John McDermott is a staff writer at Digiday in Manhattan. He has also written for Playboy, Vice, Fast Company, The Awl, Inc., the Chicago Tribune and Advertising Age.
It's impossible to miss the socioeconomic and political commentary embedded within Cities of Tomorrow.
When I first saw the city of the future, everything seemed to be perfect.
The skyline was dotted with MegaTowers, buildings so tall, so efficient and so densely populated that they functioned as vertical cities unto themselves. Instead of having to walk around the corner for a gallon of milk, tenants needed only descend a flight of stairs. A person’s daily commute was reduced to an elevator ride. The neighborhood park wasn't a few blocks away, it was on the 27th floor. Everything a MegaTower resident needed was mere steps away.
In the rare case residents did leave their self-sustaining superscrapers, they used the MagLev, an elevated bullet train powered by magnets. While the MegaTowers and the MagLev required lots of power, they produced little waste. Advancements in fusion technology had it made it easy to produce large amounts of clean energy, and new waste treatment technologies — like the Garbage Atomizer and the Air Scrubber — cut down on whatever pollution was left. The result was a beautiful mix of sleek high-rises and green spaces.
But as they often do, appearances proved deceiving. There was something amiss in the city. Down the road from the immaculate downtown was the city’s grittier, blue-collar counterpart. The buildings there were dark yet adorned with tacky neon lights. Instead of high-income intellectuals, it was filled with low-income laborers. Yet here, too, the citizens were overwhelmingly happy. Suspiciously happy.
If this sounds like the setup for a disturbing science fiction novel, you’re not far off: This is actually the premise for SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow, a deeply cynical expansion pack for the SimCity game, set to be released November 12. The original SimCity game, of course (along with its most recent fifth edition), allowed players to act as mayors and design the ideal modern city. But the evil genius behind the game play was always that sustainability was illusory: even the most well-designed cities eventually imploded. Players thought they were all-powerful mayors, but they were merely delayers of the inevitable. The best they could do was stave off their city’s collapse.
Cities of Tomorrow extends this tension to a dark, satirical future. You’re technically still mayor of a metropolis, but in the case of the gleaming downtown scenario, the true arbiter of power is a small organization called The Academy. Tucked below the elevated trains and glittering skyscrapers, The Academy is basically a publicly funded think tank whose sole mission is to push the boundaries of urban infrastructure. The Academy develops all of the city’s technology, and the more public funding it receives, the quicker it innovates. The catch is that all Academy-developed technology has to run on ControlNet, a computing system owned and operated by The Academy.
Alternatively, when running the industrial district, you act as the business tycoon behind a shadowy conglomerate called OmegaCo, the largest employer in the area. OmegaCo’s main source of revenue is Omega, an energy resource of unknown origin. Lucky for you, your citizens don’t mind that Omega is highly flammable or that using it means emitting noxious purple smoke. Omega is so cheap and potent, they never even bother to find out what it actually is.
It's impossible to miss the socioeconomic and political commentary embedded within Cities of Tomorrow. That the affluent live in the epicenter and the poor are relegated to the suburban fringes feels like a direct commentary on the demographic inversion cities like Chicago, New York and San Francisco are currently experiencing. The concentration of wealth calls to mind what’s left of the Occupy movement. The Sims’ addiction to Omega despite its negative effects on the environment mirrors the developed world’s dependence on oil. Even the MagLev is nearly identical to Elon Musk’s proposed Hyperloop (especially since it only seems plausible within the construct of a video game).
The most glaring critique is how The Academy and its pervasive ControlNet operating system resembles the National Security Agency’s domestic surveillance apparatus. SimCity game designer Stone Librande insists that while this similarity makes the game timely, it’s the result of a fortunate coincidence. He and his team began developing Cities of Tomorrow months before the Edward Snowden leaks began.
Instead, Librande says Cities of Tomorrow is really a way for he and his fellow game developers to geek out on their favorite science fiction. A city dominated by OmegaCo looks like the Blade Runner version of Los Angeles. MegaTowers are a nod to the City Blocks in Judge Dredd. The incompatibility of the upper and working classes calls to mind recent blockbuster Elysium. ControlNet feels a bit like SkyNet from the Terminator series, although machines don’t become actualized in Cities of Tomorrow. The worst thing that can happen is your Sims become unhappy and move away to another fake city.
Whether inspired by real or fictional events, the expansion pack has an inescapable, soul-crushing pessimism. Any idealists who try to a construct a pollution or poverty free utopia are engaging in a Sisyphean task. And this is out of necessity, Librande explains.
"Utopia, in general, is boring for game play. So if we set up a utopian city there’d be nothing for the player to do," he says.
Librande doesn’t worry about the game’s bleak view of the future turning off any prospective gamers. If anything, they’ll be attracted to the challenge. SimCity has a notoriously die-hard fan base, and what he thinks will make the expansion pack so alluring is not what the game play says about society, but what it says about each player. Players must divide their faith and resources between two purposefully ambiguous entities: OmegaCo and The Academy. OmegaCo’s goal is profit, and The Academy’s motive is to make its technology ubiquitous. What players choose will reveal their attitudes toward capitalism, class, and the balance between privacy and utility.
"The player is free to write their own fiction on top of the game," he says. "SimCity is a mirror in a way. The city you make is a reflection of who you are."
The only thing the new game doesn’t reflect is a positive view of the future.
All screengrabs from SimCity: Cities of Tomorrow, courtesy EA Games.