Project Highrise: Finishing Capitalism

So I’ve gone back to Project Highrise, which incidentally has just today released a new DLC set in Vegas. Oh – it released on the 14th, rather, which is when I’m writing. Anyway, I’ve gotten into the habit of playing Project Highrise when I’m also doing chores. I’ll set up a construction project for my workers, wander off and do the vacuuming, and then come back to a completed unit. Assuming you haven’t done anything stupid, it’s a pretty low-maintenance game. Anyway, this got me thinking. Rather than building up your tower to some huge number of floors, why would you not just leave it where it is? Why not just let it run for a week and come back to all of the dollars? 

Let’s run a quick backstory. At the end of each day, you get paid by everyone who’s renting in your building, and then you use that money to build new floors. You have to spend in a way that increases your income, so that you end up with this lovely snowball effect and millions of dollars. As you build higher, your income gets bigger, and you’re subsequently able to build more expensive units. You can move from tiny studio apartments to two-floor lofts, or small offices to huge commercial giant HQs. These bigger units also pay higher rent, so it all sort of escalates really nicely.

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You can see in that image there, in green just below the dollar bill, at that point I’m getting $18,672 per day. So as a player, I’ve got two options. Either I can use that money to build more things and get more money, or I can just piss off and do the vacuuming, and just let it all accumulate. Once I’ve got a stable system going, with enough cables in the right places, and all the correct services (plumbers, housekeeping, etc), it’ll all take care of itself. You don’t actively have to maintain anything. You can just earn the dollars.

So if you don’t need to earn more money and make a bigger building, why would you bother? The obvious answer is because you like the game and you want to keep it going, but it’s interesting that the game doesn’t make you do well. If I never made any advancements from my $18.5k daily income, the game would not give a shit. I’m not punished for it at all. Compare, say, Dark Souls, where if you don’t upgrade your character you’ll get pounded by the skeletons in the next area. In that situation, the game itself requires you to keep getting stronger – well, technically it doesn’t, because you can just tough it out, but the point is that there’s consequences for your lack of upgrade. That’s not really true of Project Highrise. There’s no consequences for stagnation.

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If you were to read this game from an economic point of view, you might argue that it’s a proponent of capitalism, in the sense that you’re supposed to increase your income for the sole purpose of having more money. I’m not entirely convinced by that argument, because in Project Highrise the money doesn’t really do anything. I mean, you can use it to make the building bigger, but it doesn’t mean you can buy a nicer car or a bigger house or go to the opera more often – it’s a closed system, with no competition against other building managers, no reality outside of this piece of real estate. I think more accurately we might say that you build the building up for the sake of building the building up. There isn’t really a point, or a goal. You just build for the sake of building – and yes, money is a component of that, but money only serves here to make your building bigger.

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The fact that you’re not disadvantaged by stagnation sort of emphasises the point. This game isn’t going to punish you if you don’t want to build up and get more fancy. You won’t be able to access certain higher-tier rentals, but that only really matters if you’re invested in getting to those levels. The game doesn’t coerce you to unlock them (not in the same way that Dark Souls punishes you for not levelling up, say). If it was a more capitalist game, where money was the real goal, there would be some element of threat or competition around it. The fact that there’s not really illustrates the point.

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At first, my initial reading was that Project Highrise was built on a capitalist structure – not so much because of the money thing, but more because of the open-ended nature of the game. To my knowledge, the game doesn’t have a ‘hard’ ending, which is to say that it doesn’t have a definitive end-point. That’s a little bit capitalist, in the sense that capitalism doesn’t have quote-unquote an ‘end-goal’. There’s potentially an unending accumulation of wealth, which is theoretically aligned with a capitalist outlook. There are practical limitations, in the sense that you’re only allowed a certain number of floors or living space, but you can maximise the profit from that space and then move onto a new building. Because you’re not trying to achieve a specific goal, it seemed at first that you were just trying to earn as much as possible.

However, looking at it now I do think that’s a bit ungenerous. I’m not convinced the money’s the goal – mainly because it doesn’t really do anything other than support more building. You’re not punished for not accelerating your accumulation of wealth, and there’s no external threat to your income (no competition etc). It’s really just about fucking around and constructing a big-ass building. You can take whatever approach you like to that – maybe you want a massive shopping mall, or a office block – whatever. It really doesn’t matter – and what we mean by ‘it doesn’t matter’ is that the game isn’t going to bully you. It’s open to letting you do basically whatever you want.

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