In a weird confluence of events, there have been two really, really, really creepy games that came out this year: Prison Architect and Papers, Please.
While they have somewhat significantly different gameplay and entirely different aesthetics, they require strangely similar mindsets once the game gets going.
Prison Architect is a game (it’s in alpha, fair warning) from Introversion Software and it’s a game in the vein of Theme Hospital or Roller Coaster Tycoon (or, I suppose, Prison Tycoon). You are in charge of a prison and you have to make it work. From the very beginning when you’re just building a holding cell, shower, and kitchen/canteen to the points where you’ve got not just individual cells but yards and visitation rooms and workshops (and, in the tutorial, you get to see what’s required to build “old sparky”).
It’s a management game in which you are expected to manage a prison, manage guards, manage prisoners, manage wardens, manage riots, and so on.
You almost can forget that there are more people in jail per capita in the US than anywhere else in the world.
Which, if you play the game, you probably will. You’ll want to figure out the best guard to prisoner ratio, the best way to deal with walls, and the best way to make money off of these prisoners and get to the next contract and, ideally, have a self-sufficient prison that you can just walk away from.
By comparison, there is Papers, Please. A game developed by 3909, and has much more simple graphics and gameplay. You have won a work lottery and are in charge of a border checkpoint of the Great and Glorious Country of Arstrotzka. Every day you are given rules on who to let in and who to deny. Your gameplay is simply looking at documents and choosing whether to let people in or to keep them out. On the first day, it’s easy because only people with legit Arstotzkan passports are allowed in… but, as days pass, there are more and more rules and more and more things to look at and compare. Does the person’s face match their picture in the passport? Does their gender match? Has their passport expired? Is their work visa ticket for today? Is their weight within acceptable tolerances? Are they sneaking a gun? If they meet spec? Use the green stamp. If they don’t? Use the red stamp.
You start out with expenses of 50 glorious monetary units per day (rent, food, heat) and you get five glorious monetary units for each person you correctly sort into the “allow/disallow” bins… which, since you can do math as well as I, tells you that you need to get 10 correct sorts per day to just tread water. Which means that you have to get very good at comparing passports to the official acknowledged list of passports… does it come from one of the three authorized issuing cities? Then entry tickets, then personal IDs, and fingerprints, and then you’ll just be tripped up because you failed to notice that the gender on the passport was marked “M” when it should have been marked “F”.
And all the while, the people who wish to pass into the country are telling you stories as to why they wish to pass through.
And the best way to not make any mistakes is to just ignore stories, just pay attention to the documents, and pay attention to the red stamp. You’ll be using it a lot. Entry is not guaranteed. Have your documents ready. Papers, please.
This is one heck of a puzzlish game, pattern matching, checking for discrepencies, and just sniffing for something “hinky”.
All in all, I can recommend Papers, Please wholeheartedly for pretty much anybody given its ten dollar pricetag but, at this point, I can only recommend Prison Architect for the most hardcore “Theme Tycoon” fan given its alpha status and thirty dollar price. That said, if you know that you want to engage in some light gameplay but heavy management and with the slightest sniff of these being the best horror games of the year? You need to get your paws on these puppies. Build another building. Fill another cell. Papers, please.