"There is only terrifying perfection."
June 10, 2019 8:11 AM   Subscribe

You Can't Beat An Unwinnable Game. But You Can Break It
In 2010, some random guy on the internet beat SimCity 3000. At least, that’s how articles on the internet described it at the time. What happened was a 22-year-old architecture student in the Philippines named Vincent Ocasla achieved gaming perfection. He painstakingly designed, without the aid of cheats, a city so complex and densely populated that it rendered all future attempts at SimCity pointless. It was beautiful and horrifying.
posted by the man of twists and turns (32 comments total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
posted by timdiggerm at 8:18 AM on June 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

This is my jam. Thanks for rounding up these links the man of twists and turns. :-D
posted by Fizz at 8:20 AM on June 10, 2019

The thing about SimCity is that it's an open-ended game. There's nothing stopping you, necessarily, from building a quiet, idyllic utopia and letting it run on its own if you want to.*

I've mentioned in a previous SimCity thread how SimCity made me a socialist. In most SimCities, it's the government that provides the essentials of life: power (Sims are electronic beings, after all), infrastructure, transit, healthcare, education (including college), and more. These services are paid for by taxes on the economic activity and value of land in your city. If SimCity were truly neoliberal, it wouldn't be the job of the mayor to build and provide hospitals and schools, it would be private business's job.

SimCity often pushes you to build and grow because that's where the active gameplay mechanics are. Building and balancing growth versus revenue and quality of life is the real challenge of both SimCity and urban planning. When you opt to remove the constraints, SimCity becomes a different game. If any of you are old school enough to have played SimCity 2000 for DOS with the Negative Interest Bond Cheat ** you've experienced this. In the case of Magnasanti, the constraint removed was concern over quality of life.

*Provided it brings in enough tax revenue to fund all the services provided.
** Caused by an overflow bug. Type FUND to get a 25% interest bond, then FUND again for a second bond. Take out a third bond, normally, and the interest rate overflows to negative. You can pay off the original bonds, and then it's free money every year.

posted by SansPoint at 8:30 AM on June 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

On the Idle Thumbs podcast, they played around with the beta of the 2013 Sim-City, said approving things about some of the new ways it displayed data about the city, and remarked how much a real urban planner would love to have all that data.

Then when the game came out, they and other people complained that it was too opaque. You couldn't tell what was going on and why, and got too little feedback about what effect your actions were having. And I thought, "Oh so more like a real urban planner then."
posted by straight at 8:43 AM on June 10, 2019 [16 favorites]

The most conservative thing about SimCity is how it hides just how much of a real city's land area gets devoted to parking. If it was realistic about that it would be training future urban planners, WarGames-style, that the only way to win with car-based urbanism is not to play.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:45 AM on June 10, 2019 [50 favorites]

I'd read about Magnasanti before yet somehow never realized or at least never really took in that there are no public resources, unemployment is high, and almost everyone dies before reaching 60. It sometimes gets pitched as a kind of brutal utopia, but squalid yet crimeless hellhole is more what you're getting.
posted by Copronymus at 8:45 AM on June 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Space Coyote: There's mods for SimCity 4 that let people build out suburban sprawl, complete with massive amounts of parking... but even those mods scale the parking down because otherwise the map would be, yes, more parking lot than actual zones.
posted by SansPoint at 8:51 AM on June 10, 2019 [5 favorites]

Addressing "THE ROAD TO MAGNASANTI," the video comparing Magnasanti to NYC:

I don't know or much care about Sim City, but Manhattan's problem is inadequate population density, not excessive population density. These fucking new people want to freeze everything as it is, so that their condos accrue value and so that they don't have any poor people around. Fuck their zoning laws, fuck their quaint neighborhoods and fuck them. What we need are fifty-story, pre-cast concrete tower blocks crammed full of recent immigrants, poor people, artists, and misfits who fled their home towns. We can pipe sunlight down to the streets. This town was never about architecture or history. It is about teeming hordes. The people are the neighborhoods, not the buildings. The rest of you can live in accordance with nature. Let's stack this thing till it reaches heaven.

This view, I concede, is not universally held.
posted by ckridge at 8:57 AM on June 10, 2019 [45 favorites]

Cities are organisms that grow, die, and decay as the environments around them change. I love how Cities: Skylines tries to model the effects of traffic, the city's circulatory system. Like SimCity, the game is about figuring out the underlying rules. If people can't move around, garbage and dead people pile up and the model of the city literally falls apart.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:18 AM on June 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

I loved SimCity when it came out but it was very hard for me as someone socialized within traditional European cityscapes to make sense of the car-crazy and inhumane nature of it. Building cities the way the game forces you to do went against all my instincts.

