Exploring the dark side of Cities: Skylines – Green Cities

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Green Cities might look like urban paradise, but beneath the lush vertical gardens, something sinister is percolating. Sure, the draped greenery clinging to the side of the new high density apartment blocks looks attractive, but it’s also reminiscent of post-human imagery; nature reclaiming the land. Zoom out far enough, so that the little cars and people are less apparent, and it’s not a great leap from green city to Twelve Monkeys, I Am Legend and The Last Of Us.

But forget the future for a moment because the now of Cities: Skylines [official site] upcoming expansion isn’t the paradise it initially seems to be. Your attempts to create an environmentally friendly utopia might end with the construction of a new Silicon Valley. The road to hell is paved with reclaimed wood and good intentions.

I’ve been building a new city on Skylines recently and it’s taking on an unusual shape. Usually, commercial zones form the buffers between industry and residential areas in the early stages, ensuring that people have at least a little distance between their homes and their smoggy workplaces. This time, I’m experimenting and the first few people who moved in lived right in the backyard of the pollution-belching smoke-stacks.

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Predictably, they got sick. Happiness was low, health was a problem, and I was a very unpopular mayor. The roads were quiet though because nobody had much of a commute to deal with.
Long-term, the plan was always to make some money off the back of those early communities and spend it to build a beautiful beach-front community, with beautiful designer houses and extravagant sky-scraping apartment blocks with only the most luxurious fittings. The people there would be educated and they’d have office blocks to work in. No noise, no mess, no sickness.

Keep up that kind of city for long enough and it’ll probably develop its own Young Adult Novel style social segregation system for the youth. For now, the city seems like it’ll develop just fine and even if the people out in the industrial district aren’t too happy, the overall happiness of the city as a collective is just fine.

Green Cities would fit perfectly into my experiment in division though. You might think cleaner energy and workplaces are wholly positive things, excepting perhaps the price, but even if all of the numbers and info overlays look good, I’m not entirely sure I want to unleash the IT crowd onto my city. Or at least, not onto my ideal city. They can go and create more social segregation in this new place I’m building.

IT specialisations allow for new types of district populated with high-tech offices. They produce lots of tax revenue but don’t require as many employees as traditional industry, and attractive as they are with their garden terraces and shiny solar panels, you know they’re packed full of beanbags, ball pools and marketing departments called Idea(l) Stations. Bowtie-wearing Imaginauts hired straight out of college, with degrees in Twenty-First Century Business Dynamics. That one guy who walks around chewing a stalk of raw cane sugar because “it’s the only way to snack that isn’t compromised”.

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Peel back the green curtains and you’re going to see all of this and more, and chances are you’ll still have some manual labour happening elsewhere in the city. The extremes of the IT specialisation should highlight the divisions between one district and the next, and you might not only be able to build San Francisco as it is today, but come some way to seeing the various shapes it moved through before getting there.

The accelerated timeframe of Skylines, which has every city go from genesis to metropolis in the same era, prevents it from exploring the ways in which history provides shape. There are no great technological leaps forward or social changes that alter the course of development. Instead, you’re broadly free to sculpt as you wish.

Some of Green Cities features, including the cleaner energy options, might be prohibitively expensive for a fledgling settlement though, so you’ll build toward them rather than throwing them down as soon as you start. There are even floating water cleansers, that look like something out of science fiction. They sit in the bay, sucking up that brown poopy liquid that Skylines itself specialises in, and leaving behind beautiful blue water fit for drinking and swimming in.

The waterfront might be the most attractive area of Green Cities. There are new floating buildings, connected to the mainland by a pier. This allows for all kinds of attractive cafes and restaurants out on the water, and with all of those beautiful high-rises topped with garden terraces as a backdrop, it’s a reminder of how beautiful the game can look when a handsome skyline is framed at just the right time of day.

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And framing is what Green Cities is all about, I think. It’s an asset pack, tied to some new rules around noise pollution (which I’m grateful for) and policies that encourage use of electric cars and other green ways of living. It’s a massive asset pack, for sure, with over 350 new things, and it’s a very attractive one. But it’s adding new options rather than more complex simulation. I very much doubt there’ll be any pushback to my silicon valley, or any real drawbacks to reshaping the city’s economy around it.

As I mentioned at the beginning, even my sickly workers in the muck-zone don’t have any real impact on the wellbeing of my city as a complete organism. Their unhappiness is drowned out by the happiness of the masses. While I’m not asking my people to protest in the streets when the gated communities around their IT overlords fall into place, I’d like to see some tension between urban progress and those it leaves behind. There’s overlap between social strata, transit, high-tech industry and all the rest, after all.

