Here's How to Ruin a City


"Eventually, the corpses caused people to flee the city."

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Congratulations to Kunzelman on his bureaucratically-induced necropolis.

Jibes aside, this is one of my favourite Postscript pieces, largely because I have absolutely come around to the argument Kunzelman advances around how failure is systemic. There are absolutely cases, in and outside of games, where failure is a one-off, an accident of circumstance, or just plain poor instincts in the moment. You might be able to improve on them by mentally logging that particular issue as one to avoid (I’ll push the button earlier in the animation—I’ll make sure I remember that date next time this question comes up).

However, dealing with the root of that issue does require more systemic thinking. Even in a game like Dark Souls, learning the details of a boss will help you to beat it, but growing your skill as a player often means restructuring how you approach encounters and training your instincts in new ways. Under pressure, do you retreat, panic, or hold your breath and press on, press on, and pray? When you’re working on that essay, is the path to writing good work (and, ideally, getting a good grade) avoiding that one tic your lecturer just hates, or rethinking your approach and making sure you’ve got an efficient process that will bring out a good answer?

More and more, my instincts go towards the latter answers over the former.


This is one of the things I like about a lot of these builder games (even the ones with more problematic systemic messages): they force the player to think about systems and to be aware of infrastructure.

It’s the obvious gameplay loop: constrain funds and leave pinch points somewhat unpredictable for the future and then ask the player what to invest in now. Spending money now saves money in the long term if the pinch point is experienced and so the game teaches early intervention as a strategy for growth and long-term frugality.

Not only was Cameron’s city experiencing the pinch of barely meeting capacity requirements for disposing of bodies while also under traffic strain (all Skylines cities work around traffic strain as a core antagonist), but also the systems force a feedback loop. Those dead bodies will start to decay if they’re not dealt with quickly enough. That leads the people around them to get sick and that’s going to increase medical needs ($), as noted it’ll cause people to leave ($), and in the end it means you’ll have even more dead bodies (and so you’re in a spiral of demand because you failed to deal with it earlier). If only you’d fully funded the needed hearse service to begin with, had the road capacity for them to do their job: the city would not have been in this downward spiral and there wouldn’t be blood on your hands.

Infrastructure: it’s what you need to pay for now to save money later. Now that’s a message we can all get behind.


I loved this article.

I have spent a lot of time wondering how to encourage people to think more systemically, without getting much of anywhere.

The ideas Cameron advances on the difficulty of “individualizing” the elements of a system are insightful. The difficulty affects execution and also communication. What effect do those difficulties then have on the communities around the games? Perhaps the more individualizable a game’s elements are, the more discrete the recommendations can be: character power tiers in fighting games, the “you’re doing it wrong” energy around the Souls games.

I read Patrick Miller’s Fighting Game Primer a few years ago. This article makes me reconsider that book in contrast to the numerous Civilization strategy guides I’ve read over the years. The Primer structured the flow of a fighting game fight with systems that are not presented directly as part of the game, and then offered execution drills necessary to manipulate those systems. In contrast, the Civilization games explain their systems through a few tutorials and the guides discuss all the ways the systems can interact and be manipulated. A player can choose one system to focus on during a game, but there are no discrete drills to work on.

“Save scumming” is interesting in the two contexts as well. In Bloodbourne (the only Souls I’ve played) loading a previous save, if possible, would only mean facing the same challenge with the same resources. Sometimes save scumming in Civilization makes me realize I didn’t understand the problem to begin with, and I have to go back even further to try to get the outcome I want.

In Cities: Skylines I once snagged my garbage disposal process by exporting too many goods through a port on the same highway… garbageopolis not as good as necropolis.


Fantastic article!

This is absolutely why I love Cities Skylines (and those games like it). I have over 100 hours into it over the past couple years and this is why. The critical thinking. I Love the fact that the facets are interconnected and you can not think of any of them in a silo. If you do, the breakdown happens. From the games perspective, its frustrating sometimes since it definitely can mean hours of work is gone, or at least has to be modified and you wasted some time. I find that enjoyable though, in the sense that I can continue to refine and refine the cities and ideas.

I’ve had so many breakdowns in Cities: Skylines but also so many successes. The successes of making those interconnected frameworks work together, is what is truly so rewarding.