Mini Metro and the Realpolitik of Mass Transit
Mini Metro, developed by Dinosaur Polo Club, quietly asks players sociological questions about the nature of mass transit.
Developed by Dinosaur Polo Club, Mini Metro is a strategy game that tasks players with creating their own subway system, with the game having arrived recently on Nintendo Switch, following its earlier releases on PC and mobile.
At the start of each session, players are presented with three subway stations; connecting all three of these stations will create a subway line that allows straphangers to travel to each connected station. As play progresses, new subway stations appear around the map: players must either create new lines or extend existing subway lines to service these stations. However, players must be wary—as the game’s map expands, so does the number of people that rely on the subway system. If one station becomes overcrowded with people waiting for a train, the game promptly ends.
Through these mechanics, Mini Metro’s true difficulty lies in the game’s resource management. After each in-game week, players have the opportunity to choose which additional resources they would like for their subway system. For example, if playing in a map with multiple bodies of water, players may want to opt to receive another tunnel. However, if one of their subway lines is showing signs of congestion, the player may opt to create a different subway line instead. As the games progresses, players unlock new real-world cities, each with their own distinct topography and quirks, as their reward for playing well.
While Mini Metro’s gameplay loop chiefly involves watching a city grow and occasionally connecting lines together, the game never actually feels boring. Watching ever-growing cities as an omnipotent city-planner, playing Mini Metro provides a relaxing experience that’s prone to emotional investment. While fixing congestion in your subway station may feel, at times, like patching up holes in a sinking ship, at other times it feels like you’re doing a public good.
In a Walt Whitman-esque way, it’s hard to play Mini Metro and not think of each person riding the subway as their own person with their own story—young children going to school, a laborer on their way to the lumberyard, a couple traveling to their anniversary date, a businessperson slumping home after a catastrophic day at the office. Replacing the dots of Mini Metro with real, breathing people makes it less of a strategy game, and more of a sociological musing on the nature of our modern lives.
In this vein, Mini Metro is, by every imaginable metric, the most political video game I’ve ever played. Despite its absence of narrative, characters, or plot, the game challenges players with the inherently political task of creating the optimal mass transit system for a real-world city.
The only real barrier to success in Mini Metro is austerity itself. Since players have to choose between essential upgrades at the end of every in-game week, it becomes apparent that the inherent failure of any amateur city-builder playing Mini Metro is the lack of adequate funding. Why must players choose between essential upgrades for the subway system? Is there a lack of funding? Is the subway system in Mini Metro nationalized or privatized? Besides, how many of these subways stations are wheelchair-accessible?
Mini Metro quietly asks players sociological questions that it never quite addresses. The player-determined upgrades that make Mini Metro a strategy game are, ironically, what makes the game so political. After all: it’s impossible to “beat” or finish Mini Metro in the conventional sense. If you’re playing the game’s standard mode, your subway system will inevitably reach a tipping point and become overcrowded. In Mini Metro’s standard mode, there is no perfect future–there is no scenario where mass transit is properly funded by whichever corporation or government that controls it. Mini Metro isn’t a resource management game as much as it is a limited resource management game; it illustrates that public goods like mass transit are unsustainable if not properly funded.
I’ve been playing Mini Metro a lot lately. After work, I undock my Nintendo Switch console and lay in bed planning cities all around the world to the sound of Mini Metro’s relaxing, ambient soundtrack. While I play, I can’t help but think of a lyric from a Nana Grizol song called “Mississippi Swells.” In the song, Theo Hilton sings:
“You dream of transportation, infrastructure, the bus stations / On the blocks between the shops the lights flicker on and off and on / And my imagination too travels those streets / Thinking of places and the people that we meet / And conversations with strangers on bus seats.”