SimCity wasn’t built for the climate crisis. These games are

There has been a surge of games in the past decade that reinvent the genre, departing from the build-produce-expand formula laid down by 1989’s SimCity.

SimCity wasn’t built for the climate crisis. These games are

SimCity Wasn’t Built For The Climate Crisis. These Games Are: As the climate crisis deepens, the city as we know it is becoming an endangered species. According to the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, 570 cities will face catastrophic flooding due to sea-level rises over the next thirty years, with hundreds of millions of people at risk of displacement. Inland settlements can look forward to fires, heatwaves and drought compounded by the “heat island” effect of vast expanses of concrete with minimal greenery.

One small consequence of all this is a crisis of conscience for the developers of city-building games – all struggling to imagine the city’s future while reckoning with mass urbanisation’s role in bringing on the climate crisis we now face.

There has been a surge of games in the past decade that reinvent the genre, departing from the build-produce-expand formula laid down by 1989’s SimCity. Some try to fix the damage: Terra Nil is a “reverse” builder in which you rewild wastelands.

Others explore cynicism and despair: Frostpunk sees you pitching tents around a coal generator in the Arctic circle, while Industries of Titan is about raising huge factory-slums on a polluted moon. But most curious of all are the games in which cities are mobile – nomad fantasies that blend awareness of a dawning age of climate refugeeism with the utopian or satirical visions of twentieth century architects and futurists.

These games come in many shapes and sizes, but they all ask the same questions: how much of contemporary urban existence can be salvaged when cities can’t afford to sit still? And what idea of society arises in the process?

Games often promise a ‘living, breathing world’, but this is literally the case for Stray Fawn’s upcoming The Wandering Village, in which you raise a settlement on the back of a massive chimerical beast, the Onbu, as it roves a planet consumed by toxic spores.

The concept reflects studio co-founder Philomena Schwab’s entwined interests in biology and game design. It takes inspiration both from Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and James Lovelock’s famous Gaia Hypothesis – the idea that creatures and their environment together form one self-regulating system.

Where most city sims treat the environment as inert matter waiting to be paved over or processed, The Wandering Village requires you to form a bond with the organism underfoot. True, the Onbu is something of a passive natural resource: you’ll grow crops on it, cobble together houses from its surface materials, and potentially even drill into it for energy.

“We’ve found some really interesting game mechanics where you can take resources out of the Onbu – [perhaps] it has a liver or lungs, and you can pump out certain fluids as fuel.” But you’ll also need to communicate with the creature, encouraging it to visit certain regions so that you can gather rarer resources and blueprints left behind by one of gaming’s many mysterious ancient civilisations.

Players can learn and issue “commands” using a giant horn, but the Onbu will only follow instructions if they align with its own needs, or if it trusts you enough to ignore them. Settle into the rhythms of unchecked habitat exploitation favoured by traditional city sims, and you’ll injure and antagonise the beast, to the point of killing it. Are you a parasite, laying waste to your host, or a symbiote learning to live alongside it?

Gaia hypothesis aside, The Wandering Village evokes pre-industrial and contemporary nomadic societies who travel with their animals from season to season. In this case, however, the migration is unplanned, and much of your community’s history has been dumped by the wayside.

Even as players deepen their rapport with the Onbu, so they’ll develop different conceptions of urban society in response to it, though how far this will go is undecided. “We’ve made about five prototypes, and in one we basically let the player decide what the Onbu is to them – a god, or just an animal that you use, or a partner, and so on,” Schwab says.

The creature’s own broader objectives remain an open question: one of the spicier possibilities is that it’s looking for a mate, which sounds like it’ll have dire consequences for the people clinging to its back. “You can only hope you are not living on a female Onbu,” jokes Schwab.

Modern architects have given us many visions for flying cities. Consider Buckminster Fuller’s “Cloud 9” tensegrity spheres, which he suggested could airlift people to safety during environmental emergencies. None of these, strangely, were an influence on Airborne Kingdom – a prototype hotel simulator that evolved rather dramatically into a game about a flying metropolis seeking to reunify a shattered global community.

Released this spring, Airborne Kingdom is an earnest statement about the importance of cultural mingling at a time when tens of millions have already been uprooted by climate change-induced disasters. It was created partly in response to Trump’s vilification of migrants, says level designer Zach Mumbach says. 

