- the game which either elicits stares of unfamiliarity or gushings of praise.
Dwarf Fortress is one of the most esoteric games ever made. It’s relatively unknown, it’s graphics are chaotic hashed symbols in ASCII, it uses a complex system of keyboard commands in place of mouse interaction, and it simulates everything that happens in its environment. Everything. It creates a world, it creates a history (which I find usually rivals the Lord of the Rings’ plot), it gives you some dwarves, and off you go. In your immediate environment will be water systems, ecological systems, animal systems, internal organ systems, emotional systems, history-building systems, physics systems. And it will probably send a horde of elephants in blood rage to kill you in your virgin foray. It will catalogue every dismemberment, gash, pierced liver, and severed eyeball as it does so.
So on the surface, there isn’t much similar between Dwarf Fortress and Prison Architect.
Graphically, if we look at Introversion Software’s history of game development, Prison Architect stands out like a beautiful thumb. Even in reference to their back catalogue it’s unusual: since Uplink, a classic and compelling hacker-sim, every one of their titles has had a wireframe, blue-and black, cool computer interface style, which fit with the too-cool-for-school vibe their real-time strategy games provided.
Prison Architect features the most functional graphics I’ve seen in an Introversion game, positively opposite to Dwarf Fortress. The alpha features a cartoony aesthetic, real-time shadows swing around the buildings as each day goes by, and bobbing-topped characters float around benevolently.
Where is the similarity with Dwarf Fortress, you ask?
The lack of control.
Games like Rollercoaster Tycoon or SimCity have always been about a tight friction between what the player does and what the gameworld does. Obviously, if you look closely enough, this is what all games are about, but we’re talking about a macro-level interaction here. The devil is in the details of simulation and interaction. You misplace one attraction or service, and you’ll immediately see repercussions throughout your sim world.
However, in Dwarf Fortress, the unexpected is usually where the fun comes from.
A goblin walks into a trap which simultaneously one of your dwarves is standing next to, and both are gibbed horrifically. One of your dwarves’ wives dies, he loses his mind, and being the best warrior in your fortress, he ends up killing everyone in the place whilst on a mad rampage of despair.
It’s moments like this which Prison Architect’s wacky and slightly unstable simulation has in common with the legendary game. Dungeon Keeper’s characters are on a relatively tight reign, and standard simulation-games like SimCity or Theme Hospital feature automaton-like NPC’s who simply do assigned tasks.
But like Dwarf Fortress, Prison Architect’s prisoners are well out of your control.
In parallel with the events mentioned above, in Prison Architect you may have a prisoner’s family visit at the precise second another prisoner decides to lose his s**t and try to escape. The guards barely rush in in time, you half-cover your eyes for several seconds, and ultimately are left with a room littered with amicable, normal-folk dead bodies.
Or you run out of money for another expensive extension, and are forced to build a shower in the mass cell which you’ve prepared for your first wave of inmates- forgetting to insert a drain. Water floods the room, leading all of the prisoners, again, to lose their s**t.
Prison Architect seems to have the makings of a masterful sim game. It’s incredibly rough around the edges, and in a couple of ways, rough to its core. Things like the money system need to be fixed urgently- currently people seem to get the most fun out of the game by increasing funds to near-infinite and constructing the most wacky prisons possible. But in a world after Dwarf Fortress, where developers can see that taking control away from the players may lead to a fruitful gaming experience just as much as giving players utter control and ease, Prison Architect may provide a pitch-perfect middle ground between the super-hardcore classic Dwarf Fortress, and the more common management sim seen in the genre.