I think one of the great successes for videogames is the diverse range of experiences they can provide. In a way unlike any other major entertainment medium, gaming can challenge your wits, your wisdom, your intellect, your endurance, your patience, your dexterity and your social skills, often all within the span of a single game.
Often what I look for from a game has to do with rushes of adrenaline and constant engagement. Other times, however, I look for the exact opposite from my gaming. Rather than something stimulating, I simply want an environment that quiets my mind, eases my nerves and calms the senses. These are my Zen Garden games, my digital equivalents to tending a Bonsai tree, and I love them in ways that I love no other games.
Lately Tropico 3 has been filling this role for me. When I fire a title like this up, I usually do so expecting long stretches of downtime where I am as much enjoying the aesthetics of my tiny creations as I am plotting global or regional expansion. I zoom in tight on my tiny Caribbean populace as they tend tobacco fields, entertain lazy American tourists or, inevitably, rise up in arms against my sometimes less than benevolent rule. Even then, though, at what should be the most tense and engaging part of this game, I am a only marginally interested observer.
As I consider these kinds of games, I realize that sometimes what I really want is a game that plays itself.
It’s always been a little difficult to explain why I liked The Sims and its host of sequels. To call The Sims a game is deeply flawed. I wouldn’t even necessarily call it a toy. It is a kind of thought experiment factory, a conduit for dreaming up alternative lives. What I inevitably find, however, is that the longer I play the more I ultimately force my Sim to make the same choices I have, good and bad.
I may go into a session planning to create a rock star, but what I usually end up with is a guy with a family, a job and an elegantly simple life that seems to meet most, though not all, of his needs. Here is a portrait of a digital man who is satisfied of simply dreaming of bigger things. Even my Sims are kind of happy underachievers.
I’ve always wondered if there’s a story in The Sims about how simulated lives sometimes mirror real ones, and if that isn’t some kind of validation that who I am is who I should be. But, the truth is probably something much less complex.
It’s just easier to go with what I know. As I play a game like The Sims, I usually find that it just suits my play style more to take a convenient pathway. After all a Zen Garden isn’t much fun if you over-obsess about every tiny detail. At least not to me.
Maybe that’s why I don’t think games like SimCity fit quite into this play style. I have found that every time I play SimCity while I want to just dig down and watch my city alive and kicking, inevitably the needs of my plebians demand my omnipotent but short-sighted attention.
We want an airport. We want the airport to have water. We want lower corporate tax rates to encourage business growth. We want electricity and a police force.
Yeah, well what you're going to get is an alien attack in the middle of super-tornado season.
Somehow SimCity just asks too much of me, particularly when I’m in the voyeuristic mood.
Tropico 3, enjoys a lot more downtime. It constantly begs you to press the fast forward button as your workers, who have been raised on a slow lifestyle, mosey about the idyllic manifestations of my socialist agenda, building tenements and docks at the leisurely pace of those who live in poverty in paradise. But, I rarely usher time forward, enjoying instead to just sit and watch as cargo ships and party barges slink lazily toward my island.
Games like this make me quiet, and time just washes away. It’s not necessarily that I’m passing any kind of judgment here. I wouldn’t dare compare Tropico to Alan Wake or Red Dead Redemption. There’s no meaningful comparison to be made. I’m just glad that I enjoy an entertainment medium that can so fulfill both sides of my life.