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Overcrowd forces you to think about transit design in a different way

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A strategy game that shows how hard building an efficient train station can be

In 2015, a massive snowstorm — or, more precisely, a series of massive snowstorms — stranded nearly 50 commuters on a broken train in Boston. Plenty of others were stuck at knotted-up stations since many of the system’s old trains aren’t built to handle heavy snow. So when the storm hit, and kept hitting, the system broke. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) shut down the city’s trains for more than a day, with no real estimate on when full service would be resumed. To say the least, it was a problem.

Train stations are liminal spaces, places that serve as a transition between what was and what comes next. We may spend a lot of time there, but it’s always impermanent. There is always a departing train, a next stop, and somewhere else to be. But when something shifts — like a snowstorm indefinitely shutting down the system, stranding passengers — what was once liminal can start to feel different. You settle into the uncertainty. You’re forced to shift the perception of place from transition to destination, at least for now. It’s not often that this shift happens intentionally. Typically, it’s forced into perspective by something gone wrong. SquarePlay Games’ Overcrowd: A Commute ‘Em Up lets its players make the choice to linger in this space, seeing the station from a new view.

Overcrowd is a simulation-style management game, which launched on June 6th on PC, from designer and coder Alastair McQueen and artist Sarah Testori operating under the name SquarePlay Games. The gameplay will be familiar to anyone who has played something like SimCity or Zoo Tycoon. But instead of creating a city or a zoo, you’re creating the transit system for a London-like city called Lubdon. The idea came to McQueen while riding on the very system it’s inspired by: the Tube. Whereas a game like Dinosaur Polo Club’s Mini Metro uses transit design — or, rather, a transit map’s design — to create a minimal, slower experience, Overcrowd is a more faithful reimagining of realities of public transit.

“Playing Overcrowd is a bit like having an ant farm that you can tinker with,” McQueen tells The Verge, “with little ant trains.”

In the game, players must build out their transit systems within an isometric 3D space. Each space is slightly different; there are certain obstacles that need to be accounted for, but otherwise, players can create whatever they want using a sculpting tool to dig into the cube landscape. Money is always a problem. You’ll have to work around the cost constraints. You can always make your commuters miserable — hello, Boston T system — but the more constructive way to play, at least if you want to win and earn lots of money, is to keep your commuters happy. Once the station is up and running, players take on the station’s menial tasks, like tossing out garbage or fixing ticket machines, to keep the station running. But the challenge is in balancing all of those tasks as they start to stack, managing a small staff to mitigate some of the duties.

“You’re doing quite mundane things like emptying bins or refueling generators or calling trains, but it elicits a kind of idle satisfaction that draws you in,” McQueen says. “I like to think it has a fair amount of freedom to experiment. Perhaps because the player knows how challenging real-life commuting is, it’s more pleasurable seeing it from afar and not being in that crowd yourself.”

The game’s commuters are always finding things to be upset about, like garbage that’s making them sick or rats overrunning the platform. Another common complaint: commuters in Overcrowd don’t like to be overcrowded. They like to be herded along by employees with megaphones, keeping them informed and on their way to work or wherever else they’re going.

“There’s something really satisfying about planning your design, slowly expanding your station, and making little tweaks to make everything run as smoothly as you can,” Testori says. “Having said that, Overcrowd is probably more hands-on and fast-paced than a lot of traditional management sims. You can’t sit back and expect things not to go terribly wrong — you’ll end up losing, with a station full of puke and bodies.”

Overcrowd

And that’s why SquarePlay hesitates to call it a “pure” management simulator. Overcrowd also has puzzle-like elements and a real-time strategy feel. Managing the station and its patrons is part of that gameplay. But there are elements of Overcrowd that give the game a sense of frenetic energy, not unlike the feelings that games like Cuphead or StarCraft II evoke: the panic of fast-paced decision-making and dodging problems by dispatching solutions. And that plays into the game’s name. “The name Commute ‘Em Up was kind of just a punny title, which I thought of almost seven years ago,” McQueen says. “But it is also deliberately there to show it’s not a straight-up management sim.”

There are also some fantastical elements of the game that you won’t find in any transit system. Overcrowd’s method for controlling the rat population is rather barbaric; basically, you skewer them with a device called the “rat prod.” Some of the machinery used to run the stations is entirely made up, too, McQueen says. “The ‘signal relays’ you build, which automate train calling, look like huge mainframes, which Sarah based on images of nuclear power station control panels,” he tells The Verge.

It’s these details, both fantastical or based in reality, that we risk missing when operating in a transitional space, like a train station. We see the space for its function rather than the nuanced details that make it unique. Writing about airports in a research study called “Airports as liminal space,” published in Elsevier’s Annals of Tourism Research in 2018, Wei-Jue Huang, Honggen Xiao, and Sha Wang write that “the first and foremost function of airports is to transport passengers.” Train stations also serve this primary function. But within the study, Huang, Xiao, and Wang found that the transitory aspect of these spaces has a complexity that’s understood differently as perception shifts.

Though the commuters of Overcrowd are facing the threshold of the station’s liminal nature, the player is encouraged to linger, to think about design. Overcrowd’s gameplay can feel fast-paced and chaotic, but there’s always the option to press pause and adjust without the high stakes of time. This allows the player to contemplate the details typically passed by and to consider how these spaces make us feel — and why.

Overcrowd

“Transport networks around the world have long provided inspiration for creativity, whether that’s iconic architecture and design to music and art and now games exploring the mechanics of keeping a city moving,” London Transport Museum documentary curator Ellie Miles told The Verge. “How transport shapes contemporary culture is something we are interested in understanding and preserving.”

SquarePlay Games’ Overcrowd is a unique meditation on a space that is ubiquitous for many people, yet can often feel uncomfortable or unfamiliar. Because of this, the London Transport Museum is looking to preserve the game “in perpetuity,” according to a late-May press release.

The London Transport Museum is just one space dedicated to interrogating the liminal spaces in transportation — another reframing of transition to destination. The London Underground, the spark of Overcrowd’s idea, is the world’s oldest transit system; it’s been up and running since 1863. The system’s drastically changed since the first trains started running, and the city’s changed with it. As it evolves, the way we think about and interact with it, and spaces like it, will, too. The things we notice, appreciate, or get annoyed by will shift. Overcrowd is one part of that process.