Tony Peters is not a happy man. After a hard day’s work at reputable local lumber merchant Planks 4 Everything (company slogan: “If a tree falls in the forest, we make a pound”), he’s stuck in traffic on his way home.
Before today, this wouldn’t have happened. Before today, Tony would have coasted back to the Peters’ residence down semi-deserted streets, chuckling at all the less fortunate souls trapped in the giant jam of traffic trying to make it across town.
Now, however, that’s all changed, because today marks the grand opening of the vast new cloverleaf intersection constructed to try and ease the crippling congestion problems that are tarnishing the good name of Gangsta City.
Amongst the many issues stifling the growth of this burgeoning metropolis (unconscionable numbers living in poverty, spiralling crime rates and a distinct lack of places to moor my mayoral mega-yacht), perhaps the biggest offender is the town’s principle highway. It’s here, that some idiot took apparent leave of his senses and decided it would be a good idea to build the city’s central bus station right where the road shrinks down from four lanes to two on the corner of Tupac Shakur Lane and Biggie Smalls Boulevard.
The result, is a crucible of unholy gridlock. Hence the need for the drastic changes to the road system. Now, rather than cross-town commuters queuing for hours whilst those who live in the bayside suburbs cruse along carefree, everyone waits for a little while and takes their turn. It’s just fairer that way.
Despite this, I still can’t help feeling guilty about Tony. Not some much because I’ve slightly extended his journey time, but because when he gets home, he’s going to discover that I had to demolish his house to build the new intersection.
Cities: Skylines, Colossal Order’s 2015 town-building game, is chock full of awkward decisions just like this one. A conurbation cultivation simulator where you play a nebulous force looking down from the heavens, creating and destroying, managing and manipulating as you see fit. Your role is part omnipotent spirit, part civil servant.
In the first few hours of play, there are some harsh lessons you quickly learn. Lessons like don’t place your fresh water pumping station directly downstream of your waste water flow pipe, and never build your nuclear power plant next to your primary school. Unless, of course, you want your Year 4s’ only employment opportunities to be a quest givers in future Fallout games.
Persevere past the unfortunate mutant child stage though, and there are some further teachings the game only imparts over more extended periods of time. Illuminating personal revelations that, in retrospect, are as obviously depressing as they are depressingly obvious.
Firstly, whenever you struggle your way around a real world town or city thinking to yourself, “What in the hell possessed them to want to build it this way?” Playing Cities: Skylines makes it abundantly clear that they didn’t. And that the job of city planner is not the life of artisanal vegan Paninis, experimental facial hair and minimalist PowerPoint presentations you might imagine.
Naively, I began my city construction work with a grand plan for the future of urbanisation. An uncompromising vision for a metropolis designed for the betterment of all. An effortlessly cohesive, carbon neutral, socially integrated utopia where every single inhabitant had unfettered access to financial, emotional and intellectual affluence. A place where education and endeavour were fostered not feared and you didn’t feel like you had to don a hazmat suit to enter a men’s public toilet.
Sadly, there was one major problem with all of this: money. Or, to be more precise, a distinct lack of it. Astonishingly, the dim-witted plebs residing in my city lacked the foresight to appreciate the benefits the 80% income tax I was levying on them would bring. Clearly, they didn’t value a world in which future generations could live in a place with an unrivalled selection of organic Mung bean shops and a statue of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on every street corner.
With municipal budgets so constricted, the life was slowly throttled out of my dreams and my city, like every other city, became a hodgepodge of cheap compromises. Modern extensions propped up on archaic foundations that were never intended to bear such weight. The real skill in this job wasn’t in trying to get everything working perfectly, but ensuring it didn’t break completely.
As humbling and disappointing as it was having to settle for a city of serviceable mediocrity, the second, and easily the most important thing I came to appreciate playing Cities: Skylines, was the way power distorted my perceptions of morality.
Even seeing the improvements my new intersection brought to so many lives, I still couldn’t get over my feelings of guilt towards Tony Peters. If only I’d slightly repositioned the nearby university (The James Hamblin Institute of Awesomeness), or the local hospital (The Sanctuary of St. Hamblin our Saviour), I probably could have saved his house.
Immediately, I began searching the surrounding neighbourhood, hoping to find the family’s new home, until I stopped through fear. What if I accidentally clicked on the bins behind the supermarket and a box popped up on screen saying “The Peters’ Residence”?
Back in the days before all this unfortunate mess happened, I’d seen them out as a happy family walking their dog. It was probably called something cute, like Barney. What if Barney had now run away? What if they’d had to give him away? What if they’d had to eat him just to survive? Tony and Co. all huddled round the flicking embers of a dying brazier forcing down poorly cooked chunks of Chilli con Barney! It was all too awful to contemplate.
In my growing despair, however, I hit upon a brilliant idea. All I needed to do was find another family and use my abilities to alter their names to those of the Peters clan. It was so simple, so obvious, so….appalling. The callous indifference with which I was willing to erase lives purely to appease my guilty conscience. It reminded me of John Dalberg-Actions’ famous quote about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. I had become a monster, and I didn’t even realise it. The Gangsta City cross-town highway, it seems, just like the road to hell, is paved with good intentions.