For various reasons, playing video games has mostly lost its appeal over the past couple months. And while that is rather frustrating for someone who makes them, it has made me more appreciate those that can still hold my attention. One of the games I (re)turned to in desperation was Simcity4.
This (best by far) version of the (best by far) city-building series came out in 2003, a fact I don’t believe. I reinstalled it to ‘research the interface or something’, but as soon as I saw a little truck moving a little family into their little house, I was hooked. Within 20 years, that family lived in a glistening metropolis. Or, they would have if they hadn’t made their home next to the power plant, choking on coal dust until I razed the house to make room for a motorway. Progress!
Simcity is pretty much the closest that games have ever come to real-world politics (at least in the mainstream, sorry Molleindustria.) You could argue about what angle it pushes, if any; it has a public health and education system, yet taxing the poor away works a charm. However, you can’t deny that it champions strong urban planning. And above all other planning theories or policies, it most encourages The Grid. It minimises busy intersections, maximises useful space for zoning, and the straight lines are just faster to drag out. Look at any game bleakly ( religiously? ) and it can be reduced to ritual. SimCity has the ritual of the grid. Road tool + draw a 6 by 10ish rectangle + zone fill + repeat.
My mind often wanders while playing games. Generally I’ll come to during a cutscene or loading screen. When I drift off in SimCity I make tract housing & soulless business parks. I realise I’ve filled a plot with a thriving, if soulless town, and start up a new city. Cathartic in a way, but it hardly seems in spirit of the game. I have no connection to the towns. No road is special, I have no problem mowing entire suburbs down to expand a road out or lay rail tracks. My ‘gamer instincts’ drive me to maximise my time/effort. I find the most efficient playstyle (the grid), switch off my brain, and stop ‘playing’. No! This is a game I loved, a game that helped define my ideas on what this medium can do, a game that makes urban planning fun, for fucks’ sake. So I turned to Thief.
‘Ghosting’ is a player-enforced difficulty level for the Thief series, where you can’t be noticed at all, you can’t damage AI or knock them out, and some other specific rules must be obeyed. If you know the game well enough to play on auto-pilot, ghosting may be the only way to stay engaged with a series you love. By reintroducing new challenge, unfamiliar rules, a player is forced to pay attention to actions they would otherwise have made without thought. A guard in a doorway with his back turned becomes a difficult obstacle & puzzle, rather than an automatic blackjack+hide body+proceed. Another example would be playing the pacifist, or following traffic laws in GTA.
I applied the same idea to SimCity, and proclaimed myself some new commandments. No neighbouring blocks could be the same size/shape. Roads can only be straight for a certain length. No pre-planning motorway/transit routes. Minimise bulldozing. Suddenly I had cul-de-sacs, wiggly streets, diagonal railways. The added challenge wasn’t laying down suburbs, but was coping with growth. No longer could I simply alternate one-way roads or force a highway through, I’d have to make elaborate roundabouts and monorail tunnels. Suddenly my cities had personality again. That road with the dog leg is way too congested but there’s no room to expand it. This old hotel was my first multi-story building, and I have to demolish it to make room for a bridge. I had to put that expensive curve in the highway was to avoid demolishing the zoo. I had rediscovered that feeling I had when a primary school friend showed me Simcity2000 (We made a single residential zone that spent all the cities funds and covered most of the map. I think 3 houses were built and immediately abandoned.)
A game is in the performance of play. But if you can put a game through the motions without being engaged with it, is that still play? Physical games often have house rules, or are adapted to fit the players of the moment. This keeps them fresh, suitable for different groups, alive. Just because video games have a computer to make sure the designer-god’s rules are followed doesn’t mean a player can’t build their own around them. Keep playing with the games you love.