Disclaimer: The game’s still in alpha, so consider these impressions in alpha too. Both could change!
A game about being a Prison Architect is really fascinating to me, mostly because I’m a grad architect and prisons come up in arch theory as intriguing special cases: Prisons are one of the few building types where the whole point is to force your intentions on the users; to have them do as you want, not as they want; and they can’t choose not to use the building. (Similar to the more authoritarian approaches to education and office design, I guess).
From Piranesi’s Carceri to Rem Koolhaas’ ‘Exodus, or The Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture’, we’ve used imaginary prisons as a chance to explore what architecture might do to and for society if only we had divine levels of control, or a chance to use our knowledge for bad. Because in figuring out what makes some buildings ecstatic and beloved (the kind that people visit to restore their love of the world and faith in themselves), you inadvertently learn what doesn’t. By building up your mental list of ‘never-do’, you’re cataloguing how to create buildings that psychologically & physically torture people, that break their spirits, and render them helpless. Steps too tall, stalls too small, light too glaring, spaces forboding and unnerving. And architects like to explore these as morbid speculations much like the rest of us like horror films or ghost trains.
Gonna admit that I went into Prison Architect expecting a total misrepresentation of what I do, where someone just used the term architect because it’s in plan perspective and it’s about building. Instead it feels a lot like what I do day-to-day: Using CAD. You draw walls using wall-types, put labels, add entourage. It’s fun! It’s really satisfying using a simplified drawing system that seems to have some crowd-modelling abilities built-in. Builders respond instantly to your plans! If something isn’t working you’ll know really quickly if the prisoners are upset! Such readily available prototyping feels luxurious to those of us who have to rely on prior experience and hope.
I’m slightly ashamed I’ve been through maybe 30 restarts so far just trying to find a good starting layout. (There’s no sketch mode for planning what you’re about to build before you okay it. Maybe there will be one in later releases. Fingers crossed!) You’d think as a future architect I’d be good at this game but no. True, the rules for how to lay pipes, size rooms, and arrange furniture are different from the cached knowledge I have about how buildings are designed in the real world, but they’re fairly easy to pick up. What feels weird is constantly expanding and adapting spaces I’d just designed so tightly, so neatly and efficiently to the situation five minutes ago. I have the skills to mentally compute complex briefs and preplan large buildings, carefully consider how the building will be used, arrive at a single, final design over a period of weeks or years, before work even begins (well, mostly). Even in architecture jams you only solve one brief in 24 hours. But this game is a new adaptive-reuse problem every few minutes. It’s got me designing on instinct rather than laboured logic and I like it. (The fact that there are tons of things to consider and a too small budget to do everything necessary feels fairly realistic though.)
Seems fair to call it Prison Architect - a lot of an architect’s job is analysing what spaces are needed, where they go and what materials should be used and wall construction types. Still, that’s not all we do. (And we short-cut a lot of basic organisation by looking at similar buildings that work well and adapting.) We’re most concerned with the sum of the building - it’s overall impression or sense.
In Prison Architect, as far as I can tell, prisoners don’t care if the common room is right next to their cells or at the other side of the prison, behind three cage doors. But in a real prison, that’s exactly the kind of psychological difference one might consider.
Does the prison feel industrial, a great inhumane machine, grey? Where the shower stalls are too small and the beds are too thin, always forcing your body into its most clenched, uncomfortable state? Are the cells tall, with skylight windows, like pits; or are the ceilings low, too low?
Or are they like recent Norweigan and Austrian prisons, spare but calming, with well lit space and simple timber furniture and a little bit of colour and prisoner relapse rates of about half what the U.S.A has (25% vs 50%)?
Prison Architect addresses amenity and the effect it has on prisoners, but not through particularly architectural means. You can switch up the materials, but that’s as close as you’re getting to really changing the character of the space. Bookcases, phones, tvs all play a more important role than access to the right kinds of light and air and space and prospect. And that’s ok! But a game that really measured architecture would be crazily interesting to me, particularly since the creator would have to make up some kind of detailed metric to quantify and map it onto the behaviour of prisoners, and how the hell would you do that?*
Currently, prisoners don’t seem to have particular lengths of stay, they don’t reform or get parole or reoffend (or not), so the game has no way to imply the influence of architecture on a prisoner’s personality during or after incarceration. However, issues of reform vs punishment are central to the game’s opening tutorial, so I’m really interested to see how this game evolves through the Alpha and future Beta and final release, and whether it explores them further.
*But then, there’s a ton of things we didn’t used to be able to measure (even lengths and stuff! We didn’t always have a counting system), so I’m not like some architects that suggest our art is beyond a scientific understanding. But I reckon there’s some extreme amount of variables and it’ll be a very, very complex.