Video games

Red Dead Redemption and women

That’s an episode of Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, the spinoff of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women web series, dealing with the phenomenon of the generic female sex worker NPCs who are so ubiquitous in the background of open-world video games.  It’s thirty minutes, which is a huge time commitment on the Internet, but if you like these sorts of games, it’s well worth it.

Let me start off by making it clear: I love open-world games. I love Grand Theft Auto.  I love Assassin’s Creed.  I love Red Dead Redemption.  I love Sleeping Dogs.  I’m one of the few GTA fans who was around for the original Grand Theft Auto game in the 90s, and I own every GTA game released for console from GTA3 onward.  I own every Assassin’s Creed game released for console.  I replay Red Dead Redemption in the same way that people regularly reread their favourite book.  In fact I’m in the middle of an RDR replay right now, which I started after I finished replaying GTA5 last week; I started GTA5 right after I’d finished replaying Sleeping Dogs.  The games in this video can be divided, fairly evenly, into games I own and love, and games I haven’t played.

(The exception is Just Cause II, which I own and have played but abandoned about halfway through because I just didn’t enjoy it.  It was too much of a shooter and not enough of an action-adventure game for me.)

And yet I can still acknowledge that every criticism Sarkeesian makes in the video—of the games I’ve played specifically and of the culture of M-rated open-world games in general—is valid and deplorable.

I came across the video in Kotaku’s short article linking to it, and then I skimmed through the first few dozen comments.  The level of discourse was a lot higher than I’ve seen in other online posts confronting misogyny in video games, and there were plenty of commenters who recognised the truth of what Sarkeesian is saying.  But of course, there were also plenty who tried to refute her argument, either by being the guy who thinks he’s “living proof that any supposed correlation between ‘long-term exposure to hypersexualized images’ and ‘higher tolerance of sexual harassment of women’ is complete bullshit” because he watches “loads of porn.  I mean, crazy amounts”, but doesn’t think of himself as a misogynist; or by dismissing Sarkeesian’s legitimacy as a critic of video games (apparently because she funded Tropes vs. Women in Video Games through Kickstarter?  I couldn’t really follow the logic.); or by attempting to argue that the misogyny in these games is actually A-OK.

I’m going to assume that it’s pretty self evident what the problems are with the first two of those—the dude with too much porn and too little self-awareness, and the guys who would find a way to dismiss anyone who criticised the boobs in their video games—and instead address the last, the guys who acknowledge the misogyny on display here but who have arguments to legitimise it.  I’m mostly going to concentrate on Red Dead Redemption, for three reasons:

(1) It’s the game I’m seeing these commenters cite most often with their arguments;

(2) It’s one of my favourite games of all time; definitely my favourite console game;

(3) It actually is really progressive as far as these things go.  It has multiple strong female characters, one for every act of the game.  Apart from the single instance of the Dastardly trophy (discussed in the video), the player’s interactions with the prostituted women are always either polite or heroic, and the player is not allowed to avail himself of their services.  And again apart from the Dastardly trophy, every instance of violence against women in the game is depicted as making its perpetrator a horrible human being.  I ask myself with every narrative game I play, “Just how bad is the misogyny here?”, because I want to know if this is a game that I can discuss with or recommend to the women with whom I discuss games, and with Red Dead Redemption I come closer to saying, “Not that bad at all,” than I do with pretty much any other open-world game besides Assassin’s Creed: Liberation.  But it’s the very fact that Red Dead is actually one of the least offensively misogynistic games of its genre but is still such low-hanging fruit for a feminist critique that shows just how pervasive a problem this is.

(And yes, I do have to consciously ask myself about the misogyny, because I’m a straight male, and I’m aware that just being a straight male gives me the male privilege of ignoring that misogyny if I don’t make the effort to look for it.  Having male privilege doesn’t make us, as men, bad people; it just makes us men.  It’s only if we use that male privilege to pretend our blindness to misogyny means that the misogyny isn’t there that we make ourselves bad people.)

(Also, it should come at no surprise at this point when I warn that there will probably be spoilers for Red Dead Redemption ahead.)

The counterarguments seem to fall into two general categories: relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s just realism or historical accuracy; or relegating women to sexually titillating background decoration is all right because it’s counterbalanced by the presence of three well-developed female characters.

The first argument is easy to refute: it’s just flat out not true.  Even if the situation were simply that Red Dead Redemption depicts women as passive and irrelevant while it’s the men who actively drive events (which of isn’t what’s being criticised, but the commenter would like to pretend that it is), it still wouldn’t be accurate.  You only assume it’s accurate precisely because you’ve been exposed to so much media that pretends it is.  Women have always been active in our public life; women have always been present in fields we think of as traditionally belonging to men.  Anyone who tells you that all the women characters being relegated to passive, supporting roles and kept away from the real action is legitimate storytelling because history isn’t qualified to tell you anything about history.

And besides, that’s not even how Red Dead Redemption presents its world.  It’s not that women don’t get much say in the course of events; it’s that most of the women who appear onscreen are sex workers. I mean, the game allows the character to roam across the American southwest and the Mexican northwest, and about half the women he sees are prostitutes.  Prostitutes who only ever appear in public wearing nothing more than their underwear.  Are you really going to argue that that’s valid in the name of accuracy?  The town of Armadillo is, in the game, the only urban settlement in the state of New Austin.  Its population apparently consists of one general storekeep, one gunsmith, one doctor, one telegrapher, one marshal and two deputies, a staff of three or four at the train station, that weird dude who runs the cinema, a dozen or so pedestrians, a dozen or so customers at the saloon (as well as the saloon keeper and the piano player), and two or three dozen prostituted women.  Does that really seem like an accurate portrayal of a frontier town’s economy to you?  Even accounting for the ranchers in the surrounding counties, there must be one prostituted woman for every two men west of Hennigan’s Stead.  This is no more “accurate” than is GTA5’s depiction of strippers as a demographic who really really want you to grope and fondle them in the champagne room, if only it wasn’t for that mean bouncer putting a stop to their fun, and who will happily take you home with them if you can manage to fondle them enough without the bouncer seeing.

