Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, and Victoria II - 14/20 hours

Crusader Kings II is unmatched at the delicate art of creating a narrative out of gameplay. It is a strategy game, but the events in the game aren't merely pieces moving around on a board. Taken together, they form a story, complete with heroes and villains and plots and sudden surprises. And the amazing thing about all of this is that it is not scripted in advance. What happens is driven by your decisions and board position and randomly generated events. It's incredible. The story in Crusader Kings II really feels like my story.

Unfortunately, my story really suck. It is a story of a family of incompetents who keep taking bad risks and failing. They labor under the sway of an ambitious overlord who is constantly scheming to eject them from their lands, though they've been lucky so far, it is only a matter of time before their luck runs out.

Maybe it's immature of me, but I like the stories where I go from strength to strength and my realm is constantly expanding. That feels like winning to me. Yet in my current position, it is a victory merely to stay alive.

In theory, this should be an interesting story. If I were reading a book about the internal power struggles of the Duchy of Anjou in the ninth century and one character was a military genius who thought he was a werewolf and his daughter was a kind, but impressionable woman who imitated her father by stripping naked and howling at the moon, and that this eccentric pair managed to foil not one, but two attempts to seize their lands with military force, then that would be a pretty amazing story, even if the ultimate ending was that the patrilineal half of the managed to lose control of the lands through an ill-considered political marriage arranged by the delusional daughter.

I would enjoy reading that story. But I'm not reading it. I'm playing it, and that means that for all the inter-generational silliness, and despite the fact that the cruel Dukes of Anjou make for great villains, I am still a hair's width away from losing the game.

But maybe that's the wrong way to look at the game. I've come into Crusader Kings II with the idea that it's a strategy game of realm expansion. My goals as a player are the same as my characters' goals - I want a rich and militarily powerful dominion under my exclusive and uncontested control, with an unbroken chain of sons to carry my family name into eternity.

It occurs to me, though, that there is no rule anywhere that says my agenda has to be coherent within the context of the game. I'm not actually a medieval nobleman trying to claw out a legacy in the war of all-against-all that was 9th century Europe. In reality, I'm sitting in a comfortable chair more than a thousand years in the future, interacting with this world through a bunch of menus and map, projected on a screen. So I have to ask myself - what am I getting out of this experience?

From my perspective in the chair, is a series of small stories really that much worse than one, big story? Is a slow-motion tragedy any different than a drawn-out triumph? Do I really need to play to win? Or can I view the fact that I could play a game for 200 hours and never see the same story twice to be the greatest victory of all?

And this is not (purely) me trying to save face with a bullshit feel-good platitude. Consider the following map:

This is the world of Crusader Kings II on its most zoomed-out. If you'll note the minimap in the corner, you'll see that the game's playable area extends to the north, south, and east, all the way to Iceland, India and bits of Sub-Saharan Africa. And all those places are simulated as I go along.

Now look at those to red circles. I played the tutorials for my three Paradox games for three hours. Everything I've done in the remaining 10 hours of playing this game has taken place inside those two red circles (and the circle on the right, I only possessed for one generation).

So little tragedies like ambitious Dukes disinheriting their vassals must be occurring all the time. To be on the receiving end of such a scheme is merely to be living in this world, and the world has so much more going on than a squabble over an unimportant county. This Europe is an alternate history where Charlemagne died of an incapacitating brain injury before he could become the Holy Roman Emperor. Where Orthodox Christianity nearly died out and then was reborn. And where Islam spread beyond the Iberian peninsula and into what would now be the south of France.

If I were to write a bit of historical fiction called "The Werewolves of Anjou," people would look in askance at my superfluous world-building. So why should I act as if the whole world was built just for my story (aside from the obvious "because if I weren't playing the game, the world wouldn't exist")?

I could quite easily switch to play another character. I could be a plucky Emir on the make, a wild nomad who demands tribute from the settled lands, a Patrician in a merchant republic. I could even play as the Duke of Anjou if I wanted to. The end of the House of Strawberry only has to be a defeat if I say it's a defeat. . .

And there's the problem. I set out on this journey with a goal - to see a small noble house survive until 1453. If that doesn't happen, I may not have failed at the game's standards, but I will have failed by mine. As foolish as it was (and boy, does it ever seem foolish in retrospect), I began this game with an ending in mind, and I have to do my best to see that ending come about.

But I'm positive that things are going to get worse before they get better.

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