SimCity 4 is a spreadsheet that will never be balanced, but that’s what makes it so fun, even 14 years after release.
Yesterday, an article about SimCity 4's Network Addon Mod, a comprehensive mod for roads and traffic in SimCity 4, reached the front page of r/Games.”Not only has SimCity 4 survived, it has thrived with new creations offered daily by content-makers, and has even evolved with substantial player-developed modifications like the Network Addon Mod,” author Dirktator wrote. While that’s definitely true, and the thriving mod community for SimCity 4 is a joy to browse through, after playing until two in the morning I can safely say that SimCity 4 also holds up on its own.
City building games can sometimes feel like playing a spreadsheet. SimCity 4 and games like it are full of graphs and data overlays to help you keep track of traffic, water flow, population and more. When games like this go awry it’s either because the numbers feel too random or too much like doing math homework. But if you get a kick out of organizing your book shelves you’re probably already salivating (guilty as charged).
City building games ask you not only to manage data about buildings, but to build something that people live in. Cities are full of people—even if you’re building a polluted shithole on purpose, you may start to wonder what it’s like to walk those dirty streets. SimCity 4 reminds you of this via sim advisors who constantly tell you which areas of your city need work. You can also select individual sims to serve a similar role as citizens, who will tell you what’s wrong in their neighborhood. They give a more personalized critiques, telling you about the traffic jam on their street as opposed to a bird’s eye view on your entire street network.
All these sims are going to tell you different things. Your environmentalist is going to tell you that your water pump is too polluted to use, and your utilities guy will tell you that shutting it down means undercutting the whole town. One of your citizens might love the tiny stretch of road he lives on, and your traffic guru will point out that the intersection needs to be totally overhauled. As you play, the game gives you conflicting reads on the data it presents. Your job as mayor is to decide who you agree with and how to act on the advice they give you.
In the years since SimCity 4’s release, players have comprehensively broken down how to make efficient cities with perfect road systems and balanced budgets, but money and efficiency doesn’t always mean you make cities that feel like a good place to live. In a game with such a lush art style and attention to detail in its architecture, there’s no reason to make an ugly city. Often players advise not making services until you absolutely need to, but last night, as mayor of Gitaville, that wasn’t going to fly for me. My budget got tighter and tighter as I placed buildings I liked and services I thought made the city nice.
In attempt to balance the budget I started readying my city for high tech industry and office spaces, which meant I had to zone higher density residential areas as well as industry and commercial. I was so preoccupied with planning for future expansion, I didn’t even notice my cosy suburbs disappearing. The property values were getting too high. The streets of Gitaville got louder, more polluted, and I had to make several haphazard changes to the road system before the entire town became too undesirable to live in. We made less money when it was just farms, but didn’t have the traffic problems that come with bigger cities. I could have just left Gitaville as a rural agricultural community, as the only thing the game really cares about is whether or not the budget is balanced and if the people currently living in the town are employed. But in my effort to make my utopian vision of a city, I’d let things spiral out of control.
The poor had nowhere to live anymore but in high rise tenements downwind of pollution. As I let the commercial district expand, these people increasingly had nowhere to work—SimCity 4's mechanics only allows low income workers to get jobs in low income factories or commercial spaces. I’d gotten part of Gitaville exactly how I’d wanted it—in the past I’ve found it hard to get high tech industry to move in and was elated when the futuristic campuses started to populate my zones. But these depressing, neglected residential neighborhoods were the consequences of my actions.
What I love about SimCity 4 is that sometimes, you’re just fucked. Some more modern city builders make the goal of expansion more inherent to how you play the game, so bulldozing farms and privileging high rises feels less like a moral choice and more like what the game wants you to do. But SimCity 4's glut of data and conflicting advice leads you to create cities that are visions of yourself, and when they don’t reflect what you value, you might try unsuccessfully to turn it around. In the end I gave my low income hoods more services and my budget ended up dangerously in the red. The jails were overstuffed, the teachers went on strike and the hospitals closed. But as mayor of Gitaville, I felt better about tanking our budget trying to help my citizens than by standing by the wayside, making things more efficient.