Guvnor’: Hands On With Prison Architect

The cancellation of Introversion’s Subversion has at least borne some fruit. Our interview with lead programmer Chris Delay explain that a prison breakout level in Subversion, combined with a visit to Alcatraz, gave rise to an idea for a prison management game, Prison Architect. I’ve been playing some of the IGF build of that game – so far from release, but totally playable – and I’ve written up a few impressions below.

The game, as it is right now, launches straight into a tutorial. While the core of this involved tasks such as building a new block in the prison, wiring it up, and sorting out the functionally-necessary furnishings, I was surprised to learn that it told a story. The tutorial doesn’t just tell you what’s what about putting inescapable man-boxes together, it also tells the brief and disturbing tale of a man sent to the electric chair for shooting his wife and her lover. That’s where these little “Polaroid” style art snippets we’ve seen in the treasure hunt come from. It’s not clear how much this stuff will appear in the full game, but it’s a fascinatingly grim and emotive twist, and not one I was really expecting.

This opening sequences gives you a good glimpse of what is going to happen in the full game. While your tasks are very much based on building, there’s quite a lot of other stuff going on, with prisoners being fed, showered, and let out into the yard for some exercise, and the guards and so forth going about their business. This fully working prison has a bunch of important things to warn you about what will need to be taken care of later in the game, such as a power grid, and security to keep the prisoners in. The presentation is all fairly minimalistic, with 2D, boxy characters milling about, but it does give the impression that there’s a lot going on. A big prison is a complex system to take care of.

Anyway, once the basics have been taught it’s possible to get on with a far more sandboxy mode, which is simply running a prison – choose small, medium, or large – which you build from scratch to accommodate a certain number of prisoners. You can decide the structure of the buildings, right down to placing windows – elements like these will apparently have some effect on the prisoners themselves, and the tutorial instructs that you can think about this stuff (provide your prisoners with books and so on) if you “care” about them. It looks like this will ultimately be a sort of cash trade off, dependent on whether you actually want to spend money on other things, like guards, electricity bills, and security fences. While it’s here that we can see the depth the game has – the long tweaky game of making brilliantly architected prisons that keep both accountants and inmates happy, it’s also the point at which this preview build seems to run out of finishedness. The game’s undeveloped areas seem to be evident as I plunge into this, but even so it’s certainly got enormous promise. The game is – as Delay suggested in his interview with us – one that can be understood almost immediately, but also offers scope for a fair bit of creativity. It certainly their most approachable game since Defcon, and could be even more appealling, given its single-player nature.

Crucially, I suppose, Prison Architect does have the feel of the classic “Theme” games, and I can see it eating the same sort of mass of hours that Theme Hospitals and their ilk got through. Little dudes milling about, albeit in grim circumstances. (Just as Theme Hospital’s people were sick but cute.) Because of this peculiarly cartoon cheeriness, however, it does not feel like an Introversion game, if that means anything at all to say that. Perhaps the last of the bedroom programmers are finally moving into a new phase. Unless Introversion decided to dramatically cancel another game, we’ll find out next year.


  1. terry says:

    Very excited for this.

  2. DanPryce says:

    I like pretty much everything I’ve seen about this game. The art style, those story polaroids; you’re right, it’s not very Introversion, but it’s looking like it’ll be another solid game from them. Looking forward to it.

  3. Mike says:

    It’s a testament to how great that decision to cancel Subversion is that you’re already playing a build of this thing. Can’t wait.

  4. Hoaxfish says:

    Two thoughts:

    Do prisoners ever get released? Manually (you decide they’re rehabilitated), or automatically (they finish their sentence/someone else judges them ok for release)?

    Are prisoners naked in the showers?

    • Artist says:

      And can you hand out soap for the showers manually???

    • Harlander says:

      Will you be able to put inmates to work assembling products which you then sell, and lobby local governments to increase sentencing to expand your labour pool?

    • mangrove says:

      I was wondering if you could lease your prisoners out to corporations for a profit? Or do you start with a set budget?

    • westyfield says:

      Can you have special inclined soap dishes?

    • iucounu says:

      As someone with a young and vulnerable cousin in prison, can I please ask that we chill out with the shower jokes?

    • jrod says:

      Sorry for the situation your cousin is in, but are you not upset reading about all the other aspects of simulated incarceration?

