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Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Game of Everything, Part 3: Civilization and the Narrative of Progress

You can’t say civilization don’t advance. In every war, they kill you in a new way.

— Will Rogers

Civilization is a game for all time, but the original version of Civilization, as created by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley and published by MicroProse in 1991, is also a game thoroughly of its time. When you finish guiding your civilization’s history, whether because you’ve conquered the world, been conquered by the world, flown to Alpha Centauri, or simply retired, you’re ranked on a scale of real history’s leaders. If you’ve played really, really badly — as in, closing-your-eyes-and-clicking-randomly badly — you find yourself equated to Dan Quayle, the United States’s vice president as of 1991.

Quayle has long since slunk out of public life, meaning that younger players who try out the game today will likely fail to get the joke here. In his day, however, his vacuousness was legendary enough to make even the most hardened would-be assassin think twice before visiting ill upon President George H.W. Bush. Among Quayle’s greatest hits were the time he claimed the Holocaust had happened in the United States, the time he claimed Mars had a breathable atmosphere and canals filled with water, and the time he lost a spelling bee to a twelve-year-old by misspelling “potato.” And then there was the feud he started with the sitcom character Murphy Brown when she chose to have a child out of wedlock, raising the question of whether he knew that the little people he saw inside his television didn’t actually live there. It says much about what a universal figure of derision he had become by 1991 that Meier and Shelley, in no hurry to offend any potential customer of any political persuasion, nevertheless felt free to mock him in this way as the ne plus ultra of air-headed politicians. Everybody felt free to mock Dan Quayle.

But the spirit of the times in which Civilization was made is woven much deeper into its fabric than a joke tossed onto an end-of-game leader board. In fact, it’s inseparable from the game’s single most important identifying feature. The Advances Chart of which I’ve already made so much reflects a view of history as a well-nigh inevitable narrative of progress — a view that had rather fallen out of favor for much of the twentieth century, but which had come roaring back now at the end of it, prompted by the ending of the Cold War.

It’s very difficult to adequately convey today just how that ending felt to those of us in the West who had lived through what preceded it. Just a few years before, we had shivered in our beds after watching The Day After in the United States or Threads in Britain, while Ronald Reagan droned on obliviously about the Soviet Union as an “evil empire.” A decade earlier, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had said that the Cold War would be “unending”: “We must learn to conduct foreign policy without escape and without respite. This condition will not go away.” Which was perhaps just as well, given that no one could seem to formulate an endgame for it that didn’t leave the world a heap of irradiated ashes. It was very nearly the conventional wisdom that someday, somehow, a mistake would be made by one side or the other, or one side would simply find itself backed too far into a corner. At that point, the missiles would fly, and that would be that. The logic of history seemed to be on the side of such pessimism. After all, what other weapon in the long history of warfare had humanity ever invented and then not used?

And then, with head-snapping speed, it was all simply… over. Over, for the most part, peacefully. In a series of events so improbable no novelist would ever have dared write them down, one side just decided to give up. The Berlin Wall came down, the Iron Curtain opened, and the Cold War ended in the most blessed anticlimax in the history of the world. As Meier and Shelley were finishing Civilization, the dissolution of the Soviet Union was entering its final stages. In June of 1991, Boris Yeltsin became the first democratically elected president of the nascent “Russian Federation.” In August, the world held its breath as a cabal of communist hardliners mounted a last-ditch coup in the hope of restoring the old order, only to exhale again when the coup collapsed three days later. And on December 26, 1991, a couple of weeks after Civilization had reached store shelves, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. Russia was once again just Russia.

For those of us in the West, the whole course of events was rather hard to fathom; it was hard to know how to react to suddenly not living under the dark threat of nuclear annihilation. But Americans at least, a people who seldom need much encouragement to wave their flags and play their anthem, soon got with the program and started celebrating the historical triumph of their “way of life.” If they needed any further encouragement, the country’s first post-Cold War military adventure, the pushing of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq out of Kuwait, was being televised live every night on CNN even as the Soviet Union was still winding down. That war proved the perfect antidote to the lingering malaise of Vietnam; it was, at least from the perspective of 30,000 feet shown on CNN, swift and clean, all of the things the “police actions” of the Cold War had so seldom been. The United States was unchallenged in the world, in the ascendant as never before.

The feeling of exaltation wasn’t confined to flag-waving populists. The most-discussed book of 1992 among the chattering classes had no less grandiose a title than The End of History and the Last Man. It was the perfect book for the times, an explication of all the reasons that the United States had triumphed in the Cold War and could now look forward to a world molded in its image. Written by a heretofore obscure member of the RAND think tank named Francis Fukuyama, and based on a journal article he had first published in 1989, the book identified “a fundamental process at work that dictates a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies — in short, something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy.” (“Liberal” in this context refers to classical liberalism — i.e., prioritizing the sanctity of the individual over the goals of the collective — rather than the word’s modern political connotations.) The central question of history, Fukuyama argued, had been that of how humanity should best order itself, economically and politically, in order to ensure the best possible material, social, and spiritual state of being for everyone. With the end of the Cold War, communism and totalitarianism, the last great challengers to capitalism and democracy by way of an answer to that question, had given up the ghost. From now on, liberal democracy would reign supreme, meaning that, while events would certainly continue, history had come to the fruition toward which it had been building through all the centuries past.

More discussed than actually read even in its heyday, Fukuyama’s book has since become an all-purpose punching bag, described as hopelessly naive in right-wing realpolitik circles and morally reprehensible in left-wing postmodernist and Marxist circles. Widely denounced by the latter group in particular as a purveyor of “jingoist triumphalism” in service of American hegemony, Fukuyama felt compelled to stress in a new 2003 afterword to The End of History that he actually saw the European Union as a better model for liberal democracy’s future than the government of his own country. His book is in many ways a book of its time — an example of a history book itself becoming history — but it’s neither as jingoistic nor as naive as its current reputation would suggest. Most of Fukuyama’s critics fail to address the fact that the idea of a secular historical eschatology hardly originated with him. In fact, he takes pains in the book to situate it within a long-established historiographical tradition, albeit updated to account for such an earth-shaking event as the end of the Cold War.

History as evolutionary progress is an Enlightenment ideal that ironically predates Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Without it, the American and French Revolutions, those two great attempts to bring concrete form to Enlightenment ideas about human rights and just government, would have been unimaginable. During the decades prior to those revolutions, thinkers like Immanuel Kant, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Adam Smith had articulated a new way of looking at the world, based on reason, science, humanism, and, yes, progress. “With our understanding of the world advanced by science and our circle of sympathy expanded through reason and cosmopolitanism,” writes the modern-day cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker of the Enlightenment, “humanity could make intellectual and moral progress. It need not resign itself to the miseries and irrationalities of the present, nor try to turn back the clock to a lost golden age.” To be a progressive, then or now, is to believe in the actuality or at least the potentiality of human history as a narrative of progress. It implies a realistic, fact-based approach to problem-solving that prefers to look forward to the future rather than back to the past.

But of course, any rousing narrative of progress worth its salt needs to have a proper bang-up climax. It was the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in the early 1800s who first proposed the notion of a point of fruition toward which the history of humanity was leading. Indeed, he went so far as to claim that history may have reached this goal already in his own time, with the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s victory over Prussia at the Battle of Jena in 1806 having proved the superiority of his time’s version of the modern liberal state. (Francis Fukuyama had nothing on this guy when it came to premature declarations of mission accomplished.) Hegel connected his notions of historical progress with a Greek word from classical theology: thymos. It’s difficult to concisely translate, but it connotes the social worth of an individual, the sum total of her competencies and predilections. The ideal society, according to Hegel, is one where each person has the opportunity to become this best self — or, we might say today, to use another word that smacks dreadfully of pop psychology, to “self-actualize.”

