Will You Even Tell Her if You Decide to Make the Sky Fall (SimCity, Populous, ActRaiser)


The history of urban planning is ultimately one of control machines - of efforts to build spaces that will shape the lives and psyches of its inhabitants. Housing developments to sort and contain them, roads to dictate the ways in which they move through space, and lattices of utilities and infrastructure that transmute the abstract relationships of power that govern them into brutal physicality. It is the creative practice to which psychogeography is the criticism.

It is, of course, an illusion that the city is some sort of authored construct. Even moreso than the video game, where our convenient fiction of an auteur figure like “Will Wright” is in reality a mask worn by a team of developers and, in the case of a game like SimCity, a swath of teams responsible for the huge number of ports and versions. The iteration of SimCity that served as a launch title for the Super Nintendo is one of more than a dozen - it was a game that existed on the Commodore 64, the Amiga, the Macintosh, the BBC Micro, and others, all taking the smear of psychic landscape attributed to Will Wright and adapting it to new forms, with varying degrees of success.

[In practice, this is one of the rare cases where the console port is a highlight, at least in one sense. Ported by Nintendo EAD, it not only has the charming detail of Bowser in place of the generic lizard monster disaster, and adds an interesting system of special buildings like casinos and libraries that can be built under certain circumstances. Though in the end, little can remove the basic problem that a Super Nintendo controller is an unsatisfying replacement for a mouse when it comes to this sort of game.]

The city, like the video game, is multi-authored, a teeming mass of viewpoints and visions. And this includes not merely the ostensible creators - the programmers and urban planners - but those who are shaped and interpolated by it, and whose interactions with it define it; a city without inhabitants is as barren as a game without players. But citizens and gamers are two very different things. The gamer cannot, in the end, change the game in ways beyond those strictly delineated for him. The citizen, on the other hand, has meaningful resistance as an option.

Ironically, the difference is one of escapability. The gamer can quit the game, whereas nothing the citizen does can ever render them no longer a citizen - even if they move to some other city, they are still a citizen of something that has far more similarities than differences to the original. But because citizenship is inescapable, it in turn cannot fully reject the dissident. Put another way, the city can bulldoze the crime-ridden slums and replace them with a row of gleaming stadiums, but the list of the biggest problems in the city and a non-zero disapproval rate are irreducible elements of its existence.

But what is interesting about SimCity is that it puts the player in the position not of the citizen, nor even of the mayor (who is in the end just another citizen), but instead in the position of the urban planner cum deity. A city may not be singly authored, but a SimCity is - the product of a singular vision, a solitary creator whose will is made manifest, hand of god literally represented on the screen.

SimCity is not properly a god game - that genre originated with Populous, another of the early SNES games, coming out a month after the console’s launch (neatly paralleling the games original releases in 1989, four months apart). The premise is about what you’d expect from a genre called “god game” - the player is, instead of urban planner, a deity trying to lead his followers to climactic battle against the followers of a malevolent AI deity.

Unfortunately, instead of the post-Singularity dystopia the phrase “malevolent AI deity” invokes, the game is in practice a play mechanic based on raising and lowering terrain to build a nice flat plain that your followers can settle on and expand, disrupting AI-controlled terrain with things like earthquakes and volcanoes, and attempt to repair the damage caused by corresponding attacks on your own terrain. It’s not an awful mechanic, certainly, but it is, equally, not difficult to tell why, of the two gods-eye-view simulators first released in the first half of 1989 it is SimCity that has the rather grander legacy.

But it is nevertheless Populous that is the more enticing game - the one that crackles with symbolic possibility. It is one thing to be a mayor, and quite another to be a god. The latter is so close to the animating fantasy of the video game as to almost defy critical comprehension. There is no obvious metaphor or comment to make. Its implications are obvious, not least within the context of an occultic take on video games.

It is telling, though, that Populous is at its core a game about destruction. The player’s capacity to build things is, to say the least, limited; for the most part, it is the milling peasants who do anything constructive. This, at least, is in contrast with SimCity, where the game as such consists of building things: roads, power grids, houses, et cetera. Populous is, in many ways, SimCity with just a bulldozer.

But this reveals the other truth - that SimCity is, in the end, just as invested in the aesthetic of destruction as Populous. It is no secret that the game’s appeal is fundamentally tied to the fact that the player does not simply build cities, but unleashes fearsome natural disasters upon them. This is, clearly an irreducible part of the game. Without it, the game would be an exercise in homeostasis. The only challenge of any significance would be the patience to manage money, which, with even remotely sensible city planning, is really just a matter of being willing to wait for the year to tip over and the tax revenues to come in. In this regard, its suitability for the desktop computer is obvious - it’s essentially made to interact with for a few minutes, then leave to run in the background while you do other things. (Indeed, I’ve got a version of the open sourced Micropolis version of the game running as I write this.)

