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Opinion – The State in Games

You are what you program.

Whether we like it or not, every video game reflects an opinion of the world.  Every aspect of a game is a hint about how the developer views a particular topic.  To be sure, sometimes elements of realism are sacrificed on the altar of gameplay, but even that is a reflection of the developers mind.  Realism is sacrificed, but elements the developer deems core to know that a thing is a thing are preserved so that the audience can identify whatever item or concept the developer is trying to convey.  Case and point, guns.  Guns in an FPS never jam, don’t have weight, and have magnetic ammunition that leaps into your pocket when you walk over it.  These unrealistic aspect of guns are included because they are deemed inessential to the idea of a gun.  Today I’ll be looking at the idea of a state.  Many strategy games model the state, but they rarely reflect a state as it actually is.  Many have a different idea of how states function as compared to their real counterparts.  Here are a few:

Civilization V – Centralized dictatorship

Putting aside the immortal sovereign, the Civilization games function as a dehumanizing centralized dictatorship focused on control of major cities.  Decision making is done entirely by the leader without much input from independent interests or other government agencies.  The only part of an empire that actually has a voice is the population based on generalized notions of happiness.  As a result, very little gets done without a direct command.  Everything from basic public buildings to countryside infrastructure is dependent on the player making the order and releasing the resources.  Even supposed changes in government rarely restrict the leader from doing what they want to do (I do recall that democracies could prevent the player from declaring war in Civ2.  Ahh, the glory days.).  Of course, most real governments have interests other than a generalized notion of “the people”.  These interests play an important role in prioritizing resources and are largely ignored by the Civilization series.  Especially in dictatorships, the ruler must appease these interests or face serious problems down the line.

Rome Total War 2 – Bureaucratized Oligarchy

The Total War series attempts to model various interests in the empire.  The Roman Senate plays a role in determining the support a given leader has and special characters, such as generals, each have their own traits and ambitions.  The opinions of the people matters, but, like the Civilization series, only insofar as they cause trouble.   If the people are happy, then the player must respond to a small group of specialized interests.  To do so, the play has access to an efficient and effective bureaucracy that is able to maintain control over a massive empire.  Orders from the center are reflected quickly in the priorities of the provinces with only a corruption increase to show that the bureaucracy has interests of its own.  Modern bureaucracies are only half as effective as the Rome Total War 2 ones.  The idea that a pre-industrial society could have detailed control over such a massive amount of territory is ludicrous and likely reflects the developer’s bias towards modern governance.  Like the Civilization series, Rome Total War 2 also doesn’t model the institutions that would inevitably develop to handle such a difficult task.

Crusader Kings 2 – Legalistic Feudalism

The last game on our list is the most realistic attempt to model an actual government.  Rather than rely on a faceless, obedient, and super capable bureaucracy, Crusader Kings 2 creates a government and society built on individuals with their own interests.  Individuals have titles which reflect their area of control and the individuals they rule.  Those individuals will negotiate with their superiors, fight wars for them, and rebel.  Without direct input, NPCs will develop their own territories and conquer new lands.  It’s a fascinating system, though not without its flaws.  The most notable is the high degree of legalism inherent in the system.  While medieval lords were a far more legalistic bunch than they traditionally get credit for, they didn’t stop crushing victories against their infidel foes because they promised they’d only crusade in a certain area.  Furthermore, borders of provinces shifted all the time whereas Crusader Kings 2 acts as if they were set in stone by Charlemagne.

There are plenty of other things to nitpick.  All three games (and all strategy games that I am aware of) assume an instantaneous response to all orders regardless of distance.  Every leader has a crystal clear view of all resources they possess and the capability to move them wherever they need to be.  I could go on.  Still, these feel like conceits to gameplay and less like a world view.  The governments outlined here seem reflective of a viewpoint, or a blind spot, of developers who didn’t quite understanding what they were saying when they made their game.


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Review – Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Conquering planet 32b.

Sorry guys. If you’re going to make a Civilization in space, you’re going to get compared to the classic, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.  It’s just going to happen.  And it sucks.  Alpha Centauri is a true classic.  Not the wimpy kind of classic that “was really good for its time”, but a genuine, still awesome, game that hasn’t been surpassed.  Seriously, go get it here if you haven’t played it.  Yes, it’s unfair to be compared against the greatest, but even without Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth (BE) is a bad game.

The basic game plays like any other Civilization entry. The player starts with one city which forms the heart of a global empire.  Players build more cities, research technologies, culturally advance towards bonus giving virtues, and conquer their way to victory.  It’s a tried and true formal that still largely works.  On top of the old engine, BE adds ideologies.  The player chooses technologies and quests that pushes them down three paths representing their engagement with the alien world they’ve landed on.  Harmony embraces the world, Purity shuns it in favor of emulating Earth, and Supremacy seeks domination through technological integration.  Advancing down an ideological path provides key bonuses and upgrades units while adding neat artistic touches to factions.  In addition to ideologies, BE also has quests that direct the player to complete tasks for bonuses.  The quests do triple duty as a tutorial, measurement of victory and a storyteller.  They provide optional and welcome structure in a very open genre.  They also represent all that is wrong with Beyond Earth.

