Prison Architect Escape Diary: Invisible Is The New Black

I can’t stop fighting. I wonder if this is a common feeling for prisoners, but in my case it’s literal. No matter how many times I press it, the button to lower my fists and surrender doesn’t do anything, and even though I’m cuffed, the guards still consider me hostile. That’s how I ended up unconscious and in the infirmary; the door to my cell in solitary opened, an armed guard saw me restrained and stationary inside, and immediately shot me twice in the chest.

This was a concern, at least until I pulled the greatest escape of all. I vanished.

Prison Architect‘s escape mode is compelling, but not without its problems.

Escape Mode flips the prison building and management simulation on its head, putting you in control of a single prisoner within a jail rather than the architect of the facility’s systems. You earn reputation points through acts of criminality – destruction of property, beating people up – which can then be spent to unlock traits for your character. Among others, those traits include Deadly, which gives you a percentage chance to kill a person with a single strike; Instigator, which increases the likelihood other prisoners will join in with whatever ruckus you create; and Quick, which helps you to outrun pursuing guards after whatever terrible deed you’ve just committed.

Gain enough reputation points and you can then also recruit other people to your crew, ordering them to follow, controlling them individually as desired, or possessing them in lieu of a Game Over should your current wrongdoer be killed.

Other than this, the game’s simulation is mostly unchanged. As you wander around a prison with WASD, guards will still patrol as before, prisoners will still follow their routines, and riots will break out should the seeds of dissatisfaction be spread too far and wide. It is exciting, in the way Dwarf Fortress’ own Adventure mode is exciting, to know that you are dealing with a simulation robust enough to stand up to multiple genres of game – at least, in theory.

My name is Wilders. I don’t know what crime I’ve committed, but I’m a newly arrived inmate at a high-security prison. I’m told it has three gangs – the infamous reds, blues and greens – and that riots are a regular occurrence.

But this is not my experience. During the first few days inside, not a single riot takes place. Instead I fill my time by destroying the toilet inside my cell, sucker punching guards and being repeatedly tasered unconscious. Soon, I’ve enough of a reputation to start expanding my crew. An inmate named Corner joins my group, then another named Ranger, then another named Wilson.

Levelling all these inmates can be a bit of a grind, requiring you to repeatedly create low-level mischief to get reputation points, to spend one of those reputation points to skip the inevitable punishments in a locked cell, and then to start again.

But slowly I’m making progress, and as I become Deadly, then a Skilled Fighter, then Tough, the reputation points come more quickly and easily. It helps that a lone prisoner, with no nearby guards or security camera to witness the act, can be assaulted with impunity. You can do the crime without doing the time – although I feel bad, I admit, that I am simply killing in exchange for points.

This strategy reaches its head when I recruit a fifth member to my crew, Smyth. Before I’ve bothered to unlock any reputation traits for him, I use him to start a fight in the canteen. I have time to throw two punches before he is immediately shot to death by an armored guard.

All of Prison Architect’s complicated simulation still being present means that there are avenues other than direct violence. You can sneak inside workshops and kitchens in search of contraband, which you can then sneak around metal detectors and stash in your cell. I take advantage of this fact to smuggle a wooden pickaxe back to my room and, under cover of night, start digging a tunnel underneath my toilet.

It takes a long time to dig that tunnel and when I emerge after clearing just four tiles, I am spotted by a patrolling guard and immediately beaten unconscious. Workmen fill in the hole while I serve time in solitary.

Next I decide to mix direct and indirect strategies. I use Wilson to beat up a guard and steal his keys, stashing them inside Wilders’ prison cell. Then I use Corner to kill an armed guard in a single punch, steal his shotgun, and hide the weapon in a cell neighbouring Wilders’.

That night, when the cells are locked and everyone is sent to sleep, I use Wilders to take the keys, sneak out of his cell, grab the shotgun, and head into one of the prison’s restricted areas. These are red-striped zones which are designed for prison staff only, and stepping into them as a prisoner is an immediate offence that causes all guards to turn hostile.

I’m not making an escape attempt, however. I’m heading toward one of the prison’s power generators. I get inside without being beaten to a pulp and have plenty of time to destroy the generator and every capacitor that surrounds it. In doing so, I plunge a wing of the prison into darkness.

Finally, the riots start.

In my time playing Prison Architect’s escape mode, this is my most satisfying experience. It would be better if I could be sure that the riots were the results of my actions, but it’s still good that they could have been a result of my actions. By damaging the generators, I’ve made life worse for my fellow prisoners, thus making them more dissatisfied, thus increasing the likelihood they might decide to raise fists and punch a neighbour in the head.

Two days later, during the third riot of my stay, I decide to make a break for it. I don’t even need to commit the violence myself this time. I gather my crew together – Wilders, Corner, Ranger, Wilson, and new recruit Hawkins – and I simply wait for the violence to start. When it kicks off, I swoop in, being careful not to hit anyone myself, and grab keys and a taser dropped by a guard.