This, then, was the natural end point toward which all of history to date had been struggling. As befits a philosopher of the idealist school, Hegel gave the narrative of progress an idealistic tinge which still clings to its alleged rationality even today, whether it takes as its climax Hegel’s universal thymos, Fukuyama’s stable democratic world order, or for that matter Civilization‘s trip to Alpha Centauri.

Narratives of progress had a natural appeal during the nineteenth century, a relatively peaceful era once Napoleon had been dispensed with, and one in which real, tangible signs of progress were appearing at an unprecedented pace, in the form of new ideas and new inventions. In this time before nuclear Armageddon or global warming had crossed anyone’s most remote imaginings, the wonders of technological progress in particular — the railroad, the telegraph, the light bulb — were regarded as an unalloyed positive force in the world. By the latter half of the century, almost everyone seemed to be a techno-progressive. “Upon the whole,” wrote the British statesman William Ewart Gladstone in 1887, “we who lived fifty, sixty, seventy years back have lived into a gentler time.”

Even the less sanguine thinkers couldn’t resist the allure of the narrative of progress. On the contrary: it was Karl Marx among all nineteenth-century thinkers who devoted the most energy to a cherished historical eschatology. With Enlightened scientific precision, he laid out six “phases of history” through which the world must inevitably pass: primitive communism, the slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and finally true communism. He disagreed with Hegel that liberalism — i.e., capitalism — could mark the end of history by noting, by no means without justification, that the thymos-fulfilling nations the latter praised actually empowered only a tiny portion of their populations, that being white men of the moneyed classes; these were the only people Hegel tended to think of when he talked about “the people.”

But even in the nineteenth century the narrative of progress had its critics. The most vocal among them was yet another German philosopher, Wilhelm Friedrich Nietzsche. Whereas Hegel spoke of the thymos, Nietzsche preferred megalothymia: the need of the superior man to assert his superiority. To Nietzsche, nobility was found only in conflict. All of these so-called “progressive” institutions — such as democracy and human rights — were creating a world of “men without chests,” alienated from the real essence of life; the modern nation-state was “the coldest of all cold monsters.” Hegel had imagined a world where slaves would be freed from their shackles. Maybe so, said Nietzsche — but they will still be slaves. Instead of history as a ladder, Nietzsche preferred to see it as a loop — an “eternal recurrence.” Whether progress was defined in terms of railroads, telegraphs, and light bulbs or social contracts, human rights, and democracies, it was all nonsense, merely the window dressing for the eternal human cycle of strife and striving.

While Nietzsche’s views were decidedly idiosyncratic in his own century, the narrative of progress’s critics grew enormously in number in the century which followed. In contrast to the peace and prosperity that marked the last few decades of the nineteenth century in particular, the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by a devastating one-two punch: the two bloodiest wars in the whole bloody history of human warfare, the second of them accompanied by one of the most concerted attempts at genocide in man’s whole history of inhumanity to man. It wasn’t lost on anyone that the country which had conceived this last, and then proceeded to carry it out with such remorseless Teutonic efficiency, was the very place where Hegel had lived and written about his ideals of ethical progress. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin was turning Marx’s dreams of a communist utopia into another brutal farce. In the face of all this, the narrative of progress seemed at best a quaint notion, at worst a cruel joke. After all, it was only the supposedly civilizing fruits of progress — technology, bureaucracy, a rules-based system of order — that allowed Hitler and Stalin’s reigns of terror to be so tragically effective.

Even when World War II ended with the good guys victorious, any sense that the narrative of progress could now be considered firmly back on track was undone by the specter of the atomic bomb. Maybe, thought many, the end goal toward which the narrative was leading wasn’t an Enlightened world but rather nuclear apocalypse. In his 1960 novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr., introduced a grotesque new spin on Nietzsche’s old idea of the eternal recurrence. He proposed that human civilization might progress from the hunter-gatherer phase to the point of developing nuclear weapons, and then proceed to destroy itself — again and again and again for all eternity. In 1980, the astronomer Carl Sagan upped the ante even further in his television miniseries Cosmos. Maybe, he proposed, the reason we had failed to find any evidence of intelligent extraterrestrial life was because any species which reached roughly humanity’s current level of technological development was doomed to annihilate itself within a handful of years — the eternal recurrence on a cosmic scale.

But then came that wonderful day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. What followed was the most ebullient few years of the twentieth century. The peace treaty which had concluded World War I had felt like something of a hollow sham even at the time, while the ending of World War II had been sobered by the creeping shadows of the atomic bomb and the Cold War. But now, at the end of the twentieth century’s third great global conflict of ideologies, there was seemingly no reason not to feel thoroughly positive about the world’s future. The only problems remaining in the world were small in comparison to the prospect of nuclear annihilation, and they could be dealt with by a united world community of democratic nations, as was demonstrated by the clean, quick, and painless First Gulf War. From the perspective of the early 1990s, even much of the century’s darkest history could be seen in a decidedly different light. Amidst all of the wars and genocides, the century had produced agents for peace like the United Nations, along with extraordinary scientific, medical, and technological progress that had made the lives of countless people better on countless fronts. And, to cap it all off, the fact remained that we hadn’t annihilated each other. Maybe the narrative of progress was as vital as ever. Maybe it just worked in more roundabout and mysterious ways than anticipated. Maybe it was sometimes just hard to see the forest of overall progress amidst all the trees of current events.

As we all know, progress’s moment of triumph would prove even more short-lived than most of history’s golden ages. Within a few years of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an unspeakably brutal war in Bosnia and Herzegovina was showing that age-old ethnic and religious animus could still be more powerful than idealistic talk about democracy and human rights. Well before the end of the 1990s, it was becoming clear that Russia, rather than striding forward to join the international community of liberal democracies, was sliding backward into economic chaos and political corruption, priming the pump for a return to authoritarian rule. And then came September 11, 2001, the definitive ending of the era that would come to be regarded not as the beginning of humanity’s permanently peaceful and prosperous post-history but as the briefly tranquil internecine between the Cold War and a seemingly eternal War on Terror. In a future article, we’ll try to reckon with the changes that have come to the world since those ebullient days of the early 1990s.

Right now, however, let’s turn back to Civilization. Even as I continue to emphasize that Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley weren’t out to make a political statement with their game of everything, I must also note that its embrace of the narrative of progress as its core mechanic, combined with its spirit of rational practicality and a certain idealism, wind up making it a very progressive work indeed. Loathe though he has always been to talk about politics, Meier has admitted to a measure of pride at having included global warming in the game; if you don’t control your modern civilization’s pollution levels, your coastal cities will literally get swallowed up by the encroaching ocean.

I want to stress that “progressive” as I use it here is not a synonym for (non-classically) “liberal”; it’s perfectly possible to be a progressive who believes in smaller government, possible even to be a progressive libertarian. Still, even at the time of the game’s release, when the American right tended to be more trusting of science and objective truth than they’ve become today, its pragmatism about our fragile planet didn’t always sit well with MicroProse’s traditional customer base of largely conservative military-simulation and wargame fans. Computer Gaming World‘s Alan Emrich, who was more than largely conservative, penned the hilarious passage below in his otherwise extremely positive review of the game. It can probably stand in for many a crusty old grognard’s reaction to some of the game’s most interesting aspects (“politically correct,” it seems, was 1991’s version of “social-justice warrior”):

Civilization strives to be a “hip” game, and deals with popular social issues from the standpoint of “political correctness.” Thus, global warming is a tremendous threat. Odd, for such a recent, unproven theory. Evolution is expressed in the game’s introduction, but at least that debate has been around a while. Pollution, therefore, becomes a society’s primary focus after industrialization takes place, with players being channeled toward more politically-correct power plants, recycling centers, and mass transit to address the problem. Even the beta-test “super-highway” Wonder of the World gave way to “women’s suffrage.” While women’s suffrage is a novel concept for its effect during gameplay, it is also another brick in the wall of political correctness.

