Nonetheless, in the last five hours, I tried to play the game in a way that was consistent with my personal political philosophy (even if there were certain policies I support in real life that I wasn't given the option to pursue in the game). The city I made actually turned out to be pretty nice, though it didn't entirely go as planned. I succeeded at making a city that used only renewable wind energy and had plenty of green civic spaces, but no one rode the city buses. They ran at 3% capacity. I couldn't figure out why.
I might think this is due to the game making some sort of statement about the pointlessness of public transportation, were it not for the fact that SimCity 4's entire ethos seems to revolve around the idea of a city's transportation infrastructure being a major causal factor in its eventual evolution. Non-functional bus stops wouldn't fit in with that at all.
The only conclusion I can come to is that I never really understood the game at all. I got my region up to 300,000 people, with each neighborhood in the black (at least, at the moment I quit - some of them were pretty borderline) and many of the neighborhoods had a unique, individual character. So I can't call it a failure, per se. But after doing research online, I now realize that I'm short of a well-developed region by a factor of 10. That shouldn't be surprising, as I'm also short on playtime compared to a skilled player by roughly a factor of 10.
Yet I can't help feel disappointed that I didn't "solve" the game. How ridiculous is that? What kind of game would SimCity 4 be if a mere 20 hours was sufficient to reveal all its secrets? It's clearly something that takes a lot of time and care to master, which is, of course, good, but it certainly doesn't further the illusion that I'm some sort of brilliant, game-analyzing genius.
Not that that's what I look for in a game, mind you (::shifty eyes::)
My final opinion is this - I like the game, I love the genre, but I'd like it even more if it weren't such a mystery. In many ways, it is probably superior to a game like Tropico, where you have to micromanage the food, shelter, and employment of all of your individual citizens, but having that hands-on control makes me feel connected to my simulated creation in a way that I never quite felt with SimCity 4. For much of my time playing, I felt like I was merely reacting to the latest crisis message, or building to the physical constraings of the map. The city more or less emerged from the geography of its plot and my reading of the RCI demand graph, bypassing my plans almost entirely. Even the city I built to try and explore the game's potential for political expression was only half planned. I wound up having to build a whole bunch of extra commercial zones just to get enough of a tax base to support my unused public transit system and excellent hospitals and schools (though it was worth it to see all of those green public opinion bars filled).
Yet maybe that sense of disconnection is a good thing. Maybe it helps create the illusion of a living world, with simulated people who are not mere puppets awaiting the player's inputs, but who must be understood and who need to be coaxed rather than commanded.
On the other hand, things like this exist:
So maybe I would have gotten there in time. Ultimate SimCity puppetmaster is not such a bad accomplishment to have on one's resume. I, however, will have to settle for "broadly educated gaming dilettante" because I'm moving on long before I could even come close to such an accomplishment.