Incrementing Towards Finitude: Playable Portraits of Late Capitalism Part 3

In a piece for Paste Magazine Rosy Hearts argues that theme park simulators like Rollercoaster Tycoon (RCT) highlight “the great man” fallacy which “is embodied by the invisible constructor and observer that is the player” adding “there is never a possibility that you will make anything that emotionally harms your riders.” This is what Seth Giddings would call an “isomorphic” reading of the game, where its reality reflects our own 1-to-1. However he also argues that the complexity of play has potential for “metamorphic” readings of games, those which are “constituted by economic drives and effects quite distinct from the late capitalist forces depicted or allegorized in games’ dramatic worlds.” (771) One concept which can help us unlock the metamorphic potential of RCT is Mary Flanagan’s “unplaying”, described in the second chapter of her Critical Play as “players specifically enact[ing] ‘forbidden’ or secret scenes, unfortunate scenarios, or other unanticipated conclusions often in opposition to an acceptable or expected adult-play script.” (33) Flanagan first devises the term to describe the doll play of Victorian children, but later applies it to players of The Sims who “torture[…]trap[…]or otherwise abuse” (59–60) their virtual dolls, and we can cleanly transfer this same analysis over to Rollercoaster Tycoon.

Rollercoaster Tycoon is a deceptively peculiar piece of software. The game was developed by Scottish programmer Chris Sawyer (with contribution from 3D artist Simon Foster) nearly a decade before the figure of the indie auteur would emerge. As Jacob Geller points out in a video essay about the game, RCT was programmed in Assembly, a low-level language that’s closer to a computer’s hardware than high-level languages like Java or C++. As such Sawyer was extremely granular in the way he approached the simulation of the game’s rides. A minimum viable product of RCT might see fit to simply model the movements and transactions of the park-goers and leave the rides to the realm of animation (in fact Bullfrog Productions’ Theme Park from 1994 is essentially just that). However in RCT each individual train car in a given coaster has its own physics that respond to the twists and turns laid out before them, with accompanying parameters that can be tweaked by the player. This customizability is part of RCT’s success, but it’s also what has led to several unforeseen forms of unplaying its virtual capitalism.

A coaster crashes in Rollercoaster Tycoon 2

The prime example of unplaying RCT would have to be Death Parks. There are five methods of killing Peeps (the game’s term for guests) in RCT: shuttle coasters which fly upwards then become untethered from their base and crash back down, launched freefalls which do much the same but at an angle, rollbacks where coaster cars fail to make it over the crest of a hill then descend backwards into another car, drowning which is self-explanatory and wayward bobsled coasters which are exclusive to Rollercoaster Tycoon 2. Drowning in particular is interesting because Peeps that hit the water at the same time eventually go under at different rates. As a kid I took advantage of this fact to stage swimming “races”, where the last surviving participant would be pulled out of the water and declared the “winner”, free to roam about the park in a strangely unfazed state. Death Parks can also exhibit what Flanagan calls “reskinning”, albeit textual rather than graphical, as killer rides can be ironically named things like “Don’t Ride This You’ll Die”.

While Sawyer stepped away from the games industry after a legal dispute with Atari over royalties in 2005, he later returned for the release of Rollercoaster Tycoon Classic, an enhanced port of RCT2. In an interview with Gamespot in February of 2017, Sawyer says that “Most people instinctively want to look after their little guests in the park, ensuring they’re happy and safe and enjoying all the rides you’ve created for them.” This is indicative of what Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux would call the “standard metagame”, or the “play script” in Flanagan’s words, i.e. the way RCT is presented by its developer, publisher and press outlets. By November of that same year Sawyer would change his tune, presumably after witnessing the unplaying of his game, quote: “It’s quite amazing, and scary, seeing how inventive and devious some players are with trying to torment and kill guests, when that really was never the intention! I never set out to deliberately allow such violence in the game.

While it could be argued that the killing of Peeps could be a standard part of playing RCT if done by accident, on imageboards in the early 2010’s a new form of tormenting park guests went viral: the Slow Coaster. The first example of this phenomenon and the one which remains the most memetic (even spawning its own creepypasta) was Mr. Bones’ Wild Ride (2012) by an anonymous poster. The coaster in question took 70 real-time minutes to complete, or 4 in-game years, prompting its passengers to repeatedly cry out “I want to get off Mr. Bones Wild Ride”. The coaster concludes with a giant skeleton in a top hat and a sign that reads “The Ride Never Ends”. Here Mr. Bones represents the spectre of the capitalist, however his message is a blatant lie, the ride has in fact already ended.

