The Joy Of creating citizen stories in Cities: Skylines

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.


  1. Premium User Badge

    distantlurker says:

    Why did you choose *such* a dark opening pic?!

    Are you ok?

    • SigmaCAT says:

      well it makes for good screenshot material, it’s an emergent event that doesn’t get much attention gameplay wise? I was playing GTA recently and thinking you never see ambulances pick up people after your antics

      • Ghostwise says:

        Plus, the alternative is to leave the corpse in the house, innit ?

      • Premium User Badge

        phuzz says:

        In GTA:V, if you hang around a bit an ambulance should show up. Mind you, being GTA, sometimes they arrive at speed and end up running more people over or smashing into a car, prompting the driver to get out and start fighting with them, and so on.

      • DelrueOfDetroit says:

        Ambulances have been in GTA since at least 3. They used to show up and then defibrillator your victims back on their feet.

      • antszy says:

        You just have to wait for an ambulance to show up so you can hijack it and commit especially ironic vehicular atrocities.

  2. nitric22 says:

    Interestingly I just took a gander yesterday at the dev diaries to see if they had dropped any clues about what the next DLC may be. Turns our their going on vacation for the next month and abandoning their game entirely. Bah! That aside they did ask the community for some ideas about where they would hope the next DLC might venture. What uncharted waters need traversed in this grand city sim? And this article makes me think, maybe there is room to dip into the more minute aspects and just let the grand scale stuff be. Someone posted something along the lines of wanting deeper control over the districts (keeping fire/police/other services contained within their district, etc.). And then this article arrives and I’m a bit curious, is there room in a game about huge to go small? Could the next DLC be something along the lines of “Cities Skylines: Stories”? I wouldn’t object at all.

    • Blad the impaler says:

      There was mention a while ago of a road modding tool, just a brief mention by one of the devs on reddit. It said to be in the very early stages. That would be really nice.

      But if they were to go anywhere, it would have to be toward infusing some humanity into the game. Citzens demanding certain types of development outside RCI could be one step. All they do now is tweet and drive. … And currently there’s no system in vanilla to lock heritage properties in place so they don’t despawn or level up. That would be another. Lots could happen.

  3. Viral Frog says:

    “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.”

    Huh. I never thought about Cities: Skylines like this. It’s the perfect United States Government Simulator and I didn’t even realize it.

    • sagredo1632 says:

      No no no. To do that they would need to implement a completely dysfunctional city council that would prevent you from implementing policy, randomly disallow you from demolishing and/or rezoning areas (NIMBY), changing tax rates, placing city services, and run the sorts of budgetary shenanigans that would make angels weep.

      • Viral Frog says:

        Ah, that’s true. So it’s not the perfect US Government sim, but it’s pretty close. :P

  4. Sound says:

    Early buyer of Skylines here, and a fan. But I’ve felt this coldness since day one, and it’s limited my enthusiasm. It’s an entirely impersonal, anti-social, un-caring game in spite of being all about people. The very thing that defines a city is the presence of many, many people, and yet you wouldn’t know it from Skylines. None of the DLC have assisted this, to my disappointment.

    So unsurprisingly, that’s mainly what I want out of an expansion. My suggestion is to go social, and begin tending to the stresses and issues battled over in real city council chambers. Like affordable housing, homelessness, poverty(in leiu of simply “crime”), social events and holidays. If my Skylines citizens are lacking healthcare, there ought to be something more to see than a lack of level-up to their house. If the economy has broken down, leading to an abandonment spiral, the human toll ought to send out a ping, at least.

    Not tryin to turn Skylines into a super-serious thing; my suggestions don’t actually require that. Instead, merely that there should be more of a nod to the human element.
    After all, it’s not the buildings or road layout that make a city. It’s people.

    • Archonsod says:

      Kinda depends on your perspective. I see it as the buildings making up the city; the people are interchangeable.

  5. gamma says:

    Not even home stair steps are as tall as those sidewalks. There should be a balance between discouraging uncivil car parking and inducing sprained ankles or early arthritis.

  6. Rituro says:

    Never once had I thought of Cities as being impersonal. Yet, you’re bang-on with that assessment. I’d been too busy crafting a city for the sake of a functioning city than its citizens.

    Wait, does that mean I’m a cold, impersonal shell living an empty existence, too? Oh no. Existential angst! What have you done, Alec?!

  7. Ramshackle Thoughts says:

    I installed a mod once that allowed you to track individual citizens, rename them, see their ‘state of mind’, etc.

    I was building away, having a grand ol’ time, looking at my list of friends with big green smiley faces next to them. What a good mayor I am, I thought. One person wasn’t happy though. They were ‘confused’, and remained that way for a while. So I zoomed in to see what was going on.

    Turns out, in one of my many terribly congested roads was, a hearse was stuck in a traffic jam. Ah, one of the drivers is grumpy about traffic , I thought. Curiosity kept me watching though. The hearse broke through the jam, made its way to its destination – the Crematorium. I watched in horror as my little confused dude, who was very much NOT the hearse driver but was very much alive, blipped off my list of trackable citizens in a puff of smoke.

    TL;DR: I watched someone get cremated alive, Soylent Green is people.

  8. Nosebeggar says:

    This reminds me of Rimworld.

    Everytime I take prisoners I set up two cells.

    -one luxus cell with a corner couch from thrumbo-fur, a drugtable, the best food, carpet flooring, billiard table, flatscreen, alcohol and enough space to house a full colony of 12 people. It’s a gilded cage he has to stay in forever.

    -one small bare-bones cell with nothing more than a shabby bed and enough room to crawl out at the foot-end. No lamp, no table, no nothing. He’s given luciferium and everything amputated. Eyes, nose, ears, tongue, arms, legs replaced with peg legs, 1 kidney, 1 lung. Then when he has no senses anymore he gets another dose of luciferium and all other drugs I have lying around and he’s mercifully released into the jungle. That has to be an amazing spiritual experience.

    Now tell me: which one of these has it better / worse.

    • poliovaccine says:

      I mean I take your point, but to play devil’s advocate here, that guy you tormented and then released will now have to spend the rest of his damaged, frightened existence building up a gilded cage of his own around himself to call home. If he doesnt die from the elements or inability to function due to trauma first, that is.

      I’d probably still elect to be the second guy if I had a choice, but I’m also a mentally-ill drug addict and restlessness is as much endemic to my identity as it is the bane of my existence, so I know and accept that rationality is only ever part of the basis by which I make decisions. I place a certain, deliberate priority on allowing emotion to affect my thinking. To that point, drug addiction is a gilded cage, but one I ran to for shelter every chance I could get, and if I could only learn to be content with what I have, rather than picking at the scabby thought which tells me life *could* be *more,* I’d have a more peaceful existence overall. But I mean, if all I wanted was peace I’d just die already.

      The gilded cage analogy makes me think long and hard about my experience growing up in a small, sleepy New England town. The quaint, doddering folk around there, those who keep it small and sleepy, always struck me as pitiable – but I come off just the same to them. I was always trying to escape out to the city, whereas the area I lived was a hotspot for wealthy Manhattanites to retreat from the hustle and grind and raise a family in peace – living there was supposed to be desirable. If there’s a “better or worse” in that scenario, it comes down to individual degrees of fulfillment and satisfaction.

      Anyway, remind me not to crash on your planet, haha.

  9. fish99 says:

    I’d like to see a game that fused Sim City with The Sims, so you could build a city, then zoom in to follow or influence the life/lives of one person or family in it. It’d be nice to see the effects of your global decision on the lives of individuals.