So I've been cheating for the past four hours, and I have to say . . . cheating is awesome. Probably not generally, but in this case it's been a great way to blow off some steam. I can actually survive battles from time to time!
No, that's not fair. I survived quite a few battles as a starting character . . . only to lose my progress every 20 minutes or so when my luck eventually ran out. Having a cheat-enabled character with maximum stats allowed me to survive every battle. It might be a little boring going from victory to victory, but it's nice to know that it's possible to get to a point where your equipment, skills, and allies are sufficient to keep you alive.
I could easily just faff around with this character for another 14 hours and be done with it, but that's not really what I want from the game. What I want is a narrative. I want to be a hero who rises from nothing to unite a kingdom. I want a merchant who crosses the land in search of profit and power. I want a noble lady who shuns court for the life of an adventurer.
That's the real compelling thing about Mount & Blade. It promises these things. It simulates a virtual world and then makes you a tiny character inside it. And while a lot of games do that, very few others have such a telescoping scale. Your avatar, the thing you control, is always just an individual. Everything you can control is on a personal scale. Yet string together enough of these personal-scale interactions and you can have a profound effect on the political map.
It all starts with you physically going from village, recruiting soldiers a handful at a time. Then you train these soldiers by directly sparring with them, usually 4 v 1. Each sword-stroke and parry flows from your mouse-and-keyboard controls into a numerical sum on their character sheets. Then you have to physically track down the notable personages of the realm and ask them what needs to be done. And then, to do it, you lead your troops from the front, hacking and slashing your way to victory (or in my case, more likely, defeat).
It's great because that grounds-eye view is generally how people perceive life itself. Individuals can have outsized effects on the world around them, but they never escape the view from behind their own eyes. Power is exercised through cliques. You talk to your friends, or friends of friends, or professionals who will be your friend for a price. And those friends have friends who they'll talk to on your behalf. Any organization that ever accomplished anything was a network of relationships, and even the great leaders of history had to navigate these networks.
And it this feeling of empowerment within a limited perspective that I love most about Mount & Blade. Provided, of course, I can get past the part where I'm constantly being captured and to the part where I'm actually empowered.