House of Pain – A look at Constructor

This post was made possible by my backers on Patreon. Thank you! Backers currently get access to all funded posts one week early. This is a first for me, so please bear with me while I figure out how it’s all going to work. You can back me here.

“Not sure if capisce.”

Unlike the great 90s-style management games like Startopia or Themes Park and Hospital, Constructor has never found much of an audience. That’s not a great games industry injustice, but it deserves some credit as a valiant attempt in a now fairly dormant genre.

It’s not as good, I’ll state that up front. Between a slightly awkward interface and a surprisingly complicated, esoteric … well, everything, this combined house building and landlord simulation was at a disadvantage from the start. The most successful strategy games of the 90s could list accessibility as one of their greatest strengths, something easily taken for granted now. Startopia and Theme Hospital were showcases of user friendliness, reducing complex systems to their most fundamental parts, and presenting new elements at a comfortable pace that neither overwhelmed or lagged behind the impatient player. That they did it with oodles of charm and personality certainly didn’t hurt.

Middle class tenants are mostly a pain in the hole.

Startopia is particularly interesting here, as its campaign has entire levels given over to different facets of the starport that could comfortably be spun off into complete games on their own. Space Trading station, Space Farm, Space Theme Hospital, Space Prison Architect… and that’s just the first handful of levels, before rivals get involved.

And it’s the rivals that may have sunk Constructor. While all the classic business sims had elements of competition, Constructor’s AI adversaries are a bloody nightmare. Actively interfering with your plans from the off, and not bound to any of the resource or scoring restrictions the player labours under, they’re less of a catalyst to improve than an incitement to extreme violence. Running your housing estate starts out as a race between disaster and catastrophe, with fickle tenants to please, workers to breed, resources to acquire, and the ever looming spectre of council inspections. Throwing a hostile force into the mix with no goal other than to make your life difficult is positively cruel.

Screenshots of this one often look dry and slow. This is misleading.

For all its shortcomings and extreme difficulty, it’s on the whole a very well-designed game. Its systems are intricate and esoteric, but with experience they make a lot of sense, and are impressively well connected. That alone isn’t enough, frankly. What pushes it into an interesting, fun place is its personality. The whole experience is dripping with character, from the grotesquely charicatured tenants and irreverent barks of your Liverpudlian repairmen, to the lovably dreadful skinheads chanting “OI OI OI OI” as they wreck whatever building they’ve decided to party in.

In the finest Bullfrog/Maxis tradition, there’s a rich vein of cynical, mildly satirical black humour underscoring just about everything you do. Tenants are reasonable people who just want somewhere pleasant to live, except when they get that, they’ll decide they actually want a bigger garden. And if they get that, they’ll want a tree. And if they get that, they’ll want a nice hedge like their neighbour’s. There’s nothing that won’t have a knock-on effect on something else – and it usually means more work for you.

The emphasis is on people, but stats and accounts aren’t neglected.

You start with a lumber yard and permission to build a few humble shacks. Get enough of these up and occupied, and the council will let you build a cement factory, a few more homes, and your first “undesirable” building. This pattern repeats itself, and each tier of buildings brings with it new classes of tenant and new resources for your beleaguered workmen to keep in supply. These are only manufactured when they occupy the right factory, which tires them out and generates tenant-irritating noise. It also takes them away from building and refurbishing rooms, so you’ll need a lot of workmen. How do you get more workmen? Well, you uh… you breed them.

Fill your estate with bikers. Invoke the Leathering.

Each tenant has preferred houses and amenities, and if these match up, they can perform services for you instead of paying rent, or if the right conditions are met, produce more tenants. Punks and Hippies have kids who join the police. Wayne and Waynetta Slob produce babies that grow into workmen, the backbone of your enterprise. Nerds run favours for the Mob.

Those undesirables upset locals and pay no rent, but produce characters who can also do your bidding – Mr. Fixit can “repair” houses, undoing your rivals with the power of spectacular bodging. Mob restaurants offer loans or have a spivvy mafioso attack your rivals (his aesthetic was later spun off into the spiritual sequel, Mob Rule). All these characters visibly go about their day, each with a funny voice clip and animation, be they hideous babie, happy-go-lucky, mildly cretinous postmen, or council house skinheads or their counterpart police thugs. It’s not just houses and resources you have to keep track of, it’s all these people and their movements, too.

Hoodlums trash a house, stressing out tenants. They’re my favourite.

