After six years of on-and-off development, Introversion's bank-cracking sort-of-a-heist game Subversion has been cancelled. “I was on holiday in San Francisco, and I'd been thinking quite a lot about Subversion and what was going wrong with it,” explains Chris Delay, the designer behind Uplink, Darwinia and DEFCON. “Three things then happened: we took a tour around Alcatraz, which was such an atmospheric place to visit. I then made a connection to a prison mission in Subversion.” Players were going to be breaking out one of their team from a fully simulated jail. “I imagined turning that on its head – let the player build the prison and setup the security. In other words, I wanted to build Alcatraz, not escape from it.”
By the time he got back on to the mainland, Chris had the core of the game in his head. “Then the third thing is that I was thinking quite a lot about this new idea in the taxi home from the airport, and the driver turned out to be an ex-prison guard. I spent about two hours taking notes from this guy about all the things he'd seen over the years.”
It didn't take long to convince Introversion's two other founders that it was time to leave Subversion behind, and what their next project should be. “We agreed to do a six week 'first playable' of Prison Architect, and by the end of that period we already had more of a game than Subversion had ever been.”
The opening mission begins with the player taking control of an already functioning prison. It's probably the darkest tutorial I've ever played: you learn the basics of the game by building an execution chamber, laying down the water pipes for the cell's toilet and connecting the electric chair to the power grid.
The prison teems with life while you build: guards patrol the corridors, workmen complete the tasks you set for them, and prisoners monotonously wander from the cafeteria, to the yard for exercise, and back to their cells at night.
The mission is brief, but you can guess the problems you'll be facing in future missions and in the free build mode. As you watch your population, you'll spot prisoners hiding poison and forks in their pockets, ready for riots and break-outs.
While you build, the man you're going to kill is waiting, kneeling in his cell with a priest. When you're ready for him, you get to see what he did to end up here. The cutscene plays using a mixture of those same cute top-down graphics and grim, comic-style drawings. “It's not our place to decide if he deserves this,” says your boss. “We're just here to do a job.”
If Introversion can bring their dark sensibilities to bear on an old-fashioned management game, it's a job I'm looking forward to.