Saturday, January 19, 2013

Sim City IV and emerging storylines

The above video is an hour-long lecture by Jonathan Blow.  I think he's the guy that wrote Braid.  Yup, the guy who wrote Braid.  Braid is an award winning indie game, a puzzle platformer.  Braid effectively weaves, or "braids" if you will, great graphics/sound, game play and story.  Recommended for everybody.  If you have the time, go ahead and listen to that lecture.  Maybe you'll like it, maybe you won't.    I enjoyed it.  I like seeing all this college-level theory stuff as applied to games.

In the lecture, he talks about the concept of an emerging storyline in games.  The idea is that there isn't a written storyline, or what storyline there is is minimal, and the story comes out through play of the game.  I think this is a pretty cool idea.  And I think I 'get it.' I think that my previous experience playing MineCraft had an emerging storyline.  Today I want to talk about Sim City IV, a game I've been playing lately, and another example of an emerging storyline.

I should let you know that Sim City is a city simulator.  If that wasn't yet clear from the title.  In Sim City, you play the role of an all-powerful 'mayor,' with complete control over the cities budget, zoning choices, and even the ability to cause natural disasters.  (But let's leave that last one alone for now.)  The gist of the game is: If you build it, they will come.  People will populate your city as long as you provide the basic needs of modern industrial society:  residential, commercial, industrial zones and infrastructure such as roads, power and running water. After setting up shop in your city, the residents will immediately begin approving or disapproving of your job as mayor, and this is the driving force behind my own emerging storyline.

I play this game with the overarching goal of winning approval of the residents.  I have sub-goals of increasing population, of using clean energy and public transportation.  I've got the first goal down, but the following goals are proving to be a lot trickier.  Twenty four hours and five cities deep, My story has gone from the need for approval, to a near-obsessive desire to build an ideal city according to my own design.

I realized that emergent storylines make games like Sim City IV more like a toy than a game, as my esteemed colleague Conklederp put it in her post about the Sims series of games.  Playing Sim City is not unlike playing with Legos or blocks, with the specific theme of city building and a near infinite number of resources.  Watch the video below for an example of an emergent storyline using more traditional toys:

I don't imagine that the Gene Simmons doll featured in the above video was originally intended to be used to crush matchbox cars. But through the emerging storyline, Al was able to find a new role for Gene to play.  

The key difference between toys and video games is that, with video games, there is a computer program providing feedback.  This is a role that used to be occupied by the imagination of the individual player, or the cooperating imaginations of a group of players.  I'm not quite sure how I feel about this.  What is it about computer controlled feedback that is so alluring?

Perhaps it is easier and more relaxing to allow a computer to run the simulator, rather than using my imagination to fill in all the gaps?  I certainly know I'm tired most days after work, and if I were to engage in imaginative play as Al did above, all my toys might just talk about how tired they are.  

There is also, for me, a challenge in figuring out the dynamics of the computer feedback.  Similar to figuring out an opponent in a multi-player game, I am trying to learn how to balance the programmed needs of my Sim-citizens, with my own, changing concept of my perfect city.  And I must admit, while I sometimes want to invite Gene Simmons to come visit my failures, I don't have the heart to destroy them.  Fortunately for me, the cities remain in stasis when I'm not playing them.  It would certainly add another dimension of challenge if they did not.

Sim City IV was released in 2003, and there has been a long drought of Sim City titles since.  However, there are plans to release another in the series, simply titled Sim City. This game is slated for March of this year, 2013.  There is talk of online, co-operative play and for these features, I am excited.  

I would love a chance to build neighboring cities with a friend, and perhaps work together to help one another with our particular mayoral shortcomings.  Sim City IV has the ability to cooperate with neighboring towns, but it is only a one player game, so I am only able to cooperate with myself.  I'm pretty good at playing with myself... ... ... but the possibilities of emerging storylines increase greatly when more than one mind is at play.

Sim City is a game which is a great abstraction.  The player views the action from above, removed from the concerns of the individuals in the town, which can number in the thousands.  This makes it a good candidate to talk about emerging storylines and also a bad one, because the abstraction may interfere with the players ability to relate.  

However, it is a game that has its hooks in me now.  I will continue to meditate on the subject of emergent gameplay, and I will try to see if I can find it in other games as I play them.  

No comments:

Post a Comment