Cities: Skylines [official site] is a game in which every single citizen has a name, home and (if you’re playing it reasonably effectively) job, but nobody matters in the slightest. For a game with such a chummy, chipper tone, it’s weirdly cold. Dozens of people might leave town in protest at your mayoral ineptitude, or tens of thousands of people might die in a freak sewage accident, and not only does the game not care, it doesn’t even try to make you care either.
There are eight million stories in the reasonably well-developed city, but if I want a human connection to any of them, I have to build it myself.
When I make Skylines switch from the macro to the micro, not only does it make it personal, but it makes me build far more thoughtfully and experimentally. The traditional Skylines experience, inherited from Sim City before it, is to paint large zones and care that the streets are full, not about who, exactly, is in each home. When I tire of this – perhaps I am too far from a broader milestone and need to while away some time, or perhaps the intense focus on money becomes too much – I build a Home rather than Homes.
I will find the most perfect spot on my map, and there I will construct a single dwelling-place. ‘Perfect’ can mean so many different things, of course. It might mean beautiful, with wondrous sea views or a private forest in the back garden.
It might mean the middle of nowhere, a test of how the inhabitant can fare with an almighty commute and no friends or shops to hand.
It might mean right next to the overstuffed and stinking town garbage dump, and my duty becomes making their surrounding area so lovely and well-equipped that the residents decide to endure the pervasive stench of decay. Sometimes, my mood is such that I want to make a little pretend person living what I feel is a worse life than my own, but that sadism doesn’t last long. Instead, I become preoccupied with making it work, with making someone so happy in other regards that their environs constantly smelling like faeces scarcely bothers them.
Or perhaps I will expand my scope a little. It might be at the end of a long and winding road – a delightful hamlet, away from the hustle and bustle, just a dozen houses, a school, a doctor’s surgery, a single shop and a police station which is never called into action. Here, I like to think every resident fills every role; everyone knows each other, everyone provides for each other.
The reality, of course, is that most of them commute into the city, a process so time consuming that they never come into contact with another human soul. That is, perhaps, the bleak truth at the heart of Skylines – a wonderful city game to be sure, but one entirely uninterested in humanity.
But that is the importance of the player here – to impose stories upon the game. And so, in that hamlet, I think about trees and parks and playgrounds and walks to school in a way I do not in the city – where my interest is purely in making everything fit, in ticking every box.
In my small stories, I think about the lives each of the few residents have, what their day will involve, where they go, if it is a pleasant journey, where they take their kids to play after school, where they go for Sunday lunch and how they all wish they lived in that one house with the incredible sea view and its own private airport.
That, of course, is another story.