Monday, March 5, 2007


After veritable minutes of careful research, I'm come to the conclusion that the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who are addicted to Sid Meier's Civilization, and those who have never played it.

For the uninitiated: the game is a kind of "God simulation" in which you guide the fortunes of a struggling civilization, founding cities, establishing trade and diplomatic ties, waging war when necessary (and perhaps when it isn't). Your goal is to win the game in one of two ways: either by wiping out all other civilizations (almost impossible without developing nuclear arms), or successfully developing space travel and colonizing other worlds.

The real genius of the game, I think, is its unique combination of challenge and accessibility. It's remarkably easy to sit down and start pushing elements around: what's this? oh, I'll just move my settlers here, click this "found city" button -- what technology should we be developing? whoops, I've been wiped out by barbarian tribes, silly mistake, one more quick play-through -- and then it's three in the morning and your civilization is still getting wiped out by the French.

The system of inventing cultural advances is by far the most interesting part of the game, and the one that produces the most amusing absurdities -- it's possible to develop nuclear weapons without having cracked the secret of pottery, for example. The invention of democracy enables you to discover recycling, because, y'know, one inevitably leads to the other, I guess. The invention of communism allows you to build the United Nations (tee hee), and so forth.

But the thing that struck me the most on my most recent play-through is the fact that the world of the game presents no role for the inspired individual: *all* cultural advances are solely the role of government research, requiring a specific number of "resource points" which, once alotted, will produce the desired invention. This isn't how history works, although the idea's a disturbingly prevalent one -- we hear it now with scientists talking about stem-cell research, confidently claiming that this amount of research over this amount of time will yield this result. (Uh, has science *ever* worked this way? I mean, ever?)

Anyway, the point is that, sure, it's possible for you to build Shakespeare's theatre in the game -- but that achievement is meaningless without a Shakespeare to inhabit it. And a government can't create a Shakespeare. (You could justifiably argue that a government can -- and did -- *facilitate* a Shakespeare. I yield the point, but my own stands.)

So, yeah. I realize that I'm attacking the underlying mechanic of the game, and that altering it would suck a lot. It's a great game, even if I can't help raising an eyebrow at most of its basic assumptions. And it's definitely one of the most ambitious, certainly politically, that's ever been created. Why don't they make 'em like this anymore?


Bill said...

Are you playing Civ 4? Well I am, (and can commiserate with the 3:30 am timestamp on your post). They added the concept of the "Great Person" Wherein, these great people are generated in cities based on points (scientific, cultural, economic). The "government" (ie, the player) doesn't build them per se, but merely facilitates thier origin by building Wonders and and such. These great people then lend thier abilities to the Civ by inventing technology, creating a great work, building a labratory etc. etc. It works somewhat to remove at least a little of the absurdity you mention.

Lee said...

It disgusts me! As much as The Sims does. :) As much as I love WC2, it bothers me in the same way: all about control.

In Civ4, what happens if you just sick back and let the individuals live for themselves? Contrary to real life, and our philosophy.

Now I'm hooked on DDO; recovery. :D