Reviews

SimCity

While it's easy to look at and lament the limitations placed on your cities, the actual creation of your city is a very living and involving process.


SimCity

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: PC
Price: $59.99
Players: 1-3
Genre: Simulation
ESRB Rating: E10+
Developer: Maxis
Release Date: 2013-03-05
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Feels like I should get this out of the way right off the bat: I have yet to see a server queue. I have yet to see the error message that has so plagued players on SimCity's first few days of release -- if internet vitriol and Twitter buzz are any indication. My servers have always been open. I have played in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. Not once have I been booted or denied entry. That's not to say, of course, that these things don't happen. That's not even to say that they are not continuing to happen. It's only to say that if I am basing this review of SimCity on my own experience, I will have nothing of note to say that involves the words "servers", "always on", or "disconnected".

All I know is that every so often in the couple of weeks since it was released, I opened up my laptop, double-clicked the SimCity icon, it started up, and for the most part, I had a blast.

As someone who has not played a SimCity since the 2000 in the title meant the future, it's almost shocking how naturally SimCity plays. You zone residential, industrial, and commercial sections, just like always. You plop police stations, fire stations, power plants, and airports, just like always (SimCity even calls it "plopping", in a nice example of common parlance turning official). Your population becomes increasingly needy as your city grows, just like always. And you are nearly helpless to avoid the various disasters that can befall your happy little sims.

Just like always.

What sets this SimCity apart from previous iterations, then, is a matter of scope; whether this is a positive development for a given player depends on whether that player was more prone to gravitate toward SimEarth or SimAnt, back when those were both, you know, things that existed. Those looking to build sprawling metropolises that dwarf modern New York or Mexico City or Tokyo will be sorely disappointed because this is city-building on a small scale.

As in previous SimCity iterations, you start with nothing -- nothing, that is, except a highway into town. This is important, because everyone and everything who visits your town -- at least until you have a seaport and/or an airport -- will be using this highway. The roads also stand in for the sewers and electricity, and serve as the framework upon which all of the familiar residential, commercial, and industrial zones can be built.

Any great city built in the SimCity of 2013 depends mightily upon the roads. Plan the roads carefully, and everything else will fall into place.

Once you start to build up and play for a while, however, you'll find yourself up against an invisible wall. A city in SimCity can only exist in what equates to something like a four-square-kilometer space, which means efficiency is a must. There is no urban sprawl possible here; you can't build out, so the only way to build is up. Build bigger roads and you can accommodate bigger residential buildings, at which point you can accommodate more commerce and industry, at which point you can, say, put in an airport, at which point you'll need bigger roads for even taller residences.

What keeps this approach from feeling stagnant is the ability to coordinate your cities with other cities in a predefined "region". This is the stated reason for the "always on" requirement that is in place for SimCity, which seems fine until you realize that you can handle all the cities in a region yourself if you like. This aside, the use of the city/region system makes for some extremely interesting situations, particularly if you end up in a situation in which you're collaborating with people you don't know. Handshakes that have you loaning out ambulances in exchange for energy sources (for example) make for a tense game that exists as much as a social experiment as it does a video game. Your city will work best if you are with two other people willing to work toward a prosperous three-city region. Your city will find itself flailing if you put too much faith in another city that flames out.

While it's easy to look at and lament the limitations placed on your cities, the actual creation of your city is a very living and involving process. As your city is built up, you can see the individual sims who inhabit your town and get a look at what each of those inhabitants is doing (or trying to do) at any given moment. When you see a sim walking-while-puking its way to the hospital, for example, the urgency to build a new, closer hospital feels much higher than simply seeing a number on a chart that says "x sims think the hospital is too far away". This is the first SimCity game in which it feels as though real, actual people are in those tiny buildings and driving those tiny cars, and playing with simulated sentience gives the moral choices involved in city-building -- you know, like flipping a coin between building a school or a casino -- that much more weight.

Look too closely under the hood, and problems begin to arise. After a certain point, SimCity attempts to simulate the numbers involved in population growth rather than trying to extend the simulation to hundreds of thousands of tiny people, which breaks down when they try to apply the same numbers to things like taxes and power use. The sims don't behave the way "real people" would. The game's traffic dispersion (and, by proxy, power and sewage dispersion) algorithms, for example, aren't ones that make sense in "real world" simulations. You notice traffic jams where there shouldn't be any. You notice empty hospitals when people are crying out for health care. The "Sim" in "SimCity" seems to suffer more as the numbers get bigger, which is unfortunate when you're trying to make your way up the leaderboards or going after some of the game's many achievements.

There are, of course, ways to game the system, and finding these are key to "success", if "success" is purely defined by population. What the creators of SimCity went for here was a definition of "success" that means more than that, though. Creativity and collaboration rule the day here, and the ability to work with other citybuilders means near-infinite possibilities despite the initially restrictive feel of the game.

At this point, many of the issues that plagued SimCity when it launched have been ironed out. Early adopters have been given a free game for their troubles, and although the leaderboards, achievements, and the sorely-missed "cheetah speed" are still disabled in the name of reducing the strain on the servers, the game that remains is an entertaining one.

Still, the sense that it remains incomplete is inescapable, and it's difficult to become invested in an incomplete experience. Despite the game it may one day become, its legacy is likely sealed, its ambitions a little too grand for the experience those ambitions would eventually birth.

6

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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