This month's effort is something slightly different from my usual random ramble of rambley random words. Instead, I bring you my first ever 'piece' of 'work' submitted for editorial approval upon a website upon the Internet. It...didn't make it (which I fully expected, in fact I reckon it'll take several dozen of these before I get good at it, you know, like the knack you get for eating the orange bit out of Jaffa Cakes without getting chocolate on your fingers), and thus, with this gaggle of words left lying around I thought they could be used up on this fine forum. Hey, it's just those harsh market realities that we're all facing, you gots to get those words out there wherever you can these days.
Giant Bomb Dot Com (it's a website) will forever remain my home for this sort thing, I just thought I'd serve up something a little more...considered.
Take it easy duders!
A Tale of Five Cities
“I'm dreaming of a city
It was my own invention
And I put the wheels in motion
A time for big decisions”
- David Byrne, What a Day That Was
A yawning black chasm stretches across the face of my 15” CRT monitor, save for a few lines of white text and a single pulsing rectangle of light. There is naught inscribed upon that curved sheet of darkness, yet. I’d heard whispers in the wind about the program that I was about to execute for the first time, that it was a digital construction set wherein I could mould a complete living city from the dirt itself. From nothing, I could raise a bustling metropolis hewn from silicon and machine code. Or, if I felt so inclined, raze my shining beacon of civilization to the ground by unleashing earthquakes, floods, fires, plane crashes and rampaging monsters upon the huddled masses of my once great city. That’d be pretty cool, too.
I am, of course, talking about SimCity Classic. Which was the MS-DOS version that saw release in 1993, itself a port of 1992’s SimCity for Window 3.1. I was, of course, four years late to the Maxis party at that point, but give me a break, I was only about six years old at the time. Even at that point in my life I knew video games and I would get along just fine. We’d formed the basis of a happy relationship a couple of years back. That being said, this step up and into a completely new type of game was something slightly scary to both of us. However, it’s my distinct pleasure to report that we got through this stage of our partnership; and both me and SimCity remain great friends to this day.
SimCity Classic was one of my very first forays into the peculiar landscape of actually practising the art of creating something inside the world of a video game. Unfortunately, I’d missed out on great groundbreaking games such as Populus and Civilization at that point in my life (although we’d become well acquainted at a later date). Quite apart from the more common, and awesome, genre stylings of running and jumping whilst moving from left to right through a level, shooting Nazis in the face with chainguns or kicking people off motorbikes at 120 mph. All of which are fine undertakings, of course, but being introduced to a game where the core concept associated very strongly in my young mind with the idea of playing and building with toys such as Lego or Meccano, was extremely exciting and intriguing. And indeed still is, what with the latest version of SimCity due to be released on the 8th of March, 2013. A date to which I have been keenly looking forward to for a number of years now.
Although the toolbox given to me as a newbie civil engineer was relatively limited by the standards of the next game in the series, it still afforded me a vast array of options at the time. And quite apart from the physical placement of zones and buildings and infrastructure, there came the involved systems that governed the growth and success (or lack thereof) of the entire city. These aspects, such as managing pollution, taxation, crime and balancing the mix of zones all helped to create a strong running narrative for my city. Having to deal with these interconnected systems which fluctuate hither and thither, allowed the game (which has no traditional win condition) to feed you a reason to keep playing. To keep you striving for continual improvement, to go bigger and better than you had done so before. All of these things hooked me as a child, and those sweet gameplay barbs are still buried beneath my skin, 20 years later.
The solid groundwork laid down by Will Wright and Maxis was expanded upon in 1994 with the release of SimCity 2000. Once again though, events conspired against me and I was unable to get in at the ground floor of this fantastic addition to the series. Instead, I had the privilege of playing the Windows 95 version of the game. In late 1995. On the mighty CD-ROM format, no less. Once I got that brilliant big PC box into my grubby little mitts, I found that to my no great surprise, it was well worth the wait. Maxis did the usual host of things that you’d expect from many sequels of past and present. They added more stuff, made graphical refinements (one of the biggest changes was the move to a dimetric camera perspective) and allowed the player to extend their influence beneath the surface of the earth. Lots of little things, that when mixed up together in this giant sandpit of a game made for new ways to experience the simulation of being the founder and mayor of small seaside industrial town, or the master of a sprawling metropolis of the future.