And then I bolt for the front door.

The guards are distracted enough that this works surprisingly well. I get through the first locked door as guards open it to come streaming inside. I open the second and third locked gates myself with my stolen keys. It’s only when we’re outside, thirty, forty yards away from the first road gate that Wilders – my original prisoner, who I’m controlling – is shotgunned unconscious. Immediately my control switches to Wilson. I grab the keys Wilders just dropped, open the road gate, then the next, and…


But the game isn’t over yet. I need to get the whole crew out.

So the next day, I try again. Wilders, making a habit of it, is knocked unconscious again, but Hawkins and Corner reach safety. Ranger, sadly, joins Smyth in the morgue, killed only a few feet from breathing fresh air.

I’m now back down to just a single prisoner again: Wilders. The guy I started with.

Now on my own, I could choose to recruit a new crew to help me escape, but each new addition would simply give me more people I need to get out the front door. As I’ve maxed out all of my reputation traits at this point, I should be able to handle myself without backup.

After being healed in the infirmary and spending reputation to skip my punishments, I try again. It’s become routine now: punch guards till one of them drops their keys and taser; grab both and run for the front door; slip through some back rooms for a shorter route towards the outside; once out, immediately sprint south towards the bottom exits and freedom.

Everything goes to plan this time and I get through the last gate unhurt. There’s no one nearby pursuing me, and aiming with the taser is easy enough that if anyone comes close, I can easily take them out. I’m sprinting so fast that I’m even keeping pace alongside a vehicle driving on the road beside me. I don’t need to worry about that, because although it appears to have guards in the back, they won’t stop or exit a vehicle once inside, and you can pass through the vehicles without taking any damage.

And then, feet from victory, I find myself suddenly, inexplicably in handcuffs.

Did one of the guards on the truck spontaneously arrest me, even though I was outside and the vehicle was in motion? I don’t know. But I do know that even though I was in shackles, the game still considered me aggressive. The ‘surrender’ button remained at the bottom of the screen, encouraging me to press space to end my already-ended assault. I obeyed and received hundreds of reputation points, but the UI never acknowledged my surrender. I kept pressing the button and received thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions of reputation points. Then the game took away all of them.

My aggressive state didn’t end when I was taken to solitary. It continued all the way through my spell there – I had no reputation points, so couldn’t skip my punishments. It continued as the largest riot yet took hold of the prison, prompting the arrival of riot police. I could see them briefly as they passed my cell door and hear the shouting and shotgun blasts.

It continued as I was taken again and again to the infirmary until, eventually, somehow, it stopped.

Which is when I disappeared.

Prison Architect has a kind of fog of war which casts the world your character is unable to see in black and white. Normally this effect recedes slowly when you enter a new room, wiping away the areas outside till all that remains is your immediate surrounding. It’s an attractive and easily readable effect and, when controlling an individual prisoner, feels a lot like the walls are closing in around you at night.

But in this instance, the effect kept going past the walls of my cell until Wilders himself disappeared. I could still move around, but I couldn’t see him or anyone else, and the whole world was in black and white.

In the morning, when my cell doors opened, I walked outside the cell block and towards the yard. I could see through the black and white mist that a lot of the prison was damaged, but I couldn’t hear any violence happening. Occasionally a door would open, but no one seemed to take any notice of me as I walked through the three front gates when they opened for unseen staff. Or when I walked through the next two gates, which had been smashed to pieces during the major riot. Or when I walked off the edge of the map, ending the game.


  1. kulik says:

    I refrained from playing PA when it was in EA, and now that it’s out, i bounced right of it, the same thing happen to me with KSP. It just felt too overwhelming. I’m starting to question my strategy to not play games in EA.

    • rodan32 says:

      All I can say is keep at it. Get on Reddit or Youtube or any of the other forums. Both PA and KSP reward the effort eventually. I think with both of these games the issue is that the mechanics aren’t clear; nothing is really given to a player to start with. KSPs tutorials are getting a little better, but with either game, it’s helpful to be shown a couple of things first.

      • Morcane says:

        Any links good Youtube video tutorials for PA? I’ve searched myself, but either they’re already a bit old or the explanation doesn’t gel (for some reason).

        I find myself bouncing off this game for the exact same reasons mentioned.

    • Distec says:

      I haven’t gotten into some of the advanced systems of PA, but I didn’t have much trouble breaking into it. There were a few false starts where I realized I was building my prison inefficiently, but after that it was fine.

      KSP is the game that I keep going back to with zero success. I’m starting to feel like it’s just not a product for me, although I do appreciate that other people are getting their kicks from it.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      Interestingly, I’ve bounced off both of those games too. I don’t blame early access, though… I blame myself for not realizing that I don’t particularly enjoy management games anymore. Which is kind of odd, seeing as how the genre has a lot of similarities to the strategy and tactical genres, which are my darlings.

