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I Thought A Zoo: Simulated Games For Isolated Times

Your animals will demand your attention in <em>Planet Zoo</em>, just one of several simulation games that might distract you from quarantine.
Your animals will demand your attention in Planet Zoo, just one of several simulation games that might distract you from quarantine.

I'm overwhelmed by so many things right now, not the least of which is that I keep having to build wind turbines.

Not in my yard, you understand: in my imaginary city. The city I created playing the game Cities: Skylines. I play it on my Nintendo Switch, but you can play it on your Xbox, or your PlayStation, or your computer. It's very much like the game Sim City that I played years ago, and it proceeds in much the same way: You have some land. You build some roads, you create zoning (and really, who doesn't get into gaming in order to explore land-use planning?), you supply these areas with water and power, and then people begin to move in.

Maybe it's not a surprise that I, as someone who lives alone and finds myself with time to kill in these Pandemic Days, have made a lot more use of my Switch in the last few months than in the last couple of years. Yes, I played Animal Crossing: New Horizons when it first came out — in fact, I bought a copy for a stranger on Twitter, because she was in a pinch and it had been such a balm to me.

But I also play RBI Baseball 20 (the official MLB-sanctioned baseball game) and Super Mega Baseball 3 (the funnier, more whimsical baseball game), and I play Paper Mario: The Origami King (the fact that you throw confetti like Rip Taylor in that game is just the best). I loved Kentucky Route Zero, which is a moody, melancholy point-and-click storytelling game with musical interludes and all kinds of cool stuff. I'm okay at Breakfast Bar Tycoon, which requires you to learn how to assemble breakfast sandwiches and serve grumpy customers (though anything where you're eventually rushing stresses me out), and I'm not even going to list the games I've tried at which I'm completely hopeless. (One of my dear friends is a devotee of NBA2K, a game I find as stressful as an ancient version of myself might have found a tiger attack.)

But more than anything, I have been playing simulation games. Almost anything can be defined as a simulation of sorts, in that there's always a reality that you're living in, even if you're jumping from platform to platform or shooting at bad guys. But here, I'm referring to the more methodical, world-creating, no-obvious-ending simulations like the farming game Stardew Valley, where you set up your farm and then grow things and sell them and try to make friends. Animal Crossing is a simulation, too. But it's unlike most simulations, in that it's not particularly stressful. Not a lot of really terrible things can happen very easily; it's more that if you don't play, you're not out there earning goodies and catching new bugs. I recently picked it up again after a couple of months off, and my biggest problem was that my animal friends had really missed me.

That's not the case in some of the other games I've been playing. Let me take you on a tour of a few of these imaginary worlds I've been building and, in some cases, messing up completely, while I hope that my actual world will steady.

Cities: Skylines

First: back to those wind turbines.

When you set up your Cities: Skylines city, it needs power. Back when I used to play Sim City, you were boxed into starting with a coal-fired power plant, which you plunked down in some unfortunate part of your city. Coal plants are dirty, but they'll juice up your town, and they're what you can afford. In Cities: Skylines, you can start with coal — or you can put up wind turbines. You have to look at your maps and find a place to put them that's windy enough, but they come in smaller units, so the initial cost for the power you need to get started is lower.

Plus, you'll start seeing your citizens tweeting — sorry, I meant "chirping," which is the game's version of something that looks rather like tweeting — about how much they appreciate your commitment to green energy. (Of course, they also tweet complaints. Every time I see the chirp that gripes that it's not that hard to create a working power grid, I say out loud something like "It's harder than you think, jerk, so give me a minute if you don't mind and I will fix it." Then I go build some more power lines.)

This is a shot of only one of many very very bad traffic configurations I created in <em>Cities: Skylines. </em>Yes, two houses are on fire.
/ Screenshot via Switch
Screenshot via Switch
This is a shot of only one of many very very bad traffic configurations I created in Cities: Skylines. Yes, two houses are on fire.

But then you'll add clean water, and your city will grow. Little bars at the bottom of the screen tell you how much demand there is for different kinds of zoning, and when you see that orange bar grow, that means your people want some Industrial Zone space. So you lay it out, and businesses move in. And then, before you know it, little lightning bolts start flashing over some of your residential housing. You're short of power. If you still have money, you maybe build another wind turbine. Or two. Then the industrial buildings start flashing a little symbol that says they don't have enough workers. So you build more residential areas. The population keeps growing. They begin to want things. They need the garbage collected. They need a medical clinic and a school, they tell you. They need fire trucks, they tell you.

