Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Sim Schmuck

"Remember what the dormouse said;
Feed your head!"
Jefferson Airplane - White Rabbit

I've been trying to enjoy Space Colony. Having given up on SimCity over a decade ago when Maxis started spinning its wheels and trying to milk The Sims for all they could, trying to monopolize the female gamer market by making them play house, I've been wondering when some other company's going to step in and fill those shoes. None seem willing to do so - or at least none able seem willing and none willing seem able.

The Sims always carried a certain degree of base, sadistic, sociopathic creepiness: controlling individuals' actions, emotions and level of thought, puppeting them about a cage, staging their every up and down, insinuating one's totalitarian control into every and all minutia of their mundanity, and all of it sold as beneficent in that you were maneuvering those puppets toward greater social acceptance in the form of good grades, a higher-paying job, that big plasma-screen TV and other status symbols. Yet aside from its smirking erasure of personality and individuality, the game snuck another greatly detrimental feature through disguised as a mere limitation, this time affecting the game industry specifically.
The Sims was petty - not just descriptively small or mundane, but teleologically petty, "mesquin", denying vision and scope, diminuating and stultifying by design. How far Maxis had already fallen since their glory days...

Sim City 2000 was one of the first three games I bought once my family had its own PC. Admittedly I chose it partly to convince my mother that I wasn't turning into a bloodthirsty little psychopath interested only in blood'n'guts war games, but I quickly grew to love the city-building in itself. If I'd been paying enough attention I might've caught this little Easter-egg tucked away in my sims' town library - but then of course, I hadn't yet heard of Neil Gaiman. How weird, isn't it, that game designers might... "ruminate" on the nature and fate of cities, that such poetic ramblings might play a part in some active decision process about the product they're making? Stranger still that they might have consulted James Lovelock years before that for SimEarth? That was then and this is now. Then game designers designed strategy and immersion, challenges and interactive stories, and even simulations. They dreamed of the matrix. Now they manufacture games.

Space Colony is a pretty old game in itself. It looks to have been quickly slapped together to leech some scifi fans off The Sims back in 2003. Of course they'd never admit to being nothing more than "sims in space" so a few extraneous elements were tacked on. You can buy space soldiers to shoot space bugs, or build space hotels for space tourists. Much of this however happens quite outside your control - which was a growing problem with simulations.
While Maxis itself was making Spore for instance, they gleefully released a sample of their wildlife interaction simulation as part of your pre-order package... and that's the last you saw of it. Spore itself was not a simulation, at least not from the player's perspective. Oh sure, there were a lot of fancy numbers governing the footsteps of the animals around you, but it was all programmer masturbation, and you weren't invited even to watch. Your environment was determined completely invisibly before you ever stepped into it, to save you the trouble of thinking. You didn't get to simulate jack! Behind the interface, Spore was one of the most impressively detailed and extensive games around. From the player's seat it was, well... a family of Sims to micromanage.

Sim City 2000 was not just about building roads and schools and being well-liked as a mayor. It was about making a map that was all mountain peaks or river gorges, or tornadoes ripping your infrastructure apart and you fiddling while your city went up in flames, and if you felt like it you could make it about launching several million people into space in jet-propelled Launch Arcologies. It was grand. It was about that Gaimanesque Neverwhere vision of a city as a shifting, personified, schizophrenic superorganism, and that, I can't find again. Cynical copycats like Cities XL don't just lack that old-time Maxis humor. They lack its progressive attitude. Being rich and popular is the only point to your existence, and you become such by screwing the poor over and catering to your city's "elites" by providing them with luxuries while letting your overcrowded slums choke on smog and sewage, all the while building "landmarks" like branches of Kodak and Carrefour.
This is in itself no different from Space Colony's "sims in space" routine. You spend your time making sure you(r sims) are well-liked by each other. Each has material preferences neatly taken care of by preset material goods, but what you're really supposed to be chasing is that heart icon next to their names which tells you just how well each is getting along with the others. That's all there is to it. They have no goals. You're treated to no poetic daydreams on the nature of civilization. There's no driving force. And sure, Space Colony attempted to poke fun at itself, tried to pass everything off as caricature, but at a certain point farce tends to dip from humorous into grotesque. Laughter is among other things a defense mechanism, a mask, and what's masked here is yet another game that should never have been made, a clutter of half-implemented features which run pretty much without player input, propping up a sickly carbon-copy of something that sells.
Not an idea, not a creative process, just... stuff. Stuff we saw other guys have that we might sell too. So we can be popular too. Welcome to the industry. Welcome to Generation Facebook.

You could get more interesting characters and events in SimAnt.

What grates especially in this case is computer games' close relationship with science fiction. This was supposed to be the virtual world, damnit. We are in the future we dreamt once, and we should admit that we would've despised ourselves for this. Science fiction is the dreamers' genre. Want to make a "sims in space" game? Fine, wonderful. Give me the crew of an exploration vessel. Give me a crew of idealistic, discordant psychopaths. If we've lost the sweeping grandeur of the old simulation games then let's at least not get bogged down in such disgustingly normalizing tripe about capitalist backbiting, getting one's paycheck and mutual validation and maintaining the status quo. If, post-Sims, simulations have become a slice of life, at least make it a slice of the life of interesting people.

Virtuality is our wonder-drug, our escape, but it need not simply render us comatose. Dream big. Move!

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