It all started making sense when I moved to the Bay Area ten years ago and realized, no wait, this is how they actually plan and build urban environments. This was not just a badly written computer model - there’s a badly written real life model the game is based on!

I haven‘t quite gotten over the shock yet.
posted by The Toad at 9:28 AM on June 10, 2019 [43 favorites]

They sucked his brains out! And it's fine to interrogate those underlying rules. I just don't feel like those underlying rules are as strongly ideological as these thinkpieces would have us believe. There's no requirement in SimCity to build a Magnasanti, or to focus on population as the primary metric. The most fundamental rule underlying SimCity is financial sustainability: are you bringing in enough revenue to cover the cost of providing services? If yes, you're okay. If not, you're in trouble. There's plenty to interrogate there, but this fundamental rule no more pushes the player to build a dystopian hellscape of skyscrapers than it does to build almost anything else.
posted by SansPoint at 9:33 AM on June 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Possible counterpoint from the developer of Cities: Skylines: How a video game might help us build better cities
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:34 AM on June 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

This was so fucking good. Thankyou.
The ending especially reminded me of the Douglas Adams's line talking about a world where time travel was open to tourists and developers:
[Now]...the past,’ they say, ‘is now truly like a foreign country. They do things exactly the same there.'
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. Which naturally reminds me of this.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:50 AM on June 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Tropico 3 (and later) had an interesting mechanic for blending car availability while accounting for parking. Parking garages were a building you could plop down by the road. Citizens would go in and grab their vehicle. Even El Presidente would sprint to a parking garage to grab his limo. These buildings didn't take up as much space as a sprawling parking lot, but they did take up some space. And were quite ugly. When traffic inevitably become more unmanageable, you'd have to bulldoze something and add another parking garage somewhere to increase car availability and reflow traffic. Which felt appropriate.

I loved SimCity when it came out but it was very hard for me as someone socialized within traditional European cityscapes to make sense of the car-crazy and inhumane nature of it.

In the original SimCity, there was one simple trick to get rid of cars and make your city slightly more European in feel. Build rails instead of streets. (You might have to build roads first and then replace them with rails; it's been a very long time since I played it). This will be much more expensive than roads, but I'd always use the money cheat anyways so it didn't matter.

In a way, it kinda broke the game. Traffic problems went away. Residences and commercial would flourish. Fire Departments and Police still functioned well despite having no roads for their vehicles.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 10:06 AM on June 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

This makes me recall what basically had me stop playing simcity. You always need money to run your city, which you get by taxes, but you could set 3 brackets. I recall that one of the best ways to make a "successful" city was to massively lower taxes on the wealthy, and jack the hell out of the rate for the poor.

More rich sims would move in, and the poor sims would leave - they just couldn't afford to live there. Once in a while, you just have to bulldoze some vacant houses. Which were previously occupied by the poor.

Where did the previous occupants go? Simcity doesn't care. It just reminded me how cities really do operate that way, and I couldn't really get over the fact that the game was encouraging me to be a jerk, instead of trying to make a functioning city for all.
posted by mrgoat at 10:26 AM on June 10, 2019 [23 favorites]

I've mentioned in a previous SimCity thread how SimCity made me a socialist.

In my (Cities Skylines) city Meadow i have jokingly named districts “Meadow Timber Co-op” and “Meadow Farm Collective”. Creating European-style cities with well-funded services and transportation systems makes sense. For things to go poorly you have to choose to be bad like zoning residential right next to polluting factories, not putting in enough schools, etc.

Cities Skylines is thoroughly enjoyable using the base game without buying expansion packs, unlike the last EA SimCity game i tried.
posted by D.C. at 2:24 PM on June 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

D.C. I've considered trying out Cities Skylines, but I'm able to get enough of my City Building fix from SimCity 4. And that at least runs well on my ancient MacBook Pro. Anything newer is a crapshoot.
posted by SansPoint at 2:28 PM on June 10, 2019

Yeah, Skylines needs a real graphics chip instead of Intel integrated graphics plus a non-ancient main processor (for all the simulation unrelated to graphics) and plenty of RAM.
posted by D.C. at 3:19 PM on June 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Skylines also has some serious programming constraints last I checked. I can’t recall the specifics but it was either limitations in memory addressing or being mostly single-threaded for Stuff That Matters.

