Skyscraper Simulator, given to me by online Twitter-friend Irridium Underscores, is ostensibly — if Steam is to be believed — a game by the incredibly unwieldely-named United Independent Entertainment GmbH… or UIG Entertainment, for ‘short’. I say ‘ostensibly’ because, even though UIG Entertainment has an impressive laundry list of simulation games on their website — Airport Simulator, Towtruck Simulator, Waterpark Simulator, Woodcutter Simulator — Skyscraper Simulator isn’t actually on that list. Steam lists a company called Actalogic as a second developer, but their site is deader than disco. Which leaves us, the players, with the uncomfortable impression that… maybe Skyscraper Simulator hasn’t been developed at all? Maybe it’s always existed, part of the boundary conditions of the universe? Implacably watching, observing, waiting?
Anyway: the aforementioned Irridium gifted my Skyscraper Simulator under the condition that, if this game does allow you to create your own skyscrapers, I create a penis skyscraper for him. Not just a tall tower, too, something as close to anatomically correct as it would let me. Which, let’s be honest: I was probably going to try doing that anyway. I guess that does mean there’s a better-than-average chance of this column ending up NSFW. But then again, given that I write this column to ramble about video games, should you really be reading this at work to begin with?
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, n/a. Mechanical, medium, I GUESS.)
Alright, before we begin: if, like me, you bought or received Skyscraper Simulator on a whim, and you didn’t do any research before installing and launching it, there’s a good chance the game won’t actually work. It’ll get through three develop splash screens, but then freeze on the Insomnia one and fail to proceed any further. I tried re-launching it three times, to no avail: only this Steam forum thread stopped me from discarding the whole experience right there and then. Long story short: remember all those DirectX and Driver installs that Steam games do every first launch, that tend to drive everyone crazy and exasperated with how pointless they seem? “Steam, you’ve installed DirectX for the last five games, surely it should be good by now?” It turns out that a) Skyscraper Simulator does not run these installers automatically, and b) they’re actually pretty damn important! The-game-won’t-launch-at-all-if-you-don’t-run-them-manually important, is what I’m trying to convey.
With that out of the way, let’s simulate some ‘scrapers! I’m actually pretty curious as to how Skyscraper Simulator is intending to operationalize its titular gameplay promise. Am I going to manage the hustle and bustle of an active skyscraper, Sim Tower-style? Will I find a hypersimulationist approach to skyscraper simulating, complete with wind stress, steel shear forces, and the ever-shifting pull of gravity? Or will Skyscraper Simulator dive into wacky, out-of-control Goat Simulator-esque shenanigans, except with a massive steel-and-glass tower?
The title menu does very little to clarify any of this. It just mostly looks…
…like a low-fidelity collection of skyscraper-esque blocks in a grey void, I guess?
As I click through Skyscraper Simulator’s various options, I’m treated to the flattest, most weirdly-pasted-on vision of what I can only assume is supposed to be New York City that I’ve seen in recent memory. Is this… is this a joke? Or a bug? Or some clever meta-commentary on how the international seat of capitalism doesn’t have nearly as much depth as it likes to portray it has?
Skyscraper Simulator’s options are decent enough, I suppose. The only particularly noteworthy one is the menu music option in the lower left corner, an option that allows me to turn off the awful generi-rock blasting throughout the menu. Not an unappreciated option, mind. Everything else is just… well, options.
Between the options and the one-page credits, there is nothing in Skyscraper Simulator’s menu that makes me want to hang out there for any longer than is strictly necessary. So after a brief profile-making interlude…
…I opt to hop face-first into the wonderful world of skyscraper simulating.
And what a wonderful world it is, indeed.
Let’s go over what I’m looking at here, shall we?
In the center: low-res pseudo-New York, again. It looks initially like a flat image of sort, but right mouse allows me to rotate through it, revealing the even worse truth: it’s the exact same poorly textured block collection from the opening screen. Set on a large square block, and placed inside a uniform blue-grey ‘skybox’.
Inside that block box: a couple of giant white squares, and-or brackets. Their floating names correspond to the names I see in a list on the right edge of the screen. Are these… are these my skyscrapers?
On the top: a bar containing a clock, a calendar, and time speed buttons. As I watch, time happily rushes forward. Now it’s 1:56 AM. Now it’s 5:57. Now it’s 7:09. What is happening? I hit the pause button almost as a reflex, and the flow of progress immediately halts. Was that good? Was that bad?
