Hello everyone. This post is going to be very personal indeed, and I must begin by apologizing for writing such a long digression from my usual subject matter. Which is not to say that I will not be discussing videogames, I will be, however I will be talking about the darker side of their presence in my life.
The Hearts of Iron series might be the most ambitious series of videogames ever produced for a general audience. What they attempt to do is compress the largest and most complicated war in human history into something which can be controlled and directed by a single person.
All aspects of the war effort are at the player’s disposal, from the direction of production and research to the disposition and command of troops. The level of simulation is impressively deep, although understandably occasionally somewhat skewed. HoI is the closest that videogames come to being a doctoral thesis on the reasons that world war two was won and lost.
From my armchair I have directed campaigns all over the world. From the Sahara desert to the jungles of Borneo I have shepherded troops into battle, carefully laying plans for their supply and upkeep, assessing the enemy’s strength and pressing their weak points. Map of the world is remade into a canvas for imperial conquest, heroism and the struggle for democracy. I have never played a game of Hearts of Iron that did not leave me with a story to tell, a strange new history to examine.
Today I would like to present you one of these strange histories. A history of WW2 that diverges from our own, starting with a what-if that I played out in a game of Hearts of Iron four; what if France had stood up to Germany in 1936? This is part one of my (somewhat embellished account) of what occurred.
The Secret World (TSW) is in many ways an unremarkable MMORPG. If one has played almost any MMORPG in the last fifteen years, much of its design will be familiar. The game is essentially an amusement park, split into a series of themed areas which are chock full of creatures to kill and quests to pick up. What makes The Secret World stand out is its setting and its story. Its setting oozes character, is packed with a library full of lore, and its fiction is bound together with its gameplay by an impressive (for an MMORPG) internal logic.
One’s character is an ordinary person living an ordinary modern life. What makes them special is that one night they are picked, seemingly at random, to be the host for a powerful and otherworldy entity called “The Buzzing”. The Buzzing manifests itself as a swarm of glowing bees, one of whom crawls into the player character’s mouth while they are sleeping. So far so creepy. The Buzzing turns your ordinary joe’s world upside down, making them effectively immortal and giving them superpowers. Post beeception one is thrown into a world where every urban myth, every ancient secret and every conspiracy is true.
If some of this is sounding familiar that is because TSW’s setting resembles White Wolf’s famous “World of Darkness” setting in many ways. Indeed, the friends who got me into the game sold me on the idea partially as a digital imagining of the World of Darkness setting. When I first started playing however, I bounced off the game almost completely. In this piece, I should like to tell you a little bit about why that was. Doing that involves a discussion of a most interesting topic, roleplaying in videogames.
This week I am going to continue down memory lane with another game from the nineties.
I love games from the nineties. There is a certain atmosphere to most of them, a grunginess in the sprite art. There has been something of a renaissance of this style in recent years, so clearly I am not the only one who is nostalgic for the visual styling of games like the Marathon Trilogy (in fact anything put out by Bungie in the 90s), Age of Empires and (the subject of this article) Railroad Tycoon 2.
Space-faring game 1996/2002 both developed by Ambrosia Software
In the mornings, early before school, I used to creep downstairs and turn on my parent’s old Apple Mac. It was an ugly old thing of a 1996 vintage, a time when a nicotine shade of cream screamed of the heights of computer technology . After it had run through its five minute boot up sequence I would click through to my object—Escape Velocity. There has never been a game that has taken me away to another place so completely as Escape Velocity. It presented a world of possibility, an almost endless expanse of black space in which to project my imagination. I had no elite, I was born too late for that, and Free-Space passed me by, but Escape Velocity was there to fill the void.
I wonder sometimes if there is some special effect that space-faring games, especially those with an open structure, have on a young mind. It seems to me that that space of infinite freedom and possibility is perfectly calibrated to take an overactive imagination and have it fill those voids to the brim with adventure. In this piece I should like to tell you a little about Escape Velocity, to explore why it was so important to me and to explain why it can no longer hold my interest.
It’s 2016 and it is all right for men to play games like this, I get that, I really do. Gender need not determine what one’s interests; we should all play what we want and like what we like. I know this, but despite that knowledge, it took me a long time to come around to actually playing Long Live the Queen (henceforth LLtQ). In the end I’m glad I did because what I found, behind the facade of a magical-girl-adventure, was a thoughtfully designed and subversive storytelling engine.
Video games are self-contained world, ordered by a set of rules of human design. Thus, unlike the world in general, videogames can be fair. Indeed they can be simulacra of the worlds in which we would like to live. Recettear’s world is constructed in this way. It takes one of the most crooked and broken aspects of human affairs, the world of commerce, and turns it into a tale about hard work paying off. It creates a space in which hard work is rewarded, and where if only we are nice to people, good things will come our way. In this piece I would like to talk about the way in which this world is created by the laser like focus on long-term planning encouraged by the game’s mechanics.