Ask a random person in the street about their favorite hobbies, and it’s unlikely that they’ll say “urban planning and traffic management” - yet when video games began to take off in the late 1980s city-building was one of the first breakout hits, in the form of Maxis’ SimCity series. The huge success of the “Sim” series in general drove conversations about the value of simulation, as part of the general 1990s optimism about virtual worlds being the future. Sim games became the subject of academic critiques of their philosophy of the world, while city builders became a lot more than a game: in 2002, SimCity 3000 was used as a semi-serious test for mayoral candidates in Warsaw.
After a slump caused by a difficult transition to 3D graphics, city builders are back in vogue. Following what is widely considered as a disappointing SimCity reboot in 2013, Finland’s Colossal Order recently released Cities: Skylines to critical and financial success. But simulations require assumptions; they are, after all, written by people who have their own conscious and unconscious views on how and why cities work. The limitations around designing a video game - the fact that each asset must be modeled and textured, and that each transport option requires a huge amount of work to simulate - mean that Cities: Skylines is as stripped down and streamlined an articulation of urban philosophy as Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse or the New Urbanists' models, and just as interesting. We investigate 10 things this game tells us about 21st century urbanism, after the break.
1. There is a top down focus on layout, not the buildings
Other city-building games have taken direct inspiration from real buildings, with the SimCity series cheerfully cribbing and renaming buildings local to the development team, as well as including intentional replicas of famous landmarks. But Skylines does the exact opposite: every building is a generic idea of what a shop or an office would look like. Although the prolific modding community is rapidly stuffing the game with representations of landmarks and monuments, and plans are afoot to bring European style, wall to wall buildings into the game, the fact that the release version of Skylines tries to avoid evoking any individual style leaves it feeling a little like nowhere at all. Clearly it would be extremely difficult to increase the art team’s workload by demanding the inclusion of several different styles of architecture, but the non-committal architecture coupled with an ever-so-slightly bland color palette places the focus on transport networks rather than the buildings themselves. Part of the fun of the game is the puzzle of finding a good traffic solution, but it also demonstrates a classic urban planning view of top down cities - where the layout is king and the buildings are filler.
2. Cities are made of constituent villages
If you can’t build an identity around a city’s buildings, you can build one out of its districts. This feature allows you to paint districts over your city and divide them into areas that can have individual policy applied to them. For example, the central commercial area can encourage big business, or the university area can ban high rise development but encourage a different high by legalizing marijuana. This idea of a city as several villages is hardly new to urban theory, but this is the first time it has been simulated this well - and more than anything else in the game it gives the cities you build some kind of identity. The district system encourages the development of architecturally distinct areas of a city, so clearly Colossal Order do believe in cities having some kind of unique character, even where the limitations of game development hold it back.
3. The Present is Now
Interestingly, the game doesn’t really do heritage. Again, that’s probably down to developer limitations, but every building is at least contemporary in style, with no concessions to 19th or 20th century ideas of what cities should look like (with the exception of some industry, which goes for a cheerfully Dickensian smokestack look).
Not only are the traditional styles of architecture present in some games of the SimCity series absent, but there’s no option to preserve buildings either. Every building is always up for upgrading should conditions change - there’s no simulated World Heritage Committee or Athens Charter here. It’s another top down approach which really denies individuality to cities at the most zoomed in levels. It makes sense from a development perspective and, in a game, is probably entirely fair, but it’s interesting that both SimCity (2013) and Skylines moved away from representing chronological progression and present contemporary architecture as the only form a city ever takes.
4. The Future is Upgrades
In fact, as buildings ‘upgrade’, their design becomes even more futuristic, with low density housing often ending up looking like a modern eco development and the housing-projects-style tower blocks becoming glassy condominiums. The ‘upgrade’ always means more wealth and more contemporary architecture. It makes sense in terms of game progression, but also totally accepts the idea of gentrification as both desirable and inevitable; normal suburbs always become large villas and the city center sees more towers, more wealth and more density, which is always better. Asking for a game that simulates the effect of rising house and land prices may be asking too much of the developers, but what does happen to the residents of ‘upgraded’ homes? Do they also upgrade to wealthier, more modern people, or do they just disappear?
5. Class division is history
Skylines only simulates housing demand as one demand, rather than simulating separate demand for affordable and luxury housing. Previous games, including the most recent SimCity, have separated wealth and demand, so you could have a huge demand for affordable housing but very little demand for mansion blocks, which translated into much more complex interaction between classes. It’s interesting that the American SimCity series placed this importance on wealth as an independent variable that allowed for the development of large poor districts or high rise tenements, whereas Finnish Skylines doesn’t treat this as a large issue. Skylines seems to assume that ‘upgrading’ the housing of an area ‘upgrades’ the conditions of those who live there, where Maxis has always made it clear that doing so simply shuttles the poor elsewhere, and it’s difficult not to relate this back to the viewpoint of the respective developers - class division and inequality being a much more pronounced problem in American society than it is in the more egalitarian Finland.
