Feeding the beast of life
Let’s look at a normal citizen in Banished – we’ll call her Dorothea. Every morning Dorothea wakes up, puts on her best fugue state and drags gravel out of the Earth for 12 hours. Those rocks are used to build roads, which make it faster for citizens like Dorothea to carry more rocks, to build more homes, to house more citizens to mine more rocks.
Dorothea is helping the proud city of Buttsville expand and eventually preserve blissful, self-perpetuated homeostasis.
Dorothea’s son, Peter the Uncaring Maw, gets up every morning to eat the food harvested by citizens like his mother. Peter the Uncaring Maw doesn’t move gravel. He doesn’t herd sheep. He just consumes. What’s worse, for every two Peters there must be one Dorothea conscripted into life as a fisherman just to maintain the precious balance of life.
Then a plague breaks out. Of course, since everyone is at the docks grilling sole we don’t have enough stone to build a hospital. Now Peter, Dorothea and the rest of Buttsville share a mass grave in the woods because nobody cut down enough lumber to build a cemetery.
Banished is a genius game the way Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist – it’s technically true, but it’s hardly its most memorable quality once you’ve learned about it.
Banished knows exactly what the city management aficionado wants from a game. You start with nothing and only through sheer mathematic prowess will you leave an indelible mark on virgin landscape. Sure, it’s hard and it’s bleak but that’s what you want, right? Difficult just means the mechanics are all the more satisfying to leash.
When you start Banished it’s with a warehouse, a designated stockpile and a few dozen listless, homeless drifters. They’ve been “banished,” you see, and must quite literally start over from nothing. There are no goals beyond what you implement yourself – no tech tree to climb, no gold to amass. Any building can be constructed immediately and all purchases are made through bartering.
Normally I find that kind of open-endedness quite attractive in city management sims. Banished, however, is quite unattractive. There aren’t a great many details in the vaguely medieval architecture and because you’re never building towards something there’s never anything to look forward to.
What appears at first to be city management is quickly unmasked as crisis management. You build, expand and then when things go wrong (e.g. fires break out, plagues strike) you right them in such a way that your very own Buttsville can deal with the issue on its own next time.
You could take the time to ponder the game’s nihilistic interpretation of society. The citizens build, eat, reproduce and die without ever trying to make a statement greater than themselves. Everything serves a purpose. There is no art in Buttsville.
I’m not even sure what sort of governmental doctrines Dorothea and her friends maintain. What’s my role here? Am I the mayor of a proto-democracy? Do I represent the will of anarcho-syndicalism? Fortunately or not, you won’t have time to consider before someone starts whining about not having enough firewood.
Eventually, Banished reveals its one and only trick – the children. Peter and his kind, or Future Fisherman as I like to call them, are designed to soak up resources at a severely disproportionate rate to provide some sense of urgency. Starvation is Buttsville’s leading cause of death. The solution, it seems, is to conscript more and more citizens into food production. I found fishing to be the most efficient of such methods, so the feckless children of my city, once grown, are sent off to work at the docks that once had a direct line to their bottomless bowels.
These and other rewarding state-issued career options are handled in a teeny, tiny menu box at the top of the screen. Most of the actual management happens here. I tend to play PC games on my big-screen TV. Admittedly, that’s not the most comfortable medium for this sort of game. Even adjusting for this, the user interface is incredibly small and vaguely labeled.
A bland landscape is disappointing, but forgivable. Not so with a user interface: not in a game like this. Adding extra workers to a station – one of Banished‘s most common actions – requires an uncomfortable degree of precision with the tiny buttons. It looks as though it was designed by programmers, rather than designers. Considering the game’s humble price point I wouldn’t doubt it, but I can’t forgive it.
I can’t forgive Banished for a lot of things it did to me. It promised accomplishment and delivered frustration. It promised I’d leave my mark on virgin territory but didn’t provide the tools to make it a unique one. I gave Banished my time, my patience, my understanding. It took all of it and didn’t give enough back. I am the Dorothea to its Peter.