Prison Architect diary: Welcome to Stabshank

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.”

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.