One hardly knows where to start with this. Should we begin with the bizarre idea that any designer of a massive computer strategy game, about the most unhip thing in the world, would ever have striven to be “hip?” Or with the idea that evolution might still be up for “debate?” Or with the idea that recycling centers and mass transit, and letting women vote, for God’s sake, are dubious notions born of political correctness, that apparent source of all the world’s evils? Or with the last mangled metaphor, which seems to be saying the opposite of what it wants to say? (Was Emrich listening to too much Pink Floyd at the time?)  Instead of snarking further, I’m just going to move on.

A more useful subject to examine right now might be just what kind of progress it is that Civilization‘s Advances Chart represents. The belief to which the game seems to subscribe, that progress in technology and hard science will inevitably drive the broader culture forward, is sometimes referred to as technnological determinism. It can be contrasted with the more metaphysical narrative of progress favored by the likes of Hegel, as it can with the social-collective narrative of progress favored by Marx. Unsurprisingly, it tends to find its most enthusiastic fans among scientists, engineers, and science-fiction writers.

Given the sort of work it is, it makes a lot of practical sense for Civilization to cast its lots with the technologists’ camp; it is, after all, much easier to build into a strategy game the results of the development of the musket than it is to chart the impact of a William Shakespeare. Even outside the rules of a strategy game, for that matter, it’s far more difficult to map great art onto a narrative of progress than it is other great human achievements. While scientists, engineers, and even philosophers build upon one another’s work in fairly obvious way, great artists often stand alone; Shakespeare continues to be widely acknowledged today as the greatest writer of English ever to have lived, even as progress has long since swept all other aspects of his century aside.

Still, importantly, Shakespeare is in the game, as are Michelangelo and Bach, and as are markers of social progress like women’s suffrage and labor unions. (By way of confirming all of Alan Emrich’s deepest suspicions, the game makes communism a prerequisite for the last.) It is, in other words, not remarkable that Civilization on the whole favors a “hard” form of progress; what is remarkable is the degree to which it manages to depart from such a bias from time to time. If the game sometimes strains to find a concrete advantage to confer upon the softer forms of progress — women’s suffrage makes your population less prone to unhappiness, which makes at least a modicum of sense; labor unions give you access to “mechanized infantry” units, which makes pretty much no sense whatsoever — its heart is nevertheless in the right place.

The first people ever to pen a study of Civilization‘s assumptions about history were none other than our old friend Alan Emrich and his fellow Computer Gaming World scribe Johnny L. Wilson, who did so together in the context of a strategy guide called Civilization: or Rome on 640K a Day. It has to be one of the most interesting books ever written about a computer game; it’s actually fairly useless as a practical strategy guide, but is full of fascinating observations about the deeper implications of Civilization as a simulation of history. Wilson writes from a forthrightly liberal point of view, while Emrich is, as we’ve already seen, deeply conservative, and the frisson between the two gives the book additional zest. Here’s what it has to say about Civilization‘s implementation of the narrative of progress:

To be civilized in terms of Sid Meier’s Civilization means to be making material progress in terms of economic well-being and scientific advancement. The game has an underlying belief in such progress. In fact, this dogma is so strong that there is actually no problem in Sid Meier’s Civilization that cannot be solved by human effort (using settler units) or more technology. There are, as a correspondent named Gary Boone wrote to us shortly after the game’s release, no Luddites (reactionary anti-technological activists during the Industrial Revolution) in this game’s universe. It is, to paraphrase Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, the best of all progressing worlds.

Many an earnest progressive in the real world has doubtless wished for such an alternate universe. Galileo wished he could write about heliocentrism without being hauled before an ecclesiastical court; Einstein wished he could pursue his Theory of Relativity without contending with a pitchfork-wielding mob of Isaac Newton disciples; modern researchers wish they could explore gene therapy without people forever trying to take their stem cells away. All of these wishes come true in Civilization, that best of all progressing worlds.

Of course, even those of us who proudly call ourselves progressives need to recognize that the narrative of progress has its caveats. Many of the narrative’s adherents, not least among them Civilization, have tended to see it as an historical inevitability. Notably, Civilization has no mechanisms by which advances, once acquired, can be lost again. Yet clearly this has happened in real human history, most famously during the thousand-year interregnum between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, during the early centuries of which humanity in the West was actively regressing by countless measures; much knowledge, along with much art and literature, was lost forever during the so-called Dark Ages. (Far more would have been lost had not the Muslim world saved much of Europe’s heritage from the neglect and depredations of the European peoples — much as is done, come to think of it, by a small society of monks after each successive Apocalypse in Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.)

We should thus remember as we construct our narratives of progress for our own world that the data in favor of progress as an inevitability is thin on the ground indeed. We have only one history we can look back upon, making it very questionable to gather too many hard-and-fast rules therefrom. All but the most committed Luddite would agree that progress has occurred over the last several centuries, and at an ever-increasing rate at that, but we have no form of cosmic assurance that it will continue. “The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness,” wrote Norbert Wiener in 1950, going on to note that the sheer pace of progress in recent times had given those times a character unique in human history:

There is no use in looking anywhere in earlier history for parallels to the successful inventions of the steam engine, the steamboat, the locomotive, the modern smelting of metals, the telegraph, the transoceanic cable, the introduction of electric power, dynamite and the high-explosive missile, the airplane, the electric valve, and the atomic bomb. The inventions in metallurgy which heralded the origin of the Bronze Age are neither so concentrated in time nor so manifold as to offer a good counterexample. It is very well for the classical economist to assure us suavely that these changes are purely changes in degree, and that changes in degree do not vitiate historic parallels. The difference between a medicinal dose of strychnine and a fatal one is also only one of degree.

Civilization rather cleverly disguises this “difference of degree” by making each turn represent less and less time as you move through history. Nevertheless, progress at anything but the most glacial pace remains a fairly recent development that may be more of an historical anomaly than an inevitability.

Whatever else it is, the narrative of progress is also a deeply American view of history. The United States is young enough to have been born after progress in the abstract had become an idea in philosophy. Indeed, its origin story is inextricably bound up in Enlightenment idealism. That fact, combined with the fact that the United States has been fortunate enough to suffer very few major tragedies in its existence, has caused a version of the narrative of progress to become the default way of teaching American history at the pre-university level. One could thus say that every American citizen, this one included, is indoctrinated in the narrative of progress before reaching adulthood. This indoctrination can make it difficult to even notice the existence of other views of history.

Civilization, for its part, is a deeply American game, and much about the narrative of progress must have seemed self-evident to its designers, to the point that they never even thought about it. The game has garnered plenty of criticism in academia for its Americanisms. Matthew Kapell, for instance, in indelible academic fashion labels Civilization a “simulacram” of the “American monomythic structure.” Such essays often have more of an ideological axe to grind than does the game itself, and strike me as rather unfair to a couple of designers who at the end of the day were just making a good-faith attempt to portray history as it looked to them. Still, we Americans would do well to keep in mind that our country’s view of history isn’t a universal one.

