Some months ago I spent an inordinate amount of time playing Sim City 4. This game is a wonder of OCD micromanagement, with every second spent poring over tiny tax increments, the specific funding of your passenger rail station, and exactly how much money to put into each of your twelve hospitals.
I loved it not in spite of this micromanagerial aspect, but because of it. It absorbs every tiny mote of brainpower that your head produces with a bajillion tasks to constantly consider. According to the wikipedia entry on SC4, this complexity was a major issue with many – not least EA who published SimCity Societies in 2007 (which was widely reviled for being too simple and generally terrible).
While I think this path of game development is sad and often leads to terrible mistakes, I understand the need to move away from absurdly complex games to attract a broader market. These companies need to make money, and don’t believe that they will with frighteningly difficult games. The resounding success of the Wii is a perfect example of the intelligence in pursuing the casual games market.
However, this approach to publishing (whether it be books or games or movies) leads to tragedies like the cancellation of Arrested Development. Arrested Development was deemed too complex and innaccessible for new viewers (which it often was – when I worked at a video store I refused to let people rent the second season without having seen the first), and was cancelled. And moved around, and cancelled again.
And now I’m completely off-track. It’s far too easy to get me on an AD rant – I feel like the survivor of a tragedy, my mind recalled to the shock-inducing horror through any slightly related subject (there I go again, woefully belittling the survivors of tragedies). I like complex things (sometimes – my recent obsession with Heroes, which really only very surficially pretends to be a complex thing, doesn’t exactly demonstrate this). This is why I’ve recently become attracted to two games: Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online.
Both of these games are absurdly complex. I haven’t played EVE yet, but it seems to have all the complexity of real life human relationships (without the usual dumbed-down MMORPG aspects). Dwarf Fortress has possibly the most insanely difficult learning curve I’ve ever encountered, but this is possibly mirrored by an inverse and as steep satisfaction curve, eventually joining up with some understanding of the game and an unparalleled level of satisfaction. One thing that joins these three games, Sim City 4, Dwarf Fortress, and EVE Online, beyond their complexity and learning curves, is the lack of any official, designated story. The game presents you with a world, and allows you a fairly huge amount of space in which to carve out your own tale.
I saw Will Wright (the creator behind Sim City, the Sims, and the recent Spore) speaking here in Vancouver in the summer about exactly this. He talked about how he loves seeing the narrative his players create, with elaborate life stories told entirely within The Sims. I later found out he supports the Republicans, so I was forced to discount everything he said.
Regardless of Will Wright’s political affiliations, these games all do share this broad sense of user-generated narrative. They avoid one of the chief issues that has plagued games since the dawn of Pong – terrible stories, and worse writing. Some games have gotten this right and nailed down a great story, or been filled with delightful prose that brings the world to life, but most have fallen atrociously short. If a game allows its users to create their own stories – whether through the game itself or in interactions with other players, and if it does it right (as Sim City 4 does, at times), it can be the medium for many brilliant things.
Now, as this post has wandered completely off topic several times, I’ll end it. Next time: more on my attempts to figure what the hell is going on with Dwarf Fortress, and why EVE looks so appealing (regardless of its comparison to a 3D spreadsheet simulator).