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Analysis: Storytelling And House Building Games... In A Recession?

The hook of wealth and land-management sims is that players get rich and then richer -- and in this column, Emily Short examines the plausibility, or lack thereof, of that particular narrative arc in the context of our times.

Emily Short, Blogger

April 21, 2009

6 Min Read

[This new column by Emily Short, who regularly examines storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, looks at real-estate themed time management games in the context of our times.] There is something utterly surreal about house development games such as Build-a-Lot and its sequels, or Be Rich. There always was, I suppose. The game mechanic assumes that if one mansion is good, ten are better; that it will never be hard to find a millionaire to buy your latest 20-bedroom palace with built-in climbing wall; that there is no need for low-income housing balance in a neighborhood, and no prospect of trouble if you crowd it out. It is an assumption built into the core of the game that real estate prices never fall, that housing credit is never difficult to obtain, and that continuous upgrades are always desirable. The only significant constraint is the amount of viable land. Is This A Joke? At some points (I noticed this especially with Build-a-Lot 2: Town of the Year), there is even what one might call a bit of procedural satire. You're given level goals to meet that require certain environmental outcomes, such as the presence of a recycling center, some number of empty lots. What you do on the way to achieving those goals, on the other hand, is completely unregulated, and may include all sorts of environmentally disruptive behavior, such as building and renting out a dozen McMansions in order to reach the revenue goals for the level... only to tear them all down again. Those temporarily-built-over patches may end the game as empty lots, but they're certainly no longer pristine woodland, if that was the aim. Playing through those segments made it hard not to sneer a bit at the mayor making these demands, who, I must say, comes out of the process looking either very naive or very, very cynical. Be Rich: A Little Bit Richer Be Rich is mechanically almost the same game as the Build-a-Lot games but with the additional zinger that, though it is explicitly set in the United States, its characters speak unidiomatic, translated English. I assume that this was an unintentional effect of localization, not something that the authors set out to do, but it invites a little reflection about the way the U.S. tries to export the vision of an ideal lifestyle. (Personally I find even the game's title a little odd, since the game is plainly not about being rich, but about becoming so; the key being that one doesn't have time to enjoy one's wealth but is more interested in the relentless upward struggle.) In fact, Be Rich has a more diverse set of level designs than the games in the Build-a-Lot series, hinting at a less uniform notion of the composition of the ideal community -- something I welcomed. At the end of the day, though, it is still entirely about making as many buckets of money as possible by aggressively developing (and overdeveloping) a limited parcel of land. Eighteen months ago these sorts of games were simply fantasy, but there is something really extraordinary about playing them under the present economic conditions. Upwardly Mobile I write a lot about how games succeed or fail at telling interesting stories, how they achieve plausibility or fail to do so, and generally I skip analyzing games where the story line boils down to "you become more successful, and then more successful, and then more successful again, until one day you are so obscenely successful that we can't think of anything more for you to do, so the game is over". That monotonic progression from few to many resources doesn't come with most of the things I associate with a compelling story: no plot hook, personal motivation, setback, recovery, character interaction, change, or discovery. I've argued before that these barely count as narrative, that they are rather fictive dressing for the scoreboard. But that doesn't mean that the fiction has no persuasive power. The complex procedural message of these games is that optimizing the developer's financial well-being is an acceptable goal, that there are few or no conflicts between that pursuit and other desirable goals (such as community well-being), and, in some cases, that regulatory protections are designed by idiots and can easily be circumvented. That makes for a fun game. These pieces would be considerably more dour, and appeal to a different market entirely, if they tried to be sophisticated simulations of urban planning issues, complete with homelessness, zoning laws, mass transit squabbles, and a bumbling or venal city council. Part of the implicit contract of casual games is that they will not explore anything that will cause the player emotional or moral discomfort. The simpler procedural message underlying all this, and held in common with most other casual level-based games, is that success looks like a straight climb to greatness. Things are good, and then they get better, and then they get better again. People give you stars and trophies and shiny objects in appreciation of your astounding unprecedented success, even when you haven't done anything more than moronically click through the tutorial mode. (I sometimes find that college freshmen have exactly this expectation -- I should give them precise instructions about what to do, they should be able to follow these instructions without intellectual effort, and the result should be an A.) As for one's career and financial status, it is not adequate merely to hold steady, or to accomplish some specific life goals; stability is not enough. Only growth will do. Moreover, growth should be easy! Wealth can be built -- simply, easily, without risk or conflict -- out of nothing at all. An Effective Simplification Computer games can leave the player with a lot of leverage to challenge the designer's goals and assumptions. These games in particular do not. Though in some ways casual building games superficially resemble SimCity and other great simulation games, they dictate precise and simplistic win conditions. That makes them easier to play in a casual fashion, providing the framework of levels that can be worked through to a determined success state within ten or fifteen minutes -- just the kind of bite-sized engagement the casual game consumer wants. But strategy more or less vanishes. Even tactical considerations tend to be a bit simplified, since on many of the harder levels (especially of Be Rich) there aren't many alternate ways of solving a level; the resources and land are too constrained. The resolution becomes a matter of working out a puzzle. I don't mean to suggest that people playing such games are brainwashed by them into thinking life works this way. I suppose that most are fully aware of indulging in a fantasy simulacrum of life from which many practical and ethical concerns have been simplified away. They enjoy building and painting the cute little houses, and why shouldn't they? I do too. Nonetheless, in the present circumstances, I find myself thinking that these games reflect the myth that has gotten us into such a mess in the first place: the one that says the measure of a person is whether he has managed to make himself substantially richer over the course of a lifetime, or (failing that) managed to consume as though he had. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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