    • iucounu says:

      Sorry for the situation your cousin is in, but are you not upset reading about all the other aspects of simulated incarceration?

      Well, of course, but the ease with which people slip into gags about prison rape is always worrying, and we don’t really see jokey references to those aspects in popular culture in the same way. I get concerned that we seem to tacitly accept that rape is just going to happen in prison, to the extent that the soap-in-the-showers reference is universal; there’s a sense that it’s all part of the punishment regime, a card for the police or prosecution to play when talking to offenders. That’s clearly incredibly wrong and evil. Institutionalised rape is arguably just as much of an enormity as institutionalised murder, but you don’t see nearly the same level of political debate about it as you do about the death penalty.

      If the death penalty is going to be an aspect of simulated incarceration in this game I hope it’s implemented intelligently, as something that engages our brains and/or our conscience. So I also hope that if prison rape is also an aspect of sim prison, then it isn’t just treated as a joke.

      Sorry for the po-faced wall-o’-text, but you did ask…

    • westyfield says:

      Sorry if I caused any offence.

      there’s a sense that it’s all part of the punishment regime, a card for the police or prosecution to play when talking to offenders. That’s clearly incredibly wrong and evil.

      I’ve never heard this before, but if that’s genuinely a thing people say, that’s pretty messed up.

    • bildo says:

      okay okay, no prison soap jokes

      Why does the Navy use liquid soap?
      It’s harder to pick up :3

    • kemryl says:

      frightlever, it really doesn’t help anyone to act that way, and the way you put it forgets that iucounu may not be in control of his cousin’s situation and could actually be quite distraught by the matter. Who is really getting the harsher deal, us for being asked not to make certain jokes, or iucounu and his cousin? It can’t be that much trouble to respect his wishes.

      edit: really, bildo?

    • iucounu says:

      @iucounu I’d appreciate it if you didn’t act the way you act, because the way YOU act reminds me of something bad about MY life, so I hope you, and everyone else, will respect MY wishes and not upset ME by making jokes about THINGS that happen. Sorry.

      It’s not so much that I’m upset, although jokes about rape in a public place are always liable to upset strangers with unfortunate and pertinent personal histories; I mean, I generally try not to joke about women getting raped, and I’m not entirely sure why it’s more socially acceptable joke-fodder if it’s happening to men, but anyway. What I’m saying is that because I’ve recently started to think a little more concretely about the subject, jokes about prison rape aren’t quite so funny to me as they once were, and I feel it would be at least a minutely better world if people thought before they cracked a hilarious shower/soap joke in future.

    • something says:

      A jarringly good point about the way we’ve sleepwalked into accepting rape (or the threat of rape) as a form of criminal punishment leads me to wonder about the extent to which this game will explore the more political aspects of incarceration. Clearly the death penalty is a central aspect of this game but whether or not they’ll really tackle the complexities of the issue or just put it there for people to project their own opinions onto remains to be seen.

      BTW, though I don’t have the statistics to hand, I’m certain prison rape is seriously over-represented in the media, and for almost exclusively prurient reasons.

    • Zan Thrax says:

      Something, I seem to recall recently reading that homosexual rapes in prisons exceed violent heterosexual rapes outside prisons in the US.

      Regardless of whether or not the frequency of actual prison rape is as high as popular culture would suggest; the fact remains that it is widely seen as an expected part of high security prison life, and widely considered as an acceptable, and desirable, added deterrent instead of the horrible crime that it is.

    • Amun says:

      I’m not entirely sure why it’s more socially acceptable joke-fodder if it’s happening to men

      because sexism.

  5. BurningPet says:

    I cant wait!

    please let the pre orders begin.

  6. Ovno says:

    Looking good, will go well with the rest of my complete Introversion collection :)

  7. Inigo says:

    If this was a Bullfrog game, you’d be able to earn extra money by subjecting inmates to clandestine medical experiments.

  8. applecado says:

    Want this. It’s been ages since I’ve played a decent ‘tycoon’ game.

  9. hello_mr.Trout says:

    the cutesy style seems to jar when compared with the grimdark polaroid pictures -> i’m kind of surprised they chose such a friendly look for everything

    • Inigo says:

      That may well be the point.

    • Timmytoby says:

      The cute surface may well be a comment on contemporary prison management in the US.

      link to

      Play the little movie and it’s like every other corporate bull*bleep* movie, despite showing a prison.
      Everything is shiny and fun and great and awesome.

