This preview originally appeared in issue 241 of PC Gamer UK.
It's a very particular kind of brain that looks at the infinite possibilities of virtual worlds and thinks, “I know, let's build a prison.”
In this case, it's the same brain that once thought “let's save a digital lifeform from a virus,” (Darwinia, 2005) and “let's start a global thermonuclear war” (DEFCON, 2006). It might sound more mundane than Chris Delay's previous ideas, but Prison Architect is every bit as nuts.
You do design a prison, deciding where to build the cell blocks and how the inmates get to the canteen, but that's only the start of your job. You have to plan and build the big house to an almost absurd level of detail: where do the toilets get their water? OK, well how are the pipes laid out? Where does the pump go? Fine, but that's going to need power – where's your generator? And how do the cables get from there to every light in the prison complex?
Your answer to all those questions is to click various menu bars and drag objects and materials into your prison. But placing them like this is just an order: nothing appears right away. Instead, the raw materials are delivered to your loading area by truck, the individual workmen you've hired pick each thing up and carry it to where it's needed, then set about building it on the spot, with tools that can be nabbed by cunning prisoners if they're not careful. So if you're building a new wing, you might find the workers can't get there – or that they've bricked themselves in when they're done. It's easily fixed, but it gives you an idea of the level of simulation.
When the prisoners arrive, it gets really complicated. Each one needs a cell with a toilet and a bed, and they follow a customisable 24-hour schedule of eating, sleeping, exercising, showering and sitting alone in their rooms thinking about what they've done. In theory. In practice, every prisoner can get homesick, dirty, uncomfortable and bored, and their preferred way of dealing with it is to stab someone in the eye with a fork.
They have an uncanny knack for lifting screwdrivers and cutlery from around the jail, and starting fights with the guards and fellow prisoners almost everywhere they go. Blood splatters your crumbling walls, and even if the guards manage to subdue the rowdy party before anyone dies, you'll need an infirmary to heal everyone.
Right now, all this complexity leads to a lot of confusion: the interface isn't complete, so it's often tough to work out why an inmate or guard isn't doing what you'd like him to. And since it's management rather than strategy, you can't order them around individually. But the construction elements are more robust, and it's already satisfying to build this horrible place and wire it up to work. If the human element shapes up, it'll be like someone arrested Dwarf Fortress.