Perhaps Skylines will never touch on these issues. It is, after all, at its best when it uses the land as a canvas and the city as a set of toys. The simulation is robust enough to make it more than a construction playground, but not so complex that it requires more than a basic awareness of how things move from one place to another.

That’s fine. I want that game in my life and I want it to have more and more variety, so Green Cities is welcome. But I will absolutely be simulating the dark side of my Green Cities as I play, and the more time I put in, the more I’m starting to realise that I’m still in the market for a modern city-builder. Not a replacement for Skylines, but an alternative. One where every choice of asset has a possible consequence down the line, as the city pushes back or recoils.

Green Cities will cost £9.99/12,99€/$12.99 and is out later this year. As always with Paradox expansions, some features will be available for free in a big ol’ patch delivered at the same time.

28 Comments

  1. yhancik says:

    “Politics?? In my games??”

    But in all seriousness, yes, I love the idea of an alternative modern city builder, one that maybe puts more focus on the human, social and ethical aspects .

    It reminds me of this old paper on SimCity link to digitizingamerica.shanti.virginia.edu

    • Kollega says:

      This paper honestly just makes me reflect on how it’s considered noteworthy that SimCity doesn’t simulate the finer details of American urban development – but (to my knowledge) no-one, ever, has gone on to simulate the Soviet command economy, where mass migrations of workers and building of ciites for tens of thousands of residents could literally be done on command, untill it all collapsed under its own weight… and no-one ever thinks that the lack of games simulating the Soviet urban or industrial or infrastructural experience is in any way noteworthy.

      Unless you count the fairly abstracted 4X games as simulating command economy, anyway.

      • yhancik says:

        The paper is discussing what it sees as flaws in an existing and popular series of games that attempt at simulate a contemporary city – reflecting the context in which many of its players live.

        I think that’s a pretty valid discussion, regardless of the fact that many games about other issues from the past don’t exist.

      • Hedgeclipper says:

        There’s a lot of really simplistic analysis that gets endlessly repeated about the USSR in the west “collapsed under its own weight’ “Regan did it” and so on. While its true there was a lot of inefficiencies in the system to understand what happened to the Soviet economy its worth remembering that Russia was (and still is) heavily reliant on resource extraction particularly oil and gas and then looking at what happened to the oil prices from the 70s to the 90s.

        • Kollega says:

          Okay, “USSR collapsed under its own weight” is probably too reductive, but from where I am (and I am within its former borders), it looks simple enough. The mediocre-at-best implementation of the planned economy simply wasn’t cutting it anymore after two decades of the proverbial stagnation era – and when Gorbachov finally got around to it and introduced reforms, it led to the collapse of the system because the people simply weren’t satisfied with half-measures anymore, and were absolutely sick of “I hear one sort of thing and see the other sort entirely.” “Sorry, we don’t have a cure for developed socialism.”

          The fact is, high oil prices in the 70s only propped up the system that was in dire need of renovation due to stagnant economic and social policy that simply didn’t cut it. You know, kind of like it repeated a bit later, in the late 2000s. And then Reagan, being a really awesome Texan sharpshooter, took most of the credit post-factum, fnarr-fnarr :P

          • Hedgeclipper says:

            oh no doubt the planned economy was looking a bit creaky my comment was directed more at our tendency to assign simple answers to multifaceted events. You can view it as oil ‘propping the system up’ but resource economies tend to run boom and bust and the booms make reforming the underlying economy harder – look at the Saudi’s today or Iraq leading up to the first gulf war. Add in generational change at the top and some poor decision making by an elite grown out of touch with the general populace..
            Anyway I think its interesting to compare with other big planned economies – China for instance boomed on cheap oil and increased access to global markets while Japan’s state directed economy hit a wall at just about the same time. South Korea has also done well despite a few wobbles.

            Anyway that’s all getting a bit off topic and I agree I’d absolutely love to see a Soviet city builder particularly if it could look at some of the challenges with building in the Arctic and far east Russia (supplies by icebreaker or only when the roads have frozen hard enough for heavy traffic, effects of extreme cold on building materials and human performance) I think there’d be some complex interesting challenges in there if someone could figure out how to make it fun.

          • Kollega says:

            My original point was along the lines that no-one has tackled the Soviet urban design practices, which were highly centralized and reached the apex when entire city districts could be built in the span of a year, and provided surprisingly okay high-rise housing afterwards. So yes, it would be interesting to see a citybuilder game simulate that. It’s generally outstanding even today when you can literally make an assembly line for cities; as far as I know, only China routinely does the same.

