INSOMNIA

Videogame Art: SimCity (1989)

By Alex Kierkegaard / July 22, 2011

Everything is seduction and nothing but seduction. They wanted us to believe that everything was production...

Jean Baudrillard, Seduction


Videogame Art: Volume I

This will be a rather bizarre review. Bizarre because, though it appears overwhelmingly negative, it nevertheless inaugurates SimCity's induction into Insomnia's Videogame Art section. Now as regards my seemingly negative stance against a game that has been hitherto universally hailed as a masterpiece, I have this to say: the game is indeed a masterpiece, but everyone is hailing it as such for the wrong reasons, hence the generally negative tone of this review, and hence the unconventional nature of my approach; since, for the game's genuine achievements to shine through, and become easily discernible, what we must first do is disperse the cloud of false and misplaced praise that surrounds it.
   Still, in all fairness, it must be noted that I am certainly not the only person in the world who has a problem with SimCity. Until now, however, there was no one who possessed the extremely advanced theoretical background (not to mention the intelligence) that is required to figure out and articulate exactly what the hell was wrong with this game (and by extension its many sequels, spin-offs and imitators...), so the most everyone else's misgivings have amounted to so far were random, vaguely-worded negative remarks on various online message boards (with nothing appearing in print of course, or on any of the major online publications). An exception to this, and the closest to a real critique of the game's problems that anyone has come before now, is to be found in Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and The Time Rippers (1991), in which the player can come across a fictitious game called "Sim Sim", described as a "simulated simulator specially designed for creating simulated simulators", and in which "you can create a simulated environment in which you can create any simulated environment you want". All joking aside, do you see now what the problem with SimCity was, dear reader? I am guessing probably not; you can perhaps vaguely sense what it might have been, but can't quite put your finger on it, so allow me to do it for you.
   I will not devote much effort elaborating on what was great, even positively amazing about this game. I too purchased SimCity shortly after its release (or most probably, if memory serves right, a cheap pirated copy from my friendly neighborhood software pirate), slipped it in my Amiga 500 as part of my weekly or biweekly ritual in which I would quickly go through all the latest releases (bought for a song from the aforementioned pirate) to determine which of them were worth more extensive play time, and became immediately hooked by it, to the extent of foregoing all other games for several days. This reaction may be hard to understand for people who weren't there; for people, that is to say, who have grown up in the current environment where games of this kind are ubiquitous. But back then this was a new and amazing thing — NOT, however, because of its open-ended, goalless nature, as inferior critics and commentators have deluded themselves into believing (and consequently would have you believe), but simply because there were no other games at the time that involved complicated, large-scale and carefully-modeled construction of this kind (and all of it, moreover, unfolding in real-time, which was the other of SimCity's revolutionary innovations, as we'll soon be seeing). So THAT had been the hook, not the fact that once you'd built all that stuff YOU HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, and hence, finally bored out of your wits, simply reset the computer, tore the disk out, and went ahead and played something else, something less open-ended and goalless; something, that is to say, less boring (in other words something more challenging).
   So let us finally articulate, twenty-two years on, exactly what was wrong with SimCity. The game was a brilliant, unprecedented simulation of the city-planning and administration process. It allowed the player to build structures on a scale, and of a complexity, unparalleled by any other game prior to that point, hence its allure and extraordinary capacity to draw the player inside it and keep him there — at least for a little while. For the act of simply building, of simply producing stuff, can only ever be one part of the whole story; for the cycle of seduction to be complete, production should always be followed by destruction.

Baudrillard: "Production only accumulates, without deviating from its end. It replaces all illusions with just one, its own, which becomes the reality principle. Production, like revolution, puts an end to the epidemic of appearances. But seduction is inevitable. No one living escapes it — not even the dead. For the dead are only dead when there are no longer any echoes from this world to seduce them, and no longer any rites challenging them to exist.
   For us, only those who can no longer produce are dead. In reality, only those who do not wish to seduce or be seduced are dead. But seduction gets hold of them nonetheless, just as it gets hold of all production and ends up destroying it."

   What SimCity sorely lacked, then, we can now finally see, was some built-in mechanism of destruction with which all of that carefully and painstakingly accumulated "humming machinery" could become — whether slowly or quickly, gradually or suddenly — "removed from the order of the visible":

Baudrillard: "To produce is to materialize by force what belongs to another order, that of the secret and of seduction. Seduction is, at all times and in all places, opposed to production. Seduction removes something from the order of the visible, while production constructs everything in full view, be it an object, a number or concept.
   Everything is to be produced, everything is to be legible, everything is to become real, visible, accountable; everything is to be transcribed in relations of force, systems of concepts or measurable energy; everything is to be said, accumulated, indexed and recorded. This is sex as it exists in pornography, but more generally, this is the enterprise of our entire culture, whose natural condition is obscene: a culture of monstration, of demonstration, of productive monstrosity."