As for the idea that the presence of a strong female character balances out the purely male-gaze prostituted women who are so visible in Red Dead Redemption and, indeed, in so many other open-world games.  Red Dead does indeed have three really solid female characters with a lot of depth to them, and that’s (sadly) a lot for a game like this.  In fact, let’s take a look at all the main characters in Red Dead Redemption to see just how overrepresented women are.  I’ll even highlight them so it’s easier to see their prevalence in the game world:

(I’m defining a “major character” here as someone who either (1) is John Marston, (2) gives Marston a main-storyline mission, (3) is one of the major villains Marston has to hunt down in the climactic missions of each act of the game, or (4) doesn’t give Marston a mission per se, but who is a frequent companion of a mission-giver and accompanies or leads Marston on multiple missions, like Nastas the Indian or Captain Espinoza.)


John Marston, male

Characters in the New Austin act

Bill Williamson, male (Williamson also appears in one mission in the Mexico act.)

Bonnie McFarlane, female (Bonnie also appears in two missions in the final act.)

Marshal Johnson, male

Jonah, male

Eli, male

Nigel West-Dickens, male (West-Dickens also appears in one mission in the final act.)

Drew McFarlane, male (Drew also appears in one mission in the final act.)

Seth, male

Irish, male

Characters in the Mexico act

Landon Ricketts, male

Captain de Santa, male

Colonel Allende, male

Luisa, female

Captain Espinoza, male

Abraham Reyes, male

Javier Escuella, male

Characters in the final act

Edgar Ross, male (Agent Ross also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)

Agent Fordham, male (Agent Fordham also appears in one mission in the Mexico act)

Dutch van der Linde, male

Professor MacDougal, male

Nastas, male

Abigail Marston, female

Jack Marston, male

Uncle, male

I mean, yeah, right?  It’s ridiculous how overrepresented women are in Red Dead Redemption.  It’s clear as day in that list.  Twelve per cent of the characters in the game who speak, have personalities, interact with the player and move the game forward are women.  That’s a ridiculously high proportion for a game with pretensions to “historical accuracy”.

(Seriously who can immerse themselves in a huge, deep game world like Red Dead Redemption but where only three out of twenty-five actual active human beings are female, and somehow come away with the idea that they’ve been playing a “historically accurate” rendition of how Western society works?  I guess the same guy who can play a game in which you can lasso and hogtie a prostituted woman, then place her on the train tracks, and she continues to sassily flirt with you while you both wait for the train to come run her over, and still describe the game he’s been playing as “historically accurate”.)

Like I said, Red Dead Redemption does have more—and more fully developed—major female characters than its peers such as most of the Grand Theft Auto games and most of the Assassin’s Creed games and Sleeping Dogs.  But that just highlights how low the standard is; it doesn’t make Red Dead some sort of bastion of egalitarian storytelling for giving John Marston literally one woman per act to interact with.  Pointing to Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail as if they somehow insulate the game from being called out on the objectification of the sex worker NPCs does much more to confirm accusations of misogyny in video gaming than it does to refute it.

But let’s say that three strong female characters really was impressive.  Let’s say Red Dead Redemption really did have a historically accurate, representative gender balance in its main narrative and cast of characters.  That still doesn’t change that the bordellos in towns throughout the game are creepy, male-gazey bits of window dressing that encourage the players to treat these women as being there just for their own entertainment.  Quite simply, the presence of the one element doesn’t erase the presence of the other.

(This works just as well in the opposite direction.  A lot of the commenters seem to take Sarkeesian’s criticism of Red Dead Redemption’s sex worker NPCs as her somehow saying that the presence of Bonnie, Luisa and Abigail doesn’t count.  Sarkeesian doesn’t ignore the major female characters or pretend they don’t exist; they simply aren’t relevant to a discussion of Red Dead being yet another instance of games that use sexualised images of women as objectified window dressing for the presumed straight male player.)

I started out by saying that I love open-world games in general, and I love Red Dead Redemption in particular.  I’m reiterating that now.  It’s important always to remember that finding some elements of a piece of media problematic doesn’t mean that other elements of it can’t be very satisfying and rewarding; it’s also important to remember that it is okay to like even the problematic elements.  But that doesn’t mean the problematic elements aren’t problematic, and it doesn’t mean we can wave away or dismiss the very real issues they raise.

Read Dead Redemption would be just as compelling and immersive a game without its three towns full of women walking around wearing only corsets, bloomers and stockings.  The gameplay experience would be just as satisfying. And yet someone still seems to think they need to be there.  And not just in Red Dead, but over and over again, in GTA, in Assassin’s Creed, you name it.  Why?


Let’s make an event of it

Europa Universalis IIIYeah, I’m reviewing a three-year-old video game. I swing with the hip kids.

When it comes to Paradox’s Europa Universalis video games, I’m in the same boat as I am with Civilization–I’m one of the small portion of the fanbase who joined the series not with its second instalment (both Civilization II and Europa Universalis II were the breakout hits that blew away the success their predecessors had enjoyed), but can actually remember back to the days of the first volume in the series.