They need police.

What is true in Cities: Skylines is, of course, only what the people who developed it decided would be true. (Although on some platforms, you can download mods created by users that tinker with the programming.) And what's true here is that you add police stations and you add budgets for them, and that prevents crime. Because, as the in-game explanation says, the more stations and money, the more patrol cars. And patrol cars cut crime in the buildings they drive by. (You can eventually watch your police cars drive around.)

Police cars aren't the only thing that reduces crime: education does too. And police cars don't do any good if they can't get around because of traffic or other road issues. But in this game, police presence affects the happiness of your citizens in only one way, which is that they feel safer when there are more patrol cars driving around. If you don't have enough police — what the game defines as "enough police" — your crime rate goes up. What that looks like is that instead of the lightning bolts that flash on a building without power or the hardhat person who flashes on a building without enough workers, a face in a ski mask flashes on a building where the crime rate is too high. "Save us all from guys in ski masks," your imaginary citizens are allegedly thinking.

There is a small-"c" conservative bent to such a game, of course, because how things have worked is how they must always work. In a year in which even more attention than before has gone to calls to reform police, change how they operate, and potentially give them less money, a strictly linear relationship between the number of police cars and the amount of happiness seems fanciful, like setting up the game so that adding roads increases a city's population of red pandas.

Even these simulated worlds I am trying to build keep bumping into the real one.

Two Point Hospital

Also on the list of uncomfortable collisions with reality is Two Point Hospital, one of my favorites. I realize that just as there were people who wanted to watch Contagion early in the pandemic but I couldn't imagine it, there are people who would never currently want to play a wacky hospital simulation, even if the people mostly have pretend diseases like "Animal Magnetism" and "Hurty Leg." One of my favorites, though, is "Night Fever," and if you zoom in on any of the patients who are afflicted with it, you'll see every one of them is wearing a white suit and doing John Travolta moves.

In this game, you build your GP's offices and your treatment rooms, you hire doctors and nurses and assistants and janitors, and you install drink machines to try to keep the patients from getting angry. It's all deeply goofy. You can build a whole treatment room that's just for sick clowns. It looks like a circus tent. The clown goes into it, whirls around for a while, and is hopefully cured.

The game's sense of time is either intentionally or unintentionally hilarious: Patients will sometimes storm out of the hospital angry about the time it's taken for a doctor to see them, and you'll see in their information that they waited in your hospital for like a year and a half, drinking from your drink machines, eating from your snack machines, and playing your arcade games. That's just too long for a sick clown to chill.

In this shot of my hospital, you can see the clown treatment room, a couple of training rooms, a psychiatrist's office, and some vending machines, among other things.
/ Screenshot via Switch
Screenshot via Switch
In this shot of my hospital, you can see the clown treatment room, a couple of training rooms, a psychiatrist's office, and some vending machines, among other things.

People die in this game. (Side note: They die in Cities: Skylines too, at which point a skull and crossbones flashes on the house until the body is retrieved by a hearse and taken to a cemetery that — yes, of course — you must build. You do not want to know what happens if you refuse to build a cemetery.) They die of their jokey, made-up ailments, and then they become ghosts, and they float around the hospital scaring the other patients until a janitor, one that carries the special ghost cleanup qualification, sucks them up with a vacuum. It's so weird that I kind of can't resist it.

The other thing TPH has going for it is that it doesn't require you to build too much infrastructure. I become impatient during the phase of games like Cities: Skylines where you're mostly connecting pipes in rectangles. In real life, I pride myself on not taking infrastructure for granted, but sitting in front of my TV with a controller, I want to be figuring out where my university will be and how many adorable parks I can have. I don't especially want to be relocating pipes with pinpoint accuracy or managing traffic patterns by installing roundabouts. (Honestly, what good is building my own city if I can't ban roundabouts?) Two Point Hospital does make you place radiators to keep people from freezing, but it does not make you put in the hospital laundry or the transformers or anything else boring. More clowns! Fewer water pumps!

Take note: This game was developed by a British studio, so there is no billing of patients and there are no insurance companies. So that's a couple of doses of reality you do not have to worry about.

