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Here's How to Ruin a City

"Eventually, the corpses caused people to flee the city."

Cameron Kunzelman

Cameron Kunzelman

All images courtesy Paradox

Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.

The ethos of failure has grounded itself into the psyche of many game players who, in their yearning for "old school" seriousness, have accepted that getting pummeled into the ground until you memorize a particular set of events is good. Those failures, the ones that are supposedly instructive, are about making room for the player to succeed at something else later in time. You fail now in order to succeed then. You fight to transcend your limitations, and you feel good because you did it. Failures like the ones in Dark Souls (or Super Meat Boy or Call of Duty) are individual. They're about you, a singular player, against a machine that controls an entire world.

Cities: Skylines, by contrast to those games of failure, is a city creator game where you act as the unilateral master of small region of the world. You control every part of it: You can raise and lower the land, you can alter train routes or highway systems, and, of course, to create the streets and roads that the small simulated people use when they're living their day-to-day lives.

If you play the game the way it is intended to be played (outside of the infinite resources of "sandbox" mode), you might run into the pressure of being the totalizing god of these small creatures. Managing them is hard. You create the streets where their kids will grow up. You make the hard choice of who is going to be evicted to make room for the necessary, yet large, fire department that will save hundreds of lives over the next dozen years. You decide how much pollution one neighborhood can take, and you choose how much to suppress your working class population by denying them educational opportunities past elementary school.

Some of this algorithmic, meaning that these choices that you are making are planted as "optimal" pathways within the game's code and therefore its "rules." Dante Douglas called the game a "gentrifier's dream" for these reasons, and he's right; there is no escaping that the model of tracing development, redevelopment, revitalization, and other sundry terms holds onto some gross real-world ideas about how cities are supposed to operate. Success in these games means following the appropriate route for creating a city and managing its long life as it transforms from a small, local industrial economy into a mixed economy of material and intellectual imports and exports that depend, largely, on the area outside of it.

Considering failure in Cities: Skylines, then, means thinking about systemic failure. I was playing earlier, in preparation to write this piece, and my city was filling up with dead people. I checked my cemeteries. They had plenty of room. I checked my medical facilities, which (I think) are involved somewhere in the process. They might not be. In Skylines, dead bodies are carted from homes to cemeteries via hearses (which, weirdly enough, can carry up to ten bodies at once). Those hearses travel along roads to take those bodies to their final resting places.

It turned out that I had reconfigured a roundabout an hour previous that had created a pinch point in the traffic. It wasn't something that immediately ground the city to a halt. It was simply a route that caused the trucks hauling the agricultural exports from my city to get caught on a bridge, which slowed down the hearses, which prevented them from getting the corpses in a timely manner. While I might have been lagging behind on body pickup a little before, now every pickup was behind, and that starting compounding. Slowly, but surely, the city filled up with dead bodies.

Was it the roundabout reconfiguration, though? Or was it the lack of bus lanes, which meant that my busses were crowding my streets, contributing significantly to traffic despite not needing to? Or was it my lack of concern about creating specific bypasses for industrial traffic, which put those agricultural trucks on the same roads as body pickup? Where in this grand line of construction and planning did I go wrong?

Eventually, the corpses in the city caused people to flee the city. It was a compounding problem, which stacked on top of all of the other things, and the numbers started to tick down. Not a huge number, but enough that the costs of running all of my various social services overwhelmed the slim tax margins. The game wasn't over, but it wasn't worth continuing.

Where does failure rest, here? At what moment does one fail at Skylines, and more importantly, what is the critical difference between failure here and failure in any of those death-and-learning action games that I mentioned at the beginning? Game culture doesn't praise games like Cities: Skylines for their ability to discipline us into learning the systems of urban planning through failure and the brutal time cost of failing and starting again.

The reason for this, I think, is that it's hard to individualize these city building games. When you're killed by Quelaag's sword swipe, you know exactly what happened. You missed that dodge attack. But when you fail at the systemic game like Skylines, there's no one thing. It's a cascade of several different elements, all of which are interrelated, and none of which will bear the weight of the singular explanation.

Learning from failure in games, really learning, might mean moving from thinking about singular failures ("I missed pressing that button just now") toward thinking about systemic ones ("My way on understanding the relationship between housing and jobs in this game is incomplete.") It's not just about rote memorization, but the systems that drive any given simulation. Where the individualist thinking might help you recognize mistakes, it doesn't help you model how things should be. At best, it tells you when you did something wrong. Thinking systemically about failure means actively wondering about that "should be" question; what kind of cascade effect will an action have, and how will it make this world, and is that, in the end, good?

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