The first Europa Universalis was revolutionary when it revived. It covered the years 1492-1792, and you could play as any country in the world during that time. The map was so versatile that you could zoom in on Europe and manage your armies’ involvement in the Thirty Years’ War, then zoom out to the rest of the world and manage your exploration of the Caribbean or your attempts to establish trade with China or your colonisation of New England.

That’s one of the two major revelations I remember from Europa Universalis. The other was that, for the first time in a world strategy game, I felt like I was running a real country. No longer was I an unstoppable force, my armies marching forth to conquer the whole world long before the game ended. Europa Universalis was set during a time in history when the Balance of Power was king, and it simulated that perfectly. You couldn’t conquer the whole world–nor would you really want to, since it was a much more rewarding gaming experience to work within the constraints of the time and simply try make yourself First Among Equals amongst the great powers of Europe.

The one place the original game fell down was when we reached those unique moments in history. It had no way to simulate the English Civil War–how could you have England at war with England? It had no way to simulate the unification of the Crowns of England and Scotland in 1603, nor the Act of Union of 1707 that dissolved England and Scotland and replaced them with the Kingdom of Great Britain. Even if you, as England, conquered Scotland, you were still England, just a massive, all-conquering England. It had no way to simulate the restlessness of Britain’s American colonists, leading to an eventual declaration of their independence as a new nation-state. It had no way for the AI to understand that, if Scotland won a war with Norway, actually Scotland would much rather annex the Orkney Islands than the mainland Norwegian province of Trondheim, because even though Trondheim is more valuable than the Orkneys, the Orkneys are still right off the coast of Scotland, while Trondheim is on the far side of the North Sea.

The solution that Paradox came up with for Europa Universalis II was the event system. Basically, events worked by checking to see if certain prerequisites had been fulfilled, and once they had, the event would occur, changing the game in some way. In 1453 (EU2 started in 1415), the game would check to see England’s progress in the Hundred Years’ War; if England had failed to take the French coast, then England’s claims in France would be removed, and England would have to re-focus on the subjugation of Ireland and Scotland.

EU3 screenshot

I think the event system was a stroke of genius, and Paradox was able to apply it to two other games using the same engine but set during different time periods–Victoria (1836-1935), my favourite strategy game ever, and the Second World War game Hearts of Iron (1936-1948 in its original form, now extended in the sequels to 1936-1964). Through events, Hearts of Iron could simulate the Munich Peace Conference of 1938, by an event in which Germany could demand the Sudetenland provinces from Czechoslovakia, which would trigger events for Britain and France where they would have to decide whether to accept or to go to war with Germany. Through events, Victoria could simulate the unification of Germany–if Prussia could occupy Paris in a war with France, then an event would trigger in which Prussia made peace with France, turned into Germany and annexed all the smaller German states.

But the event system’s one serious limitation was that it was too brittle. Each event was tied to its specific country and to its trigger conditions. Let’s say you’re scripting the events dealing with Russia’s sale of Alaska to the United States. What if the United States never purchased the Oregon Country and never won the Mexican War, and therefore never reached the Pacific? Would she have still been a realistic buyer for Alaska? Okay, then add a prerequisite for the event checking to see if the USA owns any provinces in California, Oregon or Washington. But then, what if the United States got to the Pacific another way instead? What if she had annexed British Columbia, or the Mexican state of Sonora, instead of California and Oregon?

And why does Prussia have to occupy Paris to found Germany? What if France had been defeated by Spain, Britain and Austria in the 1840s, ended as a great power and significantly carved up? Wouldn’t Prussia then have to fight against Austria or Britain to unify Germany instead?

So the events only work if the games you’re playing follow historically accurate paths–or follow an alternate path that a game programmer had thought of and scripted events for. And that pretty much never happens. From the day the game starts, country’s do things you wouldn’t have predicted, fight wars you wouldn’t have expected, exchange provinces you wouldn’t have thought of. It would take millions of events to account for all those possibilities, and it would take decades to write them all.

(And I say that as someone who did write three thousand events for Victoria, and is rather proud of the effects they have when I still play the game. Even though I never did finish writing those events about what happens to Prussia in the event that she’s on the losing side of the First World War in a world in which Prussia won the Austro-Prussian War but France won the Franco-Prussian War–uh, see what I mean about it getting really complicated when you try to predict history?)

Victoria II box artVictoria 2 came out a few months ago, and I’ve been working hard at resisting buying it. I’ve now been talked into waiting till December, in the hopes that there’ll be a Christmas sale at GamersGate. But one thing has really intrigued me on the Paradox Forums–the discussion of how Victoria’s “historical events” system has been replaced with a “dynamic events” system, the same as Europa Universalis III.

I’ve owned EU3 for some time (and even own the first two expansions, Napoleon’s Ambition and In Nomine) but have never really played it (because I always come back to Victoria instead), so to get a feel for what “dynamic events” means, I’ve finally been playing it the past few days.

And goodness, am I impressed. Events have been largely replaced with “Decisions” and “Missions”. “Decisions” have the effect of showing me what the prerequisites are to get an event to fire–playing as England, I know that if I can annex Scotland, I’ll get the opportunity to form “Great Britain”. (I assume Scotland has the same opportunity, but I don’t know.)

And Missions. Missions were a stroke of genius equal to the idea of events in the first place. Missions basically create an incentive for both the human player and the AI to pursue a historical–or even an ahistorical but logical–path. For instance, the first mission I was given as England was “Conquer Ireland”. I’d suffer no penalty for ignoring the mission and simply leaving the minor kingdoms of Ireland to do their own thing, but I know that if I do follow it, I’ll be rewarded (with prestige) once I complete it. Similarly, once I completed the unification of the British Isles early (in the mid-fifteenth century), I was given the mission of reconquering Normandy from France. This isn’t historical–after France conquered Normandy in the early thirteenth century, England never recovered it–but it is logical.

