I n Sim City, you play a faceless God-cum-architect striving to build a sprawling, prosperous metropolis, while providing thousands of citizens with the vital services that they need. In Harvest Moon, you play as the child of a farmer who has been tasked to maintain the upkeep of your family business while monitoring income, time, and the weather.
Though the games couldn't be more different story-wise, their goals are basically the same: make money and maintain balance. The same is true of one of the most popular resource management games recently released on Steam, Prison Architect. Instead of playing as a city planner or a farmer, though, you're the CEO of a newly opened private prison and you're looking to turn a profit.
According to Introversion, the English game developer behind Prison Architect there is no real endgame to the story. As a business person that makes their money from the labor produced by your inmates, there's an argument to be made that you should go into the game with the goal of keeping them healthy, happy, and safe. As a business person, however, it's your job to make a prudent cost-benefit analysis of how you allocate your finite funds.
You can, for instance, make sure that the more dangerous criminals are cordoned off from less threatening counterparts, increasing the chances of the latter's survival. But that choice comes at a very real economic cost of time and money that could end up putting you in the red. You can play the game with morality in mind, but the game's designers were quick to point out that morality won't necessarily "win" the game for you. To be honest, there is no real "winning."
Though Morris's assertion that Introvert didn't design Prison Architect to function as social commentary may seem somewhat suspect, certain parts of the game were clearly planned out with some degree of objectivity in mind.
Race, ethnicity, sex, and gender are all conspicuously missing from the game which at once encourages the player to treat all inmates uniformly while also ignoring the very real role that these identities play in the modern makeup of prison populations.
Much in the same way that black men account for a disproportionate amount of prisoners in the U.S., black people account for 15% of the U.K.'s prison population despite being only 2.2% of the general population.
Morris speculates that things like racial bias between individual inmates, ethnic groups, and even prison staff could eventually be added in later versions of the game.
Rather than bogging players down on deciding what's right versus what's wrong, Prison Architect throws a number of real-world scenarios at players with a frequency that demands that you think in terms of numbers.
How do you handle your prison becoming overcrowded? Is solitary confinement for dangerous prisoners humane? Do you penalize corrections officers who are too tired to monitor inmates or do you spend the money to give them longer, more restful breaks?
Every decision that you make in Prison Architect has a direct consequence, some of what are immediately apparent while others take more time to play out. Ultimately, the game leaves you with a distinct feeling of being damned if you do and damned if you don't, and really, it seems as if that's the point.