The hippies don’t like their un-groovy, artificial fence. The scientist wants a shed. You gave one tenant a gnome and now they all want one. You don’t have enough yuppie tenants to replace the ageing ones. You’ve too much unoccupied land, but the only building that will fit requires more wood. Manufacturing that produces noise, which upsets the neighbours, so have the postman deliver double glazing from the gadget factory (send workmen there first). But that means the postman’s not delivering burglar alarms to the Major, and now the greasers are complaining because the workmen in your factory left their bedroom half done.

The Major demands an iron fence and the tenant you put in the new house left a bungalow vacant and it’s gone wrong and 6 foot insects are terrorising the neighbours, and now the council demand you constructively evict a rival’s tenants. But to do that and to kill the bugs you’ll need to generate more mafioso which means the Nerds aren’t paying rent. So you switch the Punks from producing cops to paying rent but now hoodlums are partying in your estate and you don’t have a cop to stop them and your workmen can’t get there to fight them off because they’re tired from working the factories and now the Major wants a hedge and the yuppies have died and left behind a squat and the biker bar’s on fire and AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH

This is Constructor at its best and at its worst. It is like spinning plates that hate you.

“Dear sir, FIRE! FIRE! There’s a fire! Sincerely, aaaargh.”

Without an active pause mode, or at least speed options, its unrelenting pace is exhausting. If you get into its rhythms it has a strong gravitational pull, but that takes a lot of practice, and it’s an all or nothing game – minor missteps or misfortunes can spiral very easily, and once you slip out of the right patterns it can be impossible to recover. What’s worse is that failure isn’t as entertaining as it needs to be. It lacks the voyeuristic thrill and glorious inevitability of the Dwarf Fortress tantrum spiral, and Sim City’s cathartic surrender to that “Burn it all” compulsion. Sometimes it’s simply unfair, as the council demands things that aren’t realistic (a little too accurate, really), and the dread of such a hopeless situation often leaves a bitter taste, and a disinclination to try again.

Although your business is (hopefully) an efficient well-oiled machine, that structure is absent once you finish a level. There’s no campaign or twist to the formula beyond a couple of even harder maps or win conditions, the latter of which wind up moot as they’re all conditions you’ll be aiming for in a regular game anyway. Several of its meagre handful of levels are restricted to harder difficulties, the thought of which is enough to make me tired even now. Its interface requires a lot of scrolling and micromagement, and those no-win situations can occur long before you’re aware of them.

Failing the council is usually game over. A robust infrastructure is vital.

I would probably hate Constructor, if not for its redeeming charm. We’re simple, daft creatures, really. We want to be entertained. We want to like our games, not just as things that are fun, but as things to personify and relate to as entities. Constructor is very likeable, but it falls short on the fundamentals, resulting in an amusing, novel game that never quite overcomes its flaws.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Patreon funded

White’s Privilege

If you’re going to talk about privilege, you should really look up what it means first. Yes, the guy had problems. No, that doesn’t mean he’s not privileged. Privilege doesn’t mean you never have problems or difficulties.

Before he does anything, Walter doesn’t have to prove that he’s not a criminal or illegal immigrant or terrorist. He doesn’t get turned down for jobs because his name sounds a bit foreign. He doesn’t get criticised for speaking his mind, or accosted in the street by people demanding he take time out of his day so they can leer over his body. He’s not blamed for other people’s crimes and abuse because of what clothes he put on that day. He’s not called “ungrateful” if he doesn’t simper and thank people who address him in similar terms to the people who threaten to rape him. He doesn’t get ostracised, threatened, or beaten up for displaying affection towards the people he loves in public.

He even – actual, slight spoilers (series 1) – turns down help from his multi-millionaire friends.

That is privilege. No, it doesn’t make him a bad person or mean he never suffers or has problems. Nor does it mean he’s a weak, bad, or uninteresting character. But there is a whole world of criticism, oppression and abuse that he will never have to face because of the lucky demographics he happened to be born into.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

With a Little Help from mis Amigas

Originally written in 2011, this is a little piece about the Amiga, and its inestimable influence on my childhood.

Our demonic cat sat in the box. It was a Christmas day, and every Christmas he would sit in an unattended box and attack any unwary feet that passed by. It’s one my earliest memories. I must have been five years old.

The box had been home to an Amiga 500, along with copies of Batman The Movie, F/A-18 Interceptor, and New Zealand Story. That these three games came together as part of the bundle is a pretty good indicator of why the Amiga was special: flexibility. It could do anything, but more importantly, it did everything. A machine with a software- and fanbase as diverse and open-minded as the Amiga’s, if released today, would surely tower over everything else.

Read the rest of this

Leave a Comment

Filed under Games, Old stuff, Personal