Some people just don’t want to be helped. You can offer rehabilitation courses, provide canteens so sparkling clean you could eat your dinner off the floor, and stick a pool table in the rec room, but when your stock in trade is the care of felons, there’s still always some malcontent who’s willing to shank a man in the showers over a funny look. It’s a bleak life lesson, but it’s not the only one lurking like a landmine in this colourful and often charming sim-management game.
The campaign has a select few spikes of discomfit (you start by administering corporal punishment and progress to quelling riots with extreme prejudice), which underpin the drawn-out process of becoming institutionalised in the bevy of reporting and security tools at your disposal. It’s an intricate web of systems, sure, but even after five hours of thinly veiled tutorials, you’ll still need to lean on the wiki to understand the game’s idiosyncrasies. Partially that’s a result of depth; despite the title, procurement, administrator, bean counter, day planner, nutritionist, guard captain and rehab officer all fall under your remit. But there’s an inscrutability here that goes beyond the UI, places where brutalist systems logic stand proud over sense – drains do nothing under shower heads, for example, while prisoners, rather than seeing a free lunch, won’t leave their cells to eat in your canteen if there are no walls to hem them in on the trip. There’s a smattering of bugs too, the most common being that workers will ironically imprison themselves in building projects.
Learn its quirks, however, and Prison Architect’s sandbox permits a dizzying breadth of options for establishing for-profit penal facilities. If recidivism merely sounds like the chime of cash registers to you, then forget reform and clamp down hard with armoured guards, strict regimes and a shield of red-tape-spewing lawyers. If you’d rather turn your inmates to repaying their debt to you, if not society, then establish a workshop and start churning out number plates. The rehab angle is trickier, fiscally speaking (and your ambitions will grind to a halt when money runs low), though there are grants to support correctional paths.
Whatever policy you adopt, the god-like overview and focus on hard cash is insidiously dehumanising – your gaze is inexorably drawn to the bigger picture, the great milling ant farm of prison life, crashing focus only for the most troublesome cases. And that might just be Prison Architect’s long-game masterstroke, despite its flaws. Even as you schedule another hour of hard labour and experiment with inmate nutrition for a cheque, you’ll see a shivving, sigh, and tell yourself that some people just don’t want to be helped.
Initially, it’s disappointing to learn many rooms are most cost efficient as a squat block at their minimum size and object quota, but the ability to cash in a successful build means you can toy with less practical creations