In late March 2020, a thought interrupted my new favorite pastime of eating spoonfuls of peanut butter while staring at the cracks in my drywall: I should do something with my life. My life had been at a bit of a standstill, as I was in the midst of a quarter-life crisis brought on by career unfulfillment, creative malaise, and, oh yeah, a global pandemic. Immunocompromised and generally trepidatious of viruses that seek to wipe out human existence, I had retreated to the sterile safety of my graystone apartment in Chicago, rarely venturing beyond my front door except to brave Trader Joe’s or simply “get some fresh air,” though even that stressed me out. I was trapped indoors in a city I loved but that, at the moment, did not seem to love me back.
With nothing to do but dwell on my impending doom, I desperately sought a respite from my own thoughts. Something that would monopolize my mindscape when I wasn’t working remotely and keep me occupied, entertained, and suitably alive. Pilates? No, I was too drained. Stock trading? No, I was too stupid. A computer game? That just might work.
After scouring the web for the right game—one that didn’t have me cultivating turnips on a zoological island or shooting reanimated Nazis, two skills at which I was certain I’d be no good—I landed on Cities: Skylines. Developed by Colossal Order and released by Paradox in 2015, Cities: Skylines is a large-scale city simulation game in which players build, manage, and expand a functional metropolis without going bankrupt or leading the city to ecological ruin. Played sans mods in its original settings, part of the joy of the game stems from juggling your city’s essential components, such as healthcare, education, electricity, water, policing, etc., all within a realistic economic system. But for me, the crux of the joy came from simply planning and designing my city’s unique aesthetic configuration, from the town square out. I wasn’t building a city so much as I was creating a character.
Fans of the game know there’s something daunting and exhilarating about starting a new city, being given an unmarked plot of land and told go! A million questions seize you all at once. How should I zone the commercial district? Where can I connect the nearest highway, railway, or shipping path? Is there oil, ore, or plentiful lumber nearby? Can I afford a bus line from the train station to downtown, or, crap, why didn’t I place the train station downtown in the first place? All of these problems are filled with a mind-boggling number of possible solutions, but then you realize, crucially, that they’re all within your control to solve. While you may operate as a proxy mayor for the city you’re creating, your power in this simulated world is more akin to something far grander: a god.
I, however, started out as a lesser-tier god. Not one for tutorials or walk-throughs, I would rather just jump right into the game and get a handle on things as I went along. I thought, how hard could it really be to pick it up?
Within two hours, all of my residents were dead.
I tried a new tactic: research. I began first by reading about the game itself, learning what tips seasoned players had for newcomers via blogs and social media forums. Then, with a proclivity for building not just my own virtual cities but my own authentically functioning ones, I turned to studying real-life urban development planning and architecture, researching Seattle’s highway infrastructure or how Tokyo combined several territories into one conurbation over four centuries. And as I grew more acclimated to the game’s finicky features—how roundabouts slash traffic congestion, “cims” often choose to drive even if a free subway is available, water can be pumped in from the ocean but not a lake, etc.—I started getting better. And then, I got obsessed.
When I woke up, I’d think about where I could place a bridge to most optimally connect my financial district to the port or how I could cut costs on waste management by opening a recycling plant near my paper factory. Then, during the workday, I’d “work” while streaming walk-through videos on YouTube to glean how Cities: Skylines community members visualized their projects and worked through the kinks. I’d play the game all evening and night, toiling away on Hamilton, my imagined East Coast metropolis, or New Athens, my Pacific Northwest college town. Then I’d fall asleep at 4 a.m., phone in hand, zoomed in somewhere on Google Earth, trying to gain inspiration from a CUNY campus or Oslo’s park system.
Even while my roommates fretted about whether I’d emerge from my bedroom before dinnertime (even for a bathroom break) and my spinal column was now at an acute angle from sitting slumped in my desk chair 18 hours a day, I felt amazing. I’d achieved the high I’d been looking for during a period of lows. Debilitating thoughts of the dismal outside world grew smaller and smaller in my brain, and I was finally able to regain some sort of creative spark without being bothered by the fact I’d forgotten what fresh air smelled like. Cities: Skylines was keeping me sane during an insane time.
Or so I thought. The thing about getting completely swept up into any sort of game or hobby is that as fun and as necessary as it may be to ride the tide, it tends to pull you out farther and farther from the shore. I grew reclusive and short-tempered. My work suffered. At one point during a requisite Friday night dinner with my roommates, I remarked that the sparrows chirping outside sounded exactly like those in the ambient background of Cities: Skylines. I meant it as a self-reflexive joke, though my roommates responded only with concerned looks. Was Cities: Skylines just that realistic of a game, or was I losing my grasp on reality?
As we crawled out of Chicago’s notorious eight-month winter and the days grew longer and sunnier, the city I called my home had somewhat adjusted to the protocols put in place by COVID-19. With some encouragement from friends and a better collective understanding of the risks of the virus, I pushed myself to mask up and go outside for walks around my Lakeview neighborhood, listening to new music or podcasts or calling up friends and family as I did so. During these walks I’d absorb the city around me, taking into account how Clark Street is zoned or where the L train tracks curve around Wrigley Field, getting giddy imagining how I could transpose what I saw around me onto my computerized creations. And as I wandered around, I envisioned myself from a god’s eye view, just one of the millions making his way through this complex web of buildings and roads and parks and all sorts of interconnecting systems. I was just another cim in my city.
Cities: Skylines thrives on control, its fluctuating give and take. You, as your cities’ all-powerful Creator, control in which directions your districts expand and where to allocate your funds, but because it’s a simulation game, you can’t control what your citizens do with what they’re given or how each network interacts. In my own life, I couldn’t control how Chicago’s sprawl undermined its neighborhoods’ connections nor how its pipe system could have used a revamp years ago; I couldn’t strip down Lake Shore Drive and replace it with a greenway (if any Chicago city planning officials read this, please put this into motion!). I definitely couldn’t control how a global pandemic threw a colossal wrench in my early twenties, or how my anxiety and hypochondria at the time paralyzed me and left me desperate both for connection and to be left alone.
But I could control what to do with the time I’d been given in the city I lived in, even amid the circumstances. My cims went through their virtual lives like all was normal—businesses and schools were open, the streets were crowded, parks were popping. While I was still reckoning with whatever “new normal” I was instructed to heed, maybe spending my time fixated on a virtual world of my creation wasn’t such a bad thing. I needed the escape after all. At the same time, what I really needed was to take a breath, take a lesson from my cims, and live.
Michael Savio is an editorial intern at Paste Magazine based in New York. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree at NYU in media and humor studies.