And finally, in the top center: A help screen. “Welcome to Skyscraper Simulator”, it exclaims. “I’ll totally help you play this game! But if you don’t want to see me ever again, just click the question mark button and I’ll go away.”
Sweet, a tutorial. Is this going to progress automatically, or manually? I wait for a while, but nothing happens; I remember to turn on the flow of time, and wait for a while more, but still nothing. Guess I’m turning the pages manually, then.
Second page. “Press the Escape key to close menus!”
Clicking a little further does get me the actual good stuff. The white brackets on the map represent properties I can buy. Land areas, I think. Each property has a bunch of attributes: price, land area, ‘location costs’, ‘access costs’, and ‘rank’. And one blue icon of a skyscraper, apparently.
“Consider a land’s rank carefully”, so goeth the tutorial, “since it determines which skyscrapers can be built on the property. If a skyscraper’s icon is grayed out, you’ll be unable to build this kind of skyscraper.”
But… all the properties only have the one blue icon? I…
Okay, you know what? I’m just buying a random one. Which one sounds cool? 53 Worth Street, you’re up! Sure, it costs a little over four million dollars, Jesus H. Christ, but then again my bank balance equals twenty-five million dollars. So we’re good.
I buy 53 Worth Street, and it appears as a button on the bottom of the screen. New UI elements, yay! Clicking on it opens a small new window, with the same stats as before and two options: ‘Construct’ and ‘Sell’.
I’m not entirely sure why I can buy land and then re-sell it for a profit. Specifically, what does any of that have to do with skyscrapers? No, give me ‘construct’ any day of the week.
Alright, what fresh hell is this? I’m looking at… a tiny skyscraper, and a whole bunch of numbers. The skyscraper is called ‘Towering Violet’, and it has a base price of € 19.900.000. No, that euro sign isn’t a mistake: that’s what it says on the tin. Yes, we are currently in the New York of 2010. No, I don’t understand it either.
Anyway: it’s looking like I can influence this base price by twiddling with the various sliders. Increasing tower height makes building the skyscraper more expensive: the standard 199 meters come out to about 24 million, but increasing that to 299 meters almost doubles that price. I can also influence the balance of residential and commercial apartments in the skyscraper, and change the quality levels of each: right now, it’s looking like residential is cheaper than commercial, and (shockingly) shitty quality is cheaper than good quality.
I fiddle with the sliders a little, and every change I make alters the final price in some inscrutable way. Twenty-five million, forty-eight million, one-hundred-and-six million, seventeen million. Hey, that’s actually within my budget. Sure, let’s go with the seventeen million tower.
“You have designed your skyscraper!” I’ve really done nothing of the sort, Skyscraper Simulator, but whatever you say. “Now you’ll need to switch to the Construction Site View and start the construction.”
Ah, so that’s what I’m doing next, is it? Sure, fine, I guess building a skyscraper could be considered an integral part of simulating one. Don’t remember usually seeing that sort of gameplay in airplane simulators, but hey, I’m open-minded.
I push the view-switching button I had until now overlooked in the bottom right corner of the screen.
I’m not sure what it is I was expecting, but I’m fairly certain this wasn’t it.
Maybe it should have been, though. All the same elements as before are there: flat, low-fidelity picture used as ‘texture’, several small 3D objects to give a semblance of actual space, square cube of area floating in the interminable void, time buttons, confusing menus and numbers everywhere.
Tutorial box, save me!
I click around a little in abject confusion. On the right, I seem to be able to switch between five lists of weird names. ‘Silly Samantha’, ‘Strong Lilian’, ‘Small Robert’. Are these strippers? Each name is attached to a price, a Performance rating and a Condition rating, and… what I guess is the machine they’re driving? The five menus correspond to Excavators, Dump Trucks, Cement Mixers, Transport Trucks, and Cranes. And I have no idea why any of them exist.
The menu on the left fares a little better. Clicking on the first folder icon opens up the ‘Administrative Team’ menu, where I can see my workforce. Currently, I have employed… three Engineers, ten Foremen, and thirty-five Workers. And none of them are doing anything. Why aren’t these people working? The game claims I need one Engineer, one Foreman and twenty-five Workers for the Administrative team, but as for the rest…
Oh, wait, the tutorial box advanced! Finally, something goes my way.
“Building a skyscraper consists of three phases: an Excavation Stage, a Foundation stage, and a Construction stage. To start with the Excavation Stage, buy one Excavator (shocking) and one Dumper.” Alright, thanks, tutorial box! Guess I’ll do that now.