Screenshot of Mr. Bones’ Wild Ride

The Slow Coaster scene would then lie dormant for three years until another anonymous poster devised The Wheel of Life and Death (2015) which took 60 real-time hours to complete and used the maximum park allotment within RCT2. The same author went on to produce an even slower coaster entitled Kairos — the Slow (2015), which takes the form of a massive flat spiral which elevates ever-so-slightly at its center, causing the coaster to roll backwards and repeat the painstaking process twofold for a total time of approximately 210 days. Videos of both The Wheel and Kairos can be viewed on YouTube, where the user who uploaded them added an element of religiosity via a soundtrack of Gregorian chants.

Again the Slow Coaster scene lay dormant until a new figure emerged: Marcel Vos. First Vos would break the former record in 2018 with an untitled coaster that took 232 real-time days to complete. Unlike Kairos, Vos’ coaster was made up of two levels and used block brakes to further delay the cars’ travel. Vos would go on to improve this record with his 12 Years of Suffering (2018) which takes 12 years and 207 days real-time to complete. Vos achieved this by using RCT2’s coaster synchronization option, building a smaller coaster with block brakes that is synchronized with a very long coaster that takes the maximum number of circuits, thus making the smaller coaster incredibly slow. The next year Vos returned with 45 Years in Hell (2019) which takes 45 years and 72 days real-time, achieved by combining ideas from Kairos — the Slow with Vos’ multi-tiered/multi-coaster setup. However before the year ended Vos would smash this record with The Century Coaster (2019) which uses two additional coasters between the smallest and largest coaster to triple the number of circuits required by the largest coaster to get the smallest coaster to progress one block section. The result is a coaster which takes 135 years and 197.5 days real-time to complete a single circuit. If incremental games and endless runners emulate frictionless capitalism, then Slow Coasters present a frictional anti-capitalism that allows us to think in broader strokes about space and time.

There is one final form of unplaying RCT that I wish to highlight, and while it may seem the most benign on the surface in practice it will take us to the extremes of finitude. Long Mazes are exactly that, lengthy versions of the maze attraction within RCT2. The first Long Maze was RogueLeader23’s Just a Walk in the Park (2017), a giant collection of hedges the size of an entire park which took one Peep 263 in-game years to finish. Bringing RCT back towards the spiritual, arthenc created The Path of Enlightenment (2018), which put Peeps through a series of trials designed to dispossess them of Earthly desires (like concession stands, for instance). However these pale in comparison to The Impossible Maze (2020) by none other than Marcel Vos.

Screenshot of The Impossible Maze

In terms of design The Impossible Maze is not very impressive, consisting of a straightforward series of rows with small indents along the maze’s inner edges. Though it takes up an entire park, a human could easily solve this maze by simply hugging the right wall. However this humble setup wreaks havoc on the Peeps’ pathfinding algorithm that gets called every time they reach an intersection, as it creates a heavy bias towards walking in the direction of the entrance. Vos calculates that it would take 6.6*10¹⁹⁷⁵⁸ years for a single Peep to complete the maze. This number is incomprehensibly large, as Vos says in his video documentation “Even if you picked up every atom in the universe and waited a Googol years between every atom, you wouldn’t be anywhere near this number.”

In another video essay Geller describes the “horror of proportion” of playing Frank Lantz’s incremental game Universal Paperclips, which concludes with all matter in the universe being converted into paperclips by a rogue artificial intelligence. However I think what The Impossible Maze has over Universal Paperclips is that it presents annihilation at a human timescale; its horror is one of probability. Despite the “impossible” name, if all the stars and RNG calls aligned it would only take a matter of hours for a Peep to reach the maze’s exit–it is just so supremely cosmically unlikely that it is functionally impossible. Reaching the terminus of The Impossible Maze is therefore annihilatory because it can be imagined but not aestheticized; what you run into are not the hard-coded limits of the game but of reality itself. However as Cameron Kunzelman argues annihilation also has a liberatory capacity. Compared to completing The Impossible Maze, the collapse of the late stage capitalism which Rollercoaster Tycoon both models in its standard metagame and was made within is virtually inevitable.

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