Beauty versus Efficiency in games which let you be creative

By @ 08/02/12 in experiences

When I was a youngling and wasn’t playing purely action-oriented games, I tended towards games which let me build something.

Creating something from very little was a hugely rewarding experience for me, but I always had trouble reconciling the binary objectives of aesthetically pleasing creations and efficient ones.

So much so, in fact, that once the two became mutually incompatible in RTS games, I stopped playing them.

In Age of Empires, the enemy would descend upon my hallowed halls, their majestic facades sending a symbol to all the lands that herein lies the greatest empire the world has ever known. The daunting walls housed but a portion of my available troops – a handful of archers manned the gates.

My message was clear – these walls speak for themselves. Approach and face the wrath my lack of visible army implies! (It’s worse still when you have to do it in Stronghold. So little space inside the castle walls! So much need for farmland! –Rohan)

If Leigh had his way, even the army marching in to defeat him would be eerily will ordered, like this. –Rohan

At this point, quaking with fear, the enemy would march on my gates only to find…. that those few archers were in fact my army because I’d essentially been playing Sim City inside the walls and had a magnificently crafted and perfectly symmetrical city properly divided into districts.

Needless to say, I tuned out.

At the point where efficiently churning out units is mastered by the mere order in which buildings are placed and their proximity to one another, I tune out.

Meanwhile, my love for Transport Tycoon continued to grow. Efficiency and beauty perfectly correlated. Adjusting the height of land was expensive. You didn’t want to do it unless you absolutely had to. Having your railroad thread its way elegantly along coastlines and up inclines was a skill I was very proud of having mastered.

The problem came when I was doing too well. A profitable empire led me to simple raze any buildings and flatten any land prior to my constructing an eight platform mega-station to act as a new hub for my spider’s web of rail spanning the entire game world.

Guess it’s an adequate mirror for real life in that sense.

But still, that perfect paradigm of a collaboration between beauty and efficiency became broken.

What is this I don’t even… –Rohan

So, too, in Civilization did I lament the egregious farming, railroading and mining which plagued competitor’s countries. Productivity must have been through the roof, but each competing nation looked like freaking Coruscant. Hideous nations I didn’t even want to conquer (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster I was always going for the scientific victory then).

Since then, the Civilization series has rectified this to some extent, working on having a populated modern society neither quash nor ignore its natural surroundings.

Meanwhile, Theme Hospital had managed to give its players such a miniscule amount of real-estate to work with that, although a hospital was never going to be too pretty an environment to play in, efficient areas were also neat ones, and a neat sheen was the best possible outcome on all fronts.

The pinnacle of the marriage of these awkward bedfellows is, in my humble opinion, Rollercoaster Tycoon. Extravagance had a place, as did simplicity. The biggest rollercoasters were often too much for your little parklings to deal with, and would constantly be covered in vomit. Furthermore, they were so gargantuan that you’re beautifully multi-coloured park would be tainted with an excessive amount of whatever colour that rollercoaster was.

No, the best possible mixture of fun and the most profitable park you could create in Rollercoaster Tycoon was one of moderation, in which variety was the spice of life and those queues, an unholy necessity though they may be, were able to be condensed neatly and tightly like well packed luggage on an overseas trip.

I wasn’t going to say anything, but I think some of your little park visitors barfed all over your pathways. –Rohan

You got all the benefits of pushing for maximum possible efficiency in terms of the placement of peripheral services, food stalls, smaller rides etc, while having the big picture ability to create something which was comprised of internally efficient components while overall expressing one large creative vision on your party.

The divide isn’t an easy one to bridge, by any stretch, but for my money (to use the toilet), Rollercoaster Tycoon represented the epitome of balance in 90s creation games. (I don’t know what that toilet comment means, but I’m going to leave it in anyway, with this note so that the readers knows I’m as confused as them. –Rohan)

It is to this gold standard which we intend to measure ourselves. And it is with Chris Sawyer’s old ties we shall create a lavish rainbow-coloured noose and hang ourselves should we fail.

PS: Dear Chris,

Please send us some of your neck ties. We need them for… reasons.

 


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