There are two ways to look at real estate: as a piece of property, or as an inseparable part of a community sheltering history, culture and support networks. If you see a city simply as a collection of potential investments, then you’re probably someone who’s only interested in the profit margin. However, if you’re someone who happens to live in a part of town which is targeted by such speculation, then the upheaval that brings might just end up putting you on the street. As blue-collar jobs disappear and communities evaporate, the less well-off get often pushed out of areas where property prices suddenly spike. Gentrification is a contentious subject, as a high influx of money into previously run-down city sections obviously has its benefits too, but they often aren’t reaped by those who need them most.
Nova Alea is a small Unity game on itch.io that puts you in the position of the super-rich and gives you a grid of city properties to speculate in. A disembodied voice narrates the game, giving your cold, calculating decisions almost mythological meaning.
The player sees buildings as almost surgically clean white outlines arranged on a neat, square grid. Their height corresponds to their price and your task is, simply, to buy low and sell high, before the real estate bubble bursts and their pale forms vanish from the grid, their monetary value being the only thing that gives them shape from your point of view. Even those who make the grey concrete jungles of inner cities more colourful to live in, the first wave gentrifiers comprised of creative types who subsist on little pay, are treated as simply a mechanic to drive up the property prices adjacent to the tiles they reside on.
Somewhere in the middle of the game your efforts at making astounding piles of money start to get thwarted as local residents band together to try and save their communities. Property value caps make it hard to take in the insane profits you were able to at the start of the game and legislation forbidding you to liquefy assets until some time has passed makes blind speculation ruinous.
While the game is by no means supposed to be a detailed representation of the realities of gentrification, it is a thought-provoking sketch nonetheless, elegantly expressing the bare bones of a very complex issue of urban planning through simple game mechanics.
The developer Molleindustria is planning to release a multiplayer version of Nova Alea, which would potentially allow for players to assume the roles of different financial entities and compete for the title of top fat cat.