When I heard just the first two sentences narrated in Nova Alea, I immediately though of New York. “For its dwellers, Nova Alea was a mixture of shelters, connections, memories, longings. For its masters, the city was a matrix of financial abstractions.” The game itself begins when the player – taking the role of a master – is instructed to start accumulating property by clicking on the geometric buildings in the city plan. The player is instructed to try and predict which properties would be worth the most and then to sell before they were no longer valuable. Players are able to analyze this by the physical growth of the buildings in the model. The player’s funds are represented by a pink cube that hovers above the city and tracks the mouse. As you accumulate more capital, the cube grows larger and larger hanging over the city. New challenges arise, however, that bar the player from simply buying everything too quickly and winning the game. This is where it gets interesting. The value of the property around the city rises and falls according to where the “weird folk” attract the “animal spirits of the market.” If we understand “the masters” as representing the elite upper class, these weird folk must conversely be the artists and philosophers within the community. They are represented by a green, constantly changing shape that disrupts the order of the city plan. As a master you have the option to support the folk, or to try and quash them through the purchasing of every building in Nova Alea. Depending on which path you choose, the game ends either with a city against its people or a system supported by the upper crust.
Culturally, the game resonated with me as a New Yorker. Though I’ve only properly lived in the Big Apple for three years, I’ve lived twenty minutes away for my whole life. Playing Nova Alea called attention to the current issue of gentrification. The gameplay was particularly powerful in that the abstraction of the human element that takes place during these large-scale transactions. It was represented literally by an abstract city model, the geometric shape reminiscent of real structures in the city. The title of “weird folk” was particularly appropriate to represent the artist/activist community that exists in real life in communities like Brooklyn and the East Village. In the game, these activists begin to block the masters from buying and selling to quickly, forcing the player to make choices more wisely. Blocks were placed up to two turns at a certain point, which means money spent on a building would be lost if that building wasn’t sold before those turns were up. Additionally, the concept of rent control was introduced to try and stop the process of buying and selling from displacing more people. Depending on how you play, the game will generate different patterns of events. For example, if you chose to support the arts and support rent controlled properties, the game will end with a message of hope tinged with unrest. Conversely, if you buy and sell as many valuable properties as possible, the game conveys a message of contention between the city and its inhabitants. In this way, Nova Alea used procedural rhetoric and served as a microcosm to simulate a real life economy and its effects on the individual.
The criticisms I have with the game mostly regard gameplay. The patterns were initially difficult to recognize and the controls were a bit inconvenient. If you ran out of money too quickly, you were sent immediately back to the start screen, with only a vague message of how to proceed. Viewing the entire model was also quite clunky. It was a click-and-drag mechanic that was not always conducive to viewing the game. Though I suppose it can be argued that this furthered the point that people in power do not always see the big picture, just potential money to be made. The actual message of the game was also clearly biased. While I agree completely with the sensibilities of the developers, it felt too didactic. Labelling the elite as “masters” and the artists as “weird folk” played on stereotypes that excluded the possibility for collaboration between the two groups. Stylistically, the game was strong. The graphics were smooth, and the audio was sharp. It gave the viewer a clear idea of setting and tone. Utilizing a familiar archetype of a female voice that resembled that of artificial intelligence was a smart choice in that it placed the time period into the future. The simple setting of a virtual game board additionally added a robotized perspective on the concept of city planning. Overall, it was a fun, challenging game that made important statements about the economy and its residents.
Nova Alea marks an important genre in gaming. It not only criticizes a system, but it also gives solutions to fixing it. It’s no secret that the housing market crash of 2008 in the United States along with the gentrification of New York City and other major urban centers across the U.S. have contributed to a discord between the people living in these areas. Once vibrant, artistically nurturing areas have become nothing more than chain restaurants and artisan coffee shops. The game sends an important message about life and capitalism’s role in how it has changed.