A Little Window of Light: How Mechanics Make Meaning in ‘Prison Architect’

Attempting to understand what really matters to the virtual people inside these giant, horrific, interconnected machines.
October 9, 2015, 10:25pm

The first thing I do upon entering a hotel room with Mark Morris and Chris Delay, the producer and the designer of Prison Architect respectively, is admit that I find their management-simulation game pretty daunting. When I look at it, I don't know where to start; the sheer number of interactive systems in it is as intimidating as it is impressive.

Mark replies to my concerns. "I'm quite similar to you actually. Just freeform gameplay where I can just build stuff, I'm not really that into it."

At this point, Stephanie Tinsley, who's working PR on PA, gives a good-natured laugh. "Great, Mark. Way to start off. Mark is like, 'Yeah, I don't really like our game.'"

But Mark is going somewhere with this, of course. "Which is why," he continues with a smile, "we did story mode, which is what I would play in Prison Architect."

As it turns out, Chris and Mark are in San Francisco to talk about the game's official launch, which includes story mode, something they hope will make the game far more approachable for players like me. Prison Architect was already a smash hit, selling over a million copies during its time in development via Steam Early Access and other outlets. Until now, however, it has been a game that more or less just dropped you right in, leaving you to figure out its numerous interlocking systems for yourself. Story mode could open Prison Architect up to a whole new wave of players, people who feel like they could use a bit of guidance coming to grips with things.

I wasn't only interested in story mode because it serves as a kind of tutorial, though. I was interested in what it, and the game as a whole, has to say about modern prison systems. "We really didn't want players to forget that they're making a prison," Delay told me. "We didn't want them to think that they were making a hotel, or a theme park. We want players to know that the fact that it's a prison game affects everything."

Delay explained how it was during a trip to Alcatraz in 2010 that it hit him: "We could do a game mechanically like Dungeon Keeper but thematically we could mine the idea of prisoners, and then dump all of that complexity and those political and ethical considerations on the player, and let them choose." Focusing on reform or on punishment, he tells me, are both viable strategies to building a successful prison, but they're extremes. A prison that's all about punishment will be a hellish place, but a prison that's all about reform, with classrooms and education programs but very little security in place, won't run as smoothly as the player might hope. "The first time a prisoner steals a screwdriver and stabs someone with it, players often respond to that in a very negative way," Delay says. It feels like a kind of betrayal. "I gave you all these chances! I'm trying to help and this is how you reward me!'"

He then shows me a vast, efficient prison, home to over 200 prisoners, and gives me a quick overview of just how far your control over the day-to-day functioning of the prison goes, and how everything you introduce to the prison's functioning carries with it new concerns you have to consider. For instance, you can let prisoners work in various facilities, which helps them learn trade skills and gives them better job prospects when they get out, but some prisoners might take advantage of the opportunity. If you assign prisoners to work in the kitchen, some might steal knives and forks they can use as weapons, and even spoons which they can use to dig tunnels and attempt an escape. Every positive that you might want to offer carries with it a potential negative. "It's all like a giant, horrific, interconnected machine," Delay says, "and it's the player's choice about what kind of machine you want to try to make."

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It was important to Delay that Prison Architect required players to consider the humanity of the inmates. A player may want to reform them through education programs, for instance, but if those prisoners have drug problems, or they haven't seen their family in ages because they've no visitation rights, or other basic needs they have aren't being met, they aren't going to get anything out of their time in the classroom. "I keep coming back to the analogy of Dungeon Keeper where you could build a training yard," Delay says, "and your soldiers would just get better. They would train and fight and they just got better and better and better. There's nothing like that in Prison Architect." And of course, you can choose to totally disregard your prisoners' needs. Delay shows me one horrifying prison a player has designed in which all the inmates are locked up in cells of the smallest legally admissible size, with all of their needs in the red. "They hate everything about their lives," he tells me. I don't blame them.

A few days later, when I sit down to play story mode, the way that Prison Architect's political meanings are baked right into its mechanics hits me hard. The first chapter of the campaign is, on one hand, a guided tutorial that introduces you to the most fundamental elements of prison building, and in this regard, it does a terrific job. After just a few minutes with it, I feel more comfortable with the idea of jumping into the sandbox and building my own prison. But the campaign's first chapter is also a story about a death row inmate that requires you to consider the value of a single, condemned human life.

The game walks you through building an execution chamber, with an electric chair and a holding cell. Throughout this process, a hardened police chief and a compassionate priest represent the two sides of the capital punishment debate, the chief arguing that a man who committed a double murder deserves no mercy and the priest saying that this is not justice and that all people deserve forgiveness. But their generic dialogue was not how Prison Architect really got me to think about the value of the condemned man's life. Rather, it was through the options afforded to me as a player.

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When building the holding cell, the game pointed out that I could, if I wanted to, put in a window and a bookshelf, to make the cell just a little bit more pleasant. I didn't have to do this, and, in fact, there would be no in-game reward for doing so, nor would it make any difference in the condemned man's fate. He was going to be executed no matter what. I don't support capital punishment. I wish I could have prevented the execution, but that was out of my hands. All I could do was give him a window.

Prisons can, by nature, be dehumanizing. An efficient prison is one in which inmates follow routines en masse, in which what you design works to suitably punish or rehabilitate as many of them as possible. You want the systems you put in place to run like clockwork, leaving you with relatively few hands-on responsibilities. But because Prison Architect's campaign begins by making me think about the value of one man's experiences in the final hours of his life, I can't forget that these are individuals, and that even if there's no tangible reward for it, it means something to me, as a player, to shine just a little more light on their lives.

Prison Architect is out now for PC and Mac

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