  2. LionsPhil says:

    Well, they certainly seem to be in the ballpark of “story generator”, if you’re taking cues from DF.

    …possibly not the story they intended it to generate, though.

    • BannerThief says:

      I keep trying to enjoy these ‘story-generator’ style of management games, but with the exception of RimWorld (which takes a number of aesthetic/design cues from this, but wraps it in a friendlier package), I’ve always bounced off of these games. I really think it’s down to bad tutorialization and wonky UI; Dwarf Fortress’ UI and control sceheme are, to put it bluntly, fucking terrible and anti-player, while Prison Architect does a woefully bad job of laying the basics on the table. It’s a shame really, since I just know that this/DF would be two of my favorite games ever if they showed even a little less active disdain towards the player’s experience.

      • Smashbox says:

        Rimworld is SO good. I really love that game.

        • mike2R says:

          Thirded. I’ve still not tried Prison Architect despite buying it on sale ages ago, but these articles lead me to Rimworld by a round about route and I’ve been playing it the last few days. Wow. Any Dwarf Fortress fan really should give it a try.

          Yesterday evening I nearly starved when a toxic cloud killed all the animals during winter, leaving me without food. Just scraped through and sent my hunters out after a herd of deer that turned up. But the deer won, after turning on my hunters en mass and knocking them unconscious. But fortunately they chased the last guy back to the base and got taken out out by my turrets, letting the survivors haul them off and butcher them before doctoring my so-called hunters.

  3. ribby says:

    I got into the staffroom, stole a lighter, and burnt it down (creating a hole in the wall to the armoury next door- and easy access to shotguns) then I burnt everything down! EVERYTHING! I must have killed dozens and dozens of firemen as they came to try to douse the flames, crawling through the burning corridors like some kind of shotgun-wielding demon-creature. I smashed a bunch of fire engines on the road outside and I guess they got the message, as they stopped coming after that.

    Eventually I got tired of the massacre (and my frame rate was weeping) so I left. Unfortunately, I still had 5 gang mates that I needed to get out, and they were all in cuffs, having been new arrivals at the prison when I’d decided to burn it down. At this point (perhaps with good reason) the few remaining guards seemed to have little interest in caring for the prisoners, so we were stuck.

    With no other way to end the game (you can’t escape if you’re in handcuffs, not because you move really slowly but because the game will not let a cuffed prisoner leave) one by one I moved the rest of the gang into the fire where they shortly perished.

    It was a pretty bloody and horrible escape, essentially.

  4. icecoldbud says:

    Once they get the bugs ironed out this should be a damn good game. I’ve tried playing the campaign but couldn’t finish part 4 or whatever its called so I tried just making a prison and found it to buggy to actually complete one. I’ll be back after they do some more patching because I found it pretty fun and I can see some pretty hilarious scenarios that are going to take place as you, lets say, make a tunnel from maximum security to the wardens office or security room whatever the possibilities are endless…snicker….

  5. LTK says:

    It’s like you died of your injuries in the infirmary, and whatever higher power deemed you unworthy to pass on to the afterlife, so your semi-corporeal form now wanders the land, his perception hazy, unable to see people or be seen by them, only perceiving a basic representation of the surroundings. Purgatory.

  6. TheAngriestHobo says:

    That score though.

    Yeah, my general feeling was that escape mode has some decent fundamentals down, but is a far cry from a finished game mode. It doesn’t help that most prisons available on the workshop at the moment weren’t designed to contain a dedicated player. NPC prisoners don’t generally make a habit of hopping through doors that staff have conveniently opened, but it’s a pretty obvious exploit for those of us made of meat.

    Ideally, I’d like to see Escape Mode take on more of an Oceans 11 feel. Something tactical, where each member of your crew has his own unique role in the escape plan, rather than the current system, which essentially has your buddies playing Follow the Leader while you bum rush the exit.

    Oh, yeah, and they seriously need to add more interactivity than “Take”, “Drop”, and “Hit”. Let me join a class. Let me streak around the prison. Let me talk to my wife and kids. Basically, give me an alternative to beating and being beaten 24/7.

  7. Chicago Ted says:

    I found that Shivs were ridiculously effective. I’d one-shot workers and prisoners, and two shot guards, unupgraded. A couple of guys with shivs can turn a crowded canteen into a charnel house, racking up lots of rep. Jump an armed guard with it and then you’ve got a shotgun, which will quickly lead to more shotguns.
    I’ve started riots in which my gang were the only living prisoners in the area. It was great seeing riot cops try to storm the alleyway I was chilling in and being met with a wall of lead.

    Though, in the early game I was punching my bed and toilet and then canceling the fight for some rep. Also, a good place to store contraband that you’re not going to use at night (weapons and such especially) isn’t in your cell, but a neighbor’s cell. At least in my prisons, where the consequence for all troublemaking includes a cell search, but not a search of the cell block.