SimCity 4

SimCity 4 is a 2003 city building simulation game by Maxis/EA. It is the last and hands down the best game in the illustrious SimCity franchise[1]. You play as the mayor of a city, taking charge of everything from finance and zoning to transport and utility.

Playing this game is an incredibly addictive experience to me. The simulated city feels organic and alive, and as a system demands constant attention. From fires that needs responding to, to tweaking the taxes to ensure the finances goes smoothly, to adding yet another residential block to the city to satisfy the needs of the Sims, the game satisfies a need no other game can.

The game has no fixed goals, not even a scenario mode like its predecessors and other simulation / god games. This makes it interesting to analyze – the traditional tertrad would not work here at first glance because there is absolutely no story. Yet that is not quite true – the player themselves tells the story here, as the simulation allows them to craft any sort of experience they want, and the through the growth of the city the player creates their own narrative. Is the city going to be the model of Small Town USA, with cornfields as far as the eyes can see, or a bustling metropolis of a million people? Each of these can only be arrived at only with the conscience decisions made by the player. Think of games with branching narratives, except in this case every macroscopic change to the city can be considered a branch in the narrative, and the game supports a near infinite number of them.

Simulation games are also frequently viewed through the lens of creativity and curiosity. SimCity 4 naturally fulfills both of these. By allowing the player to save at any point, and providing a huge set of tools, the player is allowed to experiment with many options, not all of which are positive. Disasters like earthquakes and UFO attack for instance are hugely destructive, yet at the same time fulfills a primal urge we human have to see just what if everything goes wrong. And if the player doesn’t like what they see, they can simply rewind back to their last save and restart.

Another lens which we could analyze SimCity 4 through is the lens of skill – the game is brutally difficult, because as a sandbox simulation, the game presents you with a near infinite number of choices, most of which will not do anything useful. Playing the game requires a mastery of its mechanics – at what tax rate would the correct proportion of rich and poor Sims come into the city to drive the economy? Which power plant should I build first, and what funding level should I set it? The game does not teach any of these in its bare-bones tutorial, instead leaving it up to the player to experiment, fail, and learn from their mistakes. However, it is this mastery that makes the game satisfying, as the first skyscraper appears in the city you can look back and realize how much of the game’s mechanics you have mastered.

[1] SimCity 2015? Nah, you must be mistaken. Maxis never made another SimCity game *plugs fingers in ears and runs screaming away*

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