Sunday, December 27, 2015

Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, and Victoria II - 9/20 hours

I love Crusader Kings II, but playing it reminds me of why I hate Crusader Kings II. The game is absolutely magical in its ability to transport you to another time and unmatched in its ability to let you live another life. The problem is that it depicts a place I wouldn't want to visit and a life I wouldn't want to live.

There's just so much violence. The basic mode of play has you scanning through a variety of menus, looking for someone weak to victimize, so that you can take what they own to bolster your own realm. It's underhanded and evil, but you have to do it, because while you're looking for victims, various npcs are looking to victimize you. Playing as a count (the lowest possible rank), you have no margin of error. You have to expand, or a single disaster can wipe you out.

Still, this constant thrust of attack and defense might not seem like such a big deal, taken in the abstract. After all, a game like Borderlands is pure violence (in the sense that there is literally nothing else to do), but it doesn't affect me at all in the same way that Crusader Kings II does. The violence in Crusader Kings II feels personal.

In Borderlands, the bandits are theoretically people with hopes and dreams and families and whatnot, but really, they are just patterns of light in a virtual shooting gallery. In Crusader Kings II, if you want to murder someone, you can go into a certain screen and see what their hopes and dreams actually are. And learning about their families and relationships is the entire point. You want to kill a Duke, you'd damned well better know about his brothers and sisters and children, and you'd be best off being able to draw a line between his family and yours.

Plus, Crusader Kings II is perhaps the most morally laissez-faire game I've ever played. This is always a tricky subject in games, because a game's entire universe is constructed ex nihilo and thus, the "bad" choices still must be deliberately included. Like, in a typical rpg, you may have the option to be a selfish, sadistic bastard, but someone had to write those dialogue options, and animate the puppy-kicking scene. This makes a lot of video game "evil" ambiguous. Are you choosing to do wrong, or are you merely watching a depiction of wickedness that someone else prepared for you?

Because in a lot of cases, the sensation of choice can be an illusion. Take an open-world crime game, like the Grand Theft Auto series. You can, obviously, steal cars, and it's infamous for the player's ability to just haul off on a random killing spree. But you can't kill children because there aren't any children in the game. You also can't set random houses on fire, counterfeit money, or even litter. There are whole categories of evil, ranging from the monstrous to the petty, that you can't even attempt, because they are outside the scope of what your digital puppet was programmed to do.

If it's the case that your default sphere of action is nothing, then surely everything that is possible must, in some sense, be permitted. Because if the designers didn't want me doing it, they could easily have denied me the option, and I would have never even known about it (for example, did you ever notice the fact that in Grand Theft Auto V, despite Trevor's remorseless depravity, you can never overwork the soil of your farm by failing to practice proper crop rotation).

Where it becomes tricky is when games attempt to emulate real life. In those cases, it can be difficult to disentangle the game's technological limitations, editorial decisions, emergent behavior, and intended modes of play. It's pretty much inevitable that you are going to get a highly selective depiction of real life, so there's always going to be a certain amount of skepticism when it comes to "the freedom to be evil." Absent hacking, mods, or exploiting a glitch, you can't break the rules of the game, you can only "cheat" in the context of a lower order of rules that exist as part of the simulation, and thus you can never be entirely sure that your "cheating" behavior is not something you were manipulated into as part of the designers' master plan.

That said, Crusader Kings II does a pretty good job of making the simulation feel neutral. You can do a wide variety of things, both noble (for a certain, medieval-centric idea of "noble") and underhanded, and sometimes virtue is punished and wickedness rewarded, and sometimes you get caught, and it's up to you to decide what level of risk is worth it.

So maybe it's entirely on me that my video game character tried to murder a child by pushing him off a castle rampart. In some sense, it felt like Crusader Kings II was encouraging this behavior, because that child was standing between me and a valuable title, and in the mechanics of the game, children are so much easier to murder than adults. Yet is it not also the case in real life that other people will have things that you covet and that the difficulty to murder someone is inversely proportional to their ability to defend themselves? Was I not merely presented with a situation, to which I could well have responded by being content with what I had and allowing the child to retain his inherited lands?

Probably. But by so doing, I would be rendering myself more vulnerable to the other, bigger forces on the map deciding that they covet what I have. So how much of my ruthless, underhanded schemes is the game steering me in a certain direction, and how much is due to my uncoerced choice?

It's that tension that makes playing Crusader Kings II so uncomfortable. As a strategy game, it's relatively bloodless, but because violence has a point, and because non-violence is always theoretically possible (though often suboptimal), it makes the idea of violence feel pervasive. Even when many game years pass without incident, that background of violence is always there. The option to kill is a constant temptation, and the necessity of self-defense looms over you at all times. Ironically, this makes it much nastier than certain infamous shooters and open-world games (it is perhaps the only game I've played where killing kids is not only allowed but rewarded).

Crusader Kings II manages to capture the oppression inherent in violence. I love that about the game. But at the same time, it is one of the few games I dread to play. When it comes time to resume a saved game, I can't help but think - when will the other shoe drop? When will my misdeeds catch up with me? When will it be time to finally die by the sword?

That, more than any other factor, is probably why I've never made it to 1453. For the sake of the blog, I'm determined to try, but I will admit, being knocked out will probably come as a relief (once the outrage of whatever betrayal that brings about my end wears off). One thing's for certain, I am, from this point forward, swearing off assassination. Even simulated, it gives me the creeps.

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