The key to understanding Cities: Skylines is to know its history. The game comes from a very particular tradition, and is in many ways a continuation of it. Things that might seem inexplicable become clear as day once put in context, and indeed take on an appearance of being nigh inevitable. The letter arrived at its destination, and it took a very particular route to get there.
I am, of course, referring to the fact that the game is a continuation of the Cities in Motion series.
This might come as a surprise to some readers. The most common comparison is to other games explicitly labeled as city builders, particularly the various iterations of Sim City. It is a natural comparison to make – apples to apples. The games even share a non-trivial amount of gameplay elements (zoning comes to mind), making the comparison that much more intuitive. At a glance, it requires intimate knowledge to even tell the games apart. Indeed, it is very difficult not to place these games in the same category.
There are different ways to achieving the same results, however. The way to reach an outcome is almost as important as actually getting there. The journey is, as the famous saying goes, the goal. This was very much the core principle of the Cities in Motion games, whose main activity was building public transit networks in order to allow people to get where they needed to go in a fast and expedient manner. The challenge being to build the transportation networks in such a way that bottlenecks are avoided, delays rerouted and, above all, waiting times eliminated. The mere possibility of getting there by public transit is not enough – it has to be a doable and convenient possibility too, in equal measure.
The main way this manifests in Cities: Skylines is that the primary building blocks are roads, and the main mechanical challenge is to place these roads in such a way that the city functions. Or, rather, to avoid gridlocks and overly long transit times; there are no actual game mechanics for a city to fall into a state of dysfunctionality. Every social ill is solved by a vehicle arriving at a location, be it fire, illness, crime or even death itself. The protagonists of this game are not the citizens who ostensibly inhabit the city, but rather the myriad of trucks that forever move back and forth. The city is built and designed for them.
One of the main challenges in the Cities in Motion games is to not have the solution get in the way of itself. Merely building a series of bus routes crisscrossing the city does not solve the problem of getting from here to there. Indeed, given enough buses, it is a very real possibility that the main impediment to a smoothly running public transit is the system of public transit. Buses block the way of other buses, who then block the way for other traffic, exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. The main joy of these games is zooming in on particular locations and situations to pinpoint just exactly where the problem arises, and make subtle adjustments which intuitively should not have a great impact, but which nevertheless do. It is all about setting up a system and tinkering with it.
The same challenge is present in Cities: Skylines, albeit with less of a focus on public transit specifically. And the game is forgiving enough to let you zoom in on a problem for a considerable amount of time without anything important breaking while you are distracted. Spending weeks and weeks of in-game time setting up a highway intersection that does not cause a stau longer than the list of city residents – has little to no consequences on the functioning of the city. At no point does a player zoom out only to discover that the city is now a racially segregated, crime-ridden, no-prospects hive of villainy and corruption, long abandoned by the very notions of progress and prosperity. Homelessness literally does not exist (except, interestingly enough, for corpses). At most, the problems might extend to a series of abandoned buildings where city services have been insufficient. There are no consequences for this neglect; new residents and businesses will continue to move in at a regular pace once the old lots have been cleared. Traffic continues to flow, life goes on, as if to say: Robert Moses was right all along.
This would be a major critique of the game if it was seen as a city builder. There is no city residing in these buildings, there is no whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are just a great number of parts that have to move from point a to point b, preferably at decent speeds. As a city builder, Cities: Skylines is an utter and total banishment of humanity from the built environment – everything and everyone are just replaceable numbers. To invoke de Certeau, there are no tactics to be found here, only strategies.
Fortunately, Cities: Skylines is not a city builder. It is a logistics simulator. The main change from the Cities in Motion series was to drop the word “public” from “public transit simulator”, thus increasing the scope of ambition whilst also remaining firmly within the narrow framework of moving things around. With this in mind, the game performs the task it has set out to do admirably. It allows players to endlessly fiddle with knobs and calibrate adjustments just to see what happens, and then repeat the process to see if the system runs smoother this time. In and of itself, this is an enjoyable experience, as far as it goes. But it is important to remember that it does not go very far, and that any social commentary the game makes with regards to actual cities is entirely incidental.