That’s why it doesn’t let you use the whole map unless you mod it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:41 PM on June 10, 2019

In my unmodded game of Cities Skylines I found that making each zone a long 1x4 stripe with the narrow end fronting the road the buildings would grow in a strange fashion that ended up being quite unique. You can see there is a reasonable amount of parking in street parking and "back of building" parking, these are small, walk-up apartments and shops of about 3-5 stories high. They also seem to like to grow lots of trees for an urban forest effect, those trees are all part of the buildings.

I don't find Cities Skylines very satisfying to play, it's not "game-like" enough - it's more sandbox. Perhaps it's because it hardly penalizes you for having say, poor traffic management, not the way that Simcity 2013 does anyway, which was quite horrific. Neither does it punish you for making incorrect decisions about zoning / infrastructure - I recall it was very costly in early Simcity iterations to, say, build a new highway through already built up land, because you had to forcibly acquire private land and destroy their homes, in Cities Skylines you can just do it for free and no one seems to mind, you're the ultimate dictator, a bit like Communist China. Overall I liked Simcity 2013 a lot better because it was more realistic but it seems most people did not, sadly I don't think that game is getting a sequel...
posted by xdvesper at 6:26 PM on June 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Cities: Skylines

I dug into Paradox's other games and discovered they have one called Prison Architect In which you're supposed to build and maintain a maximum security prison.

I installed it on my iPad to see what it was like.

In the first 15 minutes of playing, I talked to the CEO(!) of the prison - no denial of the prison industrial complex here - more than ten times. My first assignment was to build an electric chair with a cell outside the door. Then me (a guard) and a priest escorted the inmate to his new cell while having a conversation about the ethics of the death sentence and whether this man deserves it or not. Then there was a series of Polaroids to click on, chronicling his crime: walking in on his wife and another man having sex and killing them both. There was nudity but it was strategically hidden by a blanket or another limb. The tutorial about the utilities inside the prison is the challenge that there's not enough electricity available to power the electric chair.
posted by bendy at 9:10 PM on June 10, 2019 [3 favorites]

It's interesting how all these city builder games are command economies with a paper thin capitalist veneer. The only mainstream game which acknowledges the obvious is Tropico, with its dictator. There's a new game with the awkward title of Workers & Resources: Soviet Republic which also admits its top down structure. That one looks quite interesting, and quite difficult.

In my unmodded game of Cities Skylines I found that making each zone a long 1x4 stripe

I've done something similar. Built very low density neighborhoods with 2x2 or 2x1 residential zones surrounded by at least 1 block unzoned around it. Have a mod which gives greater variety in street sizes, so I'd combine that with narrow residential streets, that feed into major thoroughfares. Planted lots of trees in the unzoned parts. Gave those neighborhoods the comfy feel of small town or the slightly less comfy feel of an upper middle class exurb. Was nice the game worked so easily with unusual zoning.

Skylines also has some serious programming constraints last I checked.

The biggest limitation is on traffic. 100,000 population is the cap on traffic. Anything over 100,000 and the traffic isn't simulated for the excess population. There are traffic mods for greater realism, but I don't think they can overcome that limit.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 6:29 AM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

I have City Skylines, which is enjoyable, but still play SimCity 2000 sometimes. I would love to play a city building game that let you build walkable dense cities instead of suburban sprawl. I have Banished, but building a small isolated village doesn't scratch the same itch as city planning.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:20 AM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

That video was excellent, full of Adam Curtis-style bleakness and foreboding with a tenuous connection to reality, but close enough to elicit feelings of dread. Magnasanti is a classic dystopia. A lot like that guy who played Civ 2 until it became permanent war between three massive powers, á la Orwell's Oceania/Eastasia/Eurasia.

Prison Architect, mentioned above, wasn't originally a Paradox title and I always thought it was intended as a satire, but I'm not sure. I found it unplayable not because of its design, but the explicitly evil goal of profiting off human misery. Cities: Skylines was a good successor to SimCity, albeit one with many problems of its own. Ultimately it drove me away because of system requirements but even before that I was beginning to find paving-over-nature as gameplay to be dissatisfying. The more recent expansion was brutally destroyed by my favourite city-building lefty youtuber DoNotEat. Ultimately these are just simulations, they must take shortcuts, but it's a warped reality they simulate, whether that's neoliberalism or state capitalism.