Essentially, Decisions and Missions make the event system infinitely more flexible, by divorcing events from the countries to which they were tied. When someone owns all the British Isles except for the Orkney Islands, the game gives them the mission “Recover Orkney”. A human player might not have bothered to try to conquer the Orkneys from Norway, and the AI definitely wouldn’t have–why expend all that effort on a few bits of rock in the North Sea when you could spend it conquering the merchant centres in the Low Countries, instead?–but in real history, the Orkneys would definitely have become a major objective. And the game can assign that “Recover Orkney” to whoever owns Scotland–whether that’s Scotland, or England, or a unified Great Britain, or even an all-conquering France or Denmark or Naples.

It’s really re-fired my love of Paradox’s games, and now I can’t wait till I’m allowed to get Victoria 2.


Dante’s Inferno: the book, or the nextgen console game?

I see no reason to doubt the study that indicates that boys having video games at home basically means they won’t read. It’s something I’ve been agonising over.

The most advanced gaming system in our house is a PS2. It’s in Lisa’s and my room, where the Boy isn’t allowed to go on his own. Nevertheless, over the past year he’s become very aware of it, and was playing it enough that we ended up having to place some pretty strict restrictions on when he was given access to it.

And yet I wonder if that’s enough. Even if he only spends an hour a day on it–if the PS2 weren’t there, is that an hour he’d spend picking up one of the (many) books around the apartment? Or even just playing with his toys, which at least involves a little bit of creativity?

But I can’t just say that he’s not allowed to play on the PS2. If I want him not to have any access to it, really the only thing to do is to remove the PS2 entirely. To deny myself access to it as well.

That would be a very hard thing to do. But it would be worth it if it were the only way.


The history quilt

William IIII think it’s probably apparent to anyone who reads this blog with any regularity how much I love history. That’s an unqualified statement–I love history, not military history or European history or the history of the cultural perception of gender. Sure, there might be some topics I’m less interested in than others–I’ve never had much interest in the precolumbian Americas or subsaharan Africa or the late Cold War, for instance–but as a general rule, any topic in history is something you’ll be able to catch my attention with.

It hasn’t always been that way. I’ve always been interested in history, but my interest hasn’t always been so wide. In fact, though there was a pretty varied range of topics and periods I was interested in, usually my focus in those areas was rather narrow. Seeing I, Claudius for the first time when I was ten or eleven led to a passionate interest in the Julio-Claudian Principate, but not in, say, the age of Caesar that preceded it or the period of the Roman Empire of the Flavian and Good Emperors periods that followed it. Reading Shogun when I was twelve got me fascinated with samurai society, but not in any other areas of Japanese history. The original Red Baron video game captivated me with the history of the First World War fighter aces, but not with any other aspect of the First World War, or with the history of the ensuing Interwar period, or with the history of military aviation in subsequent wars.

It’s not so much that I ever lost that scattered, narrow focus, as that I just kept adding and adding new topics to it. Napoleonic France. Civil government in Nazi Germany. Ptolemaic Alexandria. It just eventually seemed like there weren’t many topics left that weren’t in some way related to something I was already interested in.

What that left me with, when I pictured it in my head, was a lattice, a framework connecting various points of in-depth knowledge. When I tried explaining this to Diane a while back, the metaphor I came up with was that of a patchwork quilt. Some of the patches are filled in rather fully, but there are many that are rather sketchy, blank pieces of cloth, and others that are empty altogether.

The beauty of it is that, every time I start filling in a new patch, I get to attach it to the adjacent patches that are already there. This both makes it much easier to learn the new topic, and results in a deeper, fuller, more satisfying understanding of the old topics. So when, for instance, a few years ago I got really interested in Charlemagne and the Carolingian empire, I already had an understanding of what was going on in the adjacent patches both geographically–the Byzantine Empire to the east, recovering from the era of the Great Arab Conquests, and the petty kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England to the west–and chronologically, with the Western Roman Empire’s barbarian successor states whose unification Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short had essentially completed.

I don’t know where else I can go with this that isn’t going to get more and more specific, other than that the process I’m describing has turned out to be one of the great joys of my life. Not only does every new square let me learn something new that I never knew before, but it also adds some significance to some of the knowledge I already had.


Virginia Vice

As seems to be the prelude to these things, it started with Diane saying, “I think you should write a vices post.” So here we go with my vices:

Women. I’m an aspiring writer, and I always said–mostly in jest–that I couldn’t be a writer without a good, solid vice. I’d throw out cigarettes or drugs or alcohol as suggestions, but Lisa never seemed terribly enamored of any of these.

Then one day at a shopping mall in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, as I was waxing poetic about the appeal of tobacco or hard liquor, Lisa said, “Women, honey. Women are your vice.” And Nikki was totally there to see it.

So I have taken her decision to heart. I do love the company of a beautiful woman, and I’m an incorrigible flirt. Thank goodness I have a British accent, and two small children (protip: nothing attracts the attention of a beautiful woman like a small child). And a wife who rolls her eyes and laughs at me making a fool of myself.

Video games. I’ve talked before about how, as soon as I pick up a video game, it consumes my life. There are three types of games I really love: strategy games, American football games and soccer management games (where you manage the team, buy and sell players, but don’t actually play the matches). Every time I get over one, I completely swear off video games, because I do nothing else when I’m really into one. I abandon this blog and Twitter and everything else online, and worst of all, my writing comes to a screeching halt.

Books. I love books. I’ve always loved books. I daydream about getting lost in the long, winding stacks of books in an endless library. My own library has around sixteen hundred volumes right now. I’m a compulsive collector of books, with an especial weakness for history and biography; if I come across a biography of someone I don’t already have a life of, I’ll usually buy it.

