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Crafting Castles In The Air: Strategy Games And Their Addictive Qualities

There is a certain, undeniable addictiveness to building and maintaining your own habitat in games. This has been greatly demonstrated over the decades by Bullfrog’s Theme Hospital, Blue Fang Games’ Zoo Tycoon, the legendary Sims series and now Shining Rock Software’s Banished. The moment that any of these games starts up, I feel a calmness grip me, a determination to do right by my imaginary people and an understanding that I am about to lose the next couple of days to it and become a hermit. Standard.

But what is so compelling about them? Dealing with a vast canvas of people or a community is far different to dealing with one (often fixed) character. Whereas in other games you play as a character to complete tasks usually deemed by an all-knowing narrator or internal game master, in games such as Theme Hospital and Banished you are the creator, and the choices that you make greatly nuance the gameplay within.

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I do not mean to sound like I have a God complex. But it is very satisfying and very intriguing watching your community develop per your decisions. Literally every choice you make affects the gameplay, meaning that with a single decision you can either destroy or develop your world (a real “make-or-break” situation in play at all times). Let’s use Banished as an example. If you neglect to grow crops in one year, your people may die. Similarly, if you decide to focus all your energy on maintaining the town instead of looking forward  to the future of it, your children might grow up without an education or the town might have to go without a physician, which will affect whether they know anything/if your town is any good/if you all may die.

Yet the responsibility of making these decisions is greatly alleviated by the fact that if you do die, you can always start again, and your role as the Omnipotent can be revised. Of course, if you’ve spent seven hours constructing a beautifully tailored town only to have it all go up in flames, you might find its end a little more tragic due to investing the better part of your current existence on it. But you win some, you lose some, right? (Not to inundate this article with cliched sayings.)

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Banished works hard to ensure the game’s atmosphere is neatly tailored to reducing your stress levels and reflecting the mood of your village. I’m not sure how to describe it in words, but it’s fairly soft, “shuffling” (in response to your villagers bobbing merrily around to the tune of your tasks), and ever-so-slightly intimidating, like you’ve entered into a creepy fairytale world. The music is so peaceful, in fact, that both times my partner has played it in front of me I’ve—through no will of my own—fallen asleep. This is not to diminish the merit of the game, which is, as previously mentioned, part of a gripping genre. In fact, it credits the design for its fairytale effectiveness, sparking a reaction in both player and observer (during the times I was conscious, I was hooked on watching him create and expand upon his village).

Indeed, these types of games divert away from the regular constructs of first-person playable characters and racing games, giving us a broader scope which allows us to explore methods of sustainability and concentrate on a whole host of imperatives and playable variables. Everybody likes to see the results of working hard on a work of art—these types of games encourage the same response.

And you can always do better. Time and time again, I have created or worked on a town, village, hospital, or theme park, and on getting quite good at it, aspired always to do better with it, make more of it. There are so many different ways that you can craft a successful castle in the air that you are never bored of trying. Some other games have even taken this concept to the next level, multi-layering their games so that you have potential new strategies within strategies (game-ception).

Zoo Tycoon, for instance, incorporated a variety of maps and let you control the landscape down to the very terrain of your building space, branching out your world of possibility further. So you, in a sense, had a variety of “levels” to pick from, each as malleable and full of potential as the rest. Similarly, Theme Hospital added a nifty little trick whereupon completing one hospital to the game’s standards, you were sent to another, harder hospital, so you would strive to do better on all your previous hospitals and complete the game.

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That’s not even mentioning the awesome cheats for both of them, which made the potential of your world even better. I don’t usually advocate cheat codes, but for building strategy games I make an exception. I mean, come on—in Zoo Tycoon you could implement a cheat code that would allow you to have a unicorn enclosure. Surely that’s a cheat code we can all get on board with?

World-creation strategy games offer a compelling, craftable creation space which is constantly subject to change, making them possibly the most addictive games ever. In buying Banished, Zoo Tycoon, or even the ever-popular Minecraft, you are not really buying a game that you can “complete” in the conclusive sense of the word. You are buying a game that will rejuvenate itself again and again, provide endless interest, and encourage your artistic juices to flow every time.



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