Even with natural disasters, the game is not hard as such. Most natural disasters are simply resource management challenges, in which you either do or don’t have enough money to chase behind the problem with your bulldozer and make sure there are sufficient fire departments. They add little to the game save for making it impossible to safely leave it to run in the background. Their real purpose is simply to allow for destruction - so that when one tires of one’s city (an inevitability, given that they really do eventually achieve sustainable homeostasis and the overall size of the map is finite) or when the city has gone irretrievably down the tubes you can, at least, have a satisfying massive earthquake. Or, on the SNES, Bowser. It’s the old alchemical two-step, solve et coagula, tuned to still be satisfying over a quarter-century on.

Perhaps, then, it is time to unpack the metaphor of Populous. As I said, the underlying game is in a large part a fantasy of the video game itself, and indeed of all games - the exercise of power over a symbolic system. Or, in other words, it is the fantasy of magic. Which brings us, inexorably, to the point of this project - its daring statement of intent. A magickal ritual to destroy Gamergate.

The particulars of this are, of course, something I will leave vague. This is part of the basic tactics involved in conducting a magickal ritual to destroy Gamergate. What it lacks in making the slightest bit of sense, it makes up for in posing an Outside Context Problem to Gamergate - one that their well-rehearsed media training (“it’s actually about ethics in video game criticism”) simply has no obvious ways to counteract. I mean, what are they going to do, call the project completely insane? Of course it is. That’s the point. That and the fact that, because I refuse to actually define what a magickal ritual to destroy Gamergate is, I am in the useful position of simultaneously getting to adjudicate who wins this magical war (since I’m the only one who can be clearly said to understand its rules) and being one side of it.

All of that said, there are rules. There are always rules - that’s how games work, and this is, if nothing else, a game. It is tempting, of course, to simply go the Populous route, set off a few volcanos, incinerate all of my nemeses, and call it a day. But this is, in the end, futile. The rules do not allow it to succeed. All one can destroy is a symbolic Gamergate, after all. No, within the logic of magic, the only way to destroy Gamergate is first to build it, residential zone by residential zone, and then reveal, in its construction, a flaw that renders its collapse inevitable.

Here, at least, we are helped by the fact that the work is already done. Indeed, that is the secret history of the Super Nintendo Project: the fact that Gamergate happened. This, at least, is reasonably sound cultural analysis; Gamergate emerged out of a gaming culture, and that culture has its genesis here the same as I do. Or, to put it another way, Gamergate is the Nemesis lurking within this cultural moment, a dark Other that lurks on the edges of my own memory.

But what of the terrain excavated so far belongs to Nemesis, and what is safe? Some individual moments seem clear. The Genesis is implicitly Nemesis’s, although it is not as though the Super Nintendo can then be free of its influence. Populous is more Nemesis than not, SimCity vice versa. Super Mario World is almost completely free of Nemesis’s taint. But this only leads to new questions, most obviously, to whom does the psychochronographic terrain that is not Nemesis’s belong? Clearly we must dig deeper, depress the land again, until the rich sea beneath at last emerges. (Strange how digging deeper and building are, in this context, synonyms. Solve et coagula.)

ActRaiser, then. A strange game of a strange historical moment. Coming out in November of 1991, it’s the third game of this simulator/god game aesthetic to drop on the platform - clearly something was in the air in late 1991 when it came to putting this sort of game on the console. But what is interesting about ActRaiser is that it’s not really this sort of game, as it were. It has a god game aspect, but these sections are interspersed between a bog-standard side-scrolling platformer with slightly suspect jumping and hit detection. It’s not bad, certainly - the story of the Super Nintendo is in part the story of the death of the side-scrolling platformer, but it’s one of those deaths via last golden age, and even the b-list is pretty good. But it does not sparkle.

Nor do the god game sections, which are in effect the “World n-2” sections of three-part levels, coming between an introductory sidescrolling level that leads to a miniboss, and a climactic one against a larger and more difficult boss. Like Populous, the god business is largely secondary - the real game involves shooting flying monsters with a bow and arrow by navigating around a two-dimensional plane, with a side game of directing the expansion of the town over which you fight.

But ActRaiser ends up being a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A mediocre platformer (as its sequel turned out to be) is uninteresting, and a straight god game of this design would be unfit for release, but as an experience to toggle back and forth between, it’s oddly compelling.

It is also, unlike SimCity and Populous, original to the Super Nintendo, the product of the Japan-to-America cultural pipeline that still defined the American video game industry. Specifically, it was the product of Enix, who had done the Dragon Warrior series for the NES, and who had a charming run on the Super Nintendo producing a series of idiosyncratic genre hybrids, many of which we will cover because I have a terrible soft spot for them.

It is in some ways unsurprising that there would be a Japanese iteration of the god game. A warm fuzzy sense of spirituality is a common theme across the Japanese games of the period - a sense of the divine as a sort of benevolent spirit of nature to live in harmony with. ActRaiser pushes it further than most, what with the player being “the Master” (simply “God” in the original Japanese, with the villain explicitly being Satan), a good and loving deity trying to reclaim the world from the forces of evil. In practice, however, the player does not control the Master. Instead he controls, in the god game sections, a cherubic angel, and in the action sections, an animated statue. In other words, the player is demiurge, controlling a midpoint between the world his avatar seeks to save and the paternal lawgiver who sets the mission.