On the recommendation of one of the Three Moves Ahead podcasters I decided to buy Children of the Nile recently, a 2004 city builder based on Ancient Egypt. That game had more depth than almost any other city builder I've played, worth a look if you like the genre. Still, they all have a distinctly anti-nature vibe that I tire of. The sprawl is real.

If you like both city planning and city-builder games but baulk at the inhumanity as I do, DoNotEat has a fantastic series called "Power, Politics, & Planning" which uses Cities: Skylines to demonstrate the principles we are talking about here very effectively. You'd be remiss if you didn't check it out. While the simulations no doubt take shortcuts, their design principles and values are absolutely reflective of real world examples, in particular the cold inhumanity of it all.
posted by Acey at 12:37 PM on June 11, 2019 [4 favorites]

This town was never about architecture or history. It is about teeming hordes. The people are the neighborhoods, not the buildings. The rest of you can live in accordance with nature. Let's stack this thing till it reaches heaven.

This view, I concede, is not universally held.

That's basically one of the core ideals of Paolo Soleri, creator of the Arcology concept. Maximizing personal interactions by three-dimensional crowding, as well as going for three-dimensional energy/resource flows was the heart of the concept.

It's a very top-down approach, and the flaws in the concept are rarely addressed. Still, as a "machine for living", it's the darling of futurists and Sci-fi creators
posted by happyroach at 3:30 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Then there was a series of Polaroids to click on, chronicling his crime

Brr. There damned well better be a % chance when you execute someone of later receiving a message that DNA evidence has proved they were innocent.
posted by straight at 4:00 PM on June 11, 2019

Prison Architect, mentioned above, wasn't originally a Paradox title and I always thought it was intended as a satire, but I'm not sure.

Just to clarify, it's published by Paradox. The developer is Introversion Software, previously best known for Uplink, Darwinia, and DEFCON. They originally funded the game via crowdfunding, and the Paradox publishing deal is a fairly recent event.

Given the pedigree, I'm inclined to believe that it is a satire, much in the vein of DEFCON, where it gamifies a horrifying situation and trusts the player to interpret what they're seeing. (I won't comment on the effectiveness of the satire, as I haven't actually played it.)
posted by tobascodagama at 8:04 PM on June 11, 2019

First off, this is gaming a game with a limited set of rules interactions. Interesting as heck the (unexpected? to the creators) way the coded rules can be gamed.

I'm really tempted to contrast Magnasanti with how the Walled City worked/ functioned. There are similar constraints (limited land mass available in SimCity, Walled City's wall perimeter; no natural/ renewable resources). A large part involves gangs rather than an overall/ cohesive policing body - and massive social adjustments.
posted by porpoise at 9:46 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

The developer is Introversion Software

Based out of London, if that's a helpful data point in determining the satire-ness or otherwise of Prison Architect.
posted by entity447b at 10:25 PM on June 11, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I think given that it was a British studio and that privatisation of prisons in the UK is a fairly recent development, they were intending it that way -- but having played it, I can tell you it fails on that count.
posted by Acey at 12:38 AM on June 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I personally like Prison Architect and think it succeeds in what it's trying to do. Which isn't satire exactly, but more of a set of ethical dilemmas presented as a highly detailed tycoon type game. The details and complexity approach the levels of Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld (which, ironically, borrowed PA's character style). It's one of the few games where the architecture actually matters. For prisoner happiness, for avoiding violence, for preventing contraband.

There's nothing in the game which forces you to be evil. It's just as possible to build a Nordic style pleasant penitentiary focused on rehab, as it is to build an American style dark engine of punishment. Even though the initial tutorial involves an execution, subsequent prisons do not require a death row or an electric chair.

To me, the most disturbing part of the game was when you switch the map view to the electrical system. For the purpose of building generators and laying down wires. In that view, the way the wires and power nodes are presented to look exactly like a silicon chip. The lines etched on a motherboard. Prisoners, guards, wardens, and even you, the invisible hand, all part of some inexorable machine.
posted by Teegeeack AV Club Secretary at 6:12 AM on June 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Based out of London

I started to realize that when a mob boss prisoner was visited in the infirmary after almost dying in a brawl. He asked the brothers who visited him, "which one of you motherfucking shit-nuggets did this to me?"

And also, they call the stove the cooker.
posted by bendy at 4:46 PM on June 12, 2019

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