Throughout my life, I’ve sunk thousands and thousands of hours into city-building games. It started with Pharaoh, then Caesar III, Zeus, SimCity 3000, and on and on. These types of games have managed to capture my attention more than any other genre (MMO’s and their constant stream of updates, not withstanding). The Sierra/Impressions historical builders especially left their mark on me – I can still hear the music of Pharaoh in my head and can picture the purple-dotted fertile meadows of Zeus/Poseidon. Unfortunately with Impressions’ close in 2004 the stream of city-builders, even outside of the historical setting, ground to a halt.
The city-building genre hit it’s peak in the early 2000s. Thankfully for those of us addicted to the genre, it has seen a resurgence in the past few years. A decade passed between the launch of SimCity 4 in 2003 and SimCity in 2013. Even the Tropico series took a long break: six years span the gap between Tropico 2 and 3. The three most recent Tropico series games have been received mostly favorably and have received plenty of DLC updates. Infamously, the long-awaited SimCity was widely criticized for a number of bugs, issues, and shortcomings, particularly centering around the initial “online-only” requirements. There have even been a slew of indie town-builders released: Banished has seen quite a bit of success and continues to grow thanks to loyal modders while Towns flip-flops between being abandoned and revitalized by new developers every few months. And while the most recent city-builder to hit the market, Cities: Skylines, has me enthralled, it’s hard to muster the same enthusiasm for the game and it’s contemporaries – both AAA and indie – as it’s genre-forging predecessors from the Sierra/Impressions lineup.
Is that just nostalgia? Or is there something else about the Sierra/Impressions city-builders that make them stand out even compared to more modern building games?
While playing through all these modern city-builders, these are questions that have been bouncing around in my head quite a bit. While some of it does come down to plain old nostalgia, I think the bigger factor when examining why the Sierra/Impressions games had more pull for me is the history and mythologies they drew from. They weren’t the prettiest games and they certainly had flaws in their systems, but through their use of history and mythology, those games built a world you wanted to make an impact on.
Thinking back, it’s actually the mythology aspect that got me into Sierra/Impressions games in a first place – the city-building came second. When I was 10 when Pharaoh came out, I was obsessed with ancient Egypt history and mythology. I was the nerdy kid who would try and write secret notes in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. So when my eye caught on the golden yellow and royal blue packaging of Pharaoh in the PC games isle of the store, I knew it was a game I had to play. My own nerdiness aside, the mythology and history in these games was a unique draw for them. If you spent a fair amount of time playing these games, I bet you can remember the names of the gods and goddesses and what they oversaw. If you didn’t build enough temples or hold enough festivals for Osiris, he would curse you with poor floods the next season – meaning you might not grow enough food for your people. If you pleased Seth enough, he might just kill the entire army coming to invade you before they even have a chance to reach your buildings. The religion of the ancient Egyptians permeated every aspect of Pharaoh, just like the Greek gods and goddesses were a part of everything in Zeus. And it makes perfect sense. Our religions and ideologies are huge influences in our lives, and that includes what kind of buildings we make and where we build them.
It’s not just about mythology either – the campaigns of Caesar III, Pharaoh/Cleopatra, and Zeus/Poseidon walked you through huge amounts of ancient Roman, Egyptian, and Greek histories. In Caesar III, you help found the colony of Londinium – the settlement that would eventually become the city of London, England. In Cleopatra you build the Valley of the Kings. And while it’s mythology rather than actual history, Poseidon allowed you to build the great city of Atlantis… only to later experience its inevitable sinking to the bottom of the ocean. And the art style of the games reflected that history. I loved this aspect of these games because not only were you making game progress – getting your houses to the next upgrade tier, unlocking a new trade route, etc – you were also making world progress. I always stress the importance of player and world interactivity in games and I feel these games did it so well. As you progressed through the campaigns, you were directly interacting with not just the specific city you were building, but also with the world and history at large. Yes, it was very scripted and linear. You couldn’t finish the campaign by deciding not to build the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. But between choosing where to build, choosing which colonies to found, and the feedback you could get from individual people in your city made it feel more alive.
While modern city-builders don’t have too much in the way of religion (save for generic “chapel” or “religious center” type buildings), one might argue that they do have some history to them. Banished is clearly based on 19th Century building styles and would make reasonable sense as some kind of American West expansion settlement type thing. Modern-era games like SimCity and Cities: Skyline are based on our own modern Western cities – high rise apartments, sports stadiums, office buildings, department malls, bungalows, the whole deal. The Tropico series hits much closer to the historical mark since you can progress through various eras of the 20th century. Tropico aside, there isn’t much world depth to the more recent wave of city-builders. Yes, you’re building a city, and that is an engagement with the world in it’s own right. But it never feels like what you’re doing effects anything outside your little city. In Pharaoh/Cleopatra and Caesar III, you have to keep the pharaoh or emperor happy in order to continue your own reign. In Zeus/Poseidon if you made a god or goddess angry, they would come and rampage your town a bit. And all of that is on top of the typical city governance issues you’ll face like money management, keeping your citizens happy, and bad weather conditions just to name a few.
Basically, when I play city-builders from the past 5 years or so it feels like my city might as well be it’s own planet for all the interaction and influence it has with the cities and world around it. I’d love to see future city-builders feature different eras of history and mythologies. You know what would make for a great Sierra/Impressions-style city-builder? A Mayan/Aztec/Incan/South American city-builder. Even fictional fantasy or sci-fi setting with a well-crafted world would be a welcome sight. Make me feel like I’m not just building a city floating in thin air – make me feel like my city is important and impactful to the world it exists in.
If you’re keen to play some of these city-building golden-age titles again, head over to GOG.com. They’ve got Pharaoh + Cleopatra, Zeus + Poseidon, Caesar III, and other late 90’s/early 2000s PC gaming classics.