Prison Architect diary: Welcome to Stabshank

Andy Kelly

Page 1 of 10

Welcome to Stabshank, a maximum security penitentiary that I'm about to flood with murderers, thieves, videogame pirates and other ruthless criminal scum. The best way to play Prison Architect is to start with calmer, less stabby minimum security prisoners, then bring in the psychopaths when your security is more solid, but I won't be doing that. I'm going to fill my basic low capacity prison with some really, really bad people and a skeleton crew of guards.

As each truck of convicts rolls in, I'm going to pick one and follow them. I want to see how deep the simulation goes, and whether their crimes dictate their behaviour. I'll track their lives until they die, escape or are otherwise incapacitated.

I won't be installing metal detectors at the front gate or in the canteen, so any contraband – shivs, drugs, forks, etc – will be freely circulating. I don't want Stabshank to be too efficient or secure. I want these guys to get angry, because the angrier they get, the more likely they are to do something interesting. By which I mean stabbing.

Stabshank is open for business. The first truck pulls up and the prisoners step off into the delivery area. I've decided to focus on James Pritchard, a 50-year-old con with a rap sheet longer than the Magna Carta. He's serving 15 years of a life sentence for double murder, and I notice that he's managed to sneak in some garden shears. I could have ordered a guard to search him in lieu of a metal detector, but I leave him be. He probably won't stab anyone with them.

Pritchard has a wife, four sons and a daughter, but he won't be seeing them any time soon. There are no visitor rooms at Stabshank. A guard leads him to his cell and doesn't seem to notice the deadly garden equipment shoved down his trouser leg. Immediately, I spot a problem. I forgot to plumb in the cell toilets, so I quickly order my workmen to do so – not realising that this will involve opening the cell doors. Predictably, Pritchard uses this opportunity to bolt. But I don't worry too much, because the area outside is blocked by two gates that only guards can access.

More prisoners have broken free, and a riot erupts outside the cell block. Pritchard, aided by another inmate and fellow murderer, attacks a guard with his shears. There's blood everywhere, but the guard is only knocked unconscious. Pritchard plucks the keys from his belt and they run towards the nearest gate.

Before any more screws can come to quell the riot, they unlock it and make a run for it. I order a lockdown to stop anyone else getting away, but it's too late. Pritchard and his buddy have escaped, and will probably kill again. Oops.

Order is restored, but the lack of an infirmary means that a few guards, and some prisoners, are lying bloody and unconscious at the scene of the riot. Life ain't pretty at Stabshank. It's night, so I speed up time and wait for the next batch of cons, which is arriving at 8am sharp. John Cadwallader is our next prisoner, a 34-year-old man convicted of torture and forced imprisonment. Oh, how the tables have turned. He has no family and is serving ten years.

After getting used to his new cell, Cadwallader is escorted to the yard where he mingles with the other prisoners, occasionally lifting weights. While he's busy, I dismantle all the telephones in Stabshank. This cuts off contact with prisoners and their families completely, which should get them nice and steamed up. I also decide to build a few solitary cells. Guards will shove unruly prisoners in here, giving them time to cool down and think about what they've done, or develop a slow, burning hatred for the no-good pig who tossed them in there.

Cadwallader is disappointingly sedate for a guy whose turn-ons include locking people up and torturing them. When Prison Architect's cons aren't rioting or stabbing, they're pretty boring, wandering back and forth aimlessly, eating, pumping iron, showering. They don't have much personality, and their behaviour seems to only be determined by their security status, not their crimes.

In a prison filled entirely with minimum security prisoners, it's like running a holiday camp. But that's the big house for you, I suppose. As Morgan Freeman says in The Shawshank Redemption – a film quoted in Prison Architect's tooltips – “Prison life consists of routine.”

But then, suddenly, action! It's chow time, and the cons are gathered in the canteen. Because there's no metal detector, I notice inmates brandishing forks and knives that they've stolen. When a convict has something he shouldn't, you see it appear briefly in his hands, giving you the chance to direct a guard to search him – which I won't be doing, of course. My tiny kitchen can't cope with the amount of prisoners in the canteen, and some of them miss their chance to grab some food before it runs out, including our man Cadwallader.

Another riot breaks out. The entrance to the kitchen – the one the prisoners use and the staff entrance – are both heavy jail gates, so I order a lockdown and trap the cons inside the canteen with a few guards and, unfortunately, a cook who was collecting empty trays. The gleaming white tiles of the mess hall are coated in crimson blood as the prisoners fight each other and the staff. If there's one place you don't want a fight to break out, it's a room full of knives and glass.

