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Strategic growth(!!!) in strategy video games

October 27, 2009

For the past few days I’ve done little else beyond these three things: eat a little, read a little, and play many hours of Medieval II: Total War, another three-year-old video game that I’m playing for the first time now.  It’s fun but, for many reasons, awful.

Last week I also played another game in the franchise for the first time, Empire: Total War, which is basically just about the conquest of North America I guess, and I commented to my friend how completely unapologetic the game is for its premise—and that premise is, I would say, a total bummer.  The premise is basically Here are the Indians; go kill them! Of course you and your good Europeans justify this slaughter by deeming the Indians as threats that therefore need to be dealt with, but any player should be privy to this falsification.  Those threatening savages were the ones that let you occupy some land to begin with, dummy.

Medieval doesn’t have quite the same premise, but … well, I’ll put it this way: the “win conditions” for the Grand Campaign mode are to hold 45 regions of the map—most of Europe and a bit of Africa and the Mid-East—including Jerusalem.  That’s basically it; you go about pursuing that end however you feel necessary.

Every strategy game I’ve ever come across has had this implicit imperative for growth built into it, and even when I was younger this didn’t quite make sense to me.  I remember when my mom’s ex-husband, my step-father at the time, bought Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings, and I just got bored with it the few times I played it.  You start from nothing and expand  your empire—but why? what’s the point?  There really isn’t one—other than that being the only point of the game.  A few years ago I bought the game Black and White because a few years prior to the purchase I thought it was an interesting premise.  I installed it and played it for a little while two different times, but the most recent time (which wasn’t actually very recent at all) I just got so fed up with the growth premise that I couldn’t bring myself to play it anymore.  (I was also fed up with the idea of being a god who must constantly intervene in the lives of his subjects, but that is a different story).

So back to Medieval—the whole point is to conquer all of Europe; there is, seemingly, no other reason to play the game.  What if I just want to create and run a nation that runs smoothly and deal with my enemies whenever they pop up?  Well then I can’t win the game.  As opposed to games like those in The Elder Scrolls series, as well as most other RPG games, this isn’t a game based in fantasy where the only real point is to have an adventure with your character, where the main storyline isn’t even necessary, but just there as a sort of interesting quest to complete if you want.

No, this one is based in history.  Of course the whole point is to rewrite history in a manner that satisfies you—or many different ways, since you’ll probably play the game as more than one nation—but the manner that would satisfy me would be to eliminate the growth imperative that’s implicit in each of these nations.  Instead of letting people be with their nature-based pagan religions I have to spread Catholicism; instead of peacefully coexisting with my neighbors and allies and dealing with threats as they pop up, the douchebags betray alliances and march their armies to my castle walls.  And all of the rebel tribes?  How am I to know what they are rebelling against?  I’ve tried to be a good king—indeed, my reputation is “Reliable” versus “Mixed,” or “Dubious” like the jackass Danes who just betrayed my alliance for no reason, and the dick-hole French are continually marching into my territory and saying “give us 600 florins or we’ll gut you, bitch” and just straight up attacking me for no god-damned reason—but it’s preposterous to assume that each tribe has done something so unacceptable as to warrant their outright elimination.  The premise of this video game is insane, but still people enjoy it.  I am enjoying it.  What is wrong with us?  What is wrong with me?

I do see one potential outcome in which I achieve the victory I desire—that is, stopping the growth imperative and allowing people to live as they wish to live: conquer all of Europe, all of the growth-nations, and then say “Nuh uh, motherfuckers” by refusing to expand anymore, because my nation will not be a nation that worships growth.  And so we come to the trilemma presented by the parable of the tribes (join the violent tribe, fight the violent tribe, or run away from the violent tribe—in all three instances the paradigm of the violent tribe expands), and in this case the only way to defeat the growth imperative is to become the growth imperative yourself.

I don’t know why I’m letting this game bum me out.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. jakemoran permalink
    October 28, 2009 8:18 am

    First off, lulz, or something. but like you said, winning a video game usually feels pretty dumb and pointless. I like playing the game for the sake of the enjoyment and immersion into the fantasy of the world where, instead of staring at my computer, I’m actually struggling for something. Pretty sad, actually.

    As far as Medieval goes, I would recommend downloading the Stainless Steel mod if you have the Kingdoms expansion (which you should). It claims to have “A combination of bug fixes, many small mods, better AI and AI armies, more provinces, graphical improvements and many other campaign and battle map changes. The whole game offers now a much greater challenge!” which I found to be true. You can play as many more factions (including two pagan factions if you don’t feel like being an asshole) and the AI is generally a more reliable ally as long as they have a reason to. This game is TOTAL WAR though, so you can’t expect to make friends with everyone.

    I played a game once as the Lithuanians, and all the factions surrounding me were staunch allies except the Norwegians who were considerably more powerful than me across the Baltic. I played for hours and neither me or the Norwegians could take any substantial amount of territory from each other, though we fought countless battles. The point being that it was fun, not because I was dominating all of Europe, but because I was maintaining my territory against a larger foe, with a few changes in land between us here and there. It felt more like how it works in the real world. Oh, and by the way, if you’re a pagan faction, everyone hates you. Everyone.

    • October 28, 2009 10:11 am

      Yeah, I came across it last night. The Third Age mod looks interesting too, so once I play a little more I’ll probably try them both. And with the Third Age at least then I won’t be fighting for something stupid, but something epic.

  2. jakemoran permalink
    October 28, 2009 8:18 am

    http://www.twcenter.net/forums/showthread.php?t=159996 There’s the link.

  3. jakemoran permalink
    October 28, 2009 7:18 pm

    Yeah, the Third Age mod is pretty cool. Play as the elves if you want to simulate a society that is focused on preserving nature rather than destroying it. I realize this whole conversation and that last sentence are totally ridiculous, but that’s okay. OR you could stop being a pussy and just play as an evil faction and shamelessly destroy everything, because, well, you’re evil.

    Also, the “Good Guys” and the “Bad Guys” generally always stick together in it, so there’s that too.

  4. April 1, 2010 2:09 pm

    Come on guys, come play serious strategic game Like Age of Kings and Aoc. 2D Games ftw.

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