Ah, infrastructure — that boring, beautiful thing. Infrastructure is what makes the world go. It is all the things we prefer to ignore when everything is going right – everything from roads to electric wiring to massive water filtration systems. As soon as there’s a hiccup, however, that’s when infrastructure reveals itself to be the all-encompassing lifeblood of the universe. And sometimes it seems games are nothing but infrastructure: rules, lists, guidebooks, tutorials, manuals, mechanics. And oh my god, patch notes! When patch-notes aren’t trying to be overly kitschy and palsy, there can be such a rich story beneath. How was such-and-such figured out? Who encountered that bug? Oh man, there must be a story there.
Here are games that play with infrastructure, lists, and planning.
If you’ll indulge me, I’d love to throw a shout out to a really great 1999 essay from scholar Susan Leigh Star, a powerhouse in infrastructure studies, called The Ethnography of Infrastructure. She wrote that asking people to look critically at infrastructure was really a “call to study boring things. Many aspects of infrastructure are singularly unexciting.” Oooh, we’re off to a fun start this week! Or, as Sar puts it: “It takes some digging to unearth the dramas inherent in system design creating, to restore narrative to what appears to be dead lists.”
Is there anything more infrastructurally fraught than taxes? Dragon Tax Return Simulator made its way onto my Twitter timeline just a few days ago, although it first came out in 2015 as a Ludum Dare entry. The game greets you cheerily enough: “Welcome to a world of fantasy and magic!” (Hooray!) You are a dragon (ooh), “wise, powerful, and long-lived,” and it is time for you to do your taxes (oh no). Please report your gold hoards, adjusting for appropriate mayhem clauses. Oh, and you have ten minutes to do it.
Tax day was just this past week here in America, so this one hit a little close to home. In Dragon Tax Return Simulator, however, my questions are a little different: Is a ruby flute a precious gem? Is my sculpture of a tree a magical item or a piece of artwork? Is it both? I love all the little touches here — the complex tax codes and clauses, the neatly filed documents of treasure appraisal, and notes of complaint. I wish I had endless time to finish this dragon’s taxes (not a sentence I ever thought I’d say). If you’re interested in a design post-mortem, you can find that here.
Lichenia from Molleindustria, with Everest Pipkin
Lichenia is a city-building game about “creating human habitats amidst climate chaos.” The game is a blocky little look at what it might look like to reshape communities and cities and environments after the Anthropocene, or a climate change spurred by human intervention. You are presented with random maps, upon which you place little organic blocks, which then grow and adapt to their surroundings. Though it bills itself as a city building game, I can’t help but feel like Lichenia is an anti-city sim. It’s fun, frustrating, and a little unsettling.
Molleindustria is no stranger to examining infrastructure through game design and cities, and this “anti-city sim” feel is very purposeful. Lichenia is a part of the larger Playable Cities series, a followup to Nova Alea, a game about shelters and matrices. If this interests you, you can read Dev Paolo Pedercini’s keynote from the International City Gaming Conference in Rotterdam in 2017 to learn more about these “SimCity counterpoints.”
I don’t know if you are of the internet age to have had both the exposure and the opportunity to play the Grow games, but WOW, I love the Grow games. They are Flash-based object-fiddling puzzles from Japanese developer On, and they were absolutely formative experiences for me (please play them). They have spanned twelve different iterations, from orbs to cubes to parks, and they largely involve adding different components to an environment in multiple layers until each component works together, growing together, in the right order. Each selection might level up another, and only fiddling will lead the way.
I never had the attention span for many other popular inventory-puzzle games of the early 2000s, but the GROW games were the perfect way for me to sate that craving for puzzle-solving without the hours of commitment. They taught me how to read a game’s environment, and plan for the immediate future based on information at hand. Perhaps the Grow games are the perfect city sim.