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Soviet City will turn urban planning into terror control

City building games are rarely exercises in democracy. The player’s agency stems from her role as a central planner; she designs cities that hopefully please their residents, but this is not a consultative, bottom-up process. Considerate urban planning in the city-building game is an act of benevolent dictatorship.

Soviet City, a forthcoming strategy game for PC, takes this association between city builders and central planning to its logical extension. Instead of being set in the deracinated utopia of most city builders, the game is set in soviet Russia, a place that may have wanted to be seen as a utopia but clearly was not. You play as a central planner tasked with keeping the populace in line and the government’s five-year plans on track. Happiness—or, more accurately, the absence of sadness—is a means to an end in Soviet City. A city whose population feels too much terror (the game’s metric of choice) is likely to rebel. But pure bliss is not the end goal. As the game’s documentation warns, “when terror level is too low, the dictator can replace you with more appropriate person.” Thus, a certain amount of volatility is desirable. Your goals as a planner are not perfectly aligned with those of your citizens or your overlords.

a certain amount of volatility is desirable

Although the period from which Soviet City emanates is ostensibly over, the legacy of the era’s architecture remains in flux. “There is a long tradition in the West of dancing on the Soviet grave in order to celebrate Western values,” writes Mirela Ivanova in an excellent Los Angeles Review of Books essay about socialist housing, “and so it comes as no surprise that the focus on Soviet historical artifacts is a focus entirely on the dead and decaying.” This sort of fetish, Ivanova notes, is apparent in the ruins porn of the architecture blogosphere. Soviet City does not exactly reclaim this architecture, but it does at least place it in the realm of the living.

A more generous recasting of Russia’s architectural heritage in Moscow, where a former Soviet worker’s canteen and bus garage in Gorky Park was transformed by Rem Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture into the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Primarily clad in translucent plastic, the building only retains a few hints of its former use. Portions of murals have been restored, but that’s about it. As Edwin Heathcote explains in Icon:

This is a building that is not so much about its contents, but about giving Moscow a reception space for art – which the city lacks – and about the reassessment of an era in which architecture was conceived for the masses. This is a proletarian building – a workers’ canteen in a park – and Koolhaas visibly enjoys the provocation that communism produced not only much of value but an alternative, a parallel universe in which capitalism and elitism were once not the only option. The Garage revels in the contrast between mass catering and elitist art. It is an architecture of dreaming, of subtle nostalgia and about the preservation of partial memory.

Soviet City exists somewhere between these approaches to the Soviet Union’s architectural heritage. It doesn’t fall into the pattern of fetishizing ruins that Ivanova critiques, but it also fails to gloss up Soviet architecture as Koolhaas has done in Moscow. The game is not a historical facsimile, but it shows an interest in warts-and-all as an ethos if not a practice. Architecture and urban planning is messy, even in a centrally planned world, and Soviet City is at least willing to engage that mess with clear eyes.