            Really though – this is something that hasn’t been done, and it would be interesting to see. Especially given the common tropes of the citybuilder genre – like the ultimate authority mayor, instant construction, the ability to replan and rebuild willy-nilly… you get the idea. Those always smacked more of Soviet-style central planning than any sort of free-market approach to urban design to me.

  2. Jaeja says:

    The accelerated timeframe of Skylines, which has every city go from genesis to metropolis in the same era, prevents it from exploring the ways in which history provides shape. There are no great technological leaps forward or social changes that alter the course of development. Instead, you’re broadly free to sculpt as you wish.

    This is something I’ve been thinking about on and off for a while: how Skylines pretty much forces you to build quintessentially American cities (CO’s Finnishness and the Europack notwithstanding), and what you’d need to change to make a proper European citybuilder. Aaaand… the first big thing is that you probably need to start in (or, at least, to have a Tyranny-style accelerated start from) around 1000-1200AD, so it can properly simulate the development of roads and villages, and the absorption of the latter as the city grows.

    (And then, if you really want to push the theme, the next major change is probably simulating the impact of construction/demolition work, which probably means being able to plan changes in a virtual-city mode and then have the game implement them over time. It’s an interesting design exercise; not sure it’d be a fun game, though.)

    • cpt_freakout says:

      It gets even harder when you start thinking about other Western city histories that involve altogether distinct city plannings destroyed by European conquerors and colonizers but nevertheless still there in one way or another (like in Mexico City, or Lima).

      Anyway, a solution to introduce history to city builders like these could be to use something like Paradox’s grand strategy clocks, maybe?

    • Aetylus says:

      It’s an interesting challenge.

      One simple-ish way to implement it could be to start with a game generated pre-industry city core and then take over the mayoralty at the dawn of modern era… so you are beginning with an organically grown jumble and trying to impose modern amenity. Imagine building your skylines around these cores: link to watabou.itch.io

      Another alternative to ‘impose history’ could be to take the Transport Fever approach and make demolition, earthworks and superfluous building prohibitively expensive. This locks the player into making early compromise and then being unable to unwind those decisions – Much like real cities. The problem is this greatly reduces the sandboxey nature of the game that gives it much of its appeal.

      • bills6693 says:

        The transport fever thing you said really hits it. The prohibitive cost of demolishing privately owned buildings, and of sculpting the terrain, mean you really do have to comprimise between the most efficient, optimal layout and the most cost effective. Ideally every city would have a train station slap bang in the middle of town and everything would be great and the tracks would be straight, flat lines from one town to another so the trains didn’t slow down… but in reality they end up with edge-of-town stations and a bus service, tracks winding up the valley rather than just a twenty mile tunnel, because the optimal layout is out of reach, you can’t just bulldoze twenty houses and the main street to build your transport buildings…

      • Nogo says:

        I’ve played a few games of skylines that mimics that in a way. Basically once a district is locked into an identity I do my best to honor it and integrate it. Alternatively a change in a district is done fairly naturally.

        So earlier housing projects become historic districts, and things like industrial giving way to office happens piecemeal after fires and abandonment (sometimes accelerated through nefarious/conveniently lazy city works).

        It was actually a bit horrific seeing youtubers do these massive works projects demolishing entire cores. When I’m over here shifting major roadways slightly to favor a single row of housing over waning commercial. Which looks quite nice visually in the end.

        Seems a few modders went on the quest of costly demolition, but it’d require a bit of work to get the economics right. At which point it’s more real estate tycoon, but that married with a system of infrastructure governance could create an interesting scenario, like me choking industrial routes or enacting bad policy to ‘cheaply’ (as I imagined in my games) rezone towards offices.

    • Alberto says:

      Sir, you just summarized all my feelings about citybuilders. I live in Europe and that means the cities are built over the old cities, in a +1000 year lapse.

      Also, every major re-planning is really thraumatic, and usually the games rwduce it to “it’s bit more expensive”

  3. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I think if a citybuilder really wanted to be more complex and ‘realistic’, they couldn’t have instant construction. I mean hell, I live in a moderately sized American city, and the main thoroughfare to downtown has been under construction for about ten years.

    In Cities: Skylines, you can poop out a new highway through town overnight, no traffic delays at all, and all the state-run businesses obligingly scooting out of the way nearly for free.

    Of course, simulating that (or the evils of IT people in service-based economies, or race as in that article the other guy linked above, or general societal pressures etc etc) is not at all the point of Cities Skylines, and it can’t really be judged on that.