But if we shouldn’t trust in progress as inevitable, how should we think about it? To begin with, we might acknowledge that the narrative of progress has always been as much an ethical position, a description of the way things ought to be, as it has been a description of the way they necessarily are. This has been the real American dream of progress, one always bigger than the country’s profoundly imperfect reality, one in which much of the world outside its borders has been able to find inspiration. Call me a product of my upbringing if you will, but it’s a dream to which I still wholeheartedly subscribe. To be a progressive is to recognize that the world is a better place than it used to be — that, by almost any measurement we care to take, human life is better than it’s ever been on this little planet of ours — thanks to those Enlightenment virtues of reason, science, humanism, and progress. And it is to assert that we have the capacity to make things yet much, much better for all of our planet’s people.

Progress will continue to be the binding theme of this series of articles, as it is the central theme of Civilization. We’ll continue to turn it around, to peer at it, to poke and prod it from various perspectives. Because ultimately, responsibility for our future doesn’t lie with some dead hand of historical or technological determinism. It lies with us, the strategizers sitting behind the screen, pulling the levers of our real world’s civilizations.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal, The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener, The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics by Christopher Lasch, History of the Idea of Progress by Ribert Nisbet, The Idea of Progress by J.B. Bury, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker, The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Ulysses by James Joyce, Lectures on the Philosophy of History by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; Computer Gaming World of September 1991 and December 1991; Popular Culture Review of Summer 2002.)

 
 

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The Game of Everything, Part 2: Playing Civilization

As a game designer, you have ultimate power. And with this ultimate power comes very little responsibility.

— Sid Meier

I don’t intend for this series of articles to be a tutorial on the game of Civilization, much less a strategy guide. You can find heaps of that sort of thing elsewhere, written by players much more skilled than I’ll ever be.

That said, it would be helpful for the articles I do want to write if those of you haven’t played the game before, or who haven’t played it in a long time, could have a basic understanding of how its systems fit together. So, let’s start today with a brief guided tour of a typical game’s beginning phases.

The first choice we have to make is whether to play on our own planet Earth or on a randomly generated world. As any Civilization veteran will tell you, this is really no choice at all. Playing on Earth robs the game of the magic of discovery that Sid Meier had found so appealing in Empire, one of Civilization‘s biggest inspirations. When you play on Earth, not only are you playing on a world whose geography you already know, but the various civilizations, including your own, will always start in their historic locations. So, a random world it is.

Having chosen a random world, we can change four parameters that will affect its personality. For this introduction, we just take the default, middle-of-the-road settings.


While our new world is being generated by the computer in the background, we see a little movie showing how our nascent civilization came to be through the forces of geology and biology. Neither the writing nor the graphics are perhaps all they might have been, but it nevertheless gets across the right note of auspicious grandeur.

Now we need to choose our difficulty level. This choice doesn’t so much affect the artificial intelligence’s ability to reason, which is at best limited under any circumstances, so much as it does the amount of cheating the computer does on behalf of one side or the other. The official line has it that the penultimate “King” level offers an equal balance of power, with levels below that giving the advantage to the human player and the ultimate “Emperor” level giving a decided advantage to the computer-run civilizations. In the real world, King is widely considered to provide a very stiff challenge indeed, and Emperor is sometimes simply unwinnable even for the very best players. We’ll take the cakewalk level of “Chieftan” today, if for no other reason than to ensure that we don’t get ourselves wiped out somehow before we’ve gotten through this whole introduction.

Next we choose how many civilizations, including ours, will occupy the planet. We’ll go with a relatively sparsely populated world of just four civilizations because this introduction would prefer to focus on the core mechanisms of the game rather than on diplomacy and other interactions with our rivals.

Now we get to choose which culture — i.e., which civilization — we wish to play as. There are fourteen possible civilizations in the game, but we only get to choose from all of them if we include the maximum of seven active civilizations in our world. Why? I don’t really know; it must have seemed a good idea at the time to Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley. At any rate, the choice is cosmetic only; all cultures are the same from the standpoint of play. Just for the heck of it, we’ll take the Aztecs.

After we’ve chosen, the computer will fill out the rest of the world’s roster of four civilizations with random picks. The computer-controlled civilizations are lent a degree of historical verisimilitude by the fact that their leaders are given different priorities and personalities. The leaders chosen for the various cultures span the ages, from Hammurabi on the part of the Babylonians to Chairman Mao on that of the Chinese.

And so we begin…

We start with a single “settlers” unit. Throughout the game, these will be our workhorse units. Although they have no offensive or defensive capabilities to speak of, they are essential for developing a civilization’s infrastructure: irrigating land, building roads, digging mines, eventually laying down railroads to connect our cities. Their most important capability of all, however, is also the source of their name: one can be ordered to found a new city, whereupon the settler unit disappears and a nascent settlement appears in its place. We could move around a bit to try to find a better spot for our first city, but right where we are, surrounded mostly by fertile grassland and with access to the ocean for when we become a seafaring nation later on, isn’t a bad location. So, on our very first turn, we found our very first city of Tenochtitlan — the name is chosen by the game, although we can change it if we wish to — right here where our very first settler started.

With Tenochtitlan thus established, it’s up to us to direct its development via the city-management screen. This screen is, one might say, the heart of the original game of Civilization, the “country simulator” Sid Meier conceived in 1989, before the military game or the Advances Chart existed. It conveys a lot of information, with much of which we need to have at least a passing familiarity even for the purposes of this brief introduction.

Note the little man at top left, just under the name of the city and its numerical population. Because there’s just one of him, we know that Tenochtitlan is a size 1 city, the smallest possible. More of him will appear as the city grows, but he’s important as more than just a visual depiction of population; he also reflects the city’s morale. At the moment, his neutral-looking appearance tells us that he’s “content,” neither disgruntled nor joyously happy. Managing a city’s morale is beyond the scope of this introduction, but know that it will become a critical area of focus as time goes on and our cities really start to grow. Luckily, we’re playing at the Chieftain level, which means it will be quite some time before morale becomes a pressing concern; the first unhappy citizens won’t start appearing until there are six of those little men lined up in a row for any given city.

Below the little man we have the “City Resources” box. Resources are claimed from the land that surrounds a city, as is illustrated on the map view near the center of the screen. Different types of terrain can produce different types and quantities of resources. We always get the resources located in a city’s central square. In addition, we can “work” one square of land per unit of population size — i.e., per little man — to receive the resources from it as well. The computer initially chooses for us where our workers are placed, but we can always change its choices by clicking on the map view. For now, though, let’s look at the meanings behind the resource icons themselves.

Food production is represented as stalks of wheat, of which each unit of population needs two per turn to avoid famine. Thankfully, our new city is producing four per turn, meaning that we’re generating two extra food per turn beyond our population’s current needs; thus the gap between the two pairs of icons. We’ll return to this extra food in a moment.

Industrial production is represented by the little shields. (“Why shields?” Sid Meier has been asked. “Because they showed up clearly as an 8 X 8 matrix of pixels,” he answered.) They reflect the speed at which the city can build things. We’ll return to them as well in a moment.

The final two icons are a more complicated, interlinked pair. The icon on the third line doesn’t have any obvious name; “trade arrows,” the Civilization community’s standard name for it, will do as well as anything. It represents our city’s combined economic and intellectual potential. The icon on the fourth line represents money; our city is currently generating one “coin” per turn, thanks to its one trade arrow.

But trade arrows need not be used only to generate money. They can also generate what the Civilization community typically calls “science” — meaning intellectual development or research, as represented by little light-bulb icons. In one of those clever little relations with which the game abounds, our science rate is always the inverse of our tax rate. When we began the game, our civilization’s tax rate was set to 50 percent by default, meaning that 50 percent of our trade arrows are converted into coins, the other 50 percent into light bulbs. But because our new city is only producing one trade arrow, and trade arrows cannot be split, the game had given all of our meager trade income to taxes; thus the coin icon below the trade arrow.

