Prison Architect Alpha 31 Adds Death Row, Executions

Introversion Software previously made a game called DEFCON [official site], a strategy game in which you launch often unprovoked nuclear attacks upon other countries. Global thermonuclear war is the core of the game, and necessary if you’re going to defeat your opponents, but it never revels in the wanton destruction you’re carrying out. As the death toll rises into the millions, the grim reality of what’s happening is gently communicated through the stark white alerts of how many millions have been killed and through the addition of quiet coughing to the game’s soundtrack.

I’ve killed million and millions in DEFCON. I’m not sure I could bring myself to kill just one person in Prison Architect [official site] using update 31’s newly introduced execution chambers. There’s a video below showing how the process works.

The current alpha build of Prison Architect has long included the beginnings of a story campaign in which your first objective is to build an execution chamber, but the linear structure of it means that the player is absolved of some of the responsibility due to their inability to do anything else.

It’s different in sandbox mode where players choose what kind of prison they want to make, and it’s clear that Introversion have thought long and hard about how to include executions in a way that both communicates their grim reality and prevents players from ever reveling in the act. “It was very important to both of us that death row wasn’t frivolous,” says producer Mark Morris during the video. “I absolutely didn’t want there to be banks and banks and banks of electric chairs.” Chris Delay agrees: “We didn’t want to see a factory execution system where every prisoner was on death row, because it’s not realistic. It doesn’t work like that. Death row inmates are on death row for decades sometimes before the execution goes ahead. It would just be extremely bad taste for us to make the game mechanics open enough to allow you to do such a thing.”

Executions therefore mimic some of the processes that wrap around the system in real life American prison systems. Each death row inmate within your prison has a “Likelihood of Clemency” rating, which is a percentage stat that tells you what chance the prisoner has of having their death row sentence reversed. As time progresses in the game, inmates go through multiple appeals – they’ll meet with lawyers in your parole office – and as those appeals are rejected, the chance for clemency will go down. You can execute the prisoner at any time, but if you do it before that chance reaches zero, you risk being punished should information later come to light that would have seen the prisoner’s sentence revoked. However, if you wait for the chance of clemency to reach zero and then execute, you might still discover that evidence later came to light that would have changed their sentence, but you won’t be punished for it because you followed protocol.

Which is cold and terrifying. The time this process requires also means it should be extremely difficult to build a prison based entirely on executions, and that min-maxing players will have umpteen faster routes towards profitable, endgame-style prisons.

Once the appeals process is over, the actual steps of carrying out the execution is similarly stark, as you first lock down your prison, proceed through a series of safety checks, then move the prisoner to the execution chamber and accept both his and his victims’ families into your prison in order to watch it happen. While DEFCON and Prison Architect differ greatly in terms of the scale of their killing, they both find resonance in evoking death’s cold machinery; they’re unusual as games in that they contain the taking of life not from a position of impassioned fury and noise, but from a place of cold, mathematical remove.

Watch the video below for more detail and discussion from Morris and Delay as to why they felt the feature was necessary and how they’ve approached it. I think it’s been added responsibly and I am glad that it’s optional. Death row chat starts at 12 minutes and 45 seconds:


  1. oceanclub says:

    “you risk being punished should information later come to light that would have seen the prisoner’s sentence revoked.”

    Which, sadly, never appears to happen in the actual US justice system.


    • Merus says:

      There’s usually no real motivation to expose miscarriages of justice after the person wronged has been executed. This leaves the cases where the actual perpetrator is arrested for a later crime, and it becomes clear that they committed the crime someone else has already been executed for. Which happens! It happens rarely, but it happens.

      That said, the actual crimes in Prison Architect are either very silly or very serious in a way that undercuts the idea that your prisoners are people. I wouldn’t be surprised if the system as exists has people who have been sentenced to death for jaywalking.

      • shentlyn says:

        They actually say in the video that the crimes for death row will be selected to be suitable. Currently it’s completely random during the testing phase.

    • jezcentral says:

      Because, in the actual US justice system, it’s not up to the bloke(ss) in charge of the prison when (s)he gets to fry the prisoner?

      • oceanclub says:

        My comment is referring to the irony of anyone being punishing for such happening.


    • AbsoluteShower says:

      “I want to accelerate, not slow down, the enforcement of the death penalty in Florida.” – Jeb Bush.
      Mind you, if Prison Architect was set in China,they could have an even grimmer parallel to reality – add in organ harvesting.

      • P.Funk says:

        I actually feel like the Chinese system would be better suited to a Cities Skylines mod.

      • Scelous says:

        Never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Jeb Bush.

        • AbsoluteShower says:

          Thing is, his ‘streamlining’ didn’t make it any fairer, it just made it faster. I think he once said something to the effect that he didn’t believe any innocent people were executed under his administration.

          Now, how that will bear out years from now will tell a different story.

          • VladVoivode says:

            Florida has the HIGHEST rate of exonerations in the United States. The current governor of Florida, instead of trying to correct that situation, has promised to sign a bill if it reaches his desk to drastically reduce the appeals process. Had this bill become law just a few years ago, at least 20 innocent people would have been executed.

            Also, the number of exonerations due to forensic technology such as DNA testament to the system being sound and working, but rather a revelation that before forensic science, it stands to reason that the United States HAS executed innocents. There are two cases in Texas that are under intense scrutiny: Cameron Todd Willingham and Carlos DeLuna. Both were executed. In Mr. Willingham’s case, the methods used to convict him were discredited as “junk science” and Dr. Gerald Hurst, one of the world’s leading arson specialists stated emphatically that the fire actually was an electrical problem and that the state of Texas framed Willingham by fabricating forensic evidence. Governor Rick Perry KNEW about this finding BEFORE Willingham’s execution yet he quashed the evidence.