Airborne Kingdom offers a playable rebuttal: your city prospers only by incorporating technologies, architecture and people from the ground-dwelling communities it visits. “I think it’s shallow and clumsy in our game, but we had this idea that if you gather people from all over, you’re just going to become stronger,” Mumbach says.

The problem with Airborne Kingdom’s cosmopolitan wandering is that it can also be read as sanitised imperialism. The game doesn’t have a military component, but there’s an implicit violence to the fact that only your city has agency – a sense that you are playing out a fantasy of ‘benign’ intervention.

Mumbach acknowledges that the game doesn’t really address these implications, nor does it seriously resist the tendency in city simulations to “just vacuum up resources and be an earth-destroyer”. Airborne Kingdom’s world is a fantasy of inexhaustibility: necessities such as wood, coal and food respawn between harvests, though this is partly explained away as foragers reseeding the soil.

The game’s ending may seem comparably nihilistic. Having forged alliances with every other culture in the world, you’re given the option of continuing on indefinitely or ascending to the heavenly sphere, which reads a lot like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos founding space programmes in order to reboot civilisation on another planet.

But while this looks like the correct choice inasmuch as it concludes the narrative, lingering as “steward” is actually the developer’s preferred ending, says Mumbach. “‘Hey, leave everybody behind, I got mine,’ is definitely not the message we wanted.”

The idea, he says, is to challenge the desire to start over epitomised by billionaire space aspirations. “Bezos has ascended. He’s not with us anymore, and he’s not trying to help us out with our problems. And I get it, the guy donates more to charity than I’ll make in my lifetime, but it’s the equivalent of me giving a dollar to a homeless person – he’s not really making an effort.”

Bulwark Studios’ Ixion takes aim more directly at Musk and Bezos. It puts you in charge of the Tiqqin, a circular star-faring city constructed by a SpaceX-style corporation to save humanity from a failing planet. As the game begins, a catastrophic engine test launches the huge vessel prematurely and wrecks the moon, hastening the Earth’s destruction.

The Tiqqin’s design came from 1970s Nasa and Stanford University concept artworks for outer space habitats, but the game’s plot is a square response to present-day ecological collapse. “It’s just by extrapolation – what if everything today did not get addressed, there were no solutions found, and you just took it to the extreme,” says Christian Woolford, junior product manager at publisher Kasedo Games.

Ixion is enthusiastic about space exploration, but also critical of the imperialist and capitalist frameworks that typically underlie visions of ‘the final frontier’. As such, it walks a line between challenging and satisfying the extractionist and expansionist routines of traditional city sims.

“Digging for rare metals, etcetera is probably not the answer to this crisis,” says Bulwark’s creative director and game designer Emmanuel Monnereau. “And we want to reflect this, [but] we let players who are really into space conquest and exploration enjoy the pitch.”

You’ll scoop up materials and technology from other planets you pass in your voyage, but Bulwark doesn’t want this to become an exercise in stripping solar systems bare. “You don’t have the feeling of conquering the space, exhausting the resources.”

The Tiqqin itself is an intensely corporate environment. Everybody is an employee, and the game’s interface is presented as a clandestine ‘data listening’ service – “almost like a Big Brother system,” says Woolford.

“It’s keeping an eye on the crew for you So there is an interesting mechanic to explore of information being presented to you through a corporate lens”. All that data is distilled into an average of satisfaction levels across the vessel’s six radial sections. Let the average fall to zero and you’ll face mutiny, though new technologies allow you to bend the rules – if people are starving, you can research cryogenics and put half the population into cold storage.

All the while, you’ll be fighting the problem of limited room – stacking apartments against the inner hull and working out whether to set aside precious acres for roads or drainage. These practical pressures facilitate pop-up narrative elements dealing with grief for the abandoned Earth and uncertainty about what human beings really are once they become full-time extra-terrestrials.

It’s not all doom and gloom: given the right choices, the Tiqqin’s crushing corporate society may evolve into something more sustainable, with the potential to dive into associated questions of class and race.

The fiction of the moving city may sound like desperate escapism, reflecting a desire to cling onto ways of life that have created the conditions of their destruction. Such cities arguably already exist on the high seas: consider MS The World, a luxury cruise ship that offers permanent residency, allowing the well-heeled to voyage endlessly across a rising ocean.

But as nomad city games suggest, the moving city can also be a useful daydream – a timely incentive for those of us who live in urban spaces to rethink our ideas of community and stability as the geography changes around us.

Originally published at Wired