We can turn our single coin into a single light bulb by changing our civilization’s tax rate from 50 percent to 0 percent.

Let’s return to the city-management screen now. Notice that the single coin in the fourth row of the City Resources box has indeed been replaced by a single light-bulb icon.

But, you might be asking, what are the coins and light bulbs actually good for anyway? Well, coins are used to pay the upkeep on our cities and military units, and can also be used to rush production jobs faster than a city’s industrial potential would normally allow. And later, when we begin to meet other civilizations, they can be used to pay tributes to them. Light bulbs, on the other hand, are funneled into the research projects that let our civilization climb the Advances Chart and develop new capabilities.

At the Chieftain level the game is kind enough to grant us a starting reserve of 50 coins, and at this early stage of our civilization’s development we have no upkeep costs yet. It’s for this reason that we can safely funnel all of our trade into research right now. Later on, of course, this will no longer be the case.

Now let’s look at the rest of the city-management screen. Remember that extra food from the City Resources box, above and beyond what our city needed to surive? That accumulates turn by turn in the “Food Storage box” to the bottom left. Because Tenochtitlan is a size 1 city, only the first two columns of this box need to be filled right now; a size 2 city will have three active columns, and so on. When the food icons spill past the bottom of the box, our city grows by one, giving us one more little man we need to feed at the cost of two food per turn, but that same little man can in turn be used to work another square, harvesting more resources. The same process is repeated to grow from size 2 to size 3, and so on. Because one more column becomes active in the Food Storage box each time we grow, we need proportionally more food to grow a city to each new stage. Eventually most cities will reach an equilibrium point where they’re using all of their food production just to maintain their existing population. Exactly where that point is depends on the terrain surrounding the city, our efforts to develop said terrain, our type of government, and our technological development.

We’ll skip the empty box at the bottom center of the screen, which can display information on local military units and other things we’d rather not dwell on now. Instead look to the top right. Here we see a list of the all of the major buildings in our city. At the moment, the list consists only of our ruling palace, which we get as a freebie with our first city. Until we do some research, we don’t even have the ability to build much else.

Finally, at bottom right, we see what the city is currently using its industrial potential — those little shield icons — to produce, as well as how far along we are with the current project. We can build, as shown by the menu displayed above, either mobile units or immobile buildings. Note that, because we’re playing at Chieftain level and thus are presumably new to the game, we get some “advisors” offering suggestions of what to do next. Such a level of consideration for the beginning player was still quite unusual in Civilization‘s day, especially in a relatively hardcore strategy game like this one.

Just as with city growth, we need to fill up the shaded area with icons to finish a project. We’re currently building a militia unit, the most basic military unit in the game, which every civilization starts with the ability to make. It’s also the cheapest unit, costing just ten shield icons. Because our city produces two shield icons per turn, it will take a total of five turns, each spanning twenty years — i.e., an entire century in all — to make our first militia. Civilizations in the game, like civilizations in reality, take a while to really get going.

But as we’re waiting on our first militia, the cultural progress which might eventually lead us all the way to Alpha Centauri begins when we’re asked which advance we’d like to research first. With all due respect to our science advisor, we’ll go with Pottery.

Because our research capabilities are so meager, it will take quite a few turns to acquire our first advance. So, we’re back to waiting.

Right on schedule, in 3900 BC, our first militia unit is completed at last. Although we’re itching to use it to explore all that terra incognita around us, we should try to resist the urge. If another civilization or one of the barbarian clans that roam the world should stumble across our single undefended city, that would mark the end of our game right there. Instead we should fortify our militia in the city — fortifying it increases its defensive capabilities by 50 percent — and keep waiting while our city builds a second militia.

In the meantime, we finally discover Pottery. (Yes, that is Sid Meier dressed up as a Roman noble.)

The game helpfully tells us a little bit about the advance — not only about its importance in gameplay terms, but also about its importance in the real history of human civilization.

While our “wise men” are researching our next advance — we’ve chosen Alphabet this time — our second militia unit has been completed, and we use it to begin pushing back the edges of the known world. Notice as well that our city has grown to size 2.

Indeed, the city-management screen for Tenochtitlan shows that everything is going quite well there. We’re still producing plenty of extra food, meaning we can expect to grow to size 3 before too many more centuries have passed, despite the fact that doing so requires a greater absolute quantity of food than did growing from size 1 to size 2. Thanks to our second worker, we’re now generating three trade arrows per turn instead of one, meaning we can expect our research to go three times faster. And the fact that we’ve finished researching Pottery means that we’re now able to start building a granary.

Granaries, like all buildings, provide a benefit to the cities that house them, as is explained by the game’s online help, or “Civilopedia” — itself a very innovative feature in its day. By causing the cities that house them to only empty their Food Storage boxes of half their food when they grow, granaries can in a best-case scenario double the pace of a city’s growth. Note as well, however, that they come with a maintenance cost, meaning our citizens’ blissful tax-free existence must soon come to an end.

We’re still in the very earliest stages of building our civilization, but the completion of our first building nevertheless seems like a good place to wrap up this introduction. In the centuries and millennia to come, we’ll explore the entirety of our starting continent and perhaps, once we get the ships to do so, of our world. We’ll build many new settler units to found many more cities. We may switch from our starting government of Despotism, which is well-suited to a civilization pulling itself up by its bootstraps but not terribly conducive to long-term development, to Monarchy; still later, our civilization might become a republic, a democracy, or even a communist state. We’ll irrigate the fields outside our cities to improve their food yields, build mines in the hills around them to increase their industrial potential, and bind them all together with a network of roads and, eventually, railroads. We’ll build Wonders of the World, both for the concrete benefits they provide and for the bragging rights of having done so. And at some point — possibly as early as next turn, possibly not for many centuries yet — we’ll meet other civilizations. When that happens, we’ll have to decide whether to try to coexist with them peacefully, setting up diplomatic relations and trade routes, or whether to go to war — or perhaps they will force war upon us. Through it all, we’ll keep marching up the Advances Chart, until, just maybe, the fine day will come when we send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri to inaugurate humanity’s next grand adventure.

Each new civilization we make will be shaped to some extent by the pressure of events around it, but much of its personality will always come down to what we feel like trying in that particular game. Free-trading democracy keeping the peace with a strong military it hopes never to use; aggressively expansionist empire that uses its strong military well and often; humble nation concentrating on culture and paying other civilizations tribute to keep them from invading; wily communist state keeping the world off-balance through sabotage and spycraft. All are possibilities worthy of experimentation in the laboratory of Civilization.

A well-developed civilization of AD 1635, in the process of connecting its enormous cities together via railroad.

The core genius of Civilization as a piece of game design is the way that it manages to subsume all of this universe of possibilities, along with every era of technology and culture from 4000 BC to the near future, within the same set of simple rules and processes. Civilization itself isn’t a particularly simple game; there’s always much to think about as you juggle your country’s economy, its military, and its long-term progress. Yet the core mechanisms which foster it all really are disarmingly simple, and change little if at all over the course of 6000 years of history. The game accomplishes this feat by teasing out the core similarities amid all the differences. In terms of transportation infrastructure, railroads are just faster roads; in terms of the military, an armor unit is just a much more potent militia; in terms of progress, each advance is researched in exactly the same way, whether it be the alphabet or atomic physics.