    Though a game exploring that kind of thing would be kind of neat, I imagine it would be frustrating if it was ‘realistic’.

    Puzzles with no solution aren’t really fun.

    • yhancik says:

      My feeling from the (criminally) little I played of Fate of the World was that you couldn’t really win, only minimise the damages. And I think that was the point.

      So I believe our Dream City Builder can’t just be a game you can win, if it wants to eventually raise serious questions. The challenge, for the game designers, is of course to find the right balance between playability and realism… otherwise almost nobody will ever play it. Tricky.

      That would be an interesting topic for a long-term game jam.

      • Premium User Badge

        Drib says:

        It would sort of have to be a game jam thing, really.

        I can’t imagine a commercial release of a game like that dealing with race/education/religion/anything as societal forces would be well received.

        Things like that are a little too emotionally charged in America at the moment.

        Neat as it would be from a sociological front, I just can’t see it being seen as such.

    • ludde says:

      I don’t understand why this is what people here seem to come up with when a more complex simulation is discussed. It doesn’t have to be the toughest questions of modern civilization to be slightly less shallow than what Skylines currently is.

      Construction playground fits it well.

  4. klops says:

    Are there (m)any mods that put more depth in the themes covered in here as well? Like “tension between urban progress and those it leaves behind” or efforts to make the C:S more serious business?

  5. Archonsod says:

    Monte Cristo’s series (City Life et al) tried to do some socioeconomic stuff.
    It’s never going to really work in a city builder though – the game is fundamentally about optimisation, the only way you can really force such factors to matter requires removing the ability of the player to make the optimum choices which tends to break the game. Urban Empire was the most recent game to try something like it.

  6. mtomto says:

    Skylines is big and boring – like the old times when MS Paint was fun and new.

    Simcity was fun and small – like a christmas present you’ve been longing for, and then when you get it – you play a few hours and toss it away and forget about it.

    Why can’t we get fun and big!? All these BS Skyline DLC are just like downloading a new color or brush for MS paint City Edition. Booooring.

  7. Hedgeclipper says:

    “They [IT businesses] produce lots of tax revenue”

    That sounds like a bug.

  8. Shadow says:

    An increasing problem I have with Cities Skylines is how non-functional health and safety is. You build hospitals and police stations for happiness reasons, when that should be a secondary benefit. In truth, 90% of ambulances and police cars sit idly in the garages, since the very presence of the buildings eliminates crime and sickness.

    I think it’s particularly egregious on the health side, with clinics and hospitals being largely empty and people not getting sick at all unless you’re doing extremely unhealthy (yet easily avoidable) things like pumping in dirty water, put residential right next to industrial zones, or not minding noise pollution.

    • ludde says:

      You have to pretty much go out of your way to not succeed. Out of the ones you listed I think noise pollution was the only that gave me some challenge as my cities grew, but even then you have stuff like roads lined with magical grass that absorb noise.

      What I think is lacking is that there aren’t many balancing acts. Everything is good, so just put more of everything and it gets better. In general there aren’t very many interlinked systems and mostly demand stays the same regardless of city size, so there’s no need to adapt as your city grows – just put more of what you figured out works during your city’s first hour.

      • GenialityOfEvil says:

        Sim games always have this problem. In Superpower 2 you can be the most hideous dictator the world has ever known, just crank up the healthcare spending (even if everything else is at $0) and your approval will shoot back up to 40-60%. Hell, you can do nothing and it’ll go back up on its own eventually.

      • Shadow says:

        It’s not a problem with sim games in general. The SimCity games managed this accurately, all city services could be overloaded, and it should work better in C:S without having to revamp the whole game.

        Crime should still exist, though suppressed to some extent if there’s police stations around. Not wiped out, but giving police cars a reasonable amount of work while keeping the population content. I notice cells still fill up, but the effect of law enforcement is far too passive and invisible.

        As far as healthcare’s concerned, like crime, sickness should still exist within covered areas, but health facilities should be balanced to process ill people accordingly.

        Seems like a completely ignored part of the game, considering how long it’s been out.

        And yeah, only noise pollution was a problem for me at one point, but only because monorail stations are absurdly, untestedly loud when they should be far quieter. Had to fix that with a mod.

        • GenialityOfEvil says:

          The Simcity games didn’t do it accurately, they just animated traffic to make it look like they did. Only the most recent game attempted it but could hardly be called successful, what with the ambulances and fire trucks piling up at the edge of the city, or just sitting at their spawn points.