The guards hold their own. Cadwallader is one of the last men standing, and tries to fight two of them singlehandedly with a knife. They manage to handcuff him, and I lift the lockdown. Now he has the privilege of being the first prisoner in Stabshank's short history to experience the thrills of solitary confinement. There's a problem with the doors in the latest build of Prison Architect, so we have to manually lock them to keep our troublemaker in. It's going to be a long night.

So riots seem to be a pretty regular occurrence here at Stabshank. Luckily I kept an empty building aside, which I now decided to turn into an infirmary. Not so much for the prisoners, but so I don't have to keep hiring new guards. I install a few medical beds then hire a doctor. Doctors will automatically stick to their ward, but can be ordered to leave their post temporarily and heal injured inmates and staff elsewhere in the prison. I build a morgue as well, just in case. The injured rioters are carted off to the infirmary and I await the next batch of prisoners. Stabshank is almost full, so some of these guys will have to be put into temporary holding cells.

It dawns on me that everything that's happened so far has been a consequence of the environment, not the prisoners. Pritchard escaped because I foolishly opened his cell door; Cadwallader started rioting because of a food shortage. Despite their detailed bios, the cons in Prison Architect aren't particularly smart or unique. But the game is in alpha, and it makes sense that Introversion would focus more on the large scale simulation than the smaller details. For most people the prisoners won't be thought of as individuals, but as a single entity that they have to manage.

The next truck arrives, carrying half a dozen more ne'er-do-wells. I decide to focus on Stephen Palmer, a 41-year-old serving 35 years at Stabshank for attempted murder. Previous convictions include criminal damage and, again, attempted murder. He has a wife and daughter, but because of my unreasonable no-phone-or-visitors policy, he may never speak to them again. Oh well. That's what happens when you keep attempting to murder people, dude.

The cell block is packed, so only a couple of the new intake get cells. Palmer is thrown into my communal holding cell with the rest of the stragglers. It's fine to keep inmates locked up here for a night, but they don't like it much, and it'll cause a riot if you keep them in there too long. Palmer roams around, occasionally stopping to use the toilet, but I notice that 'freedom' has appeared under his needs, which means he wants to escape. Not on my watch. The needs system is similar to The Sims, and there are ways to decrease their urgency. If a prisoner is missing his family, for example, a phone call or visit (in a nicer prison) will calm him down.

Palmer appears to have sneaked a saw into the prison, although he could have stolen it. His burning desire for freedom combined with a deadly weapon is a recipe for disaster. I build a few extra cells to thin the holding cell out, but Palmer still doesn't get one. Despite the fury bubbling inside him, he doesn't misbehave. As the other inmates sleep soundly in their beds, he paces back and forth in the holding cell, unable to sleep. I decide to bring up the reports menu and freeze prisoner intake. Stabshank needs some pretty major expansion, and tighter security. With all these frustrated high-risk prisoners on the books, I'll need a CCTV system and lots more guards.

The next morning, Palmer is mysteriously well-behaved again. Maybe he's resigned himself to life in the slammer. I briefly consider putting a phone box in the holding cell so he can call his wife and kid, but pity has no place in Stabshank. It's chow time, and the prisoners pile into the canteen. I hover over Palmer, waiting for him to snap, but nothing happens. He eats his breakfast, then quietly returns to the holding cell.

But then I spot the fork in his hand. Seems our friend has been scheming, and now has a weapon tucked away in his uniform. Yard time. The prisoners gather in the yard. Now that I've ripped all the phones out, they either amble around aimlessly, or lift weights. All of a sudden, a fight breaks out. Palmer has forked another prisoner. The screws rush in and I lock the place down, trapping them all in the fenced-off yard. Fight! It's hard to see what's happening, with around 25 cons all duking it out, but the sheer amount of blood being spilled suggests it ain't pretty. We catch a glimpse of Palmer in the midst of the fracas, still fighting, but with only a sliver of health left. He's in bad shape.

When the dust settles, the yard is littered with bodies. They're all unconscious, except for Palmer, who has succumbed to his injuries. He's Stabshank's first death, and it couldn't have happened to a nicer attempted murderer. His body is dragged to the morgue. There's no way to get rid of bodies in the build of Prison Architect I'm playing, so he'll just lie there on the slab forever. Prisoners can steal contraband from dead guards in the morgue, so it's best to keep it behind a locked door.

Prison folklore is always about personalities; about legendary escapes, or ruthless criminals. That's the one thing Prison Architect is sorely missing. The simulation of the prison and building process is taking shape nicely, but the prisoners are little more than automatons, shaped by the world around them, and not their backgrounds or criminal records.

I'd love to see special 'hero' criminals with different traits, like a master escape artist, or influential mob boss. Currently, there isn't much going on in the brains of Stabshank's motley crew except: “EAT. STAB. POOP. ESCAPE.”

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