            In DeLuna’s case, Mr. DeLuna resembles the man who has admitted that it was HE, not not DeLuna that committed the crime.

            Lastly, Justice Antonin Scalia has stated that there is nothing in the United States Constitution that protects against an innocent person being executed. He has stated that guilt and innocence are irrelevant as long as due process at every stage has been followed.

            I apologize for the diatribe but I couldn’t remain silent to the comment agreeing with Jeb Bush. I realize this is a game, but, this isn’t killing some aliens for fun. State sanctioned homicide is a serious human rights issue and Introversion is wise to make executions optional. I for one will not dabble even in the pixelated machinery of death.

  2. frymaster says:

    They’ve approached things with a sensitivity and elegance that I don’t think I’d have done, and the game is better for it. Kudos to them

  3. Eight Rooks says:

    But someone will still find a way to build a functioning prison full of electric chairs stacked up like cages in a battery farm, video it set to Yakkety Sax, and then it will get a million hits on YouTube, because the internet. ;_;

    • FreeTom says:

      It’s only pretend, you know. Let’s not pretend we don’t all love shooting pretend people in the face just for being there.

      • horsemedic says:

        Let’s not pretend we don’t all love shooting pretend people in the face just for being there.

        Almost as much as we love moralizing from inside our toy chests.

        • FreeTom says:

          I’m not quite sure what you’re saying there. I was saying that ‘killing’ video game characters is genuinely fine. No irony.

          At any rate, watching the video all the way to the end reveals that the aforementioned setup would get you game-over-ed pretty quickly.

    • dorobo says:

      It might be that someone allready done that :]

    • Vin_Howard says:

      The ONLY way someone could “build a functioning prison full of electric chairs stacked up like cages in a battery farm” is if they hacked the game; as they have it right now:

      The income of death row inmates is super limited (they said something like 1 or 2 every week)

      You can only do one execution at a time; you have to do in manually; it is a lengthy process; and it effectively shuts down your prison for its duration (it has to be done during a lockdown; and it hampers your ability to interact with your prison)

      The clemency system makes it take awhile for a death row inmate to actually be able to be executed (and you might “lose” him in the process); and if you try to go past it, a wrong judgment actually causes you to lose all your current death row inmates and not have any new death row inmates arrive for a period of time

  4. NathanH says:

    Is it realistic that the prison boss gets to decide when to execute someone? I don’t live in a country with an active death penalty, so I don’t know. But that doesn’t seem like the right procedure.

    “they’re unusual as games in that they contain the taking of life not from a position of impassioned fury and noise, but from a place of cold, mathematical remove”

    Perhaps it is because I don’t play so many action games, but this state of affairs is quite common in my gaming.

    • MacGuffin says:

      No, the prison itself doesn’t have any say. The schedule is set by the courts, it’s just carried out by the prison staff. Naturally, the game takes a small amount of license because they want to enforce that responsibility onto the player as part of the experience. Similar to other aspects of the prison system that are determined by the courts like how parole works, where in the game you have a much larger say in what happens and when.

  5. James says:

    PA just keeps getting better – they must be nearing the 1.0 release soon. It puts 99% of all early access games to shame with its magnificence, even KSP struggles in comparison.

    • Creeping Death says:

      There aren’t many other games that have been in early access for 3 years though, and I feel it’s not really fair to compare it to something that’s been in it for only say 3 months.

      Don’t get me wrong though, it is very impressive that they’ve stuck to a monthly update schedule.

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      phuzz says:

      I think KSP is a fair comparison, although I’m biased as I’ve bought both games, and I play them in a similar way. I binge for a few weeks, and then wander away to other games until a few months later when a new update comes out and I binge again on a game that is similar to, but better than, the last time I played it.

    • Vin_Howard says:

      In their January video, the “producer” guy commented that PA 1.0 would be released in this year (2015); although the lead programmer seemed surprised by the announcement (and a sort of comedic skit ensued)

    • Distec says:

      Agreed. It’s been a while since I played, as I ended up getting a hang of its systems and made a pretty self-sufficient prison (+all the grants that weren’t bugged). But I always load up and tinker for a few weeks when a sizable update comes in.

      KSP, by contrast, was disappointing for me. I know that’s more my fault than the game, and I was still happy to pitch a few bucks into their Early Access. But I bounced off it so hard for a few days and ended up not touching it since. I’ll give it some time…

  6. Mr Coot says:

    I found the tutorial execution sequence a bit disturbing and as I was playing it thru I determined to leave that part of the game unfinished on principal. However, the player loses control of the decision-making quite early in the sequence, so my plan to leave the convict indefinitely in the execution chamber was undone and I watched helplessly as the story drew to a close. The effect of the line art and minimalist story was strange and powerful, as were the morbid technical preparations.

    I dunno how I feel about executions as a game mechanic tho’. Possibly embrace them with alacrity when they are divorced from the human back story.

  7. JohnnyPanzer says:

    I treat their alpha videos as podcasts. I often put one on in the background when I’m working at the computer, they’re just so damn entertaining.

    • TobleroneRoloCombo says:

      I wonder if they’ll have the same nostalgia that game demo videos from the ’90s have now…