Indie City-Building Games Finally Reckon With Climate Change
If you’re a Civilization 6 player, you have to contend with the environmental consequences of your empire building. Coal and oil will help you conquer large swathes of the world, but they’ll also raise CO2 levels until the seas flood into your cities and drown your people. You’re supposed to comprehend the fact that millions are suffering.
But the game’s hurricanes and tornadoes are just little animations on a map—the only visible consequences of the death and destruction they deal out are changes to the impersonal statistics that fuel your empire. Unchecked, climate change can run rampant—but it can also be solved by researching and employing green technologies. In Civ, you don’t have to work with political rivals, convince the skeptics in your electorate, or even cooperate with other countries to beat climate change. You just press the right buttons until the problem goes away.
As gameplay, it works. But as philosophy, it looks optimistic to the point of naivete. Because fixing climate change requires no sacrifice, no empire opposes it. This enables a level of international agreement that makes the recent vacillating at COP26 look like it’s from an alternate universe. Or from a Civ 6 game modified to be impossibly difficult.
Simulation games now routinely engage with climate change, but usually from a place of wish fulfillment. Surviving Mars lets players use magical future technology to terraform the Red Planet into a new Eden, creating a backup home in case Earth is ravaged beyond redemption. Cities: Skylines allows you to transform your city into a sustainable paradise of solar panels, electric buses, and bike lanes, but since you’re not so much a mayor as a municipal god, you never have to answer to a city councilman representing an oil lobby that’s furious with your embrace of wind turbines. Even the voters aren’t forced to examine their lifestyles; in a sustainable Skylines city, everyone happily goes electric instead of insisting that it’s their God-given right to drive their gas-guzzling SUV to grab hamburgers five times a week.
The fantasy of an easy solution is pleasant, and it’s satisfying to see your green city of the future effortlessly hum along. But the goal of these games is to keep expanding, and expanding, and expanding. Green technology is just another, more upbeat way to forever increase humanity’s sprawl.
Frostpunk, a city builder where your citizens can engage in desperate cannibalism, is renowned for being … less upbeat. But it’s also a game about people in an impersonal genre, digging into the nitty-gritty details of everyday lives while other games reduce humanity to a concept.
Set in the late 1800s after massive volcanic eruptions have doomed Earth to global cooling, Frostpunk sees survivors eke out an existence in coal-powered cities. Players have to make hard, brutal decisions, like whether to allow child labor or execute malcontents. How far you’ll go to survive is as important a question as whether you survive at all.
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January 6, 2022 at 06:03AM