Mechanisms and even interface elements are reused whenever possible. A rather shocking percentage of the game is built around a conceit we’ve already seen plenty of, one that Sid Meier summarizes as “filling up little boxes.” When the Food Storage box is full, a city grows; when a production track is full, a building or unit gets built; when a little light bulb on the main display is full of color, whatever advance is currently being researched gets finished. The thoroughgoing commitment to simple and consistent mechanisms means that a Space Age civilization, although it might have a hundred or a thousand times more population and potential than one just coming out of the Stone Age, is nevertheless controlled exactly the same. Rather than alter the core mechanisms of the game, new developments change only the numbers, or confer some advantage that makes the numbers climb more efficiently; think again of the granary improvement that means that only half instead of all of your stored food disappears when your city grows. Thus when you acquire new capabilities it feels exciting rather than daunting because you already have an intuitive feel for how they work. Civilization does have a learning curve, but it’s one that can be conquered in your first few hours with the game. If you know how to use your settlers to irrigate a field in 2000 BC, you know how to use them to clean up industrial waste in AD 2000.1

Civilization‘s ability to hook its player has achieved legendary status; it was with the appearance of this game that the just-one-more-turn syndrome became an in-joke of gamers everywhere. “There’s a compulsion about it that transcends fun,” notes Sid Meier. He shares an anecdote:

In the middle of development, we went on a vacation, and my brother started playing an early prototype of the game. He was in his teens at the time. We didn’t see him for hours. That was an indication that there was something compelling [here] that we hadn’t tapped into before. We had a sense that there was something a little different about this game.

For all their skill as designers, neither Meier nor Bruce Shelley entirely understood at the time Civilization shipped just how they had managed to create a game that would soon be described as more addictive than crack cocaine. Looking back on it today, Meier believes that the happy (?) accident resulted from the way that Civilization keeps you constantly looking forward to the future — to finishing your research into airplanes, to getting that Copernicus’s Observatory Wonder finally finished, to finally taking out those pesky Mongols — combined with the way that the game’s many overlapping elements make it resistant to the idea of chapter breaks in the unfolding story of your civilization. Big expectations for the immediate future and a lack of obvious stopping places make for a potent combination indeed, one that has led to countless bleary-eyed workdays, to meals untasted, to responsibilities neglected. Once Civilization sucks you into its world, it can be incredibly difficult to climb back out again.

Which isn’t to say that Civilization‘s world is entirely without its discontents. The game does have two significant problems, which I’ll call the devil in the details and the long anticlimax.

The devil in the details arises out of the very goal of most Civilization players: to grow their civilization as much as possible. What’s pleasant and simple at the beginning of the game, when you have just one city to deal with, can become a monumental headache by the middle phases, when you might have a dozen or more cities and, especially if you’re the aggressive type, a hundred or more military units to manage. How do you keep everything straight in such a situation, and how do you keep all the micromanagement from becoming deathly boring? The deeper you play into Civilization, the more time-consuming each turn becomes. Much — most, really — of what you do with all those cities and units is obvious and rote. Each city you found will go through a fairly consistent series of stages in its development: first you’ll want to see to its defense, then you’ll want to construct a granary to speed up its growth, etc. Similarly, units which you’ve decided should be used to accomplish any given strategic or tactical goal generally carry out the details of their work in a fairly rote way. Once you’ve decided to earmark a settler to improve the land around a city, for example, the process of moving it from square to square and issuing commands to irrigate and to build roads becomes a largely mindless one. In addition to the sheer tedium of all this micromanagement, the player who’s trying to think strategically can all too easily begin to miss the forest for all these trees. An extremely small percentage of the orders you issue in any given turn might require real, careful thought, and it’s hard to separate those orders out from all the busywork. It’s hard to feel like Napoleon when you also have to play the role of a low-level bureaucrat in his public-works department.

The long anticlimax, on the other hand, begins after you’ve built your civilization up to a reasonable maturity, have grown more powerful than your biggest rivals — or more powerful than all of them put together — and thus pretty much know that you’re going to win. Sid Meier has famously described a good game as “a series of interesting decisions,” a description which certainly applies to Civilization in the broad strokes. But when you enter the long anticlimax, the interesting decisions are all behind you, yet the game still has a long, long way to go. You’ve reached the point where, if this was a movie, the credits would start to roll. And yet, especially if you’re playing for Alpha Centauri, you could still be facing centuries or millennia of the sort of rote management functions I just described in the previous paragraph. Even if you’re playing to conquer the world, you’re facing a series of wars you know you’re going to win, possibly capped by the supreme anticlimax of scouring the ends of the earth for some final pissant rival marooned on an island somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

These two problems hardly came to Civilization out of the blue. Decades of board-game designs, and a fair number of earlier computer strategy games as well, had struggled with them by the time Meier and Shelley embarked on their game of everything. The pair was sufficiently aware of the devil in the details to take some steps to head him off. They added an option to switch cities into an automated building mode, where the computer chooses whatever building seems appropriate to it to build next. They also made it possible to issue longer-term orders to units, telling them to “go to” a given map square instead of guiding them manually to their destination turn by turn. But, limited as the two designers doubtless were by the technology with which they worked, neither solution turned out to be ideal. The computer’s choices for city development are often inexplicable, and even more often incompatible with whatever specific strategy you happen to be pursuing, while the game’s path-finding is so bad that ordering a unit to “go to” a destination more than half a dozen squares away tends to result in it getting confused, and finally just giving up on some random square that may or may not be closer to the destination than the one it started from.

When I wrote about Railroad Tycoon, Meier and Shelley’s previous strategy game, I described it as a tighter, more elegant design than Civilization in purely structural terms, and I hold to that opinion still. The older game’s limits on the numbers of trains and tracks the player can build keep the combinatorial explosion at bay, and because every game of Railroad Tycoon is limited to exactly 100 years it generally ends while competition is still raging.

Of course, any game is ultimately a partnership between its designer and its player. In the case of Civilization, there are things the player can do to mitigate its two greatest failings. Once the limitations of the path-finding are understood, “go to” orders can become a useful convenience, if not as useful as they might have been, as long as units’ destinations are confined to reasonably straightforward routes covering limited distances. And then, it’s perfectly possible to build a thriving little capitalist democracy of only five or six cities that’s capable of winning the race to Alpha Centauri — thus avoiding much of the tedious micromanagement that goes into more sprawling empires. For that matter, one could even imagine a player setting her own conditions for declaring victory early, thus avoiding the long anticlimax.

At any rate, I certainly don’t want to hammer Civilization too badly on these fronts. These issues really are some of the most intractable in strategy-game design — perhaps some of the most intractable in game design, period — and Meier and Shelley were far from the first to struggle with them in the digital or analog space. In the years since the original Civilization, a multitude of weapons have been brought to bear against them, from artificially-intelligent lieutenants who can be given a broad strategic direction to follow to scenario-based game-ending goals that are more specific than the likes of “conquer the world or fly to Alpha Centauri.” And yet, even with all of the additional computing power available to later designers, no one has ever come up with a true, universal cure for either the devil in the details or the long anticlimax. We’ve merely seen a series of more or less effective efforts to minimize the pain they cause.

Many of the designers applying such painkillers work within a thriving sub-genre that is widely perceived to have been born with Civilization. The first game in the franchise that is still perhaps the most prominent of these would-be heirs, the towering classic-in-its-own-right Master of Orion, appeared in 1993. Like Civilization, it was published by MicroProse, although it was the creation of an outside design team who called themselves Simtex rather than the company’s internal staff. Nevertheless, Civilization showed up in every single review of Master of Orion; Computer Gaming World was typical, calling Meier and Shelley’s game its “spiritual father.” The real lineage of Master of Orion and its countless successors is more complicated than such reviews might have made it seem, with a major debt owed to games like CompuServe’s online MegaWars series, among other relics of the 1980s and even 1970s. Still, the influence of Civilization as well is undeniable. Master of Orion‘s own producer at MicroProse, Jeff Johannigman, loved to describe it as “Civilization in space. ” Computer Gaming World‘s Alan Emrich dubbed it a “4X” game — “explore, expand, exploit, exterminate” — thus coining a name for the budding sub-genre which took no time at all to be retroactively applied to Civilization.

