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Banished: The Medieval Game that Isn’t

One of the most venerable genres of computer games is the city-building simulator. SimCity is the great-granddaddy of them all, of course, and many kids in my generation wasted plenty of recess hours hunched over a computer program which, somehow, managed to make urban planning and civic zoning fun.

SimCity’s breakout success made its makers at Maxis a household name among many gamers. And Maxis went on to launch a number of sequels (though the shambolic failure of the most recent iteration has threatened to derail its future), as well as a number of other Sim-games (SimEarth, SimLife, SimAnt, SimFarm). Other companies also took up the mantle, often asking their players to build cities in exciting historical locales: Pharaoh for ancient Egypt, Caesar for Rome, Tropico for the 20th-century Caribbean, and the Anno series had titles set in 1701, 1404 and 2070.

The remarkable thing about the gameplay of SimCity was its lack of external conflict. In short, by contrast with the vast majority of games then and now, there were no bad guys to shoot, no race cars to overtake, no bosses to defeat, no princesses to save. The fundamental challenge was in creating a perfectly-balanced system, where each of the metaphorical gears would run in time with all the others. That is, until this guy showed up to ruin everything:

By contrast, city-Sims set in the Middle Ages typically restored the external conflict. Medieval cities, it seems, were less interesting as whirring, dynamic urban centers, and more interesting as fortifications against plundering hordes. The successful Stronghold franchise is a testament to this trend, where, in only the medieval context, the city-sim was replaced by the castle-sim.

And so it was no small interest that I recently began playing Banished. (more…)

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