Sunday, July 17, 2016

Finishing Moses

Me and Eddie now have 12 days (less than 2 weeks!) to complete this Robert Moses city game, so we're now transitioning into a late stage production mode: we're cutting systems and content we won't be able to complete, and trying to finalize the stuff we already have. We're cutting the park-building system to focus on the highway-building system, and we're trying to do a lot of mission design.

The finished prototype we're aiming to deliver will be kind of a "vertical slice" of an Act 2 of a larger game, and will represent Robert Moses' career from around 1934-1936 -- from when he is appointed as the first city-wide parks commissioner, to when he completes the West Side Highway and Henry Hudson Bridge. We're putting a lot of work into interpreting the "spirit" of Robert Caro's book The Power Broker as a very specific and detailed-oriented historical work; the in-game city must reflect the New York City of 1934, with historical streets and district names, and the mechanics must also reflect Robert Moses' real-life historical tendencies.

Caro argues this phase is when Moses cements some of his most important strategies: the use of a public authority to act beyond government oversight, the use of bridges as "traffic machines" to earn tolls and capitalize bonds to fund more works -- and the use of immense public support to defend himself from investigations, the city government, and even the president.

This phase ends when Moses finally achieves his decades-long dream of building the West Side Highway / Riverside Park / Henry Hudson Bridge. (What happens after Moses accomplishes his dream? You'll have to play Act 3, when or if we make it.)

But there's a few game dynamics (inspired by Moses) that we have to try to hit upon before the player reaches that end point:
  • Player should multi-task constantly: set a destination for your driver, then spend the time reading memos and looking for projects.
  • Power means doing lots of these seemingly small unrelated things, all the time, and foreseeing how they add up or connect later.
  • With enough power, you stop caring about small things, and become interested more in doing bigger things. Hopefully the small things paid off by now.
  • In the early to mid game, you're heavily reliant on the mayor and the federal government for money, which requires power. In the end game, your bridge now earns you money (and also makes travel much easier) thus making you completely independent of them.

At some point in the game, we need to address Moses' failed 1934 run for Governor. Caro uses this moment to setup three important ideas: (a) Moses' platform was heavily against the New Deal even though he profited the most from it, which was a strong basis for Franklin Delano Roosevelt's (FDR) grudge against him. (b) Moses needed more executive power, which he would later get through the Authority instead. (c) Moses wasn't actually that popular or charismatic in the end, so he learned to bypass elections by forcing mayors to re-appoint him instead.

The big turning point / test of the player's power will involve PWA Order 129. This was a secret order where FDR basically threatened to withhold all federal public works funds from New York City unless Moses was removed from the epic Triborough Bridge project... so Moses leaked the order as federal meddling and won public support, and FDR had to back down. That's how powerful and savvy Moses became: he outsmarted one of the most powerful presidents in US history, and was already subverting the traditional dynamic between city and federal government.

The funny thing about designing this game is that many of our intended play patterns practically designed themselves. Existing genre conventions in video games already lend themselves to the story of Moses' ruthless rise to power, from gamers' tendencies to reason "purely" in terms of costs and benefits, as well as deeply-ingrained ideas about player convenience and implicit ownership of a game world. Video games' traditional focus on exploitation and optimization already provide the emotional vocabulary we need, we just need to draw a little attention to it.

In many ways, SimCity is already a Robert Moses simulator. It is the fantasy of a city without an elected government -- only an appointed omnipotent authority.

With this game, we want to show where SimCity comes from, to situate it within the real-world history of a place and real-world life of the most influential urban planner of the modern era. If SimCity were a game with a narrative arc, this would be one of the most important narratives to tell with it.

Wish us luck!