But is the one thing really the same as these other things? Master of Orion and its many successors take place in the distant reaches of space in an imagined far future; Civilization engages with potential histories of our own planet, or at least of one very much like it. This is not a trivial distinction, for it gives Civilization a texture which its peers can’t hope to match. With all due respect to the great builders of fictional worlds among us, the most multifarious, surprising, and fascinating world of all will always be the one we’re living on.

Further, the ruthless zero-sum game implied by the “4X” label doesn’t actually exist in Civilization unless you, the player, want it to. Consider this extract from the original manual, found under the heading of “Winning”:

You win a game of Civilization in either of two ways: by eliminating all rival civilizations or by surviving until the colonization of space begins.

The elimination of all other civilizations in the world is very hard to accomplish. You are much more likely to win by being in existence when colonists reach Alpha Centauri. Even if the colonists are not yours, the successful direction of your civilization through the centuries is an achievement. You have survived countless wars, the pollution of the industrial age, and the risks of nuclear weapons.

Bruce Shelley, who authored the manual, is thus explicitly discouraging the player from approaching Civilization as a zero-sum game: you win simply “by being in existence when colonists reach Alpha Centauri.” This doesn’t mean that all or most players played under that assumption — a topic I’ll return to momentarily — but it’s nevertheless kind of an amazing statement to find in a game like this one, implying as it does that civilization writ large truly is a global, cooperative project. There’s an idealism lurking within Civilization, this game that plays not just with economics and war but with the grandest achievements of humanity, that’s missing in the likes of Master of Orion. It’s notable that, while the history of gaming is littered with hundreds of galaxy-spanning 4X space operas, vanishingly few games beyond Civilization‘s own sequels have attempted to replicate its model of grand strategy.

For me, all of this stuff of history and humanity that goes into Civilization is the reason that, although Railroad Tycoon or even Master of Orion might be better games in structural terms, they can never inspire my imagination in quite the same way. While I hesitate to tell anyone how they should correctly play any game, I’m always a little bemused when I see the folks in the hardcore Civilization community sharing exhaustive breakdowns of how to play every turn with maximal efficiency, as if they were playing a game of chess instead of a grand romp through history. Meier and Shelley must have felt much the same way when, shortly after releasing the original Civilization, they learned that players had developed strategies to beat the game by placing a tiny city on every other square, or by never researching any breakthrough beyond the wheel and the trireme, building endless hordes of chariots, and conquering the world by 1000 BC. They duly put together some patches to try to head off such exploits as much as possible, but they didn’t do so without grumbling that playing Civilization only for the purpose of winning wasn’t quite what they’d had in mind when they were designing it. “To me,” says Meier, “a game of Civilization is an epic story.”

Meier and Shelley had envisioned a more experiential sort of player, one eager to get into the spirit as well as the mechanics of the game. Consider that standard practice among the hardcore of meticulously plotting a path through the Advances Chart in order to get to, say, the key advance of Railroads as quickly as possible. This sort of thing wasn’t what the game’s designers had intended at all. “That’s not how they [the real civilizations of history] did it,” says Meier. “They just figured out one thing at a time.” The designers had pictured a more free-wheeling game with far more space for the player’s experiential imagination, one where you might choose Mysticism as your next subject of research from among half a dozen choices not because it was a key advance on the road to Navigation but because you had chosen to play as a hierarchical, intensely religious society. Far be it from me to tell others how best to enjoy themselves. I know only that I personally prefer to let a game of Civilization breathe a little, to let my imagination roam, to embrace the adventure of human progress.

By this point in my second article on the subject, I feel like I’ve done reasonable justice to Civilization as a game and as a landmark in gaming history. Should any of you still be in doubt: yes, this really is a landmark game, and any of you seriously interested in this medium and its history, even if you don’t normally play strategy games, should give it a try if for no other reason than to know what people like me are talking about when they ramble on about the genius of Sid Meier. The influence of Civilization upon the games that followed it has been pervasive, extending well beyond the 4X genre of grand-strategy games it was retroactively claimed to have birthed. For instance, the tech trees found in almost every real-time strategy game — a far more popular and profitable sub-genre today than 4X games — have their inspiration in Civilization. Even many modern board games, such as those in the so-called “worker placement” genre, owe something to Civilization. It eminently deserves to be considered one of the most important computer games ever made — a game that ushered in a golden age of ambitious grand strategy, that lent its ideas and mechanics to a whole host of other games and genres, but that somehow did all this while holding something back that makes it inspiringly unique, a rare example of a strategy game that’s willing to celebrate the very best of us alongside our wars and folly.

All of which might make for a fine closing statement under other circumstances. But the fact is that I’m not done with Civilization — in fact, far from it. So, having opened this article by telling you what this series of articles is not, let me close it by telling you what I intend for it to be from here on: a close reading of Civilization as a text.

That perhaps sounds a little intimidating, perhaps a little boring, perhaps downright nonsensical. Let me assure you that I don’t want it to be any of those things. A computer game, like a book or, for that matter, a movie, can be called a “text” in that it’s a cultural creation full of assumptions and arguments — some explicit, some implicit, many not even consciously included by its authors.

We might also call Civilization, if we’re feeling generous, a simulation of the processes of history. It’s of course an almost absurdly abstracted simulation of those processes, and one contaminated by heaps of competing concerns. But then, no simulation of anything is a comprehensive reflection of reality; it’s rather a reflection of selected aspects of reality, those judged by its creators to be important. Further, any simulation is modeled not on even a subset of absolute reality but rather on its creators’ understanding of a subset of reality, filtered through their frame of reference, infected with their biases. In the case of, say, the aerodynamic modeling that goes into a flight simulator, the details of all this aren’t likely to be of much interest to those of us who aren’t aerospace engineers. But in the case of Civilization, which attempts to translate many of the most fundamental questions of history into a set of rules and algorithms, they become very interesting indeed.

Let’s think for a moment about the word “history.” What do we really mean by it? The answer might seem obvious: we mean the events that happened in the past. But is that really what we mean?

Is what you had for lunch yesterday the stuff of history? That’s probably not the sort of thing you had in mind when you called history “events that happened in the past.” Fair enough. What about a list of, say, all the computer games that were released in 1991? That’s perhaps getting closer, but it still feels like something is missing, some binding narrative of whys and wherefores to make sense of all that raw data. While most people would accept the statement that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo as an historical fact, a more holistic view of the real history of Waterloo would include a necessarily subjective analysis of the factors that went into his defeat. This act of interpretation is sometimes referred to as “historiography,” as opposed to the raw history it addresses. For the average person on the street, however, historiography for all intents and purposes is history as she thinks of it.

Now let’s think about what we mean when we talk about a game that simulates history. Most such games deal with specific historical events: the 1967 Grand Prix season, the Battle of the Bulge. Yet Civilization is different. It sucks in heaps of historical markers — such as the playable civilizations themselves, the list of great achievements found on the Advances Chart, and the Wonders of the World — but a game of Civilization played as the Romans is in no sense really about the specific history of Rome. This is, after all, a game where an American civilization ruled by Abraham Lincoln can be born in 4000 BC, where an Aztec civilization can conquer the world or send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. Civilization is rather a game about those aforementioned whys and wherefores of history — or, one might say, about the processes that have resulted in our planet’s history. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley looked through their library of history books, made their best estimates of how those processes worked, and coded them into a game. In doing so, they rather blithely set down answers for some of the most profound questions one can ask about the public sphere of life. Is progress destined to continue forever? Why do some civilizations succeed and others fail? What are the societal advantages and disadvantages of religious faith? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the various models of economics and government? Is a nationalist or a globalist attitude more conducive to a healthy civilization?