   It was to counter this monstrosity, then, this obscenity of unlimited production, and thereby to create at least a token amount of anxiety and trepidation in the player (that is to say, the natural concomitants of challenge and seduction), that Will Wright halfheartedly added the natural disasters in the game: flooding, tornadoes, fires and earthquakes, whose random and apparently will-less nature (apparently, because in reality it was Mr. Wright's will that was hiding behind them) would serve to assuage Christians, democrats, pacifists and other nihilists that, in this game at least, no "violence" was involved — "for it is the experience of being powerless against men, not against nature, that generates the most desperate embitterment against existence" (Nietzsche). And so the sacred function of destruction was finally relegated in SimCity, not even to a proper, full-scale computer-controlled adversary, but to a bunch of simplistic, dumb, and largely ineffective algorithms simulating "natural" disasters; a bunch of pathetic special effects behind which Will Wright was doing his best to conjure away and hide the fundamentally reversible nature of life and the universe.

Baudrillard: "A reversibility that can be seen even in natural catastrophes which intervene in the course of the world with consummate indifference, which explains why they exert a profound fascination. This is also the charm of the weather; insofar as it is unpredictable, it continues to terrify, and to fuel, the imagination.
   So it is with the smallest earthquake, the least accident, some terrorist act or other: these are all equivalent in the emergence of evil, in evil showing through like an inalienable dimension, irreducible to the rational order.
   There is no point deploring this — nor exalting it for that matter. These are quite simply the rules of the game. Everything that seeks to infringe these rules, to restore a universal order, is a fraud."

   A game whose lessons Will Wright failed to understand and take to heart, to code in sufficient capacity for reversibility in his game, which amply explains how, despite the initial rush of enthusiasm that grips the new player, he can nevertheless become bored and disillusioned with it so quickly. The game's initial phase is always exciting, since throughout the building process the player will inevitably set his own goals, being effectively challenged by his own aspirations. Once he has met those goals, however (which will happen when he has more or less seen all the different kinds of structures and configurations the code will allow for), challenge immediately disappears, and with it every last trace of pleasure that could be possibly extracted from the game. (And in fact many players, and certainly the more imaginative ones, lose interest even earlier, because they can think further ahead than the others and anticipate the boredom that is coming.)
   As for the small number of goal-centered, timed scenarios that the player could tackle in place of SimCity's main mode, and which could be won or lost depending on his performance (unclogging the traffic of a capital city, reducing the crime rate of another one, etc.), these were even more pathetic and ultimately pointless than the natural disasters, since they all involved ready-made cities, thereby negating the building phase which was the game's strongest point — indeed its very raison d'être. It is telling that the inclusion of these was not even Wright's own idea, but was suggested by the publisher Brøderbund in order to make SimCity "more like a game", after it had been rejected for precisely that reason by a number of other prominent publishers.
   Nevertheless, to finally present the other side of the coin, despite all these criticisms in 1989 SimCity was a must-play experience, and I deeply relished, and still treasure, every moment of those few days I spent playing it. The fact that I didn't keep playing it is by no means a slight against the quality of the experience of those hours, nor against the game's standing in the history of the artform; though it is a slight to the designers of all its descendants who failed to learn from its shortcomings — first among whom was Will Wright himself, who would go on to a lifetime of churning out one pointless pseudo-game after another, from countless SimCity ports and sequels (some of which cranked up the complexity to whole new levels, which was certainly something commendable, but which still failed to inject sufficient reversibility into the game), to the series of increasingly irrelevant SimThis and SimThat spin-offs; bland and utterly unremarkable copies of miserable realities, devoid of practically any illusion, finally culminating, on the one end of the spectrum with the microscopic management found in The Sims (2000) (whose MMO version would eventually follow in the form of 2003's Second Life), and on the other with the absurdly megalomaniac inanity of the recent and massively overhyped Spore (which was originally to be titled "SimEverything").
   However, and thankfully for us and for the health and future of this artform, not all those inspired by Will Wright would end up repeating his mistakes. A scant three years after SimCity's release, a group of intrepid developers from Las Vegas, Nevada would combine SimCity's revolutionary real-time logistical management with the equally revolutionary real-time tactical aspect of Tecno Soft's Herzog Zwei (1989) to give us, in the form of Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, the next step in the evolution of the videogame: the real-time strategy game (whose story I will also be relating eventually). Thenceforth we no longer needed Will Wright and his naive and misguided "pacifist" ways, and today we possess a great variety of remarkable titles in which, not only can we build majestic fortresses and cities, and continent- or even planet-spanning empires, but also tear them down to pieces and build them up again in endless, and endlessly reversible cycles — which explains why all the SimNonsense stuff no longer holds any appeal for us. And, to close this review with some deeply heartfelt advice, directed to all those struggling so-called "sandbox"-type "game" developers who have perhaps finally grown sensitive to the inherent deficiencies of their approach, and are wondering what they can do about it, the answer is quite simply

"...to reawaken the principle of Evil active in Manichaeism and all the great mythologies in order to affirm, against the principle of Good, not exactly the supremacy of Evil, but the fundamental duplicity that demands that any order exists only to be disobeyed, attacked, exceeded and dismantled."

Jean Baudrillard, Fatal Strategies