I'd Rather Be Playing Prison Architect, a Most Uncomfortable Game

The most interesting decision a video game has given me the opportunity to make this year involved the interior decoration of a prison. The choice, which I was presented just yesterday: Did I want to put a window in the cell of a man on death row? Or save the money? Either way, he was going to die the next day.

I was playing a game called Prison Architect, a game that, in a world without trademarks, would be called SimPrison.

Using my computer mouse, I had just built an execution chamber. The death room was a new addition to a sprawling, virtual prison animating across my computer screen.

I had plopped an electric chair in the execution chamber. I'd tested the power supply to ensure that the using the chair wouldn't black out the rest of the prison. The chair worked fine. The lights in the prison would stay on.

I had built a small cell just outside of the execution chamber. The man on death row was going to spend the last day of his life there. So would other men when their time came. I put a toilet in there, too. I checked the plumbing. The toilet flushed.

All that I had done up to that big decision moment about the window had been required by the game. I was simply playing Prison Architect's tutorial, which was merely—right?—teaching me how to build parts of a prison. As with any other video game tutorial, I'd see a prompt, note a task, do the chore, check the box.

Building a window was an optional part of the tutorial. It would cost $200 in fake video game money. I could easily afford it. I had thousands.

I paused.

I thought about it.

It's not a real prison. This isn't a real guy. It doesn't matter what I do. It's just a window.

But who am I?

Am I the kind of person who thinks prisoners shouldn't have windows in their cells? Wait. Is that a kind of person? Is a person who doesn't put a window in the cell of a guy who is about to be executed a, what, bleeding-heart liberal? An optimist? A fool? A human being? A wimp?

I'm the kind of gamer who likes doing sidequests and checking off unchecked boxes. So I built the window. The gamer part of me had decided that decision. I'd sidestepped my way out of a cloud of moral confusion.

My death row inmate, a man who had murdered his wife and the man with whom she cheated before turning himself in, would see the sunrise through a pane of glass. Then he'd fry.

This is the kind of game I want to play, I realized. I'm in the mood for a game without easy answers. I'm ready once again for a game that feels grown up.

***

Early last month, I spent several hours playing SimCity, a game that lets you build and manage a city much the way Prison Architect lets you build and manage a prison. The game didn't work very well at launch, but when I could get it to play, I had fun. I had fun zoning residential districts and connecting them, with grand avenues, to shopping districts. I had fun building a school system and fun starting a new city that would be centered atop an aggressively-mined deposit of coal.

Nothing about SimCity seems fun when you simply read about what SimCity is.

You have to play it.

Then, once you do, you recognize it for the chemistry set that it is. You pour in a little more industrial zoning and see what happens. Fires flare. You add fire stations. City income drops, you raise taxes. That doesn't work, you lower them and build some parks. Wealthier people move in, tax incomes increase, but then suddenly those schools just aren't good enough.

SimCity is a god game. You're theoretically a mayor, but you may as well be a deity. And if you know your deities, you know that you have some license in this kind of role-playing. You know you have some moral cover to be capricious. You know that you can toy with the people or not care about them, because that's what we've all at some point assumed that politicians and even our gods have done.

Who hesitates when they play SimCity? Who feels conflicted or feels doubt? Not I.

SimCity has disasters. Click a button. Send a tornado whipping down an avenue. See what happens. Cackle.

There is supposed to be moral gravity in this new SimCity. The game is perpetually connected to other players whose cities will be covered in your smog or who will depend on you for water or electricity to compensate from the choices they've made. There is interdependence, the reliance of me on you and you on me along with the implied threat that you or I could mess each other up.

But what if you depended on no one? What if you weren't a mayor who had to, at worst, pretend to answer to his people? What if you weren't a god who set the rules?

What if this was your city?

I'd Rather Be Playing Prison Architect, a Most Uncomfortable Game

And what if your prison, as the prisons in Prison Architect do, might contain an innocent man? Hell, what if none of the prisoners was innocent, but were men nonetheless? What kind of zoning should these guys get? What sort of tornadoes should be sent down their boulevards?

And—simple, simple question—should they get windows in their cells?

If you give them windows, why would you do it? Because you're a better person? Or because it might diminish the chance of a riot? Both?

***

I've just started Prison Architect. It's in alpha, which means that features are still being added or changed. It's been in alpha for several months, accessible only to the game's developers at the ever-interesting independent British studio Introversion as well as select gamers and members of the press. Late last month, alpha access was extended to Steam users, too. You could be playing Prison Architect now. You just have to pay $30.

The game runs well. As god games and building games go, Prison Architect is a cinch to control. It's already quite easy to lay foundations, draw walls, mark a room off as an office or a kitchen or a chamber for solitary confinement. I haven't figured out doors yet, and I can tell that doors in Prison Architect—who can go through which kind of doors? where should I have a jail door and where can I place a staff door?—are going to be the equivalent of SimCity's roads or SimTower's elevators.

I only understand small parts of the game now. My prison is tiny, and I can't seem to keep many prisoners around. They fight a lot. I think they die a lot. Or just run away. Here's all I had locked up at the end of a recent in-game evening, while I was waiting for eight more prisoners to arrive:

I'd Rather Be Playing Prison Architect, a Most Uncomfortable Game

And here's who I had working for me.

I'd Rather Be Playing Prison Architect, a Most Uncomfortable Game

My prison also has a lot of guards, you see. A pair of them are injured, too. We have a couple of cooks in my prison and a couple of doctors. One janitor cleans the bloodstains, the canteen and the slime in the showers.

We have a prison psychiatrist on duty. She helps me see the mental states of my prisoners, though, from what the developers have written, I'll never know the truth behind some of these guys.

As in life, prisoners are sometimes mis-classified and we thought it would be cool to have some doubt about whether a prisoner really is as dangerous as he first seems, or perhaps worse: actually has been housed within the general population, but is a grade A bat-shit lunatic. To achieve this we have implemented an internal "traits" system of which you have no visibility. These traits determine if a prisoner is violent, or murderous, or destructive, or all of the above and more. They determine how the prisoner behaves when he is angry or when a fight breaks out nearby. This system is totally internal and you never get to access it, so the only way to really see whether you have a pussy-cat or a Bane is to watch how they behave.

I'm pouring money into this prison. I'm trying to figure out how to address the inmate's needs. I haven't even attempted to tinker with their daily routine.

There's a lot more I need to figure out.

I'd Rather Be Playing Prison Architect, a Most Uncomfortable Game

Prison Architect is fascinating. Maybe my reactions will dull, but, for the moment, every choice I make feels relevant and freighted. Each choice doesn't quite feel like a morality test, but each does feel like it matters more than the average choice in SimCity. It's not because I'm so much more certain that every choice in this game is being fed back into a simulation but because each choice in Prison Architect feels like it has something to with a life. To treat my prisoners like standard video game cannon fodder would feel like a conscious choice. To have mercy on them, to make their lives better or tolerable, feels like a statement.

SimCity was a chemistry set that I played. This game feels like a chemistry set playing me. It makes me uncomfortable. It challenges me. I like that. You play this game and you feel its teeth. And you realize how little bite so many other games have.

Prison Architect is, not so simply a game about running a prison. Fittingly, it's no escape. It's something better, something smarter and tougher and, frankly, more adult. I'm going to keep playing and am looking very much forward to the game's official release.

If you'd like to see Prison Architect in action, check out the latest video from the developers, though they're having such a rollicking good time describing their update, it might spoil the mood!