      Seems to me a very fitting representation in the game.

  10. thepaleking says:

    Wonder what Herzog would have to say about this. He just completed his film about a Texas death row inmate : Into The Abyss.

  11. Derppy says:

    I’m hoping there’s more to it than building a prison and hiring staff.

    Something like escaping prisoners, outbreaks, murders etc. you’d have to deal with directly. You could monitor the prisoners and if someone is showing aggressive behavior, separate him from the rest and put him in therapy, or just play a bad guy and make the guards beat him up until he is too afraid to do anything. There’s potential for all sorts of stuff other than building.

    I guess it boils down to the fact I love Dwarf Fortress and really want something even remotely similar, but with actual graphics and proper UI.

    • Synesthesia says:

      yeah, this needs to learn something from dwarf fortress, specially the “psychological effects of the environment” part.

    • povu says:

      Tantrum spirals, oh god!

    • Reivles says:

      In prison, they’re called riots. :D

  12. Magnetude says:

    I think it would be very interesting to get a bunch of real-life prisoners and guards to play this and see how differently their prisons turned out.

    • Kollega says:

      I second this suggestion. Introversion, take note!

    • fatchap says:

      As a control, can we put Keith Vaz in a real jail to see whether the game is realistic?

    • Hoaxfish says:

      After a brief stint in Jail, Keith Vaz has been reformed. He no longer wants to continue with his criminal life as a politician, and will instead pursue a more worthwhile career in motor-repair.

      Unfortunately, the system is not 100% successful, as Jeffrey Archer continues to write terrible books.

    • terry says:

      Kitten (tame) has suffocated. Keith Vaz has gone berserk!

  13. Duke of Chutney says:


    Will you be posting a free copy to Theresa May (Home Secetary) when this game ships?

  14. jimjames says:

    Massively excited! I’ve been craving a sandbox architect style game for a while. And I have a lot of confidence Introversion will pour a massive amount of love into it.

    Its great to see the Humble Indie bundle doing so well, hopefully they’ll bring in enough to help fund the artists, who are doing a grand job, I’m quite happy to see it branching away from the trademark blues!

  15. kwyjibo says:

    Yes, but is it as good as Theme Hospital?

    • cptgone says:

      if it is, i’ll have two copies please, in case i develop a case of MPS.

      feature suggestions:
      – let prison management decide whether drugs are condoned or not
      – pedo prisoners/convicted cops vs. inmate lynch mobs
      – conjugal visits room
      – salad oil dispensers :p

    • Man Raised by Puffins says:


  16. CalleX says:

    If this has enough depth I will be all over it.

    Imagine things like prison gangs forming and intriguing and fighting eachother for example.

  17. Kollega says:

    It’s not clear how much this stuff will appear in the full game, but it’s a fascinatingly grim and emotive twist, and not one I was really expecting.

    I don’t know about you all, but i’m wondering about the other thing: what about people who aren’t too far gone? How big of a part will be played by your attempts to rehabilitate prisoners? Can you build a prison for white-collar criminals, or conversely, a gulag? How far the player can go in either direction, good or bad?

  18. Quizboy says:

    In my mind this was basically Superjail: the game. So it looks interesting, but I can’t help being a bit disappointed.

  19. Dances to Podcasts says:

    I was wondering why no one was making those theme/tycoon/keeper games anymore. I guess I wasn’t the only one. :)

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      It’s one of those oddly stagnant genres. Outside of the stuff Kairosoft has been making for mobile platforms, I don’t think any non-shovelware tycoon games have been released in *years*. It’s sort of been co-opted by an enormous genre of FarmVille clones, which is a terrifying thing indeed.

    • Zarunil says:

      Oh, they are. It’s just that most of them are so terrible they might as well not have been released.

  20. TC-27 says:

    Little bit uneasy about having to execute people and I dont know why.

    • psycho7005 says:

      Well it looks like all the prisoners have names, and so maybe in the full game they’ll have simple randomly generated biographies about them and why they’re in prison. So then you wouldn’t be ignorant or feel immoral (depending on your view of capital punishment) about sending say, a mass murderer to their death.

    • codename_bloodfist says:

      This is odd as hell, but it makes two of us. Shooting people in the head? Awesome! Destroying entire cities with nukes? Awesome! Sending a convicted murder to be executed? Houston, we have a problem. I sincerely hope there’s an opt-out option; knowing that Introversion are fellow Europeans, I’m pretty sure that there’ll be one.

