I think I'm starting to get a handle on the game, though I have yet to grow attached enough to a particular nation to see their story through to the end. I think it's because I keep making what must be beginner's mistakes. Every time I've had a major foreign war against a serious rival, I've wound up simultaneously having to deal with a domestic uprising. I'm sure that's not a coincidence, but damned if I know how to stop it.
I also think I'm starting to get a feel for the larger ethos of the game itself. It's not so much a "strategy game," or even a "simulation," so much as it is a "story generator." It's a bit like Crusader Kings II in that regard, except where Crusader Kings II generates these highly biographical tales of courtly intrigue, Europa Universalis IV seems more geared towards those dreary 19th century treatises with titles like "On the Destiny of the Race." It's not bad, in and of itself, but it is reminiscent of the bad habits of my own personal history education, and thus I feel like I have to approach it with a certain critical distance.
I want to tread carefully here, though, because I've only seen a fraction of the game and it's possible that the reason it seems so Eurocentric is because the bulk of my time has been spent in Europe (although, with a name like Europa Universalis . . . ), but all of this stuff with "alliances" and "rivals" and "causus beli" . . . Not to imply that African or Native American peoples didn't have diplomacy or inter-group friction or reasons for going to war, but it feels very "outdated high school world history textbook" to me.
Although, I suppose it's come full circle - Europa Universalis IV is a video game based on the sort of history education that makes history feel like a video game.
And I don't know if I'm necessarily okay with that. It's fascinating, taken on its own terms, but, you know, this whole "war is a continuation of politics by other means" thing is actually kind of depressing.
I think the sticking point for me is the way that the game puts its thumb on the scales in favor of Europe. I first noticed this the hard way. I was playing Castille on ironman, but I wasn't getting any achievements. When I loaded up my game, I noticed a tooltip that said achievements were disabled because I had set the "lucky nations" on "none" instead of "historical." When I saw the setting in the first place, I had just assumed it was purely a flavor thing. Similarly, when I played briefly as Mali, I noticed I was getting a huge tech research penalty for not being sufficiently feudal.
The purpose of these mechanics is to make the game world develop in a similar way to the real world, but in doing so, they can't help but feel just a little bit ideological (or more than a little bit, if you read some of the online debates about the subject - yikes). It's like they're saying that way things played out in the real world was inevitable, but I'm sure that if you replayed human history 1000 times, starting in 1444, in 999 of those timelines, China would be the preeminent global power going into the 19th century. So why not let the game play out that way? Why pretend that the real world outcome is the likeliest or most plausible?
There probably isn't any kind of sinister agenda there, but I think tying the technological and social progress of non-European nations to European cultural markers like the Renaissance (or, for that matter, the calendar year) smacks of a kind of unexamined historical progressivism, perhaps one that puts civilizations on a ladder and judges "lower" civilizations for insufficiently emulating "higher" ones - and that is the sort of thinking that drove the worst excesses of European colonialism.
Which, I suppose, is what the game is actually about. So call this a big, mystified shoulder-shrug on my account. It makes sense for a game about a certain historical period to replicate that period's mindset, but when the period is one of the most shameful chapters in human history and the mindset is the sort of haughty racialist triumphalism that allowed unaccountable despots to despoil continents, is it really necessary, appropriate, or wise?
Part of this is my own personal hang-up, I know. The more strategy games I play, the more I yearn for a game that will decolonialize history. Now, what that would look like, I don't know. In fact, as near as I can reckon "decolonialized strategy game" is close to an oxymoron. Which isn't to say that historically colonized people were angels - they had wars, many every bit as awful as anything in Europe, and those wars surely involved strategy and definitely had the aim of seizing territory and resources. Rather, the very language of statecraft (borders, sovereignty, treaties, statecraft) is bound up in the perspectives and priorities of European aristocracy. And while there are many places (such as much of Asia) that track with that, there are plenty more (such as much of the pre-Columbian Americas) that don't.
And that's the thing, places that did not have large-scale, cohesive social structures were not, thereby terra nullius. The people who lived there weren't simply waiting to be colonized.
But, like I said earlier, I don't know how you make a strategy game out of that, so it's a bit unfair of me to judge Europa Universalis IV by that standard. Instead, I will just say that this game does a very good job at making you think like a villain, and I'm not yet sure whether I'll beat the game by becoming a superior villain or whether I will beat the game by resisting its manipulations to the end.