As mayor of any city, real or imagined, all I would ever really care about is building an opera house. So when I sat down to play Cities: Skylines on a grey summer afternoon, my purpose was clear. In this virtual life, however, as IRL, to achieve one’s grand artistic goals requires dealing with an endless stream of dull, unglamorous, day-to-day drama: traffic, abandoned buildings, bored citizens; or more serious worries like bankruptcy, fires, people falling ill and dying… This virtual space exists in a constant state of emergency.
However, the world that contains these virtual hardships is so cute, fluffy and green that one can’t help but be aware at all times how trivial anything happening to these virtual citizens actually is. Let them eat cake! The soundtrack is clearly in part to blame for this. (So much cuteness!) It seems to whisper: “You’re safe here! And you can achieve anything!” A hymn to a capitalist utopia of sorts. The (excellent) graphics are cuter still. Even death is made cute, with the cutest little skulls floating over cute homes where cute corpses lie unattended.
But don’t let this cute-fest fool you! Playing Cities:Skylines is like being married to an alcoholic: it needs you desperately, and for a while, you take pleasure in that. This game wants to consume you. A parasite! A virus! The cute kind. The efficient kind. Its hook is precisely designed: a harmless little sense of impending doom, coupled with the illusion of power.
So I sat down to play Cities: Skylines at 5 p.m. on a Friday, blinked, and found it was 3 a.m. Time for deep sleep for humans, but still so much building to do! My virtual flock needed me. The real world, bodily functions included, could wait—until I fell asleep over my computer. By 5 p.m. Saturday, still glued to the screen, I was rushing endlessly from crisis to crisis in a blissful movement forwards, marching in unison with my virtual citizens to embrace a future of utter fulfillment, opera house and everything.
A world in which I am God! But being God, even a virtual God, is exhausting–decisions need to be made constantly, decisions with consequences for thousands of virtual lives. Here questions of ethics take center stage: in this virtual life there are hard choices to be made no matter what. So, for instance, if there are virtual people living together, there’s going to be virtual waste that needs to occupy some virtual space which will cause some virtual pollution. It’s just a fact of virtual life. So where’s it gonna go? The virtual sea? The virtual forest? Next to the virtual citizens’ cute little virtual houses? It’s gotta go somewhere, and it won’t be pretty. Some virtual person out there is going to be pissed off!
This tension, between Scylla and Charybdis, is one of the key dynamics behind the lukewarm thrill of Cities: Skylines, an exercise in Realpolitik in the virtual world. I could choose to focus all my city’s spending on parks and recreation and building opera houses, yes! But citizens may die as a result of my upper-middle-class-liberal-artist-hubristic decision-making. Or worse, in neglecting other affairs in pursuit of the opera house, the whole city may go bankrupt, jeopardising… the building of the opera house!
Come the following Friday, one week has gone by and I have achieved nothing of significance in either the real or the virtual world, not even an opera house, failing at the game of life in every possible dimension… Uhhh, CMD+Q!