Sprite. It’s what I drink. Almost never on its own, though; it gets mixed with other stuff. That might be Crystal Lite, apple juice, red wine, or pretty much any liquor. If it’s not carbonated, not milk and doesn’t require dilution, obviously it’s meant to be mixed with Sprite before consumption. I tried to give up soda a while back. Why did that not work? Because it meant giving up Sprite.

Blackcurrant. Okay, there’s one thing I drink besides Sprite. In Britain, blackcurrant is exceptionally common; in America, it’s almost unheard of, with the common flavour “purple” being grape rather than blackcurrant. I found out recently that’s because the American timber industry had blackcurrant cultivation outlawed in most states in the 1930s, because blackcurrant is a huge predator of timber.

But anyway. For years I was able to keep my blackcurrant addiction under control, with just the occasional bottle of Ribena from the British section of the supermarket. But during our trip to England this summer, with Ribena cheap and plentiful, I drank the stuff like water, and now I can’t go back. It’s been a part of my life for a long time, but since this summer it’s become a constant presence. Even though it’s $8 for a single one-litre bottle. Now I don’t think I could give up the Ribena if I wanted to, but why would I want to? It fills my life with such joy.

And so there we have it. Five bad habits–five instances of me surrendering to my senses. Anyone else care to share a vice?


Emerges, blinking, into the light

Margaret of FranceIt always amazes me how, when I’ve spent the last weeks or months immersed in the world of some video game, neglecting everything else in my life, I’ll wake up one morning and it’s just … gone. Time to move on.

I’ve spent the past six weeks spending most of every day playing Football Manager 08, first as the manager of FC Nantes (a Ligue 2 championship, two French League Cups and a French championship in four years) then of Halifax Town (promotion from the Conference to League One in three seasons, plus the FA Trophy, Setanta Shield and League Two championship).

But today I seem to be done, and it’s time to get back to the real world. To reading blogs and Twitter. And email. I don’t think I’m quite ready to sit down and starting writing yet, but I’m ready to do something other than manage an underfunded football club. Which might mean a surfeit of blog posts over the next few days, about our trip to the circus on Boy’s birthday, or our trip to Romano’s Maccaroni Grill on my birthday (the day before yesterday), or about my mother’s visit.

Besides, there’s stuff to do. Train tickets to book and Oyster Cards to purchase. And I really should try to figure out what that smell is in the kitchen.

Today I ordered plug adapters, so I can plug my laptop into a British wall socket. It really turned out to be much harder to find that sort of thing than it should have been–neither Target nor Best Buy had suitable ones in the store, nor, so far as I could figure out, do Target, Best Buy, Radio Shack or Sears have them online.


What’s next

Ethelbert of WessexFor the past thirty-six hours I’ve been wandering somewhat twitchily round the house. Last night I concluded it’s because my mind is looking for something to sink it’s teeth into (now there’s a weird visual juxtaposition) since I finished Inheritance.

There have been three projects at the back of my mind the past few weeks; I figured I’d play around with them till one struck my fancy over the others. But what I’m realising is that “I’ll work on three projects” translates to “I pretty much won’t get any work done at all.”

So the way I see it, I’ve got several options in front of me right now:

1. The thriller. This would be the one my agent would pick, I think.
2. The next book in the cycle. This is the volume of the cycle about which I know the least, though I think it might also be the biggest–maybe my great fantasy epic. It’ll have a Viking/Saxon/Byzantine feel to it.
3. I’ve also got a bit of a hankerin’ to write something about the earlier history of the Lucan Empire. Inheritance takes place at the height of Luca’s Imperial period; I’ve been thinking of writing something during the period of the Republic, when Luca was ruled by an oligarchy of noble families. Plus, part of the concept behind Inheritance was to write a fantasy novel as a thriller, rather than as A Fantasy Epic. This necessitated a fairly tightly focused plot, and I’ve only been able to show the eastern end of the empire, where the Lucans function as an alien governing class over the ancient, urbanised Heccaean civilisations. I’d love to spend a little time exploring the more rural, barbarian West, where Lucan rule is more a matter of frontier conquest than diplomacy.
4. Spend all my time playing EU: Rome, especially when the Vae Victis expansion comes out next week.
5. Learn C++, so I can finally write that CFL/NFL front office management sim I’ve always wanted to programme.
6. Spend all my time playing video football. Probably the frontrunner at the moment.


Veni et vidi, sed non vicerim spero.

EU Rome box coverI’ve been playing Europa Universalis: Rome. It’s fairly fun, though for a Paradox title it’s not terribly deep–basically it’s like Europa Universalis volume one, but in an ancient context; the player essentially is just going to end up constantly expanding their empire in whatever direction is most convenient at the time. I’m really looking forward to the release of the expansion pack, Vae Victis, next month, because the changes it’ll be making to the game’s character system should make the game much deeper and more dynamic, by making the wishes of the Senate a major factor in foreign policy.

There is one design choice in Rome that I find really weird and curious, though. Should my country fall to a barbarian horde over the course of the game, then the barbarians wipe away my original form of government and replace it with their own–they displace my state religion and culture, and I lose the advantages of having a more advanced form of civilisation, but then I get to continue on as a state that is simply ruled by barbarians.

Vae Victis box coverBut if I lose a civil war–if one of my generals rebels, and enjoys enough success on the battlefield to overrun my loyalist legions–then I lose the game and go back to the main menu.

So if Italy is overrun by seething mass of half a million Suebi or Teutones, and they take Rome and massacre the population and install themselves as the new ruling class, then that’s somehow still recognisably enough Rome that I can continue playing. But if Sulla or Caesar defeating the legions loyal to the Senate and assume power–as actually happened–then I’ve lost.

