'Cities: Skylines' Doesn't Confront Inherent Ugliness of its Latest DLC

In 'Industries,' the tough choices of modernization are hand-waved away, and feels out of place in a game that's otherwise so happy and joyful.

by Rob Zacny
Oct 26 2018, 4:26pm

Cities: Skylines never makes things hard on you. It waits for you to do that to yourself, for you to get a newer, higher-level toy for your urban planning sandbox and have a stroke of misbegotten genius. Adequacy is easy in Skylines but perfection, whatever that means to you, is an ever-receding mirage. Pursuing it is the real challenge, and I’ll chase it for as long as I keep dreaming up new ways to define what perfection means to me. Someday, perhaps, nobody will be left waiting at a bus stop, everyone will find a great home in an ideal neighborhood near their job, and every street light and factory will draw its power from the clean air and clean water.

There’s no harm in trying, anyway. The city will survive and even resist your attempts to twist it into your half-glimpsed utopian vision. Your endless failures will go unpunished, and you can return to the drawing board without a worry. Citizens will happily live amongst your endless urban renewals and revisions. You can make their city a little better and by extension perhaps their little imaginary lives a little easier, but they also won’t really care if you’ve transformed their community into a hellscape.

The latest expansion, Industries, feels both at odds with much of what has made Skylines so enjoyable yet also recognizably a thematic extension of that now-familiar design. It attempts to bring a little more attention to detail to the industrial and economic side of life in your city. Instead of just building generic “industrial zones” where businesses populate empty lots, you can now build specialized industries around farming, forestry, oil, and ore, each of which allows you to micro-manage their respective horizontal and vertical expansions by setting the location of each building and piece of infrastructure. So your farming district may begin life with small farms on tiny plots of land, but soon you’ll have factory farms blanketing the countryside. And rather than selling your local wheat wholesale, your farmland will ship it to be refined and sold as baked goods in your city’s commercial districts, while truckloads of frozen meat will be leaving your slaughterhouses every few minutes.

But is that something to aspire to? It never quite feels like it. Skylines’ view on industry has always been that it is dirty, noisy, ugly, and to some degree necessary. Despite the expansion’s title, that hasn’t actually changed with Industries. You’ll still quarantine your industrial zones to a smog-blanketed periphery, except now they’ll have refineries instead of box factories, and you’ll be able to click on a little box that lets you know what goods are being processed and put into the manufacture of other goods, and which are being shipped to market. It’s all pretty easy money, and just as Skylines is forgiving of disastrous traffic snarls and broken city services, its new industries seem completely tolerant of inefficiency—to point of feeling failure-proof.

The reason this approach has always worked for me with other aspects of Skylines is that I always felt like the city was giving me space to express some dream, even if it was as modest as fixing a bad highway merger into an overtaxed intersection. You could bring up the traffic heatmap and there it was, a bar of angry red that you could, with a little ingenuity, transform into a long band of yellow-green. I always ended up thinking of what it would be like to live in my city, to be fortunate enough to be whisked from a good job to a good home via comfortable and efficient public transit for little more than the change in my pocket.

I think Skylines at its best is a game about quality of life, whatever that means to you. For me it’s always meant the kind of thinking that Margin Call’s Eric Dale when he talks about all the life that something as simple as a bridge can give back to people, if it’s in the right place with the right capacity.

I don’t think Industries has found the equivalent to that for resource extraction and manufacturing. Maybe that’s because there is so little about modern industry, and especially its environmental cost, that inspires anything but apprehension and revulsion. Industries can’t quite bring itself to depict that reality as beautiful or awe inspiring, but neither does it find the awful majesty of its subject. Everything remains roughly at the same small scale as the rest of your city, so you’ll see no fields stretching from one horizon to the other with distant combines and irrigation rigs breaking above the growth. The environmental cost is depicted, as always in Skylines, as a kind of dull miasma, but you won’t see anything that approaches the vistas of destruction that photographer David Maisel captured and collected in Black Maps.

Yet Industries never satisfies my inner Gilded Age tycoon, either. Economic sims, the ones for which logistics pipelines and input-output balances are the entirety of the game, tend to be unforgiving at a large-scale. They’re about getting that last penny of profit from every level of your business, and getting the different pieces humming to together in harmony. One of my favorite gaming memories is of engineering the absolutely perfect cod-trading route in Patrician 3 after hours of fine-tuning. My reward was watching all the cargo off-load at the final trading port before my ship turned for home, hold now brimming with North Sea cod. Nothing extra, nothing lacking, and modest fortunes made in every harbor.

Industries is just too forgiving and hand-wavey to conjure the satisfaction of a business well-constructed. As long as trucks can reach the highways or rail yards, you’ll get paid. Your industrial zones “level up” over time but that’s really more a function of just putting more buildings inside of them and letting them grow over time, much in the same ways your city’s population and wealth grows. The industrial area gets more efficient through this magical accrual of levels, but you—the planner—don’t actually need to design for that efficiency. It just happens, and never mind that your ill-conceived bank of grain silos has caused a two-mile traffic backup of trucks waiting to withdraw or deposit loads.

The eco-focused Green Cities augmentations at least makes you earn a few of its fanciful solutions to clean energy—though in the end it, too, makes sustainability a matter of a few button presses rather than tough choices. But in the early game, at least, you are almost required to power your city by burning carbon and dumping waste into the nearest river. There is space left in the mid-game for you to retire those technologies and figure out where your advanced mass-transit system can operate without completely wrecking your old and outdated road networks. Imperfectly and incompletely, it toys around with the idea that the city needs to evolve and adapt, and there are times when the ideal solutions just aren’t practicable. It too fails to go far enough, but it at least has some kind of destination in mind.

Industries doesn’t ruin Skylines but I also never feel like it meaningfully augments it. Industries might have been better served by some kind of aesthetic extreme than this attempt to make it of a piece with the forgiving good-nature of its parent game. I can imagine a version of Industries that fully embraces the identity of a mustache-twirling corporate fat cat and exults in the efficient exploitation of resources natural and human, and the titanic architecture of of heavy industry. Likewise, I can imagine a version that is aggressively cynical about its subject, and that makes the costs palpable both visually and managerially: pollutants creeping ever-closer to homes and schools. Scars on the landscape, toxic dumping sites overflowing in the margins of your city, where you hope nobody will ever look much less try to live.

Perhaps the best version I can imagine is one that recognizes those costs and then demands severe trade-offs and creativity to mitigate and even eliminate them. A version where the bridge you build is between industrial destruction and a vision of prosperity that begins to leave the world a bit better than it was yesterday. This would have been the thematic continuation of the Green Cities expansion, and it might just be the only vision of industry and economic development still worth aspiring to. Certainly much more so than the so-often aimless cycle of meaningless production, waste, and profit depicted in Industries, which succeeds mostly as a work of accidental critique.