Mouse over the five victory quests and you’ll notice that four of them don’t actually involve interacting with the other players.  They’re all variants on “research technology, build a thing, and wait a number of turns to win.”  The best and obvious route to victory is often to expand quickly, placate the opponents, and watch the numbers go up.  A smarter AI would notice the player’s snooze towards victory, but this cutthroat bunch remains totally clueless as your giant victory phallus reaches towards the sky.  You can practical hear the snoring as your game winning space tower or Earth gateway go up.

“But wait!” you cry. What about the fifth victory condition?  What about Domination where the player conquers their opponent’s capital?  Good question!  Let me introduce you to health, the replacement for Civilization 5’s happiness.  When the player conquers a city, it lowers the faction’s health.  A low health value tacks on crippling empire wide penalties that ensure you’ll regret abandoning your friend, the “End Turn” button.  Ultimately, the player can research technologies to mitigate the health problem, but it effectively means the early game is forced pacifism.  Even better, the AI is brain dead when considering peace offers.  It does a straight calculation based on army values.  If the player has a bigger army, the AI offers cities to end hostilities.  Don’t bother with the barbarity of actual warfare!  Be civilized about it by declaring war, building a large army, enjoying a nationwide tea time, and negotiating for half their empire 15 turns later.  Factions regularly offered me cities to end wars that I hadn’t fire a shot in.  Oh fun.

I admit, I could deal with the lackluster gameplay if there were a little more to the flavor of the game. Alpha Centauri did this beautifully by creating factions with unique traits and back stories that both guided gameplay and contributed to the development of an organic story with every playthrough.  Not so in Beyond Earth.  Faction choices only provide minor bonuses and their mythos contributes little to the story of the game.  In fact, choices in BE mean very little.  Implemented intelligently, these decisions could have help craft a unique world with each game.  Instead, BE throws tons of tiny decisions at the player that seem to have little effect and require little thought.  It’s hard to really feel involved when the choices are minor increase to stat A or minor increase to stat B.  Even the victory quests feel limp as they are buried under several menus and provide little in the way of exposition.  No part of this world feels realized.

Beyond Earth is a failed attempt at updating Alpha Centauri. All of the basic elements were pulled from the earlier game without the commitment to a strong identity.  Instead, BE comes off as a halfhearted attempt at recreating a classic without understanding what made it great.  Don’t buy this game.

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Opinion – The Rise and Fall of the Video Game Empire

Mine, all mine!

The sense of progress and success means different things in different genres. In an RPG, progress might mean better loot, increasing stats, or a new and dramatic plot point. For fighting games, progress is better measured in the player’s ability to execute moves and defeat opponents. For the 4x genre, progress is often best represented in the feeling of expansion. Tiny, single city empires hurtle outward into unexplored lands and, ultimately, enemy territory. Inherent in almost any 4x game is the obvious and visual sense of conquest and loss. Unfortunately, most 4x games stop there and so limit the many avenues for a sense of progress. The result is that success rarely feels like empire building.

One of the most common stumbling blocks is the visual representation of empire and expansion. Most games choose to show major cities and planets as the focal points of a player’s realm with little concern for the land in between. The result is that the player’s empire feels less like a singular entity and more like a collection of semi associated cities. The sense of empire is fragmented across the cities without any real connection between them. The worst offender of this kind of visual failing is the Galactic Civilizations series. In addition to placing large voids between each planet, the game also has absolutely nothing to do with all that space. The occasional space station or fleet does nothing to knit together the vast emptiness of the empire. The Civilization series overcomes this issue with the inclusion of terraforming, but even the most cultivated land is obscured by the city beacons that dot the landscape. Singular points, be they cities or planets, dominate the player’s view and reduce the feeling of a united empire.

Visual failings are joined by technical problems. In many games, the cities are replaceable cogs in the machinery of an empire. Remove a city and resources are lost, but rarely is that city a vital part of a given civilization. Most 4x games do not allow cities to become specialized entities serving the larger empire the player is building. Imagine the loss of New York City to the United States. The results would be economically and culturally devastating despite the city only taking up a comparatively small (under 5%) percentage of the total US population. New York City is not just another city, but a key part of the idea of the United States. Compare that to the loss of New York City in Civilization 5. Yes, it’s probably important to an American player, but its loss could be overcome by taking a similarly developed Paris or Amman. The unique place it holds for the American player can be reproduced by another civilization’s city without the sense of cultural, economic, and infrastructure whiplash that should result.

To fix this problem, developers must move beyond the city-centered landscape and into the sense of an empire as a unique entity the player is building. To begin with, cities should develop natural connections over time that are outside the player’s control. Trade, cultural exchange, and sprawl should all occur without the player’s direct input and should consider things like terrain and recent changes in borders. Cities should further develop unique identities within the context of a given empire that relies on the creation the player is building. Also key is the visual representation of this growth. Roads, festivals, and landmarks should pop up organically across the landscape to fill out the barren spaces in between. Watching as a once bustling stream of trucks dries up when land is taken with have a much greater visual impact than the sudden disappearance of territory.

More important than any of my suggestions is that 4x games should help the player create something unique. Each empire should have a feeling tied to the circumstances of that particular round. A sense of progress isn’t tied to merely the expansion of territory, but instead to creation of a special land inside that territory.

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