Some Cities I Remember Building
New York City
Travelling south from the jungle twin cities of Boston and Philadelphia, a long trade road dominated by horse and camel hooked east, cutting through two mountain passes, and reached this little desert fortress given the name of New York City. The sand was not flat, the white grains just a thin cover over skyscraping rock. Almost nothing grew, the city relying on a lake and a paltry acre of a river. Grain was imported to its granary and water mill so that it could remotely feed itself. There was the strong suspicion that under those hills, in a thousand years or so, there would be coal, oil, aluminum, or uranium, something to make the spot worth it, but right then, there was nothing but sand and rock. The city scraped by at underpopulated weight, investing in the highest possible walls and the only castle in the empire. No grand wonders or temples. No libraries and no workshops. Just a barracks and a wall sunk in the dirt. Building those alone took decades. New Yorkers were constantly unhappy, on the verge of revolt, kept in check by men holding pikes. Every fifteen years Egyptian armies came streaming through the mountains and attempted to bring down the walls. Little chariots, horsemen, swordsmen, and catapults, all bearing that little yellow and purple flag, would converge on little starving blue New York. And each time, it would somehow survive.
The Senate told me they wanted Alexandria. It was one of the last objectives. I sent a single legion from Sicily across the Mediterranean, removing the cloud that had concealed it. I landed, but found that Alexandria was not a city, but the city. This, not Rome, was the center of the world. It had the most advanced buildings I had seen, the largest population, overflowing far past the point of my single army being able to take it. It took eight, eight armies, thrown at the same time, to take out the city and its defenses. Even in the battle map, the city was a bright silver monster. It was beautiful, white walls looping to the ocean, The Lighthouse and The Library. I tried to take it intact, occupy the thing without needless destruction or plunder, but then of course, the next turn, the population pressure and unrest was so immense that I was immediately overthrown, and a new flag rose over its battlements and its multitudes. We climbed the walls again, this time taking advantage in the damage they had already suffered, and sacked the city, burning its plazas, its gardens, its forums. I took the greatest city in the world, and worse than destroying it completely, I made it mediocre. I made it nothing. No matter how hard I tried for the rest of time, I couldn’t get Alexandria to what it had been. The numbers would not climb that high. The machine would not let me accomplish what it had. And every other time I played the game, the machine never accomplished it either, never grew it that big. Alexandria never became that Alexandria again.
Steel, granite, and glass reached for the heavens along a long curved peninsula, true downtown lying on a raised plateau overlooking a tropical bay, causing the blue and green and brown buildings to extend higher. Suburban sprawl, fields of factories, spiraled out from the dense center, bedroom communities and farming towns. I sculpted the roads in continual circles, imitating the terrain, a whole city of roundabouts and weird arcs. In the center of the bay, I placed an airport on the island, and its runways sat straight relative to all the other curves, the only semblance of a true grid. Parks lined the beaches. The lights reflected off of the water.
Every natural resource lay naturally within London’s borders, as if placed by a divine intelligently designing being, which of course, is exactly what had happened. London was playing on an unequal playing field from the start. The stats were juked by geography.
Within the walls, it looked like a twisted version of Vegas. The Pyramids, then the Colossus, then the Hanging Gardens, The Great Wall, The Sistine Chapel, The Hoover Dam, all in a nice little line in the same space. A sentried carrier battle group sat around the island, not even really needing to protect it with the scales of the universe so tipped, the little grey ships an aesthetic accompaniment to the world wonder theme park. The places I am building are not real, I thought. They are chesspieces or block toys.
Morgan Industries/Gaia’s Landing
Energy collection around Morgan Industries was pushed to its furthest possible extreme. The very elevation of the ground had been raised by terraforming, bringing the solar collectors and echelon mirrors closer to the solar radiation raining down from above. Every form of bank or power generation or resource exploitation was built without concern for environment or cost. Blue magtubes linked it in network with all the other bases of industry, terrain dominated by thermal boreholes and strip mines, only interrupted by the explosions of red and pink fungus, the planet fighting back. It was a city literally trying to buy the world. That was its goal. Buy the world. The whole world. Trade and bargain and short and long and one day take the whole market for yourself.
