In 2010, some random guy on the internet beat SimCity 3000. At least, that’s how articles on the internet described it at the time. What happened was a 22-year-old architecture student in the Philippines named Vincent Ocasla achieved gaming perfection. He painstakingly designed, without the aid of cheats, a city so complex and densely populated that it rendered all future attempts at SimCity pointless. It was beautiful and horrifying.
Especially so, because “beating” SimCity 3000 is an impossible feat: The open-ended game, free of any clear-cut, top-down goals, can’t technically be beaten. But Ocasla found a way. He began planning his supercity in 2006 in his spare time, drawing mandala-esque shapes on graph paper, surrounded them with dense calculations. He created a number of different experiment cities in-game, to work out his master theories. Design and construction of the final version of his masterwork was completed in 2009. He called his creation Magnasanti, derived from the word “magnitude.”
Magnasanti is stunning to look at, its scale troubling. From above, enormous towers fill the entire screen, blending together in repeating patterns like a concrete magic eye puzzle. There’s a circle in the center of the map, inspired by the Buddhist bhavacakra. Imagine if someone clone-stamped Manhattan’s drably foreboding multi-block Stuy Town development, and pasted it across the entire Tri-State area, crushing all trees, animals, and joy in its path.
Inside all of those buildings live a staggering 6,005,407 people. There’s no water pollution, traffic, or crime. There are no vacant buildings. Ominously, there are no residents over the age of 55.
Upon completing his city, Ocasla uploaded the above video to YouTube that explains the planning and construction process, complete with a shouting, all-caps title which included a (potentially?) ironic Flash file extension: SIMCITY 3000 - MAGNASANTI - 6 MILLION - ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM.flv. Set to Jesper Kyd’s “Apocalypse” (which sounds exactly like what a song called “Apocalypse” should sound like), the video guides you through Ocasla’s three grand attempts at despotic urban planning, which he calls “The Santi Series”: Armadasanti and Parasanti, which fell short of his vision, and then Magnasanti, a demonic monument to uncaring people-packing that would have made Robert Moses shit his pants with envy. The overall vibe of the clip is like Koyaanisqatsi meets Microsoft Excel.
All the effort paid off. The video went viral.
Did Ocasla actually beat SimCity 3000? Depends. As I glossed over earlier, sim games don’t usually contain end goals. This is part of their charm. They allow a player to build whatever they want, and then gradually get tired of the game and eventually stop playing.
This is probably why the natural end to most sim game sessions involves self-imposed destruction. The player reaches a point of boredom, and then burns everything down and starts over. The SimCity series almost anticipated this urge, offering a number of disasters — fires, floods, monsters, and even a DeLillo-esque “chemical cloud” — that could be triggered to reduce one’s creation to smoldering ruins.
The same goes for pretty much all other games in the sim genre. If they don’t provide official disasters to work with, players get creative. It’s notoriously common for players of The Sims to torture their pixelated avatars in deeply disturbing ways — like commanding them to go for a swim in a pool and then removing the ladder, or trapping them in a burning building with no exits. Something something a metaphor for life on social media something something.
The destruction is always darkly entertaining. In Cities: Skylines, a Sim City-ish title first released in 2015, a player set loose a massive tsunami of raw sewage upon his city, drowning an entire population of 200,000 people with one ruthless act of fecalcide:
In Roller Coaster Tycoon, users will build death-coasters, launching guests out into the great beyond. These get pretty intricate. One player built a maze that took guests 263 years to navigate. Another created a coaster so long and slow that park guests starved to death while riding it. There’s also this meditative path to enlightenment, and the Wheel of Life and Death:
It’s possible that all of that is an upsetting indication of the sadism lurking beneath the surface of all people, finally unleashed en masse thanks to the violent evils of video games. Quick, someone call Tipper Gore! Or maybe, less alarmingly, it’s just the result of natural curiosity, like players wanting to test the limits of what the games will allow after running out of things to explore.
Interestingly, a massive real-life disaster helped inspire The Sims. Creator Will Wright, who also gave us SimCity, claimed to have gotten the initial idea for his hit game after losing his home and all his possessions to the fire that torched the Oakland/Berkeley hills in 1991. “I started to wonder about all the things we have and how we purchased them for a reason,” Wright told Berkleyside in 2011. “Why do we need x or y or z? Why do we think something will make me happier?”
The Sims was ultimately intended to be a subtle “parody of consumerism.” As Wright explained to The New Yorker, “if you sit there and build a big mansion that’s all full of stuff, without cheating, you realize that all these objects end up sucking up all your time, when they had been promising to save you time.”
Similarly, Magnasanti isn’t just a weird novelty created by an obsessive video game nerd, though it’s often misinterpreted as such. Rather, it’s a brilliant work of digital art that is critical of the pursuit of relentless growth. One of the implicit goals of SimCity is perpetual growth — of populations, of building zones, of profitability. While the player is encouraged to do whatever they want, unless cheats are deployed, the growth-based objective always lingers unavoidably in the background. To build that futuristic biodome bubble in the sky, you’re gonna need money, pal. Magnasanti takes this goal to its natural, hellish conclusion. It’s a dense and brutal world, perfectly efficient and optimized, with no considerations for the human lives within it.
To be clear, this isn’t pretentious retcon projecting on my part. Ocasla was clear from the onset about his intentions. “I could probably have done something similar — depicting the awesome regimentation and brutality of our society — with a series of paintings on a canvas, or through hideous architectural models,” he told VICE in 2009. “But it wouldn't be the same as doing it in the game, because I wanted to magnify the unbelievably sick ambitions of egotistical political dictators, ruling elites and downright insane architects, urban planners, and social engineers.”
To achieve his goal, Ocasla created a world that, on closer inspection, is a living nightmare for its citizens. It contains no public resources like schools or hospitals. Unemployment is soaring. It is crowded and ugly. “Health of the sims was not a priority, relative to the main objective. I could have enacted several health ordinances which would have increased the life expectancy, but I decided not to for practical reasons,” Ocasla explained to VICE. “It shows that by only focusing on one objective, one may end up neglecting, or resorting to sacrificing, other important elements. Similarly, [in the real world] if we make maximizing profits as the absolute objective, we fail to take into consideration the social and environmental consequences.”
It calls to mind the folly of other planned utopian cities that attempted to save us from all of society’s ills by way of good design, somehow. Consider Walt Disney’s original plan for Disney World’s EPCOT theme park. Rather than a fun trip into a retro version of the city of the future, EPCOT was going to be an actual city where no one would have been allowed to vote on local issues, own land, or stop working. Or Celebration, Florida, Disney’s eventual ‘90s suburban spin on EPCOT where in exchange for basic freedoms like “leisure,” everything is infested with mold. There’s also the eerie, pre-planned beauty of Oscar Niemeyer’s design for Brazil’s capital city Brasilia; and in the future, we’ll probably look back in horror on the weird, invasive plans Facebook no doubt has for its upcoming Willow Village community in Menlo Park.
Ten years after its creation, Magnasanti has become a damning critique of our present moment, as Silicon Valley’s pioneering vision of frictionless consumption and infinite scale forcibly redesigns our cities around us. Behold the swathes of duplicate luxury condos unfolding over the horizon, whose residents never have to go outside, as everything they need can be delivered by an enormous monopolistic retailer. “In fact they do not even need to leave their own block,” Ocasla said, referring to his own sim citizens. “Wherever they go it’s like going to the same place.” At least, that is, until a flood of warm sea water begins to rise past their ankles.