After an extended hiatus for winter break, I’m back, and I thought what better way to start it off than to talk about a game that does many of the things we want: Sid Meier’s Civilization.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the franchise, each game opens by setting your settler down in the middle of a randomly generated world (within certain parameters so it doesn’t look so weird). From there, it follows like a board game where each player takes turns moving units, building up their cities, waging war, negotiating trades, discovering everything from sailing to nuclear fusion. In Civ 5 you can win in one of 5 ways: diplomacy, science, culture, military, or points. The points victory is just the fallback if nobody wins by the year 2100ish.
What the game excels at, however, is that you can win in any of these ways, and how you intend to go about it is entirely up to you. For example, though you may want to be a hyper-cultured civilization and build art museums in every city, you probably need a bit of a military in case someone decides they don’t like you very much. Regardless of what you choose, though, your decisions matter, and the entire game hinges on this.
For example, in my most recent game of Civ 5, I was playing as the Shoshone and my neighboring countries were Greece and Japan (since the map is randomly generated this happens all the time). Through the beginning of the game, the Greeks were neutral, but I kept trading with the Japanese and they came to like me. Because the Greeks and I were so close, however, Alexander got this idea that he could try to conquer me. It didn’t work out for him since I managed to repel the invasion.
Later, the Japanese decided they didn’t like the Greeks very much, so they asked me to help with their war. Still chafing over that last invasion, I agreed, and as soon as I had gathered a military, I declared war on the Greeks. Before I attacked, the Greeks were hostile to me and pretty close point-wise. However, once the Shoshone conquered Sparta, they were so cowed that they gave me their marble for thirty turns if I left them in peace! Even thousands of years later, Greece has been crippled, and my decision to go to war impacted the entire history of this fictional world.
The moral of this story is that I made a choice which mattered and the game could calculate nearly all of its consequences. Most decisions aren’t as dramatic as choosing to go to war or not, but in the game everything you do affects how the others treat you. If you start getting a lot of science, someone may send a spy to steal some of your technologies. If you amass an army near their borders, diplomatic relations start to decline.
This game exemplifies the idea of a simulated story, and so far this is the best way to make a story where decisions matter. It’s not without its drawbacks, though. For example, no simulation can take everything into account. Back to my conquering Sparta, I actually did so by letting the Japanese weaken the city on their turn, and I just dealt the final blow, so naturally I got all the credit and the city. Now, Japan should have been furious at me, but the AI only saw me helping in the war, so our relations didn’t decline.
Another issue with simulations is that the stories they generate may not always be so interesting. Let’s say you got a huge lead on science and you send bombers to attack the enemy’s knights. Needless to say the game’s going to be a cakewalk from there on with little to no tension, and tension is a key feature of a great story.
We can take from Civilization how to make games where decisions matter, especially the little things that add up to huge effects over time. However, without moderation, the story potential can fizzle, and keeping this may prove to be the hardest challenge in making a living, breathing, adventure.