In the last decade, one of my greatest joys in gaming has been to encounter an extremely complex, ‘niche’ game that has been developed by a small group of people (or single individual) over an extended period. By niche, I mean not particularly interested in making a “fun game” but rather more interested in representing some particular thing in the medium of software. The experience of exploring the history of the development, seeing the way the systems overlap, and observing the culture that surrounds the game’s community all enhance my willingness to be a learner of the (usually cumbersome) way to play the game. For me, the games that stand out usually happen to be somewhat sim-flavored (in a way I’ve discussed with people here), but it is possible that there might be non-sim games that people have had an experience like this exploring, so I’m starting this thread to hear about more deep catacombs people have found, and their surprise in exploring the depths. Below are the main depths I’ve delved. I’ll mention four, in order of depth of cut.
This is the ‘obvious’ example here, but a good touchstone. There are plenty of places to go and read about that game, so I won’t write much here, but it is a clear indication of the mindset I am looking for. That game was continuously built to achieve the dream of a ‘fantasy world simulator’ who along the way happened to hold itself together enough to be playable (albeit hard to penetrate). It is, I think, the actual most complex set of systems ever made into a game. (I would be happy to be shown wrong, though!)
Recently saw an explosion of popularity with the multiplayer release, which is what allowed it to show up on my radar. This game has been worked on for quite a while, and it has currently achieved a pretty strong vision of ‘what would it be like to actually have to survive a zombie apocalypse’ in the vein of World War Z realism. It looks a bit like The Sims in perspective and graphical style, but the feeling of playing very quickly achieves the type of “it’s serious business to try to break into the house across the street” tension that I feel good zombie fiction can convey. What really gets you, though, is that the long term mechanics of fitness, health, happiness, and nutrition are all explored to good effect, and the self-sufficiency elements of construction and foraging are there as well.
Speaking of self-sufficiency…
Amusingly the game credited with having the longest continuous supported development (30+ years now), this is a passion project by two dudes in Finland. They started off making more or less a general fantasy roguelike, but gradually focused more and more on the aspects of the game that centered around wilderness survival, set in a fictional iron-age Finland. It is a forerunner of the ‘survival crafting’ game genre, but one who still just takes crafting to mean “making something by hand,” rather than “tech tree.” If you go and read about the developer Sami and his collaborator Erkka, you can see that they have done a huge amount of exploration of traditional living. I recall one post where they were showing that you don’t need to have iron wedges to carve boards from a log, just made-on-the-spot single-use wooden wedges, by literally doing the process themselves, and showing that the typical throughput a single person can have with just an axe lines up with the effort required in-game.
The game can play a few different ways depending on how you pursue it. My most advanced game has gotten to the point where the day-to-day events have naturally produced a very realistic ‘Harvest moon’ or ‘Stardew Valley’ flow to the day - wake up, stoke the fire, put a pot on, tend the field, grab cooked food, go out and check net, start preparing any caught fish, eat lunch, check condition of smoking meats, go work on finishing fence, go check traps and gather plants on the way, come back and it’s around evening. All of those elements are set up by my choice as a player in a procedural persistent environment. The fox you see snooping by your pig will come back sometime, and if you are effective at tracking, you can see where it goes. It really gives a very peaceful feeling of managing life in the wilderness, and a lot of feeling of accomplishment to survive in challenging conditions. I can’t recommend it enough. This is a nice video introduction that captures my feelings well.
Simutrans - Extended
This is the real reason I am starting this thread now. Over the past six months, I had been on a bit of a kick exploring Sim City 4 with some mods (never had a computer to really run it well previously, and was also too young and attached to SC3K to appreciate the value of the region-based play). What I found was that my mind was extremely tickled by the puzzle of placing bus and train lines to entice riders to use my services, and the visualization of who went where was deeply satisfying. This may have been in part due to me watching youtube channels that give some detailed analysis about urban planning.
To try to get more of that transit itch scratched, I tried getting into A-Train on switch as per ◉◉maru ’s recommendation, but found that it leaned a bit too hard on the ‘scheduling’ side of things for me, rather than the ‘linking’. I then went and went back and looked at Open Transport Tycoon Deluxe (TTD) which I had for some reason years and years ago checked out. I found that it was OK, but was super bummed to discover that the game’s modeling of a ‘passenger’ was no different than any ‘good’ in that certain things produced passengers and certain things consumed passengers, with no definition of desired destination. I pretty much couldn’t tolerate playing after my mind broke that illusion.
In looking for other things in this vein, I discovered the poorly-named Simutrans, which is effectively a modern, open source, more complex Open TTD. Somehow, I nearly immediately spotted a forked version of this game, which has it’s entirely own development pipeline, called Simutrans-Extended. This is developed by effectively a single person, James Petts, who is obviously a huge real-life train-and-transit enthusiast. If you explore the forums, you will find extensive discussion of very specific models of locomotives, their costs and benefits, and their historical significance. In the game, you might find certain trains that are not that great, and you won’t buy them, and that’s because in real life the maker of that train really did go out of business really quickly as their train was made obsolete by a competitor.
In comparison to regular simutrans, there is a lot of tuning of difficulty, more complex modeling of different classes of passengers, more complex routing where people won’t just take a line because it gets to where they want, but they also look at the relative time and comfort of the journey, and a more complex supply-chain model for industries. All of those changes seemed like they were made for the me who was turned off by the simplicity of OpenTTD’s passengers.
Like regular Simutrans, you can start way back in 1750 and run up to 2050, with new developments of technology becoming available at different points. In my game, I am starting way back then, and my main revenue source is a ferry network bringing passengers and mail among cities on this main island. You can generate absolutely gigantic maps (and expand the map after starting the game), and the sense of scale is really great. Cities grow over time in response to the level of support the player gives the transit, businesses open and close, and new forms of transit come up. The speed at which progress happens in game is generally slow, and you really can’t speed up that much, but the pleasure I have been enjoying has been a mix of complex planning, troubleshooting, and simply observing the motion of vehicles along routes. It lets me slip into ‘idle game’ mode at will without being punished for taking a moment to think while letting the game still run. Sometimes I just need to earn a couple thousand more credits, and that just requires waiting, and in the meantime I can see the wool that got shipped from way over there get delivered to the spinner and then picked up to ship to the clothesmaker.
The game has a persistent online server which has a single game that has been going for the past year-plus. They regularly restart the server every couple years, to allow a fresh start from zero. Anyone can log in and make a transit company, though right now the margins are thin and the competition looks stiff. I haven’t gotten anywhere near a level of understanding needed to actually make a complex train network, so I just look. In all the documentation, and in basically every post by the developer, he encourages people to join the server and just ask questions. There are almost no tutorials for the game or videos online, aside from these recent ones by a dude in Columbia. The fact that a game this complex is being worked on by a single person for the primary purpose of a live, always-on multiplayer game enjoyed by what looks like about eight people, just absolutely boggles my mind and gives me hope for humanity. It has been quite a nice thing to chew on in single player, and while I’m still in the honeymoon phase, I think this is a game I will come back to regularly, like URW.
Anywho, thanks for reading. I genuinely love hearing about these kinds of deep passion projects which happen to be games. I’d be glad to hear about your experiences discovering or exploring previously unknown depths that were actually carefully dug by a few dedicated people.