With SC2K I was able to create on an even grander scale, I had even more space within which to forge my vision. With this bigger pit of sand came more playthings to dump into it. I could generate non-polluting electricity from the wind, create airports and seaports, dictate a host of ordinances to my citizens and build a whole new variety of entertainment and utility buildings. However, one of the features that I spent the greatest amount of time with was the powerful god mode that you had during the map creation process. Hours could pass before I settled on a design and began my city. Sometimes I would just make and remake the landscape without even building anything, just testing out whether or not I could create 500 metre tall calderas, or perfectly symmetrical V-shaped valleys.
Forever, the march of progress treads. And with that progress (and success) throughout the 1990s there came a knocking at the door of Maxis in 1997. A pretty big knock, from a pretty big fella called Electronic Arts. The door was answered and we got our next SimCity game in the January of 1999. SimCity 3000 was a Maxis title that I actually did manage to catch upon it’s release!
Whilst Maxis reports that it was largely left to it’s own devices when creating the final product that we got on our shelves, it is also an oft-held belief in the video game industry that when you have a larger company holding onto your purse strings, changes can be made throughout the creative process that may be less than desirable. Far as I can tell, no such mockery of the art of simulation was made with this damn fine game. Of all the releases so far this is probably the one that I poured the most hours into. Which is maybe slightly at odds with the fact that I feel I don’t have a whole lot to say about it. Once again they added more stuff and things, gave the art style an overhaul and further refined the UI. However, there was one major step forward in gameplay with the inclusion of being able to wheel and/or deal with your neighbouring city-based chums. Too much trash? Ship it over to them to deal with! A pretty neat idea, and one which I think formed the basis of what we’ll see with the online trading and collaboration between friends in SimCity 2013.
The turn of the millennium passes by, and many other games have entered and remained lodged in my mind, slowly squeezing out the real estate once occupied by SimCity. I still loved the concept, the gameplay, the mechanics, the art and the audio. But there was just so much other gaming goodness to gorge upon at the time, this is why I have to reveal that SimCity 4 holds the unenviable position of being my least played SimCity game. I just didn't have all the time that it required of me, or, maybe, that I required of it. The year is 20003 and three dimensional graphics are used in a SimCity game for the first time (the 64DD version doesn't count). Apart from saying that it was a good game and that I liked it, I can’t really recount for you that it was much of a life-changing experience. Maybe I was just growing away from SimCity?
It is now 2013.
Nope, scratch that. I love SimCity all over again! It may have taken a decade (maybe the time apart did us good?), but playing through that hour long demonstrative slice of simulative pie about five times in a row really got the ole RCI indicators going again. Over the course of the first few minutes of play it became obvious to me that Maxis had put a lot of work into refining the experience from an information and control perspective. They make the surfacing of useful information so much quicker and easier than before, and in many cases, actually pleasant. All the clever artistic tricks they pull off with the mapping of data, the gorgeous use of colour and tilt-shift, how easy it is to create both a regimented grid-based city or just go completely crazy with those curved roads and the way the audio actually syncs up with what is going on inside of the simulation is a superb touch as well.
It brought the experience closer, in some ways, to the kind of feeling that I got when playing The Sims for the first time. I felt like I could peer right through a window and into a digital being’s life, see where they went and what they did. It’s this minute attention to detail contrasted with being able to affect those massive sweeping changes for thousands of people with but the click of a mouse that makes it so very clear to me that Maxis has poured so much detail into every level of the simulation this time around, that I feel I shan’t be wanting for much else for a good while.
Oh, and curved roads. My god, the curved roads.
“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but the beauty is grim.”
- Christopher Morley