I just read this fascinating interview on VICE. It’s a very dated piece, back from 2010, but what’s talked about is still very relevant to games and the way in which we make them—mainly because games still haven’t figured out what a good story is. This man managed to create a city with a population of 6 million in SimCity 3000, the maximum possible. I remember playing the game as a kid and not knowing what the heck was going on. Regardless, it was still fun poking at the system. However, what happened in this densely packed city, Magnasanti, is out of this world. It’s much more than just poking around and is instead an intense conversation, or even debate, between player and designer. I keep saying it but I’ll say it again: this is what the best game stories are, it’s these conversations that speak in the language of systems interaction.
More after the jump…
When Magnasanti was created by Vincent Ocasla, an architecture student at the time, who devoted years to crafting his masterpiece. I’m confident to say that this is a conversation that SimCity’s designers did not expect to have with a player. The thought of this kind of city was probably always hidden somewhere in the designers’ collective subconscious but the kind of expression and message that Ocasla achieved with his city is mind-boggling (described in the VICE interview). It’s philosophical. It says things about our own future. It speaks to how systems are powerful and can influence things like our culture and our livelihoods. Let’s face it, our world is a complex layering of system and we’ve been conversing with its designer since the beginning of time. By living, we speak this systems based language and express ourselves within this playground. It’s this shocking magnitude that leads me to believe that the designers had no idea, completely emergent behavior. A game designer creates the system, a playground, for players to experiment in. All games provide some kind of expression through its rules whether it be deciding to bluff on a hand of Poker or picking up a discarded weapon in Call of Duty. The variety of user interactions in those systems—the strategies, the preparation, the execution—are all forms of player expression by way of mechanics that the designer has bestowed upon players. Games are beautiful in that sense because they provide a possible infinitude of expression and meaning with a small set of rules.
Let’s face it, our world is a complex layering of system and we’ve been conversing with its designer since the beginning of time. By living, we speak this systems based language and express ourselves within this playground.
After reading the VICE interview and watching the video, you can’t help but realize that these kinds of systems are all around us. While Will Wright (lead designer for SimCity) may have constructed a realistic city building simulator, with Ocasla’s help Wright created a horror story. The way in which Magnasanti succeeds in growing its population is to make grievous sacrifices like “suffocating air pollution, high unemployment, no fire stations, schools, or hospitals, a regimented lifestyle” because it is simply “the price that these sims pay for living in the city with the highest population.” Most surprisingly is that Magnasanti’s populace takes it. Ocasla’s tyranny in Magnasanti is our prophecy.
They don’t rebel, or cause revolutions and social chaos. No one considers challenging the system by physical means since a hyper-efficient police state keeps them in line. They have all been successfully dumbed down, sickened with poor health, enslaved and mind-controlled just enough to keep this system going for thousands of years. 50,000 years to be exact. They are all imprisoned in space and time. — Ocasla
The series of interactions that led up to the building of this city and the fundamental steps that realized it tells a detailed story. Ocasla spent months learning the this systems interaction language that the game’s designers created and he’s telling a story with it. Like how someone can roam an empty Minecraft server and shape the world to create a story unique to them, bringing happiness and cathartic expression, Magnasanti can be seen as a historic artifact—a forgotten place stranded in time. Imagine an archaeological team uncovering the ruins of this city in the real world, what would they say? What could they glean about its society and culture? Without the VICE interview and video documentation there might not be a whole lot going for it. The series of interactions that was alluded to can be a difficult process to record.
This is why stories in games are doomed in some ways that passive media is not. Each playthrough of a game is fundamentally different. The end state of a game doesn’t tell the story, it’s the work that went into creating that end. A designer cannot possibly know, if they’ve done their jobs at creating a system robust to allow for this kind of expression, what is going to happen once it lands in a user’s hands. Agency is what allows games to tell unique stories but at the same time it means that the stories are transient. Ephemeral. Lost in the wind. These special kinds of game experiences are just blips on the radar, a faint scent in the air. They’re powerful, yes, but to ask to experience the same thing again is folly. While you can argue that passive media cannot be consumed more than once and hold the same meaning, the only thing that changes when consuming passive media is that you are changing. The interaction is always the same. Eyes on a movie screen. Fingers flipping pages.
A game system also does not change. However, unless you record each interaction and replay each one, you will never get the same result. In a weird way, interactions then become similar to the you that changes in when revisiting passive media. It’s a very strange way to think about it and certainly doesn’t help us to solve how to recreate our experience in games and systems.
What it does mean, though, is that we can still take these systems and create our own meaning from them that dramatically diverges from its originating genre. For example, can Catcher in the Rye become a horror story? That’s definitely more of a stretch with passive media, you’d have to change yourself in some dramatic fashion to gain that interpretation of the book. However, SimCity allowed Magnasanti to be created—this horrific example of a city that we’re doomed to live in some day.
Like how Buddhism is related to Magnasanti, a game system occupies a strange non-duality. The designer’s work (system) must be touched by a player in order to create meaning. The system and player become locked in a tango, this conversation, where meaning can be created when the two are joined harmoniously. This kind of philosophical metaphor of game stories may shine light on why we haven’t reached an understanding of how to make game narratives better. It’s because they aren’t passive. They can’t contain its meaning as an object. Games must be touched and absorbed.