Why the game about prison management could be the most devastating title of 2013

We talk to the point of banality about moral quandaries in gaming: do I kill this or save that, hurt this or help it, steal this or replace it etc, and so on and so forth. These are the kind of safe questions that we can ask because ultimately we are playing with polygons and sprites in underwater planned socities and near-future Dubais and tropical islands indebted to Tarantino. Rare is the game that encodes the moral quandaries of the real world into its gameplay, but that’s just what Introversion have done with their upcoming prison management simulation, Prison Architect.

The tutorial for the game is genuinely unnerving. You learn the games rules by building a death house for an inmate who murdered his wife and her lover. You build the electric chair. You tile the floor. You add a window for the man to spend his last hours alive looking out of. And when the building is built, you lay the stones for a path from the cell block to the death house, light it.

It’s a game about controlling humans efficiently, and though made by a British developer, it is absolutely a game for this era of American mass incarceration, a game that might make gamers think less about the limited problems of their medium and more about the systemic problems of their world. We talked with Introversion lead designer Chris Delay about the making of Prison Architect.

Kill Screen: You’ve made games about hacking and nuclear war. How did you come to make a game about prisons?

We certainly like our dark themes at Introversion. I was working on a sort of Mission: Impossible style heist game called Subversion for several years, but the project was struggling. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t find a compelling core gameplay. I took a holiday in California with my wife to try to clear my head and solve this issue, and we went to visit Alcatraz prison. I found the place hugely inspiring, and I was fascinated by how all the systems of the building worked together (the guards, the regime, the pipes, the mechanics, the kitchen etc). In that moment I wanted to build Alcatraz, and I spend most of the flight back home writing down extensive notes on how a prison building game would work.  Those notes became the game.

I’m not overly familiar with the prison system in the UK, but the one in the US is overcrowded and highly violent. How did your personal beliefs about incarceration in your country influence the making of the game?

Yes, we are aware that prisons are very different around the world, although the UK has its fair share of overcrowded and violent prisons as well. We don’t want the game to be situated in any one country or in any one time – we’ve left that purposefully vague, and we are trying to write a story that deals with universal issues of incarceration.

Did your politics inform the making of the game at all?

We try very hard to keep our politics out of the game. We really don’t want to preach or say that we know the answers to these questions. The issue of prisons is so vast and complex that nobody knows the answers. With Prison Architect we are putting the player into the position where he has to make decisions about what kind of prison he wants to run, then he sees the results of those decisions play out in front of him. One of our big core aims is to make Prison Architect flexible enough to support any type of prison, all the way from a right wing super-max to a left wing paradise. Of course neither prison will work perfectly – i.e. you won’t ever really “win” at Prison Architect.

Did you do any real-life research on prisons? 

Yes we did, shortly after we released a trailer that had only white prisoners. We saw a flood of feedback from the Internet generally, pointing out that we’d totally failed to deal with the race issue. Of course they were right, we hadn’t even considered it at that point, and we only had a single sprite for prisoners which happened to be white. So at that point we realised we were in over our heads, and started looking for some knowledgable consultants. So far we’ve spoken to a serving prison officer and an ex-prisoner, and both have had some fascinating stories and insights to share with us. Of course both of them wish to remain totally anonymous.

Did you have any hesitation to “gamify” the experience of building and running a prison?

Not really, I personally think video games should be able to deal with really complex social issues, and even though prisons are uncomfortable they do exist, and we should be able to explore that. Certainly we are being careful not to gamify it too much though – we don’t want the game to say “If you build a library all your prisoners will get clever”, or anything stupid like that.  We are making a game without a clear victory condition, but a lot of people are really enjoying that. And prisons provide such a rich background and theme that has yet to be properly explored by games.

How did you decide on the look and feel of the game? 

We originally used some graphics from an old Amiga game called Alien Breed, and it looked a lot more futuristic. We knew we wanted it to be 2d and top-down, because that lends itself very well to drawing prisons and laying out rooms. You can “read” the game view very clearly at any time; nothing is hidden or obscured. Eventually we realised we needed proper art for our prisoners because it was never going to work keeping it totally abstract. So we looked around and hired a talented artist called Ryan Sumo who’d previously done the art for Spacechem. We really liked how clean and crisp his graphics were, and he was really excited to work on the project as well.  After a while we discovered that he can produce amazing comic book style polaroids as well as the game art, and the juxtaposition of the two together (the cartoony game graphics and the harder comic book images) works really well in conveying the emotion of the story.

What games influenced the making of Prison Architect? 

Dwarf Fortress is a massive influence because of the way they simulate the game world in incredible depth, and all of the stories of that game emerge naturally from that simulation. We want to make that possible in Prison Architect.

Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital are also big influences on this game. The Bullfrog management genre just sort of disappeared, before it had been fully explored, and now it’s been swamped by fairly crappy casual games on Facebook.  We think it’s time to bring this genre back.

When will the full version of the game come out?

We are never very good with time estimates, but we are hoping to continue developing the game throughout 2013 and release the finished version around September.