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Prison Architect: I left my prison running for four hours and now everybody is dead


Prison Architect has broken free onto Early Access; here’s our Prison Architect review.

Everybody except the workmen, who like to hide in the storage cupboard when they’ve got nothing else to do. All of the guards have been stabbed to death in the cell blocks though, and the few prisoners left rioting are patrolling the corridors with big knives. They don’t seem very interested in escaping. I thought one of my doctors was on fire too, but then I realised that the verb ‘FIRE’ appears when you mouse over employees, regardless of whether they’re on fire.

Outside the prison gate, dozens of new inmates have assembled, fresh off the prison bus and still in shackles. About eight more arrive each day. There’s nobody left alive to let them in, so they just stand there and wait rather than cross the road to unconditional freedom. The game’s ominous danger music won’t stop playing. The Prison Architect alpha is weird.

If you hire a psychiatrist in this Bullfroggish, ‘Theme Prison’ incarcerate ’em up, you can identify the basic needs and desires of your individual prisoners, as well as the needs of the population of your prison as a whole. They want things like visitations and showers, they want food and beds, they want recreation and (ironically enough) freedom. With the psychiatrist, you can seewhy a convicted arsonist eventually upends a dinner table into a burglar’s face, but you’re usually left powerless to ever prevent it happening.

That’s because Prison Architect, in its super-early, incomplete form, keeps delivering more and more prisoners to your doorstep, at a maddening rate that soon becomes unmanageable, like a malfunctioning Yo Sushi but with a class of terrible people whom society has failed instead of California rolls. With nowhere to put them, prisoners start to pile up in holding cells before they’re just left lounging in corridors and propping open doors and spilling out of cupboards. They start getting antsy and, with the latest update, a little riotous.


It’s an awfully stressful management game, and more of a falling act than a balancing one. You’re not just being pushed to improve your prison, you’re constantly at the failing end of a rehabilitative bell curve. New inmates don’t appear when your prison is prosperous and in need of a nudge towards inelegance and discomfort, as they should, rather they keep on arriving by the busload every morning, delivered by an invisible government branch who thinks it’s okay to send eight prisoners to serve their sentence in an empty field, with only 24 hours notice to the field’s owner.

Of course, this will change as the game is developed. There’s the usual caveat that is an alpha version of Prison Architect, and so it’s inherently limited, broken and strange, with missing features and chunks of prototyped weirdness. That self-aware incompletedness has the side effect of making Prison Architect a slippery, greased up, criticism-averse pig. Introversion are offering unprecedented access to near-unplayable early builds of their game, in exchange for your bug reports, your patience and your money. That’s the deal. As long as you weren’t labouring under the notion that alpha versions were just the final version of the game with some of the textures upside down, you’re golden.


Everybody went mad in my prison because nobody was being fed, despite there being loads of boxes of cabbages in the kitchen and four cooks standing by two smoking ovens, which I can only assume means that some cabbage is being cooked. The user interface isn’t helpful here either, with the percentage of prisoners fed represented by a row of red icons (people, I think) next to a row of green icons and the words ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Meals’. Are the green icons meals? Are they fed prisoners? Why are there so many boxes of cabbages? Isn’t that a fire hazard? Does the number of available serving trays in the canteen factor into this at all? It is an endlessly frustrating mystery, and so my prison goes hungry.


It’s somehow even more frustrating that some of the prisoners manage to figure out how to eat. I also began to notice several prisoners in cuffs who’d refuse to budge no matter what the prescribed schedule insisted they be doing. These men, I figured out, were awaiting solitary confinement for some infraction they’d incurred while I wasn’t watching, but as I didn’t have a solitary confinement cell they’d simple stand where they were caught and wait for me to construct one. By the time I did, nearly half the prison was awaiting their turn in solitary.

The annoying thing about solitary, which you’ll know all about if you’ve ever had to run a prison in real life, is that you can only have one prisoner in there at a time. Hardly time and space efficient, but you can’t yet define the severity of punishments for rowdy inmates.


Showering also became a problem in my overcrowded gaol, as I’d only built enough showers for five prisoners. If I’m interpreting this screenshot correctly, some of the men waiting to shower are impatiently chanting the word “shower”, while one person who is already showering is saying the word “shower” in a self-satisfied and no doubt aggravating manner. This shower debacle would add to the atmosphere of discontent that would reduce my prison to a madhouse in just four inattentive hours.

Interesting point: if you don’t put drainsalmost everywhere the shower water spills out of the showers and into the courtyard. This seemingly has no adverse effects in this version of the game, though it’s not impossible that in a future update a bunch of cool inmates might surf over the prison walls to freedom.


The yard is where prisoners go to relax and say the word “shower” in a more outdoorsy setting. Some of them run laps around the yard’s generously sized perimeter, which is a nice touch. A recent update addressed an oversight whereby inmates could open and close doors in the prison by themselves, deemed something of an inaccuracy by Introversion, as all that was technically keeping all the prisoners indoors was their own dogged sense of justice and self-restraint.

Now, a guard must open and close locked doors to allow prisoners to move between different areas of the prison, which can lead to traffic jams of bustling orange jumpsuits if you’ve employed too few security men. The yard also tends to be where most fights break out. Where did Barsby get those cool shades? I didn’t authorise those.


No amount of yard time will placate my starved and unwashed prisoners however. Riots happen when enough dissatisfied inmates congregate. They break objects, leading to costly repairs, they stab guards with makeshift knives, leading to stabbed-up guards, and they bring most of the regular operations of the prison to grind to a halt as entire sections are reclassified as maximum security until the violence can be quelled. Riot police can be brought in to assist in returning order, as long as you’ve employed the correct administrators and researched your way to the required part of the security tech tree. You can also call in emergency paramedics to heal employees and the incarcerated alike, before they spill any more of those big red transparent squares that probably represent a missing blood sprite.

Of course, you could also forget to pause the game and go make lunch before returning to your PC later, forgetting what you were doing and only realising you’ve left a rioting prison alone for four hours. In which case you’ll see something like this.


Why do they keep sending prisoners to me?And look at all those serving trays outside.No wonder nobody was being fed.

This version of the game is a hot mess, but it’s a rapidly evolving hot mess, one that’s untangling and retangling itself in interesting ways as development progresses. It’s fun, but it never allows you to revel in your achievements, or to enjoy the fleeting pleasure of a smoothly operating prison system. But ultimately that’s why Prison Architect is an alpha, so that Introversion can continue to beat it into shape, to overhaul interfaces, to lobotomise the weirder aspects of prisoner AI and to reduce the overall quantity of boxes of cabbages.

It will get better, and you can watch it happen.