I don’t have a problem with being able to continue on after being conquered by barbarians; most of the game’s playable factions–especially in Europe, which is, after all, where ancient barbarians come from–are small, one- or two-province tribal states or city-states: the Lusitani, the Cantabri, Massilia, the Aedui, the Pictii, the Dacii, Achaea, Sparta. Small factions like that are simply too likely to be overrun at some point to have such an outcome lead to a loss and still have the game be enjoyable. But given that, it does seem odd that a much more moderate event–one political faction defeating another in a civil war–means the end of the game.

Rome, after all, is a game that covers the period of 280 BC-23 BC. So the Roman Empire’s descent from oligarchy to military dictatorship during the last seventy years of that period should be the game’s natural conclusion. Sulla; Caesar; Antony; Octavian–all of them, at one point or another, held supreme power in Rome through the personally loyalty of their legions. And all of them also presented themselves as aiming simply to restore Rome to peace, stability, and the legitimate oligarchic order.


Words today: 1040
Words total: 69,759

Time spent writing: Ninety minutes (1.30-3pm)
Reason for stopping: Boy got up (I swear he can smell when I’ve reached quota)
New words today: enchantments
Words that boggled Word: magicks (I tried “magics” but that boggled Word, too, so I went with what I’m pretty sure is the correct spelling), cedarwood
Alcohol: Fizzy sour apple margarita. Must remember that I only want a splash of tequila in anything that calls for tequila.

Thank you, Mario! But our princess is in another castle.

Sid Meier's Pirates!Writing about Colonization and its discontents got me a little nostalgic, so I thought I’d take a little trip down memory lane with the PC games* that have meant the most to me over the years:

Pirates! (1987): My first Sid Meier game, and the very first game I really and truly immersed myself in. Its open-ended gameplay was truly unusual for the time–you pick your nationality (English, French, Dutch or Spanish), you pick your time period (six start dates ranging from 1560 to 1680), and you embark on your career as a ship’s captain with the objective of accruing as much wealth, land, a pretty governor’s daughter for a bride in whatever way you see fit, before age and injury force you into retirement. Be a peaceful trader, or a privateer given a veneer of legality by the Letters of Marque you receive to hunt down a country’s enemies on the high seas, or be an out and out pirate. I played both the 1993 Pirates! Gold edition and the 2004 Pirates! and I thought they were both perfectly successful updates of the original game. Unfortunately, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve owned a machine that could run the original game (it ran on a system disk, for goodness sake), Pirates! Gold has vanished (and would probably be as incompatible with Windows Vista as the 1994 Colonization is) and I’ve lost my CD Key for the 2004 version.

Red Baron (1990): My first introduction to what VGA would mean for graphics. A First World War combat flight simulator. It’s thanks to Red Baron that I discovered two of my favourite history topics–the First World War and military aviation. I’ve tried Red Baron II but was never able to get into it.

Sid Meier's CivilizationCivilization (1991): I mentioned in my last post how playing Civilization for the first time was one of the great revelatory experiences of my life. Civilization turned me explicitly into a strategy game fan, and probably it spoilt me forever into not being able to stand “strategy” clickfests like Age of Empires or Warcraft. Only Paradox’s Europa Universalis and its spinoffs have been able to measure to the bar that Civilization set so impossibly high in my mind. It was when I realised the guy’s name on the Civilization box and the guy’s name on the Pirates! box were the same that I became willing to buy pretty much anything starting with Sid Meier’s, up to and including Sid Meier’s Gettysburg and Sid Meier’s Antietam (which weren’t bad games, per se, so much as they each only lasted about four hours, and then you were done with them. Forever.)

Jill of the Jungle (1992): A shareware game, and the only sidescroller (besides Double Dragon) that I ever really enjoyed. Too bad it came right at the death of the genre.

Colonization (1994): Of course, I just spent a post talking about what I like about Colonization.

Civilization IICivilization II (1996): Quite simply, in my estimation, the best strategy game ever released. Fixed all complaints from the original (the big one, for me, was the institution of zones of ownership around cities, so that foreign powers could no longer fortify their unites right in the square adjacent to your own settlements), broadened and deepened the game just a little bit (like with the introduction of reputation) and modernised the look and feel of the game. If I still had it, I’d still be playing Civ2 today. Maybe one of these days I’ll download FreeCiv.

Baldur's GateBaldur’s Gate (1998): Just as Civ2 is, to me, the quintessential strategy game, so is Baldur’s Gate the quintessential roleplaying game. I think every gameplay aspect–the characters, the world, the sidequests–is just about perfect, and it’s difficult for me to imagine another game matching it. The Elder Scrolls hasn’t managed it (though I did like Redguard a lot, but that game gets a big knock because its weird mishmash of DOS and Windows makes it pretty much impossible to run on a modern system). Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic came close, but the system I had at the time proved incapable of handling it properly and kept freezing up, and then when I got a new system, I discovered I’d lost one of the installation discs, so I guess we’ll never know.***

Sid Meier's Alpha CentauriAlpha Centauri (1999): Civilization–in space! The very first game I ever got in trouble with Lisa for playing. I told her I’d be right back, I just had to make one more move in Alpha Centauri, and then half an hour later I realised I’d left her sitting on the couch. And we weren’t in any apartment or anything–this was in our dorm room, with her sitting in stony silence staring at the back of my head a few feet away on the other side of the room. And the worst part was that I was running the game on her computer.** (At the time I would have two games going of Alpha Centauri at the same time, one on her system and one back in my room, so that wherever I was, I could play.) It was also, unfortunately, the very last iteration of Civilization I ever got attached to. I found both Call to Power and Civilization III to be total gameplay busts, and I never really got into Civ4. Luckily I soon found the Paradox games to replace them, but there’s still a part of me that looks at that Alpha Centauri box cover and feels like it represents the death of a part of my youth.***

