Saturday, 3 August 2013

Life, Liberty, and Civilization: Part 3

While the expansionist philosophy's importance to both Civ and America's character shouldn't be underestimated, its not the only theme represented in the series.

For perhaps Civ's biggest contribution to gaming history, and biggest innovation was..... innovation.
Resembling a family tree of science, the Tech Tree concept helped to presented a world of dynamic change, driven by scientific progress and above all player choice.

Although the Tech tree concept existed before its creator Sid Meier adopted it there's a strong argument that Civ was responsible for popularising the mechanic. Years later after the series had become hugely successful Meier would famously say that any game should be
'A series of meaningful choices'
A quote which perfectly sums up the Tech Tree's appeal. You were constantly moving forward dramatically changing the balance of the world with your every choice.

Science is the lens through which all history is viewed in Civ. Human ingenuity channelled through science is seen as transcendent force advancing man ever forward, in the narrative of human history what once was impossible always (one day)becomes the possible. These themes of choice, the transcendental ability of science, and the power of rational thought can be traced back to the philosophies of the Enlightenment movement. These principals were the foundation of the world view of some of the most prominent of America’s founding fathers and would help shape their actions and choice in the time surrounding that great nation's birth. In particular Benjamin Franklin & Thomas Jefferson espoused it's ideas, and their influence helped weave those values into both the declaration of independence and the American constitution.

So if the players progress Tech Tree is a journey of enlightenment, where does it the end? To put it simply, the stars are your destination.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Life, Liberty, and Civilization: Part 2

Finding the real meaning of any work of art is a notoriously difficult thing, and it certainly not easy with a game like Civilization which isn't overt about it's messages instead it relies upon allowing its mechanics to resonate with its players and allow its meaning as Thomas Jefferson might have put it 225 years earlier 'self evident'. The concept of self-evident truth is universal, but in all its forms & variations it remains incredibly elusive next to impossible to reproduce, rationally de-construct or describe, but its something that games have always been very good at.

This is Civ's implicit promise to the gamer, 'play me' it says 'and it will all become clear' 'this is how the world works' 'this is how a civilisation must be'. A player is expected to gradually come to see this truth, and that anyone who does not understand and accept it is fated to fail, for their civilisation will not 'stand the test of time'. Its a message that is driven home every step of the way as a player advances into the future.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Life, Liberty, and Civilization

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

That sentence begins what is undeniably one of the most important documents of western civilisation. But while I doubt those words can ever resonate with me as they can with anyone born in the land of their origin, the promise implicit within them still has the power to speak to me across the expanses of time and the Atlantic ocean. They expound to me a sense of a shared human experience, and a faith in the potential of every individual. They are in a very real way the heart of the American ideal.

In particular when I look at those words I see the great paradox of western democracy, born from the essence of two philosophies who's ongoing conflict has helped define modern life.
I'm going to talk about that paradox, the slippery nature of truth, how history makes some more equal than others, and the enduring power of hope. But mostly I am going to talk about a how a video game helped me understand these ideas. How it began a series of games which has for over 20 years remained approachable and bipartisan, while providing ongoing conversation over what the ascendancy of western democracy means. I'm going to talk about Civilization.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Learning to Loose

When I look back at all the time I've spent playing games over the last 30 years I think probably the most significant moment was when I finally realised that failure didn't automatically mean I couldn't have fun.

I was 17 at the time and going through a “Power Gaming” phase. Winning was everything to me, I'd spend hours fine tuning my tactics, looking for ways to win. It didn't matter to me if something wasn't in the spirit of the game the only thing that mattered was victory. If things went wrong I sulked and blamed the dice. As you may have guessed by now another way of saying power gamer is 'a bit of a asshole', or 'not much fun to play with or against'. I think there must be something about the way that the minds of young male gamers develop that seems to lead a lot of teenagers down this particular rabbit hole. Its a cliché but you only have to look around in pretty much any online multi-player game and you will people not unlike my younger self, to whom the only thing that counts is being number one.

Thankful my salvation was on it's way in the form of a game of Warhammer Quest, a over zealous Dungeon Master (DM), and a cowardly vampire. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Abbott Sessions

To anyone from my side of the pond the name John Peel really needs very little introduction, he was a near universally loved fixture on BBC Radio, honest, intelligent, warm to audience and bands equally. For forty year he played a eclectic mix of whatever took his fancy, championing new and obscure artist and showing a rare genius for putting into words what everyone felt*.

There has long been a preoccupation in games criticism about finding a master critic to call its own, a Robert Ebert to bring a authoritatively voice to a highly contentious medium. I don't think the Brainy Gamer podcast's Michael Abbott is ever going to be that sort of figure, however he has showed signs that he shares some of the qualities that made Peel so important to the development British music.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

I was never any good at skiping

“if dialogue can be skipped in games, then why not combat?”

I cant help but wonder if  perhaps another question should be asked, that if ANY element of a game can be skipped without effect then why is it in the game at all? 

When combat is totally meaningless wanting to skip it is not only fine, but the rational response.*

Any time I play a game and see a character hacked down in combat one minute, and up good as new spouting his life story the next, my heart sinks a little. It just seems sloppy devaluing both the gameplay and the story, and gets progressively more jarring more strictly delineated a game places these elements.

It just seems so limiting, I need to see more if I ever want this to stop skipping from being a rational choice for me. What about companion npc's who are in danger when I enter combat? or characters who expressed themselves through actions as well as words? Perhaps even combat paced to allow for moments of calm where dialogue can occur.

These don't seem like they should be unreasonable hopes, there are already great examples in both traditional narrative media (such as films and tv) and in games themselves.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Dice Mountains of Madness : My time with Elder Signs iOS

H. P. Lovecraft's Cthuhlu universe has been the subject of a lot of games down the years, and Fantasy Flight's Arkham Horror a series of board games is commonly considered to be one of the most effective interpretations. Sadly my experience with that lineage is somewhat non-existent, so when I picked up their spin-off game Elder Signs on iOS it was on the basis of the strength of my affection for the mythology and board games in general.