Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Parkitect is the inheritor of the greatest gaming legacies of all time: that of Rollercoaster Tycoon. The pure simplicity and joy of sitting down, creating a weird theme park, and the doing as many maneuvers as humanly possible to monetize the hell out of it is still, to this day, unmatched in the world of gaming experiences. To be honest, I might feel that way because of the hundreds and hundreds of hours I have sat playing it. The opening rollercoaster crawl sound is lodged in my brain. The theme song is burned into my soul. I can see the dancing elephant mascot when I close my eyes.
So Parkitect’s ability to capture that magic is unique, and it does so in a way that other games like Planet Coaster just never managed to. And as I’ve sunk more and more time into Parkitect the past couple weeks, including a few days where I stayed up way too late just getting a final ride or two finished, I’ve tried to puzzle out why. I think it might have to do with finance.
Theme park management games have a core loop built on some abstracted principles of business. You want people to enter your park, so you build rides and attractions and shops. Those rides and attractions and shops have maintenance costs that have to be paid such as, I don’t know, the wheel grease budget or something like that. There are also additional costs associated with a network of support that surrounds the ride: you need to hire a mechanic to service your rollercoaster; you need some trash cans right outside the exit for people to puke in; you need janitors to sweep the path when people miss the trash can.
People who come into your park generate cash via their entrance fees and their ride tickets, your resources are drained by park maintenance, and you want to make a profit so that you can build bigger, better, and more electrifying rollercoasters. That’s the play of the game, on-face, but where Parkitect swerves a bit is its treatment of loans and advertisements.
In the Rollercoaster Tycoon games, a loan was mostly a useful to make up for a budget shortfall. You’ve spent a lot of money on a new coaster. It’s going to make money in the future, but it isn’t making money right now, so you take the loan to cover your costs and make sure you don’t go too deep into the hole. That coaster starts making money, you start to pay back the loan, and eventually you get your balance back down to zero. In those games, a loan was a way of maneuvering yourself within a system that you were using to create theme park stuff. A loan acted as a patch on the leaky tire that was Bumble Beach, and it worked well for that.
In Parkitect, I feel like 40% of my playtime is spent manipulating and interacting with the game’s loan system. In this game, the loans are not a patch. They’re not something that papers over a problem. They are a core feature of the experience, at least as far as I have found, and in that way they work more like loans do in the real world.
A loan in Parkitect is a way of financing the future. Despite being pretty good at these sorts of games and having a couple decades of experience in them, I find myself playing pretty close to the margins in Parkitect. At any given time I might have a couple thousand dollars in my bank, and that’s definitely not enough to build a giant steel rollercoaster or an underground choo choo train that ferries people back and forth between the three different sections of my Cowboys vs Aliens official movie tie-in park. My cash flow is such that I always have to be thinking about what kind of loan I should be taking to finance what I want to make. Paying it back is for thinking about later.
This is made even more complicated by the fact that Parkitect features a competitive loan system. You can take two loans at once, and at any given time you have at least four to choose from. And the basic process of “choose a loan, take the loan, pay the loan” is simple. But that’s not why I am spending so much time in this menu. I’m spending time there because I am desperately trying to repay my loan as quickly as possible so that the loan fee payments aren’t dragging my park economy down. I’m trying to swim out of debt as fast as possible.
A loan is a way of thinking about the future. A bank is placing a bet that an organization will pay them their loan+X back where X is whatever interest payment the two parties agreed to. For banks real and Parkitect-y, a loan is the promise of interest payments; it is an expectation that the future will happen. For me as a player (and also me as someone with an immense amount of student debt accrued over the course of several degrees), a loan is about the past. A payment is a reminder of a choice that was made. Once the loan has been taken out, thinking about it is always about looking backward.
So a loan is about the past and the future crossing each other, and in Parkitect that gets even more complicated by the fact that the offered loans change quite often and you can pay a loan with a loan. So a big chunk of my game time is spent taking big loans at decent interest rates, sitting in the loan menu repaying them any time I have extra cash, and then taking out smaller loans with better interest rates to pay off my larger loans with worse ones.
And after a week of doing this, I’ve realized that this is the game. Sure it’s about that business loop I talked about before, but under that it is this pure game of finance in which I am manipulating money so that I can create a safe margin where I can actually play the game. It doesn’t feel too far off the mark from contemporary life, either, where I juggle writing jobs and a day job and loans and side gigs to create conditions under which I can, just maybe, have a little bit of breathing room to work on something I love.
Maybe sometimes that thing is a rollercoaster.