No, not ‘game idling’, that’s leaving TF2 running on an empty server because you’re desperately trying to get a hat as cool as my heavy’s purple-super-awesome-fuzzy-hat; it’ll never happen, so you should probably stop trying now.
In the past week I’ve once more returned to ‘Cities: Skylines’, which may not be the most catchy name, but I guess the developers decided against calling it ‘Cities: The Game That SimCity Reboot Should Have Been’. I first tried my hand at this gentle brand of city planning back in 2015 when it made the list of top 5 games I played that year and, despite rarely being touched since the close of that twelve-months, it remained installed on my PC; a worthy achievement as I tend to clear space pretty regularly to make way for new titles. Working on the ‘Field of Dreams’ school of thought the player lays out roads, infrastructure, designated zones, and the population, like ballplayers through a cornfield, arrive to live, work, and shop. It’s a tried and tested formula that, in all the important ways, has remained unchanged since the first SimCity hit consoles and home computers in 1989 (if you can believe that!). ‘Cities: Skylines’ brings back all the important elements and adds a few more for good measure; along with overall budgeting the player can designate districts within their virtual utopia specifying local bylaws and incentives; for example you could designate a district which gives tax breaks to small businesses, or distribute smoke detectors to residents of a specific residential area. Along with this the game allows you to place certain landmark buildings as you reach gameplay milestones which in broad terms bring in more tourism and act as some kind of indicator of ingame progress.
This idea of ‘ingame progress’ is entirely up for grabs, and really depends on the player’s definition of what their end goal is. Some god-sim games put the player through levels; ‘Theme Hospital’ (which is a franchise well… well overdue for a revival) gave players targets in order to drive their development as did later games such as ‘Roller Coaster Tycoon 3’. In ‘Cities: Skylines’, the goal is down to the player; want to create an industrial metropolis? a polished futuristic city? forestry haven? mining town? all possible, and that’s without going into the DLC expansions (the snowfall one is on my wishlist). The danger with this open-ended approach is that the game might feel listless and unfocused; It’s a hazard that’s magnified by the liberal approach that ‘Cities: Skylines’ takes to difficulty. Any hint of realism is removed by the financial planning elements, and who can blame the designers for that? I doubt they’d shift many copies if most of the game was a brutal exercise in budget balancing and ensuring maximum spend before the end of the financial year, or if the player were forced to make cripplingly decisions with potentially devastating impact on the most vulnerable members of society. ‘Cities: Skylines’ provides an airbrushed view of a city where a quick slider tweak and low interest loans make expansion and growth almost limitless. My current city for example has a very effective, entirely free at the point of use, mass transit system; no smoking policy; legalised recreational drugs; 100% renewable energy; forestry industry frequently praised for how ecologically sound it is; high happiness levels; low-unemployment; low crime rate; high levels of education;…
…. wait?… am I some kind of evil dictator ruling an oppressed people, who are forced to be happy, consume, rally around my excellent decision making, and … force-ably recycle?… Am I the all knowing, all controlling, municipality??….
Ethical qualms aside, the city is still raking in money to the point that if I stop spending for too long I end up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to found a few more universities. For someone who in the past has claimed not to really appreciate crafting games it might be tricky to see where the attraction lies, but I suspect it’s in that risky ‘lack of direction’ that the game finds its form. For me the ‘tranquillity’ of the whole process has echoes of the recent rise in popularity of colouring books, or those miniature zen-gardens that were all the rage in the 90’s. The world is so full of activity and detail that I can spend large swathes of gameplay time simply zoomed in looking at houses, or the crowds entering and leaving a subway station giving myself a mental pat on the back that its location must be appropriate given the volume of passengers. I like to frame a scene and watch the sun set over the light residential district that sits on a headland next to the ocean, or take in the nighttime traffic by peering between the skyscraper cliffs in my ultra-modern slice of inner-city living. I’d even admit that there is curiosity about the lives of my virtual inhabitants; I tracked one from their suburban home, through the subway system (involving a handful of changes), and right across the city as they made their way to the office where they worked.
Mentally the player can choose to play with multiple mindsets at once by breaking their city planning down into smaller sub-projects, each with their own quirks, self-imposed challenges, goals, and charm. My city’s picturesque residential area has winding tree-lined roads and a small commercial sector where local businesses can thrive whereas I crafted my logging district away from the main residential areas, but served excellently by road, rail, and sea links to act as an industrial hub. There is a self-evoked sense of achievement when, upon noticing a congested junction, it can be restructured to alleviate the pressure with a bypass? second highway? bridge? tunnel? and if that doesn’t work just flatten it in the virtual equivalent of shaking the etch-a-sketch to start again.
Circling back around to where I began, this is ‘idle gaming’, where the player can soak up the atmosphere, gently nudge things along, actively sculpt a region, wipe things clear, get lost in a single aspect, or zoom out and reshape the overall structure of their settlement. Without the constraints of goals or a driving story, it can be as engrossing or relaxed as the player wants and, just occasionally, I like to have that option.