I’m a huge fan of video games. I believe there are a lot of useless ones out there, good for a few brief moments of entertainment. I also believe there are those out there so masterfully put together that we could learn a lot as writers. Video games have the ability to be as stimulating and stunning as a movie, while having the depth and length of a novel, and it’s an art form we cannot simply shirk off.

I plan on doing at least three of these posts, but today, while exploring the new work provided tablet, I found a fun little city builder. Most of my work was done, I promise.

The city builder reminded me of games like SimCity and City XL. You get to grow a city, building, ripping it down, starting projects, and either cancelling or finishing them. A dozen eras can easily show in a city, with old and new districts.

In City XL, I built a commercial center. It was small, filled with cute shops and a couple tech stores. Residential zones surrounded it. The shops were able to keep up with a pretty good population, and soon the streets were jammed. I created a diagonal boulevard. Several shops were removed, decreasing the supply of commercial services.

After a few years, the residential sector was large enough they demanded more shopping opportunities. A wealthy neighborhood to the north demanded more diverse commercial services, such as mega malls. The rich folk wanted jobs such as stock broker and banker. They dreamed of becoming CEOs.

To accommodate, I create vast shopping districts, a financial district for offices, towering skyscrapers, and this district kept growing. Residential districts were built with high rises. They overshadowed the old city. Suddenly what was the heart of survival was a cute suburb of the real heart. It was charming and I let it be. Then it was run down as people moved out. Finally undesirable elements moved in, unchecked, and I had to start making improvements. This all happened in about a twenty year period. But it was alive through each era, for better or worse, and it went through several eras, and each one of those eras leaves scars which will never be fully erased.

As fantasy and science fiction writers, we get pretty good at creating a city, or even entire civilizations, but as a snapshot. We can throw together some great landmarks, races, cultures, and so on. There’s one issue: our city will never truly feel alive because it is stuck in the now. It’s rare we see ruins which mean anything, or hear a language that only a small percentage of the city speaks. We never find out that once, that was the primary language of the city. Here are the steps for city building to help give it those previous scars. You don’t have to go far back, but go through a couple eras.

Everything progresses. There is always change. Screen shot from City XL.
Everything progresses. There is always change. Screen shot from City XL.

There are three phases to a city’s growth, again something which happens in city builders. Growth is the preferred of the three states. There is extra money, construction is starting constantly, and as soon as one building is erected another project begins. People want to live there, merchants want to sell there, and it becomes a center for the region. If your city is growing, there should be signs of it in the form of new projects. Another space dock is being constructed. An alchemist moved in and so now there’s a demand for a glass blower and herbalist.

The second state is stagnation. This is the teetering point where a prosperous city is likely about to hit a decline. In a city builder you shore up your resources, start cutting a few corners, you debate getting a loan in order to create a larger tax base, projects which were started sit there as modern ruins, reminders that the golden years are in the past. The government overseeing the galaxy stops hiring more people. They can’t send troops out to other systems. The knights of a kingdom have more and more dents in their armor which they can’t afford to pay to get removed.

Finally, you reach decline. Buildings are abandoned. There are streets you can walk through, major streets once filled with caravans, which now have only debris and rats roaming. Usually this is caused by a major company exiting, an over extension of infrastructure, or other misappropriation of funds. At this point funds are cut. Armories are scrapped. Fleets stop functioning and float in orbit, useless and dead.

To see this in action in our own world, quickly and with you controlling the rudder, go find a nice city builder, play it for a while, get a feel for the ebb and flow of a city. Apply what you learn to your own cities and civilizations. It will give a whole new level of depth.

What video games have you found inspiring?

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