Across the bay, Gaia’s Landing was surrounded by forest, this shade of pine forming an ocean around its lime and brown core. The same mag tube lines were the only thing interrupting the vegetation. Gaia’s Landing was in perfect symbiosis with its environment, or, I should say, with its human environment. The truth is, if there was an objective truth in that world, the forests were just as much alien invaders as Morgan’s mines. Both were interlopers.
Gaia’s Landing and Morgan Industries were not grown or made under my control. It was the AI behaving in perfect narrative cohesion. Two cities, actually following what the game’s text said they were trying to do, to the letter, ignoring the actual strategic math of their decisions. They built certain improvements for ideology’s sake. They were actors in a play.
And so I played my role, and I did not conquer them. I let them attack the planet in their ways.
I couldn’t play the game much more than that, because with enough knowledge, it became chess. It wasn’t about the stories anymore, even the stories in your head. The minerals and resources were playthings. Ways to win.
Londinium was a maze. Roads, which felt more like paths, danced around square red-roofed buildings before dead ending in fountains or gardens. Figuring out a true path through the city was impossible. The construction of a single grand villa unknowingly severed the main thoroughfare out of the city, and caused the need for a bypass that zigzagged through several temples. Clay pits and pottery shops clung to the river, the smoke from kilns rising each day. The Thames fed reservoirs, aqueducts, and baths. Technicolor plazas ringed the brick apartments and houses. Theaters and schools released their crowds onto the streets.
The Metal Isles
The Metal Isles were not meant for a city. They were meant as a battlefield. No living things were there anyway. There were four islands, one in each corner, rectangles that were almost squares, each with a system of pre-built walls which loomed within their interior, all made out of an unending synthenic metal. The game was to defeat your opponent, your robots against theirs. But instead, I built. I built metal and solar collectors, endless lines of turrets and platforms, shipyards and airbases, massive fusion reactors. At a certain point, the base became a city. Eventually my radar extended out to see my opponent across the sea on their own isle. They had built their own city, swarmed over by a shifting cloud of units, flying in circles, unsure whether to assault the citadel I had laid out for them. The enemy did not know what to do. It hit the unit limit, and waited, the clouds on the radar screen never repeating the same pattern twice. And my drones ignored them, and kept building. My little robots tried to make my island perfectly symmetrical. Tried to make everything fit. And winning did not exist.
Mentar III was a planet, but also a city. I remember looking down on it from space above, seeing every possible building built, every derivation, over its green utopian Gaian-class surface. The technoecological paradise, I remember that green. Whenever I see that particular shade of emerald pop-up in my life, I think, Gaian-class Green. I remember that Mentar III the planet that was also a city was defended by a horde of spaceships that were also almost planets, and also cities. And that I had my own horde of city spaceships, carefully designed and planned as if they were cities, as if they had to eat, and educate, and grow. I remember that Mentar III was the last planet left. The last that was not mine. I remember having to automate the battle because it was too big. I remember the invasion having marines that filled up the screen, little suits up against mechs and men, once again against that shade and against those buildings, or those that had survived the bombardment. Or maybe I’m remembering wrong and I didn’t invade. Maybe I simply bombed it from orbit until nothing was left. Maybe I incinerated the planet itself. Maybe I felt sad about that.
The site of Isabella was stolen from the nearby Arawaks by the Spanish Conquistadors. Straight theft, followed up by conquest and plunder. I then stole it from the Spanish. Liberation was not an option. The Spanish had cut down all the trees around Isabella, and there was no terrain suitable for mining, so lumber and ore had to be imported on wagon trades. Professions inside the city had to be carefully micromanaged, turning the carpenter into a preacher or a statesman and then back into a carpenter. It exported sugar. I kept wrestling with whether I actually wanted it or not, considered leaving it undefended in the hopes that someone might take it away, take it back. There was no way to actually destroy it. So it sat. Fortress and all. My city of guilt.
