Feature: While dealing with an inmate waiting on death row, we quiz producer, Mark Morris, on Introversion’s ambitious managerial lock-em-up, PRISON ARCHITECT.
Who is truly guilty: the man who manufactures the gun or the man who pulls the trigger? Where does the ultimate responsibility lie? Most would say it’s with the wielder of the weapon, and you’d find it difficult to argue otherwise with me, but it’s still a question that’s permeated the judicial system for some time – alongside what the punishment should be for such an act.
Is killing ever justifiable? Even way back in the relatively early days of Hollywood cinema, Anatomy of a Murder was asking whether someone temporarily insane – or under the effects of an irresistible impulse – could commit a crime without ever realising the severity of their actions. The film world decided they could be, but what have games got to say about it? I ask Prison Architect producer, Mark Morris.
“When we first started [Prison Architect], it became apparent quite quickly that the top-down, cutesy, kind of cartoon graphics that we used, which you need to use in order for it to work (you know, you need to have giant knives as big as the guy’s head to see that he’s got something), doesn’t work well to convey any kind of sense of story.”
Perhaps Prison Architect isn’t the place to offer that commentary, then.
“We also learnt fairly quickly, that every piece of culture – like book or film – about prisons, it’s the story of the prisoners that’s actually important. The setting is cool and interesting, but it’s what goes on within that setting that you’re watching.”
Or maybe it is, then, when you consider some of the inspirations behind this managerial sim and their ability to generate stories from nothingness.
“Your prisoners are rebelling!”
“Chris [Delay, Prison Architect lead designer], just loves that whole deep, deep, complex simulation and then a world which just emerges from that simulation. Subversion [Introversion’s previous game which was shelved to focus on Prison Architect] was very much Dwarf Fortress-inspired, as is Prison Architect.
“So, rather than creating a game as such, you create a set of rules in which an environment emerges and then you tinker with those rules – you allow the player to tinker with those rules – and that’s where the play comes from.”
Enter Edward, a man living out his final hours after being found guilty of the double murder of his wife and her lover. It was a pre-meditated act: he knew she was having an affair and thought he’d surprise the surreptitious couple one night with a revolver and two bullets to the brain in a fit of rage.
Enter You, the prison architect. Edward’s biding his time with the prison’s priest seeking reconciliation, while waiting for you to finish building an execution chamber where he’ll be zapped off this mortal coil. The task at hand, then, is to complete it.
The building process is a series of familiar, mundane tasks associated with the management sim. Draw out the foundations, build the walls, install doors and windows, create a path to the complex, make sure it’s well lit, and, most importantly, wire it up to the electricity lines. An impersonal to-do list scrawled on a notepad in the top corner of the screen keeps you up to date with your current objectives: build a bed, build a toilet, build an electric chair.
So off you go, checking off the items on that list as you’ve been naturally conditioned to in so many similar games in the past. You tart up the chamber’s adjoining cell, where Edward will wait for his big day, with a bookcase of quality literature and calming view out the window, as if you’re looking to improve the performance and happiness of your doctors in Theme Hospital.
With the construction team busying themselves, we step away from the criminal world for a moment and to benevolent benefactors. Prison Architect’s Kickstarter-inspired alpha sale has seen tremendous support from the gaming community, something that took Mark, and the rest of the Introversion team, by surprise.
“We were talking. We had no idea how well the alpha was going to do. We had no idea whether this new, Kickstarter-inspired model that we chose to go for was going to work or not. And we had no idea whether the price points were good price points.”
Turns out it was going to do well, the model was going to work and the price points were just right. Figures released on September 29th showed that the game had made over $100 000 in the space of 72 hours, with four donators stumping up $1000 each to contribute on the highest tier.
“You realise that there’s a community of people out there that are willing to basically be, sort of philanthropists, and help to assist game developers in making a game. We’re just absolutely stunned and blown away with how successful it’s been – it’s fantastic.”
So fantastic, in fact, that Mark can’t imagine Introversion using another payment method from now on, assuming the model sticks around and isn’t just a fad. Speaking of fads, I ask if Greenlight will play any role in Prison Architect.
“Greenlight is still in very early, embryonic stages and will evolve,” Mark replies. “It might make sense to go through Greenlight…because that might be how you build that early Steam community that then makes the game better. Or, because we have a strong relationship with Valve, they might happy for us to just launch on to the platform without doing it and build that community in a different way.”