Planet Zoo

This one isn't on Switch (right now), so to play it, I have to sneak up to my office and sequester myself up there to play on my PC. Believe it or not, I've spent a number of hours in the tutorial sections and I have yet to start anything from scratch, which might mean that I'm not really cut out for the zoo management business. But I persevere! For the animals, you see.

Your task in this game is to build (or improve) a zoo. You "adopt" animals from various sources, you build habitats, you outfit them with the plants and the terrain that the particular animal needs, and you try to keep them happy. You also, ideally, rehabilitate and release some into the wild and get conservation points. Planet Zoo has rapidly become the game I use to escape my considerable real-world anxieties. When you get a notice that a couple of your hippos are fighting (in retrospect, I think I mismanaged the population of adult males and they started going after each other [imagine a big eyes emoji here]), it will really get your attention.

On the other hand, this is also a game where mistakes are viscerally upsetting. I have not had to mourn a zoo animal yet, but I had a very depressed pair of frogs the other day (I hadn't adjusted the humidity correctly), and despite the fact that these frogs do not exist, I felt terrible. Sad frogs! My fault! This is also where I admit that I tend to talk to my animals a lot, out loud. "Oh no! Let's fix your plants," I will say to some imaginary lizards. It's possible that isolation is taking a toll on me.

At the same time, if you learn that your tapirs are bored and you give them some toys, you can watch the bar that represents their well-being slide up through the yellow zone and into the green zone. At least somebody is having a good time, even if they're kinda funny-looking pig-elephants.

Roller Coaster Tycoon Adventures

Can I be straight with you? I didn't know you could even play Roller Coaster Tycoon anymore. This is another one that dates back to my CD-ROM game days, when mostly what I remember is trying to stop people from eating near the thrill rides, because it would mean I had to clean up after them when they got sick. I spent a lot of time on barf reduction strategies.

When I play it on the Switch, it's richer than it used to be, but it's still fundamentally the same game. You can still set up your merry-go-round first. Build a little path. Work your way up to arcade games, get some families hanging around, put in a lemonade stand. (I feel like it's less about the upset tummies than earlier versions, too.) Eventually, you can set up your thrill rides and your big wooden coasters, and you can place a lot of wild topiary stuff for people to look at. This is one of the ones I play that's the most straightforward. Unlike Cities: Skylines, where problems can rapidly cascade until everyone in town hates you and you're broke and everyone is sick and the dead bodies are piling up and no one has electricity (hypothetically this could happen you know maybe), as long as you keep a general eye on the goings-on, it seems like your amusement park does not become some kind of haunted monstrosity.

And unlike reality, this world seems to feature fewer unsettled stomachs than I remember.

No, Thank You: The Ones I Won't Play

A final note: Not every imaginary world should be entered.

I wasn't too far into poking around for interesting simulation games when I saw that one exists that's called Prison Architect. The reasons I was instinctively grossed out are probably obvious: I don't find prisons whimsical, even more than I don't find hospitals whimsical. I was intrigued, however, by a description that suggested that the point of it was that you could play around with rehabilitation options or "punitive" ones, and some part of me thought it might be interesting to explore how they impose consequences of your decisions. So I got it, and I fired it up, and I found that ... the tutorial requires you to build an execution chamber with an electric chair. It shows you a graphic animation of your prisoner killing two people. You have to connect the electric chair directly to power, because it needs so much.

I quit that one.

A lot of time has been spent on the ethics of certain kinds of games. First-person shooters, for instance — what does it do to a person to practice shooting people? Or Grand Theft Auto, which I once dabbled in years ago, only to quit because, of all things, I was a terrible driver. I never even got to explore the causes of the moral panic; I just kept crashing the car.

But as much as escape appeals at this point, I don't need to build an electric chair. I have enough qualms about zoning my citizens to improve their land values, demolishing their homes to build police stations, building glass walls in my zoo so people can look at my fighting hippos, and letting clowns die.

At some point, I realized that the key to why these simulations will always be fantasies even when they're dark fantasies is that you can leave. I managed a city so badly once that practically every house was flashing with some dystopian symbol of failure, so ... I made a new one. Moreover, one of the reasons you have to keep your citizens happy is that they can leave. They can leave your city, they can stop going to your amusement park, they can storm out of the hospital. There's always an exit to elsewhere. There's always the X in the upper right-hand corner.

Get me out of here.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.