Europa UniversalisEuropa Universalis (2000): Europa Universalis appears on this list not so much because of how wrapped up in it individually I ever became, but because of the gateway it represents to all of the strategy games that Paradox have released in the eight years since it came out, each having the same look and feel but each covering a different period of history. And apparently I’m responsible for introducing a number of other people to Paradox games, too. Never having heard of it before, I picked it up on sale at Best Buy, and I took the game’s manual (over a hundred pages in length) with me to the IRHA banquet for the Spring 2001 semester. Far from actually getting to read the manual, though, I recall it working its way around my table, and I think that more than one person walked away determined to try the game themselves. In his response to the Facebook posting of my last post, Charles Schnur credits me with introducing him to EU, and I know that that’s when Eric Daniels got into it too–something that makes me rather happy, since the only time I see Eric nowadays is when he pops up on the Paradox forum.

EU brought a new mindset to strategy gaming, shifting away from world conquest to a new focus on historical accuracy and the possibilities of history. EU isn’t a game of universal domination; it’s a game of working within the European balance of power during the sixteen, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.***

Championship Manager 03-04Championship Manager 03-04 (2003): The last edition of Championship Manager released before the Eidos/Sports Interactive split, and the final season update to Championship Manager 4. The most immersive sports simulation I’ve found, and probably the most addictive game I’ve ever played. It’s a management sim–you broker transfer deals, negotiate contracts, monitor youth team development, set training regimens, make the team selection and set tactics, then watch your side take the field for the match and hope they can win the game for you. It’s definitely a game of long-term investment–there’s nothing like the satisfaction of taking over a bankrupt lower division club like Bristol City and turning them into domestic Treble winners over the course of five or ten seasons; or of starting out at a Conference side like Accrington Stanley or Tamworth United and working your way up the professional ladder, moving on to lower-division League clubs like Chesterfield or Queens Park Rangers, then to an established Premiership side like Aston Villa or Everton, and then winning enough success to become a target for European giants like Barcelona, Manchester United or AC Milan. Lisa lost my ChampMan0304 CD when we moved down to Virginia this summer.***

Let me repeat that: we’ve lost my Championship Manager CD.

Victoria: An Empire Under the SunVictoria: An Empire Under the Sun (2003) and Victoria: Revolutions (2006): I’m including both the original Victoria and its expansion pack together because I transitioned seamlessly from one to the other. Victoria: Revolutions is, hands down, my favourite strategy game ever. It’s another Paradox title, this time covering the period 1836-1935. But in Victoria, foreign affairs–whether discovery and exploration like in Europa Universalis or warfare like Hearts of Iron (which covers 1936-1954)–take a firm back seat to domestic management. Like actual politicians, the player has almost no direct control over the people of his country; instead, you can only provide them with incentives to behave certain ways through how you set your policies. But it’s your people who make the decisions as to where they live, where they work, what they buy, and, critically, what political party they elect into office. Victoria’s population model runs on the most complex economic and political simulation I’ve ever seen, and it’s got an incredibly steep learning curve. But it’s also profoundly rewarding once you start getting a handle on it.

Victoria’s time period is one of immense transition–from an agrarian world to an industrial one; from the obsessive free-trade, laissez-faire economic philosophies of the nineteenth century to the complete state control of the economy in the Soviet Union; from a minimal European presence in Africa to an Africa almost completely partitioned between the imperial powers; from a Europe whose borders were drawn based on the legitimacy of their hereditary monarchs to one full of states founded one the principle of ethnic self-determination; from a Europe where all power lay with sovereigns and noblemen to one where adult men of every class had a voice in their government; from a world where cavalry and musketeers in bright blue or red uniforms controlled the battlefield to one where soldiers wore khaki or olive drab and hunkered down in muddy trenches lest the machine gun emplacements mow them down. By almost every metric, the world in 1936 looked nothing like it did in 1836, something that just isn’t true for any hundred-year period before then; simulating that so effectively is quite an accomplishment.

Victoria: RevolutionsVictoria is also the only game I’ve ever extensively modded. All the configuration files for countries, military units, technology, political parties, population and historical events are easily accessible in text or Excel, written in more or less plain English. I don’t know what it is about Victoria as opposed to the other Paradox games, since Europa Universalis II and Hearts of Iron are just as moddable, but I’ve always been really attracted to the possibilities Victoria presents for making the game adhere more closely to the path of history, or of providing alternate paths of history to explore when events diverge from what actually happened (for instance, having a historical path to follow if Prussia loses the wars of German unification, or if the Confederacy wins its independence from the Union, or Texas never seeks US statehood, or the US and Britain go to war over the Oregon Country). I spent about a year creating countries and writing around three thousand event files for Victoria.***

Did I mention that my ChampMan CD has just vanished?

Crusader KingsCrusader Kings (2004): Crusader Kings is Paradox’s mediaeval game, running from 1066-1453. And in keeping with the era, instead of playing a country, you play a dynasty, concerned with marriage, the succession, and the inheritance of titles. It’s a departure for Paradox, and it’s certainly rough around the edges, but it’s also a great concept, as you guide your family through four hundred years. Paradox’s latest game, Europa Universalis: Rome,*** which I’ve just started playing this week, attempts to marry the two formats, with you playing as a country, but with your country run by aristocrats who grow and evolve and form a web of family relationships, friendships and rivalries as the centuries progress. The upcoming Rome expansion pack is supposed to concentrate on making the character interaction even more complex, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.***

I notice that in the 1990s and early 2000s, we average almost one game a year, but there’ve been no new additions to the list since 2004. Partly this is because I haven’t discussed when I used to buy every new iteration of NCAA Football and Madden NFL every year, but I think mostly it’s that nowadays, I don’t go out looking for new games, because I worry about the impact they make on my productivity; but what I end up doing instead is coming back to a previous favourite and immersing myself in it for weeks or, in the cases of Victoria or Championship Manager (when I knew where the CD was), months.