Do I go for quality, which is pricey, or cheapness, which is awful? In the end, I decide to hire the 5/5 ‘Silly Nicolas’ excavator and the equally 5/5 ‘Strong Christopher’ dump truck.
And when I say I ‘buy’ them, what I mean is that I click the buy button, but nothing happens. Confused, I sit around for a while… then I remember to turn on time, again, and sit around for a while more. It turns out that the machines I buy first need to be transported to the construction site. And then assembled, too, because I bought these machines at IKEA. Only then can they get to actual work.
Sure enough, after a little while of objective real time, Nicolas (Silly) and Christopher (Strong) drive onto the construction field. Nicolas’ excavator hightails it to a seemingly random part of the dirt field, and starts ‘digging’. Christopher’s truck waits patiently behind the excavator: every so often, its ’empty truck’ graphic is replaced with a ‘truck full of dirt’ one, and it drives off into eternity for a while.
As Nicolas and Christopher get to work, I take some time to click through the buttons on the left. The three lower-most ones don’t seem to have changed, but I can now assign Workers to the Administrative Team and the Maintenance Team. The former reduces my operating costs, apparently, while the latter reduces the change of machine accidents. Given that I have like three dozen workers that are just sitting around doing nothing, I fill up both teams. Then, I fire every Worker, Foreman and Engineer not currently doing anything.
Except, whoops! Turns out you can assign workers to vehicles, too! And every new vehicle needs a foreman. Guess who’s going on a rapid panic hiring spree after buying another excavator?
I buy a second excavator because a bar right next to the excavators is fully white, while a similar bar next to the dumpers is only half-white. I assume this bar represents workload, and hire an extra excavator to help out. Except, whoops! The bar represents efficiency instead, and buying a second excavator brings the dump truck bar even further. Which, as Skyscraper Simulator helpfully explains, means I currently have one truck madly transporting the dirt output of two excavators, and basically being a massive bottleneck. I quickly hire more trucks to compensate. And then some more excavators, and more trucks too, because why not?
And, er… that’s kind of it, for the Excavation Phase! The excavators dig, the dump trucks move dirt, the weird deformed ‘dig site’ is increased one arbitrary square at a time, and my bank account ever-so-slowly drains. Yay, videogames?
Even with the game speed at triple-power, it takes a little over ten minutes before the dig site is fully cleared. Once that happens, though, Skyscraper Simulator is quick to congratulate me. “Good job on digging that hole! Now, either sell all your digging machines, you don’t need them anymore… or send them to one of your other currently active dig sites!” Yeah, guess which one it’s going to be?
Also, a big white semi-pyramid appeared in the bottom of my hole, for some reason.
In the Foundation phase, I am to hire a bunch of cement trucks and assign workers to those. I can now also assign workers to the ‘foundation builders’ team. The idea is equally simple: cement trucks mix cement for the foundation builders, who use that cement to cast the tower’s concrete foundation. That… that’s literally it.
Now, given that the Excavation phase was all about digging up this giant hole, you’d probably expect the Foundation phase to involve filling this hole with cement. You’d expect that, but you’d be wrong: instead, the aim of the Foundation phase seems to be to raise the hole we just dug back up to ground level.
As before, so again: I hire some men, buy some trucks, assign some workers, and set the whole thing to work on turbo-speed while I go get myself a drink. When I return, five minutes later, the ‘foundation’ has been ‘placed’.
Finally, in the Construction phase, I do all of that stuff once more. It’s Cement Mixers, Transport Trucks, and Cranes this time, and I can assign both individual workers and cranes I buy to either the Concrete Team or the Steel Team. Cement mixers create cement and transport trucks transport steel beams, cranes lift cement or steel beams up, and the workers in the teams create the steel skeleton and pour concrete over it. I sit, and watch, as the skyscraper finally starts taking shape.
And finally, fifteen additional minutes of inaction later…
I gaze at the skyscraper from different angles for a little bit, feeling something that halfway approximates the content of a job well done.
“Good going”, Skyscraper Simulator chimes in. “Now go back to the map view, and you can choose to either rent our your skyscraper for monthly income, or put it on the seller’s market for a large infusion of cash!”
“Then, take the money you’ve earned, and purchase more properties! And buy more skyscrapers!”
I hope you’ll understand, reader, that I’m going to choose to not immediately do that.