Which brings us back to control machines, these being, after all, what video games are. Systems of rules that it is pleasurable to live under. In this regard, then, the relationship with magic is at once obvious and inevitable.

But what of the relation to cities?


Daibhid C 1 year, 9 months ago

"Though in the end, little can remove the basic problem that a Super Nintendo controller is an unsatisfying replacement for a mouse when it comes to this sort of game."

Could be worse. From my own memories of the BBC Micro I suspect most people would be attempting to play it with the arrow keys. And the C64 users would probably be using the joystick which is about the same. (It was possible to get a mouse for both machines; I'm just not sure many people did.)

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Scurra 1 year, 9 months ago

Wonderful and clever - exactly what I expect without being anything like I expected.

(It's moderately interesting to me that Peter Molyneux's path onwards from Populus in his experiments exploring the God game idea [through the Theme games, past Black & White and currently stalled at Godus] have largely ended up heading towards being SimCity, which has thus annoyed all the people who liked Populus mainly because it wasn't SimCity... Personally, I don't know why they are complaining because they got the whole of the RTS genre as a reward, but that's a whole different thread of history.)

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alwaysaquietone 1 year, 9 months ago

In SimCity, the urban planner tells the people what to do, and they do it. In Populous, the player's civilization is utterly at the command of the player (one of the natural disaster options is Armageddon, where all the improvements in the world are destroyed and all people both good and evil converge to duke it out mano a mano). Stimulus, response.

Only Actraiser's civilization mode acknowledges the creativity and generative power of the populations it directs. Farmers domesticate wheat. Children get lost in the woods trying to help their God. People develop forms of art that are so compelling, they must be transmitted to other settlements. Of course these events are scripted beforehand, but they are completely lacking in the other two games.

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sunny photons 1 year, 9 months ago

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Ice 1 year, 9 months ago

Having never played the original SimCity, but being a fan of the recent release, Cities: Skylines, I really, really hope someone comes up with a Bowser mod for that game.

I didn't realize how much that game needed giant evil turtle destruction until reading this post.

More on topic, I'm enjoying the Super Nintendo project almost as much as I do The Last War in Albion. I look forward to more! And, though I understand it not at all, I wish you luck in your magical anti-Gamergate ritual.

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Alex Antonijevic 1 year, 9 months ago

I was a little young for SimCity at the time, but SimCity 2000 was basically the gateway drug that turned me into a gamer. I can still remember the first time I spent an entire saturday sitting at the computer... and being surprised that it was dinner time.

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storiteller 1 year, 9 months ago

I was obsessed with SimCity for a while in junior high, although I apparently never read the directions or understood the first thing about city planning. I literally did not realize that you could raise or change the taxes. Instead, I just used the cheat code over and over again until I got the earthquake that was inevitable when you used the cheat code too many times. Then I would put everything out and start over. Although I would have been the most negligent city planner ever, there was something comfortably cyclical about the process.

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elvwood 1 year, 9 months ago

Aha! Two games I have played (though not on the SNES). I enjoyed both Populous and Sim City, though the latter had longer-lasting appeal. This was a time before I burnt out on computer games, kind of a golden age for me as a gamer. Well, as a computer gamer - I still retain my love of other forms.

Since the games we had were mostly shared between all the developers in the office I can't remember if I played these on Amiga or Atari ST, though the latter is more likely. I really can't imagine playing them with a console controller, though - sounds painful. Perhaps if we'd done console development I might have got used to them, but that never happened; nowadays I'm pretty cackhanded when we play on my son's GameCube. And yes, we are that far behind the curve - he got it (and the only two games he wanted to play) very cheap as a result of it being considered obsolete. It does everything he needs that isn't covered by the general-purpose computer, so why spend more?

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phuzz 1 year, 9 months ago

Populous was the first game I ever bought.
Well, by 'bought' I mean, 'badgered my parents into buying for me'.
And it wasn't really the first, that was Populous: the Promised Lands, which was an expansion for Populous. One that required the original game to run. Which meant I now had to badger my parents to give me *more* money, just so I could play the first game.
Still, I'll always have a soft spot for it.

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Daru 1 year, 9 months ago

"I mean, what are they going to do, call the project completely insane? Of course it is. That’s the point. That and the fact that, because I refuse to actually define what a magickal ritual to destroy Gamergate is, I am in the useful position of simultaneously getting to adjudicate who wins this magical war (since I’m the only one who can be clearly said to understand its rules) and being one side of it."

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

I love your intent Phil, especially as the whole world of gaming is ruled by rules, so making the rules on your side obscure and hidden is a beautiful act.

Never played any of the games but really enjoying this so far.

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storiteller 1 year, 9 months ago

Great article in Politico about SimCity and Civilization as games and how they reflect Western political philosophies. Who knew that the rules of SimCity are built to have supply side economics actually work?

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Michael 1 year ago

Actraiser 2 is actually a very well-regarded action platformer by fans of such things, it just has a steep difficulty curve.

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