It takes 51 hours, 18 minutes, and 50 seconds to complete all 21 scenarios in the original RollerCoaster Tycoon. This number, if my math is correct, is absolutely precise. The in-game clock for the theme park simulator moves at an unalterable pace, days passing at a rate of about one per dozen seconds. Scenarios last between two and four in-game years, each year lasting about an hour in real-time. The game doesn’t care how well you’re doing, even if you’re doing so well that your park could progress to the finish line without a single further click. You’re waiting that clock out and can only hope the game gives you enough to do.
There’s a certain Zen appeal attendant to the game’s lackadaisical passage of time. RCT is far from difficult, and a scenario is often “won” well in advance. The same basic strategies always work: build cheap, dull rides to lure guests into the park; build highly-profitable roller coasters to make money; and make sure park facilities are in working order by hiring staff, building bathrooms, etc. None of this is challenging or even urgent. Once you’ve got your park’s economy running smoothly, all of the trivial details that define a management game become fascinating distractions – after all, you’ve got to spend the next two hours doing something. You find yourself fretting over the placement of balloon stalls, or the types of animal outfits your park’s entertainers should wear. (Panda? Elephant?!) RCT quickly transforms from a barely-challenging strategy game to a Sims-esque trifle. You can even turn on “real” guest names, giving every guest in the park a unique identity and giving you someone to watch as you adjust the ticket prices of bumper cars and go-karts.
There’s also a certain presumption found in RCT’s 51-plus hours: that the game contains at least that much compelling gameplay. We could perhaps take that for granted. RCT is, after all, a very successful franchise. The original game sold millions of copies and spawned several sequels (including an upcoming 3DS title). I have personally sunk untold hours into the franchise’s various games. With the original RCT alone – perennially installed since I bought it in 1999 – I’ve surely put in more than the required 51 hours. But there’s the catch: though I’ve clocked god-knows-how-many hours into RCT, I’ve never beaten the game. I’ve played maybe half of the scenarios, and have never unlocked the game’s later levels. Though RCT drags me back time and time again, it never holds me for long.
The RollerCoaster Tycoon cycle goes something like this. After six to twelve months, something reminds me of RCT – a conversation, maybe, or I stumble across the game’s folder on my hard drive. I get that ineffable “I gotta play this but I’m not sure why” itch, and a few hours later, I’ve completed the first couple of scenarios. (My old saved games are inevitably lost.) Everything’s going great. I’m free to construct the world’s greatest theme parks, and the game’s feather-light strategic elements provide a satisfying touch of purpose. I beat another scenario, then maybe another, but then things start to slow down. The game’s simplistic strategy starts to feel boring, the sandbox elements start to feel pointless, the game clock starts to feel tedious, and then I start murdering guests.
If you didn’t know, park guests can die in RollerCoaster Tycoon. This is probably the game’s most notorious gameplay element, and certainly its most dysfunctional. If you’re taking the game seriously, guests only die as the result of particularly dramatic ride malfunctions. The game’s audio cuts out and the camera quickly pans to the scene of the accident. The game confronts you with a jarring explosion and a grim message telling you how many guests perished. Your park rating drops and, of course, the surviving guests aren’t too happy. With proper maintenance, guest deaths are very rare and are almost comically juxtaposed against the game’s otherwise cheerful mood.
If, however, you’ve played RCT, you are probably very aware that guests can die – and you’ve probably killed them on purpose. You’ve constructed roller coasters that shoot off into the sky. You’ve created water slides that send guests plummeting to their death. You can, if you’re feeling particularly sadistic, pick guests up and simply drop them in water, drowning them. Why guests can drown at all, I’m not sure, as it requires the player’s willful malevolence. YouTube searches reveal thousands of videos for RollerCoaster Tycoon disasters, with titles like “Roller coaster tycoon 3 SuicidePark” and “drowning 1,592 people on roller coaster tycoon 2.”
Every RCT player I’ve ever known has succumbed to this murderous lure. In a game defined by its intractable 51-hour playtime, players will pass the hours however they can. The temptation to build a carnival of death is too great. Murdering people may be bad strategy, but it’s something to do – and, let’s be honest, it’s kind of funny. Once you’ve murdered enough guests, you can either reload an earlier save (unlikely) or just stop playing, waiting another six to twelve months before you’ve got the RCT itch again.
It is to RCT’s great credit that I find myself returning to the game over and over twelve years after release. The game’s blend of theme park fantasy with light strategy is instantly appealing, and the game clock inspires a relaxing, almost peaceful mood. Ultimately, though, RCT cannot reconcile its strategy and sandbox elements. 51 hours is a long time, and all but the most dedicated theme park tycoons will eventually wonder what happens if you launch a fully loaded roller coaster train into the merry-go-round. It seems strange to call this a failure of game design, both because of the game’s popularity and because people obviously enjoy creating Technicolor death machines. I also hesitate to credit game design that inspires ironic mayhem borne primarily out of boredom. I suspect Chris Sawyer, the game’s lead designer, never expected his game to be so provocatively destructive. But sometimes you just want to burn the whole sandbox down on your way out, and it is a happy accident that RCT provides such flammable material.