I like model villages. I’ve always liked model villages. There’s something psychologically pleasing to me about these miniature towns; if not recreations of a real place then recreations of an idea of a place, often the imagined England of the #VoteLeave campaign, all cricket on the village green, pubs called the Turk’s Head and inexplicable replicas of Hogwarts because apparently that’s part of English national identity now.
And I like trainsets. I’ve always liked trainsets. As a child I always especially enjoyed the overly elaborate ones, the kind owned by an eccentric middle-aged man with an exasperated spouse and too much time on his hands. The ones with manufactured hills, houses and roads, little model people on train station platforms, weird, slightly-off replicas of famous landmarks, that sort of thing.
What I really like is the confluence of the two. The model railway is always the best part of the model village. I actually asked my long-suffering girlfriend what her favourite part of a model village was and, rather than look at me like you would look at a faithful family dog who has just vomited all over the soft furnishings, she instantly said “the trains”, so it’s not just me.
The railway provides a sense of animation to the lives of the people in the model village. It suggests the existence of a world larger than the slice of it that we can see. The people who live there have things to do, places to go, people to see, social occasions to dread and jobs to slog their way through while drafting overly wordy pieces about how much they like trainsets. This always delighted my childhood mind, which was still capable of flights of fantasy and invention before the twin hammers of adulthood and social media beat that out of me. The existence of model trains implies the existence of model destinations and, in turn, there is the implication that the model village does not exist in isolation.
Trains in video games serve a similar purpose, both in specific “train games” and in other genres. For me Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon remains the ur-train-game and this style of game remains in occasional production, even if they are not wildly popular. The series ended with Sid Meier’s Railroads in 2006 but latterly we have also seen Urban Games’ Train Fever and its sequel Transport Fever. These games present a disconnected world of cities and towns, resources and factories which require connection. The maps begin the game as comparative wastelands but once the trains are introduced there is a sense of urgency, of animation, of locomotion, about the game world. There are abstracted people who need to travel and factories requiring raw material. At least one level of Railroads features a war front requiring soldiers, but it may be best not to dwell on that too deeply.
These games are trainsets, trainsets in which the imagined purpose of the trains is given substance by the mechanics of the game, but trainsets nonetheless, and it is the existence of the trains themselves which animates the game world and allows that world to flourish. In a game like this we give substance to the idea that the citizens of these un-real towns and cities need to travel, that they need to work, that resources must flow. The trains give life to the world of the game. Without them the maps of Railroads resemble a barren Martian landscape.
City-builder games, such as SimCity or the current genre leader Cities: Skylines offer up public transport networks as part of the building tools at the player’s disposal, and in these games the trains are much closer to the railways of the model village. The games are effectively model villages themselves but they provide the level of animation that was previously reserved for the interior of my childhood mind. Citizens require work and leisure and they will move around the city in order to serve their needs, using a variety of transport options, including trains, as necessary. In these games we do not require the trains to provide the sense of vitality to the city itself, instead they imply the existence of a world beyond your city. Skylines developer Colossal Order shows that they understand the importance of this illusion with their EURO 2016 cash-in “Match Day” DLC, which provides for travelling sports fans to descend on your city. This is particularly interesting to me as not only does it provide the illusion of other cities, an outside world, but also suggests the existence of history and even rivalry between them. SimCity 2000 attempted a similar thing back in the mists of time, although the SimCity update of 2013 proved that the illusion is preferable to actual game mechanics, as the idea of smaller cities which rely on each other for resources was met with a resounding rejection from both games media and consumers.
The illusions and writing tricks used to suggest the existence of a fully functioning world in which the fiction takes place are, for this writer, integral to my enjoyment of games. I am rarely convinced these days by “Saviour of the World” player-centric narratives and am much happier in a game which suggests that I, as a character within the game, am not special and indeed often completely irrelevant. This is in contrast to the bulk of modern AAA games which either position you as the last hope of the entire universe or provide an experience more evocative of a theme park ride, following AI companions from derivative set piece action scene to sub-Michael-Bay set piece action scene.
In Real Life (a terrible, genuinely awful sort of open world game) growing up in a small village on the outskirts of a small town in the Home Counties, the train represented something similar. It was a very real symbol of the fact that there was an enormous world beyond the horizon of your village and represented the accessibility of that world, even as you had no experience of it. As a teen it meant the ability to head to London for gigs or to cross the country to visit friends hundreds of miles away and drink far too much. As an adult I have come to prefer the experience of travel itself, although this can sometimes be difficult in the UK. One of my favourite memories is of smoking a cigarette on the platform of a Berlin train station at 3am, en route to Warsaw. I felt like a Cold War spy and it was just wonderful. With all of that in mind, it has to be said that the best game about trains isn’t a train game at all, nor is it a city builder. In fact, for much of the game there isn’t a train in sight.
Inkle’s 80 Days is effectively a text adventure or piece of Interactive Fiction. Taking the Jules Verne novel as its basis you, the player, are charged with the logistical side of Fogg’s attempt to circumnavigate the globe. This means the game is about the act and experience of travel itself. A time limit is placed on your journey, meaning that you cannot remain in one place for long and as such the writing is able to centre on these brief vignettes, windows into the lives of the people living in the game’s fictionalised cities (writer Meg Jayanth discusses this approach here). 80 Days understands that the mere presence of transport links between cities implies the existence of a world with history, politics and economy. 80 Days presents a world of advanced technology, of warfare and of revolution told in snippets seen from your train window. These snippets - coupled with the existence of, for example, the airship journey across the Pacific - serve to locate Passepartout and Fogg as small parts of a larger world, a world with its own culture, history and politics through which the player moves, and it is this element of the game that makes 80 Days a genuinely stand-out experience.
The best game design understands not only the importance of immersion, but that immersion is more than just photo-realistic graphics and maps that are accurate reproductions of a chunk of rural Germany. A game is often limited to showing us a “slice” of the world in which it is taking place — Skylines’ focus on a single town or city for example — but if it is able to convincingly suggest that a world exists outside of that tranche of gameplay then the gameplay itself feels somehow weightier. It is imbued with a sense of significance, a sense that it somehow matters even as we know it does not.
And the best way to suggest the existence of that outside world?
I like trains.