    • Dozer says:

      You made me laugh with “Houston”!

  21. merc-ai says:

    As long as it can be turned into a “Superjail meets Dungeon Keeper” kind of game, I’m all for it.
    But if it’s just management game – like it seems to be the case – then it will be second Introversion game that I have no interest in (first being Multiwinia).

    And still sad about Subversion.

    • Harlander says:

      That’s two people who’ve mentioned Superjail. What is it?

    • Inigo says:

      Cartoon series on Adult Swim. Think Willy Wonka meets Josef Mengele.

    • IAmUnaware says:

      Superjail Wikipedia entry

      It’s really pretty bizarre. As noted above, the prison’s warden is a Willy Wonka caricature and each episode in the first season ends with about five minutes of prisoners being brutally murdered, sometimes by each other while wearing wolf and rabbit costumes, sometimes by a T-1000-like futuristic gladiator robot, and sometimes under stranger circumstances.

  22. owenj says:

    Still wish Subversion worked out :( :( :(

  23. aldo_14 says:

    Prison Architect does have the feel of the classic “Theme” games

  24. HexagonalBolts says:

    Will they include sexual violence in the game? Given the graphics style especially, things like that seem to me to be the big line between making the game style seem dark and gritty (like dwarf fortress) or more cutesy (like theme hospital) – not that either of those would be a bad thing of course.

  25. Calabi says:

    The main thing I’m interested in with this is the prisoners. I mean will they behave as such that everything you do, they will push against. It shouldnt be like some Theme Hospital where you can make all the inmates perfectly happy. What kind of things will they get up to.

    The trouble with these sorts of games is your never allowed to make some of the good decisions. The building stuff and where to place isnt fun to me.

    I’d like to be able to make sanctions, send inmates to solitary. Change the dinner menus. Start up a rehabilitation program. Have an illicit fight club. Try to stop all drugs from entering the prison, allow all drugs to enter the prison. Prisoner incentives, prisoner punishments, see what works and doesnt. All the decisions a real Warden might be able to make.

    I guess the name says it all Prison Architect but how much can buildings really influence people(feng shui is nonsense by the way). I know buildings do influence people but not that much really, not in interesting ways.

    • FunkyBadger3 says:

      “I know buildings do influence people but not that much really, not in interesting ways.”

      This is wrong on plenty of levels, although I’m not sure how the game will be able to model it.

  26. Maldomel says:

    Like most people here, I can’t wait to know more about the actual system. How can you treat inmates, guards, how do they respond to all that…and also, can you make it kinda New York 1997 style. Some kind of big, closed, no guards prison ruled by prisoners with surveillance on the outside?
    That would be awesome.

  27. sinister agent says:

    Ooh, a sort-of 90s-esque management game? SOLD. There’s a genre (sooort of a genre, anyway) that I miss terribly. Most modern ones just haven’t been very good, but this sounds promising.

  28. Jim Rossignol says:

    Something I didn’t mention: the audio is superb, even with no voice acting.

  29. bartleby says:

    I’m a bit unsure about the subject matter. Not looking forward to the inevitable and unfunny onslaught of prison rape jokes. Criminal justice in the US is pretty messed up and the last thing it needs is to be naturalized even more. I guess some of the same can be said about nuclear war, so prove me wrong, Subversion.

    • Dominic White says:

      They’re a UK studio, so expect there to be a modicum of subtlety involved.

  30. gummybearsliveonthemoon says:

    What does it say about me that when I saw the screencap at the top of the article I thought it was a top-down floorplan of an office of cubicles?

  31. weizur says:

    I don’t know why but I’m very interested in this game.

  32. RagingLion says:

    When I read the preview on Eurogmer one of the things I immediately saw potential for was in setting up systems sot hat it’s really hard for prisoners to escape and that maybe there will be AI behaviour that craftily tries to plan grand escapes under your nose and so you have to link together your systems really intricately to prevent such escapes. I really hope this kind of planning and AI behaviour is present in the game.

  33. Devrey says:

    I want this game. I still love Theme Hospital. If it come close to that, I’ll buy many copies to hand out.

  34. AlephAleph says:

    It would be nice if you could chose to run a female prison too.

  35. FunkyBadger3 says:

    Its Oz really, int it?