Eagles soar in smokeless skies and whales glide through the clean oceans. Herds of horses (or perhaps giraffes) are the only inhabitants of the lush plains and old-growth forests. The simulated world of SimCity 4 is a peaceful place before you set about building your city. Boring, though. What it needs is urban sprawl, ribbon development along blacktop highways, strip malls and Dopplering sirens, chimneys belching soot, budget crises and strikes. What it needs, really, is problems – problems that you, the mayor, can solve.
That’s the paradox at the heart of the appeal of SimCity 4. Much of the fun that comes from playing the 2003 apogee of the SimCity series of city design and management games is solving problems: relieving traffic on this avenue, removing the polluting industries from that business centre, restoring a depressed neighbourhood to prosperity. But these problems have to come from somewhere. Next to the game’s peaceful, constructive, problem-solving side, it also nurtures the darker, more complex pleasure that comes from problem-creation. The tension between these two sides of its personality is written deep into SimCity 4; as we’ll see, it’s a reflection of the real-life systems and people that led to the creation of the game in the first place.
Key to SimCity 4’s enduring popularity is the fact that it can be enjoyed on a number of levels. Effective management can be satisfying in itself, given the game’s devilish complexity compared to previous versions and its dozens of competing variables. When things are going well it can be pleasant enough to simply sit back and watch the contented populace streaming along your ample boulevards while skyscrapers sprout around them – again, something that reached its peak with the gorgeous, hugely detailed, entirely 3D-modelled graphics of SC4. But those are passive pleasures, to be enjoyed once a city has been built. First you must play the game – and its split personality means two different styles of play.
You can plan ahead and build with care, tending to your city like a bonsai tree, guiding every stage of growth and clipping and tweaking until it looks just right. This approach is deeply absorbing and can eat up tens of hours of dedicated play; the quality of the graphics has always made a beautiful city a highly desirable end. But that can be a bit boring. Often, a player will just want their city to get big quickly. So indulge in SimCity 4’s kinky secret: the joy of unplanned sprawl. The city is developed hurriedly, with only the loosest plan in mind. Vast zones are laid out without much thought, in artless but easy-to-build grids, and with services added (maybe) as an afterthought. Obviously, this manner of play creates problems – but in SC4, that’s a good thing. Pretty soon, your city is a snarling deathmaze of smog, crime, poverty, dereliction and gridlock. Bliss. These problems must be fixed to keep Gotham growing, but they can be ‘fixed’ in the same haphazard way that the city was thrown up in the first place: quickly, cheaply and dirtily. Roads and train tracks can be punched through run-down inner cities without protest; new business districts can be founded on the outskirts without caring too much about the chaos this will ultimately cause on the roads. Each solution brings a batch of fresh problems.
This approach, with its swift returns and constant challenges, can be the most rewarding and most addictive way to play. Imagine that you lay out a residential district and it immediately develops into Snooty Corners, a rich neighbourhood full of attractive high-wealth houses and well-kept lawns. That part of the game map is pretty much done with – barring vandalism, there’s nothing more you need do to it, so it’s finished, dead, game over. But if it develops into Crystal-Methington, a crime-ridden hellhole full of empty lots and burned-out cars, well, game on, you’ll be revisiting there pretty soon. The appeal of creating a ‘perfect’ city may be what draws players to the game in the first place, but actually perfecting a city is a losing approach. When it’s done – admittedly after what could be tens of hours of play – what else is there to do? You can look at it, but that’s more like owning a fish tank than playing a game. Almost every game is a struggle towards completion and perfection: SimCity gives you the opportunity to reject that goal, and to revel indefinitely in play. Its creator, Will Wright, called it more toy than game. It’s a rare game that can be at its most fun when it’s played ‘badly’.
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