*”PC games” therefore excluding the NCAA Football and Madden NFL series, which I play on the Playstation 2.

**”Computer” might be exaggerating a little bit–Lisa had an Aptiva at the time.

***Lisa doesn’t really like it when I start playing this game, because she knows that when I get started, she’s lost me for weeks.

Let’s go colonise the Americas

Colonization (1994)I’ve taken a break from Inheritance this week, and I might be taking next week off, too. I had an idea that might help me resolve the one major plot point I can’t really figure out, but it also might require going back throughout the entire book and doing some rewriting, so I’m letting it gel for a while.

I’ve been filling my time with reading up on the Seven Years’ War; specifically, with reading up on the war’s North American theatre, the conflict known in the United States as the French and Indian War and sometimes known in Canada as the British Conquest.* After a few days this led to a nostalgic hankering to play Colonization. Colonization was a turn-based strategy game that came out in 1994, based around the European colonisation of the Americas during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the player controls a single European country’s colonies and is tasked with establishing, growing and maturing a colonial empire, with the eventual goal of declaring independence from the mother country and defeating the King’s army in a War of Independence.

Though it has some significant gameplay differences, Colonization is essentially a spinoff–not quite a sequel–of the original Civilization game; maybe it should be thought of as Civilization 1.5 (or, I suppose, I.V), the same way Alpha Centauri can be considered Civilization II.V. Playing the original Civilization was such a revelatory experience for me back in 1991 that when Colonization came out, it became the first computer game I ever specifically planned to buy (I asked for it as a Christmas present, as I recall), as opposed to simply coming across it at the store.

I remember Colonization fondly, as a really fun way to spend a few days, though it was never as big a deal (to me, or to consumers) as its 1990s contemporaries in the Civilization series–the original Civilization, as I say, changed my gaming life, and Civilization II is, quite simply, the best strategy game I’ve ever played (though it’s not my favourite strategy game). So I wasn’t expecting a fruitful search the other day when I decided to google Colonization.

Colonization (2008)I was therefore surprised to discover that a remake of the game, Civilization IV: Colonization, was released just two weeks ago. I played the original Colonization for a few days, then I decided to download the new version.

And I’ve got to say–I really prefer the original. It’s a shame, because I only moved on to the Civ4 version because I found a problem with the gameplay that made the game verge on the unplayable. (Namely, that the AI of the other European countries shows no respect for borders, allowing them to surround my settlements with troops so that my own soldiers, traders and settlers can’t enter or leave the settlements by land.)

But then C4C turns out to have two problems that really do make the game–for me–unplayable, because of all the fun they suck out of it. First, the map is tiny, so that, when the game starts out with you and your three rivals founding their first colonies up and down the eastern seaboard, your borders are pushing up against each other almost immediately. This just flat out destroys the atmosphere and charm of the game concept–European settlement in the Americas, especially in North America, was marked by solitary outposts of settlement, separated from the other countries’ colonies by hundreds of miles of sea or uncharted Indian land. And secondly, the game is just too short–it’s only three hundred turns long (it covers the period 1492-1792, with one turn per year), whereas the original Colonization took something like seven hundred turns. (Most likely, the shortness of the game necessitates the incredibly small maps.)

FreeColWhich is unfortunate, because the original Colonization is holding out to me the tantalising prospect of one of a truly great game, if only that one problem could be fixed. I did come across FreeCol, a project to create an open-source clone of the original Colonization and then augment it. FreeCol version 1.0 will be a complete gameplay clone of the original, and I think it looks promising; but at the moment they’re only at version 0.7.4, and while it’s certainly not bad, it’s also not a finished product.

So I’ve been salving my disappointment by finally getting around to playing Europa Universalis III, which I bought six months ago; and which, after all covers pretty much the exact same period as Colonization. I’m even considering–though Lisa will probably kill me if I actually do it–finally buying Europa Universalis: Rome, which I think looks like a great game. (Paradox’s strategy games–the Europa Universalis series and its spinoffs–are the only strategy games I find superior to the 1990s incarnations of Civilization and its spinoffs.)

And I think of what might have been.


(If you’re reading this one the Facebook feed and wondering why you were tagged, I tagged anyone I thought might have something to contribute about strategy games.)

*Main piece of trivia picked up so far: most Americans know (or should know) that George Washington fought in the war’s first engagement, Braddock’s Defeat in 1755, when a British column under Edward Braddock sent to seize the French outpost at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers (around which the city of Pittsburgh would grow once the territory fell into British hands at the end of the war) was intercepted and wiped out by a mixed force of French and Indians. But I don’t think terribly many of them know that Thomas Gage and Horatio Gates fought at Braddock’s Defeat, too. Braddock led thirteen hundred British soldiers into battle that day–a bit more than a single regiment, of whom only eight hundred survived–which probably translates to perhaps two or three dozen officers. And yet amongst them we have the first President of the United States, the single most important colonial administrator in the British colonies in the period leading up to the outbreak of violence at Lexington and Concorde, and the general who won the most important victory of the Revolutionary War. Charles Lee also served as an officer in Braddock’s expedition but was not present on the day of the battle.

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