It might have been the hundredth city to bear the name of Maxstan. For this one, 80% of the surrounding map was insane fractal mountains, carved from the map editor to resemble the heights of a vengeful god, a treeless organism of dull brown jagged heights. The tool would grab mountains out of a flat plane, raising the dirt and ridges into the sky. Then random cascades of water caved into the center, tributaries flowing both up and down in ways that defied reasonable physics. Two waterfalls fell off of both sides of the tallest peak, without an obvious source for the water’s origin. They were like aqua volcanoes. The city tapped them for power, little grey dams reaching up the valley walls, residential neighborhoods squeezed into every flat space available. I was able to get it up to 12,000 people, roads clinging to the edges and crests to connect the little mesas of industrial zones or office parks. In the center of the map, the center of the city, every possible municipal headquarters was crammed onto a plateau, parks and police stations and city hall sharing the space with almost no room for embellishment.
Then one day, with land and population and tax revenue maxed out, Maxstan fell. The seals opened one by one. A new set of plagues. First, fire. The blaze climbed the summits and bit the little structures, leaving rubble and choking the city. Then the water came too, flooding from all angles. Then the planes fell out of the sky, the winds rose and a tornado carved the city center into nothing. The earth shook, and the rains came, and then the four armed, red-eyed monster descended from above, and snuffed Maxstan into nothing, the abandoned buildings of the fleeing citizens blinking from not having any power.
It was probably not the second Maxstan, more like the twentieth. It had a long lake down the center, the shore of which I had absolutely saturated with water pumps. Maxstan was the most watered city in the world, galactic capital of plumbing. I liked the little animation of the water pumping, the ropes of light going dark blue and then light. I built boulevards around the water, avenues to the god of the fluid, blue gold. The whole city emanating from that shining, pumping core.
The only thing I remember is that the natural gas powerplant blew up because it was too old, and I didn’t have the money to replace it.
The little island protected Athens from my rivals. It was the approximate size of, say, Iceland, at that sort of scale, a green interior surrounded by mountains along the coast. Athens lay at the bottom, where the river met the shoreline. I had played the game dozens of times, thinking that it was merely a simulation of ancient times. I had always played as the Greeks, always started with little Athens, and never got much further than building a temple and a barracks and cranking out a few militia and founding Sparta and Delphi. But this one time, on that island, Athens was destined to be more. I remember the feeling of discovering gunpowder, of building a bank, an aqueduct, a coliseum. Of wondering, how far does this go? And not actually knowing the answer. I remember first discovering that the island was an island, my horseman scouting those last hills, understanding that my three cities would be unthreatened from Stalin or Gandhi, that it was just building from here.
By the end, you could look at Athens from the hill, the first city I remember building, looking more like a midwestern town than a megacity, a collection of repeated non-descript red and blue pixelated buildings only interrupted by a Cathedral or the towering rocket of the Apollo program. It was not clear to me then if I was actually building the city or if the game was. What my decisions meant for the place, as much as it was a place. Or where exactly the place existed, other than my head. I don’t know what happened to Athens. I don’t remember.
- New York City (Civilization V, circa Dec. 2010, age 24, played in first New York Apartment)
- Alexandria (Rome: Total War, Fall 2004, Age 18, played in freshman college dorm room)
- Maxopolis (Sim City 4, February 2003, Age 16, played in teenage bedroom/basement)
- London (Civilization III, November 2001, Age 14, played in attic in Father’s house)
- Morgan Industries/Gaia’s Landing (Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, January 2000, played on laptop at Christmas)
- Londinium (Caesar III, September 1999, Age 13, played in middle school computer lab after school with Mr. Pepino, my Latin teacher, watching)
- The Metal Isles (Total Annihilation, early 1998, Age 12, bedroom of father’s house)
- Mentar III (Master of Orion II, early 1997, Age 11, bedroom of mother’s house)
- Fort Orange (Colonization, Age 9, circa 1995)
- Maxstan III (Sim City 2000, Age 8, circa 1995)
- Maxstan II (Sim City 2000, Age 8 circa 1994)
- Maxstan I (Sim City 2000, Age 7, circa 1994)
- Athens island (Civilization, Age 6, circa 1992)