Zoya is a historian and journalist of games and playful art. He is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Memory Insufficient, and a consultant at Silverstring Media.

I recently finished watching Mad Men. One thing that has always struck me about the show is the way that it uses verticality. It opens with the slow moving cartoon image of a man falling out of the window of a high-rise building decorated with aspirational advertising images. The show then proceeds to illustrate at least one narrative point per episode with a shot of people in an elevator, facing toward the camera, maintaining perfect composure as they ascend up to a workplace or conspicuously beautiful apartment.

The elevator has cinematographic value, as a cheap-to-produce set that allows all characters present to face the camera. It creates a shot that’s like a dollshouse: a cutaway view of a complete room. I like to imagine when I’m watching those scenes that I’m peering inside an intricate model building where the show is being acted out in miniature and a thousand things are happening at once, a different drama happening in the mind of every character who never gets a speaking role. The building is a system within a system that keeps some people on the ground floor and elevates others to the top.

Project Highrise office illustration
Finishing Mad Men reminded me of a game project that I learned about earlier this year. Somasim, an indie studio founded by social gaming veterans, is building a high-rise simulator. Project Highrise will task players with building and managing a lofty mid-century skyscraper, populating it with their desired kind of tenant, keeping track of who is renting space where, preparing office space, getting people into the building, keeping occupants happy by managing noise level and flow, and keeping everything functioning.

This is a game about designing interlocking systems of prestige. Click To Tweet

Following their launch of gold rush simulator 1849, this next project looks to be a historical system simulator a few steps above what Somasim has achieved before. It’s not yet playable, but Claris Cyarron and I got the chance to look at Somasim’s beautiful concept art and learn about their plans at GDC earlier this year.

“We wanted to make this before 1849,” said programmer Robert Zubek. “The design is larger: 1849 could be made in 12 months. After completing that project, we looked through our design folders. We moved to Chicago, saw the skyline, and wanted to go back to that original idea.”

Buildings as systems

Designer Matthew Viglione explained that high-rise buildings would not be the only possible strategy for players, but will often emerge from the system as the most efficient solution to a problem. “We’re concentrating more on the economical simulation than the physical building construction. The distribution of services forces your hand into certain directions as a designer — office buildings need more elevators, for example.”

The team has been inspired visually by not just the high-modern visual style of Chicago, but Chicago’s politics of land use and zoning restrictions. Part of Viglione’s work as a game designer has been interpreting urban planning concerns into challenges for players to work with creatively.

“We’re thinking things like air rights. If you have a certain amount of air rights, how do you build? The city might say you have to have setbacks, or to have open space. In Chicago you can only have 15x the sqft of your lot, but if you have open public space it increases to 18x the sqft of the lot. We’re designing the sandbox first and then build the scenarios off that: thinking about San Francisco, where they’re obsessed with shadows you can’t build a building that will set a shadow on a park. Encoding different city planning rules.”

“Instead of saying ‘here’s what you have to accomplish’ we say ‘here are the limitations.’” Click To Tweet

“A huge part of the fun of a simulation game is building a mental model of how the thing works,” says Zubek, who used to be a lead programmer at Zynga. This systemic approach to a game about architecture can lead you to look at the architecture in the world around you differently: aesthetics are not just stylistic choices, but part of an attempt to get particular results from complex social systems.

At present, Project Highrise seems likely to focus on rectlinear forms in its architecture. Like Tiny Tower before it, Project Highrise will primarily display its buildings through the dollshouse-style cutaway view. The cutaway drawing has its own aesthetic heritage as a means of giving insight into a complex system, for technical drawings or educational books. In game design, it’s a performance boon that allows a developer to make the system being simulated more complex in exchange for keeping the graphics two-dimensional.
Project Highrise cutaway blueprint

Utopian visions

Claris reflected, “the international style is a particular period of time where there’s an obsession with a building that can contain a person’s entire life. How do you feel coming at this architectural style as a simulation that has the same baggage around being obsessed with control and understanding?”

“I think it fits perfectly,” responded Viglione. “It is the era of talking about the giant building as a machine, and simulation games are machines with little levers that you pull and see what happens. The idea that we could build our way to the future and we could build this thing and everyone could live inside it and the happy in it. There was a utopian vision and an optimism. What translates down is the pessimism of ‘oh it didn’t work’ but what we’ve lost is that optimistic vision.”

Within a game, this utopian vision works. “You can’t do that with society.” Click To Tweet

Simulation games allow you to have that optimism again for a little while. Games that are set in our own world play on our understanding of how the world works, letting us hang our strategies as players off our own pre-existing ideas and then recalibrate those assumptions in response to the simulation’s behaviour.”
Project Highrise residence concept art

Alternative history

“There is a bad side to learning from games,” say the Somasim team. If all of your knowledge of city planning comes from SimCity, that necessarily brings along a set of biases, because the game is designed to feel optimistic. The problems associated with the SimCity system are not made visible, because the simulation has no room for them. This might mean that a simulation game can only use history as a touchstone, rather than aiming at perfect accuracy.

“We don’t want to be limited by how offices worked in the 1960s” said Viglione, citing things like not having a Starbucks in every building, and not having computers. “What if Dieter Rams designed a computer?” is the sort of question that informs their design decisions. Eschewing the goal of perfect historical accuracy also allows Somasim to make their game’s optimistic fantasy more inclusive — instead of reproducing the gender politics of the mid-twentieth century, with ladies on typewriters and men in conference rooms, they plan to have gender be randomly assigned.

Mad Men was in part a TV show concerned with how people respond to being put in different positions in a system that benefits some people more than others: it was at times a resolutely pessimistic show. To simply enjoy the modernist aesthetic and appreciate the attempt to build something great, requires a self-consciously optimistic, radical reimagining of the historical context of mid-century modernism.

We have a post coming soon about the optimistic urban planning of SimCity. To make sure you don’t miss it, subscribe to our mailing list.


John Jurgensen (2015) “What Floor? Elevator Scenes on ‘Mad Men'”, Wall Street Journal

Mad Men elevator scenes

From the Wall Street Journal