SimCity: Creating (Artistic) Communities

SimCity came about in a rather roundabout way. Will Wright, working on a completely different title, discovered that he had much more fun developing the level editors for the game than the game itself. Believing (rightly so, as it turns out) that others might share his interest in civic management, he eventually created a game that, though puny by today’s standards, is the grandfather of all city-simulation titles.

Thus, a franchise and a genre were born. Soon, gamers would be harnessing all kinds of zones, ordinances, and utilities to create masterpieces of design. Theme parks followed, as did hospitals, ski resorts, prisons, and even schools. The classic top-down look has been little changed since then, but other forms of expression changed the flow to keep things from getting stale. Where would we be without the disaster button, filling us with the power of Old Gods to rain down our displeasure on the unwary Sims of the cyber world?

Dozens of sequels later, SimCity still manages to retain its charm despite the plethora of offspring it created. Though SimCity 2000 took the game into 3D (with SC3000 and SC4 taking it even further), the original game can still be found on many computers, both in its original format and as the open-source Micropolis. Creating a metropolis that people not only can live in but can love is a harder and more gratifying experience than Wright himself ever probably suspected.

SimCity, however, is one of the few foundational titles that is still consistently played outside of the old-school gamer circle. Titles like Mortal Kombat and Blades of Steel, though they have their place in history, are largely ignored. Sure, people pay lip-service to them whenever something similar (that is, blatantly plagiaristic) comes out, but are these titles on most people’s “Best Games” lists?

This is largely understandable. New technology and innovation can lead to brighter things. Games could once be programmed by a handful of individuals. Now, dozens of people are required for even the most basic of AAA-title. We wouldn’t have gargantuan pieces of art like Skyrim without the tech. We also wouldn’t have it without the foundations of past games. Creators and some gamers understand this. The mainstream culture does not.

Our culture is obsessed with the new thing. The new summer blockbuster, the new beat, the next big thing. Our reality shows are all about finding drama or superiority in the new. In a proper balance, we thrive on the steadying power of conservation and the achievement of liberalization. Too much of either leads to stagnation. Things have to come in proper context.

Gaming is no exception. It is 2012, just six years after the Wii came out, yet the next generation Nintendo console (the WiiU) is already full-on into production. The PS3, hardly being the “decade-long” console that Sony hoped it would be, looks to become obsolete within a couple of years as well. Even the Xbox 360 isn’t far off from its ignoble end as a $49.99 refurbished special on GameStop shelves.

This is admittedly better than the old five-year cycle that had been the norm since the 16-bit era. The advent of online distribution has also softened this somewhat. Yet gamers are often more interested in the newer titles—good or bad—than they are in the classics. When Turtles in Time, a classic arcade title, came out, it sold decently but was panned as being too old fashioned. Would somebody call a Thunderbird old-fashioned?

With each passing generation of software, older titles get left behind in the dust. Emulators and other internet game services (GOG.com being my current favorite) fill the gap for the nostalgic, but they are on shakey legal ground or a small part of gaming revenue, respectively. Windows Vista made many 90’s games all but dead for the casual gamer who either can’t be bothered or doesn’t understand how to get around the OS’s wall of compatability. Besides, why bother with older titles when the NEW ones look and feel so much better; why bother playing the original John Madden Football when Madden ’12 is out now and ’13 is only a few months away.

Yet, from looking at SimCity we can see the basis of so much of what is to come. Resource management (in the form of money and taxes) is there, as are open-ended gameplay and a focus on a player’s imagination. In a time when most games played linearly, SimCity managed to break out of the box and put the player in the driver’s seat. THAT is interesting, particularly because it was no bigger of a game in terms of size than most other titles of its time.

All other art forms look to their past for both inspiration and recreation. Is Citizen Kane denigrated for being in black in white, as older games are for their simpler styles? Is The Sun Also Rises passé because literary forms have since moved on to newer fads? Is Turandot old news because Beyoncé’s new album is out?

Yet we have many video game critics who look down at older titles simply because of their age. RPG’s have progressed so far that Chrono Trigger can’t help but look quaint in comparison. The multiplayer in GoldenEye just can’t compete with the likes of Halo 3 and Team Fortress. You know the drill. Yet these are products of their times; why is it acceptable to denigrate these titles in favor of, say, Devil May Cry 4, which, with respect, is still largely the same game as the first, second, and third in that series (well, maybe not the second: most everybody agrees that one was a load).

Video games are susceptible to this kind of snobbery because, unlike the written word or music, the form of expression is constantly changing. Adventure games are largely relegated to niche gaming due to the fact that technology has made their mechanisms obsolete. Ditto the Rail Shooter, and to a lesser extent, the Brawler.

Some games have the shelf-life of an open can of tomatoes because many are treated as profit-moving bits of franchise rather than unique expressions. Each at-bat from a title is only so important as long as it can move units well enough to get to the next title, which promptly overshadows its predecessor. There is nothing inherently wrong with profit, nor DLC, sequelization, or any of the other oft-denigrated forms of capitalization of titles. It’s just that crassness sacrifices long-term success for short-term capital. When developers and publishers are living year-by-year, that may be the only thing they can think about, but witness the success of certain collections of classic titles, or the inclusion of past titles as easter eggs; it can be done, so long as the consumer is treated to an architecture of narrative, rather than a hodge-podge of hucksterism.

SimCity has gotten around that. By having its source code available to anyone who wants it, Wright (or perhaps Maxis or the other rights’ owners) realized that the time for profit had passed and that the time for artistic discussion had arrived. Anyone can access it and—if interested enough—can modify it. It has moved into the library of classic media: perhaps not as venerated as Citizen Kane, but viewed in the same vein. It is something to be appreciated for its own merits, rather than the merits of those games which came after.

This is an important stage in the growth of classic media: the relinquishing of control of the past to the consumer. Progress has already happened on certain fronts, but more is necessary. We have the works of Shakespeare, Bach, and the Fleisher Brothers in the public domain. SimCity has now joined them. When the last bit of shovel-ware is lost to the annals of history, SimCity will still be there, both in original and unmodified forms, creating communities so that people can learn from the mistakes of the past. It’s how communities grow: a little bit of destruction, a little bit of creation, and one’s eyes on the past and future.

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