6. Roads are still king...
Like most city builders, the roads in Skylines are lifelines in a way that Le Corbusier would recognise. Even more, by moving the simulation from statistical modelling (where city life is simulated based on abstract data) to agent based (each person and service is individually simulated, and acts according to individual needs) means even more of an emphasis on roads. In statistical games, a traffic problem was a nuisance the game was programmed to complain about, but Skylines’ agents can’t do anything if they can’t move. Traffic clogs mean, for example, that the neighbourhood on the river is suddenly full of corpses because all the hearses are stuck in traffic. That much focus on roads is probably unavoidable in this genre, but it is interesting how much modding for previous city-building games focuses on getting incredibly realistic roads and highway junctions, rather than other transport solutions.
7. ...but other forms of movement are more important
Colossal Order being Finnish also means that their conception of a city is one where cars are not the default, even if roads are king. The public transport options provided are the standard city-builder set of heavy rail, underground rail and bus systems, but the focus on providing different routes that actually move people efficiently is new, and resembles the heavy focus on public transportation in Helsinki. Skylines also seems to reject SimCity’s dictum that only lower and middle class sims use things like buses, as wealthy people seem perfectly happy to rub shoulders with poorer ones in Skylines’ public transport.
On top of this, people in Skylines are quite willing to walk anywhere, possibly taking inspiration from the fact that although Finnish people are the least likely to walk in the EU when they do walk, they walk the longest distances (a statistic that is likely related to the country's low density). Provide people in Skylines with pedestrian paths and they will happily cross half a city rather than drive, something that’s very different to the Californian, car centric idea of movement that other games have shown. Skylines is the first game that really provides for pedestrianism as a viable way to get around by providing separate, draggable paths. Disappointingly, the Northern European viewpoint didn’t extend to cycle paths, but it would not be surprising if they showed up in future DLC or modding. Also unsurprisingly, the American SimCity’s DLC contribution to mass transport so far includes electric cars (sponsored by Nissan) and, of all things, Zeppelins. No bicycles, though.
8. Noise pollution is a genuine problem
The inclusion of noise pollution as a complaint is an interesting touch. While media has always depicted pollution affecting the happiness of residents (broadly, they’re not in favour), Skylines is the first to include noise pollution as an explicit problem. They go so far as to show it as a medical problem that will require treatment if left unresolved, something that is both accurate and miles ahead of many other forms of media in acknowledging noise pollution as an issue. Considering that city-builders have always held that more density is better, factoring in the inevitable noise this brings with it as a problem brings an element of criticism to the way Colossal Order pictures cities.
9. Environmentalism is mostly NIMBYism
The concern about the environment is prevalent, with windfarms, eco districts and water saving initiatives all making an appearance. Pollution itself also has a larger than usual visual impact, turning the ground purple and killing trees. These visual cues indicate an implicit endorsement of sustainable development, as does the focus on public transportation, but it’s hard to square this with the general city-building philosophy of unending, rapid growth. Polluted areas upset the residents that live in them, but there are no wider concerns if you have an industrial area the size of Pluto or, for that matter, if you turn every water source in the game purple from sewage and industrial pollution, just as long as your drinking water is sourced from a clean area. It may be more of a gameplay concern than anything else, but these touches could be seen is a smart, ironic comment on the middle class nature of the Green movement in Europe.
10. Money and Possessions are the road to happiness
The popular follow-up to Maxis’ SimCity series The Sims attracted criticism for promoting a consumerist view where happiness was tied to consumption; the player literally buys fulfillment by upgrading beds, TVs and sofas. In some ways, Skylines repeats the same trick - in some ways it has to. Citizen happiness is tied to building upgrades and importantly, land value. You please citizens with high land values and available services (which raise land value) and displease them with crime, traffic and pollution. In fact, this system goes so far that residents seem to hold no opinion on death other than being unhappy when the hearse swarm makes traffic bad. It’s a simplistic view of what makes cities work and what makes people happy, although it’s admittedly too much to ask for a detailed simulation of individual mental states. It’s also notably less consumerist than SimCity (2013) where casinos and nearby retail were the key to the hearts of sims.
Make no mistake, Skylines is an excellent game. It fulfils the wants of city-building fans in a way that the most recent SimCity failed to do, was built to be easily modded and will be supplied with both free and paid updates and expansions from Colossal Order for some time. Colossal Order are being rightly rewarded with impressive sales and critical success, but it’s worth noting that Maxis’s SimCity series was so genre defining that Skylines owes it a great deal, right down to the default 9% tax rates. With the genre opened up so successfully, maybe it’s time for future games to start moving further from the conventions created by the 1990s, Californian viewpoint of Maxis and allow a much more open view of what cities could be.