Meier and Shelley didn’t make Civilization in order to advance any particular historiographical argument. They weren’t hoping to make what we today would call a “serious game,” much less a political statement, much less a piece of agitprop. They were making a mainstream game for a mainstream software publisher, and had for obvious reasons no great desire to offend any potential customer whose take on history might be different from their own. Their highest single allegiance was, as Meier has told us so many times, to fun. Yet the fact that the assumptions that went into Civilization weren’t made in service of any particular agenda makes them rather more than less interesting. The obvious problem with a serious game that wants to convince you that, say, it really sucks to work at Kinko’s is the very fact that it does want to convince you of something. It can hardly be regarded as a neutral arbiter, so how can you trust it? Civilization, on the other hand, isn’t consciously trying to sell us on any given view of history. If this fact by no means makes its take on history infallible, it does lend its honestly-arrived-at presumptions a certain good faith that a “simulation” designed as propaganda lacks.

Peering into Civilization in the spirit of historical inquiry can be hugely rewarding in two senses. First of all, there’s the fact that the original game of Civilization has itself long since become history. Here we have an artifact — a text — from a very definite time and place and point of view, created in the United States just after the end of the Cold War by two thoughtful white men of a relatively moderate, conventional political persuasion. We can learn much about the time and place it came from by teasing out its assumptions, and we’ll do a bit of that in the articles to come.

At the same time, though, we can also use Civilization as a tool instead of a subject of inquiry. When we pull out its model of the processes of history and examine it, the game can open up new avenues for interpreting the world we see around us and how it came to be. We’ll be doing even more of that in the articles to come.

Such a project strikes me as a timely exercise. By any objective standard, the world is a better, more peaceful, more prosperous place than it has ever been, yet the prevailing mood of the past few years in much of Western culture has been one of backward-looking pessimism. As I write these words in March of 2018, what have been the core assumptions of Western civilization since the end of World War II — the same conventional wisdom one will find embedded deep within Civilization — are being questioned to an extent I can’t remember ever happening before in my lifetime. An examination of those assumptions and of their validity or lack thereof thus feels like the right thing to do right now, not despite the way that Civilization‘s optimism about humanity’s future feels so out of step with the current times but because of it. We won’t be able to solve our civilization’s current crisis of confidence through a 27-year-old computer game, but perhaps we can come to understand a few things just a little bit better.

(Sources: the anthology Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History, particularly the chapters “Introduction: To Build a Past That Will ‘Stand the Test of Time’ — Discovering Historical Facts, Assembling Historical Narratives” by Andrew B.R. Elliott and Matthew Wilhelm Kapell, “The Same River Twice: Exploring Historical Representation and the Value of Simulation in the Total War, Civilization, and Patrician Franchises” by Rolfe Daus Peterson, Andrew Justin Miller, and Sean Joseph Fedorko, and “Modding the Historians’ Code: Historical Verisimilitude and the Counterfactual Imagination” by Tom Apperley; the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich and Game Design: Theory & Practice by Richard Rouse III; Computer Gaming World of September 1993, December 1993, and January 1994; Soren Johnson’s interviews with Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier. My huge thanks go to Soren for providing me with the raw audio of his Sid Meier interview months before it went up on his site, thus giving me a big leg up on my research.

Oddly for such a seminal game, the original Civilization has never officially been made available, whether for sale or for free, as a digital download. So, I’ve taken the liberty of hosting it here, in a zip along with some support files that will make it as painless as possible to get running. Just add the appropriate version of DOSBox for your computer.)


  1. The one glaring exception to this rule is the implementation of the game’s potential capstone, the trip to Alpha Centauri. An entirely new element of spaceship design and construction suddenly enters at this point. Introducing such a thing in the endgame of a strategy game that could consume ten or twenty hours to play through is rather jarring. It strikes me as a rare example of Sid Meier, usually a judicious editor of his own designs, letting in one idea too many. 

 
 

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The Game of Everything, Part 1: Making Civilization

If my gravestone says, “Sid Meier, developed Civilization,” I’m happy with that. It’s a game I’m happy to be known for.

— Sid Meier

Sid Meier

During Sid Meier’s astonishingly productive first ten years as a designer and programmer, games poured out of him in such a jumble that even his colleagues at MicroProse Software could have trouble keeping straight what all he was working on at any given time. At the beginning of 1990, for instance, he had no fewer than three ambitious projects on the boil. He and his protege Bruce Shelley were finishing up Railroad Tycoon with justifiable enthusiasm. The same pair was, with considerably less enthusiasm, returning to Covert Action, one of the rare Meier designs that he could just never quite get to work to his satisfaction. And then — because what else should a recently married game designer spend his evenings doing? — Meier had embarked on a third project on his own time, a game he was already calling Civilization.

Like Railroad Tycoon before it, Civilization was born out of Meier’s abiding fascination with SimCity. The programmer and simulation designer inside him recognized Will Wright’s so-called “software toy” to be a stunning achievement, yet the purer game designer within him was always a bit frustrated by the aimlessness of the experience. Thus Railroad Tycoon had attempted to take some of the appeal of SimCity and “gamify” it by adding computerized opponents and a concrete ending date. It had succeeded magnificently on those terms, but Meier wasn’t done building on what Wright had wrought. In fact, his first conception of Civilization cast it as a much more obvious heir to SimCity than even Railroad Tycoon had been. Whereas SimCity had let the player build her own functioning city, Civilization would let her build a whole network of them, forming a country — or, as the game’s name would imply, a civilization.

This, then, was the first of three conceptual layers which would eventually make up the game of Civilization that the world would come to know. Meier abstracted away most of the details of the individual cities, letting the player decide only on which key buildings were built, whilst boiling each city down to a handful of numbers detailing its population, its economy, and its quality of life. This being a country rather than a city simulator, the spaces between the cities were just as important as the urban centers themselves. Meier thus made it possible to irrigate the countryside, to build roads to facilitate commerce, to build mines for digging up the raw materials needed by the centers of industry. At this early stage, Civilization, later to be hailed as the most iconic exemplar of turn-based grand-strategy games, ran in real time, like SimCity and Railroad Tycoon before it.

Around March of 1990, after working on Civilization for some months completely alone, Meier began to include Bruce Shelley in the role of sounding board. Shelley worked a standard eight-to-five day at MicroProse most of the time, while Meier hewed to a typical hacker’s schedule, showing up at noon or shortly before and working late into the evening. Each night, before he went home, he’d leave a disk on Shelley’s chair with the latest version of Civilization. The next morning, when Shelley arrived at work, he’d play it for an hour or so in order to give Meier his feedback. For perhaps as long as a year, Shelley was literally the only person allowed to play the nascent Civilization, under strict instructions to ignore the pleas of his colleagues peering over his shoulder. It was, to say the least, an unorthodox model of game development, but it somehow worked for these two unique personalities. Far from remaining just a glorified play-tester for very long, Shelley got deeper and deeper into the design. As he did so, Civilization started to become something else entirely.

The switch from a real-time to a turn-based approach was made quite early on, possibly even before those disks started appearing on Bruce Shelley’s chair. It would be wonderful to know the details behind the decision, but neither Meier nor Shelley can recall much of the specifics. It’s likely, however, that the change was made when Meier and Shelley — or Meier alone — started mulling over how to prevent Civilization from falling into the SimCity trap of becoming more of a software toy than a game in the traditional sense. The obvious way to gameify the experience was to include competing civilizations, just as Railroad Tycoon had included competing robber barons. But conflicts between civilizations, unlike conflicts between business interests, always have looming over them the prospect of that ultimate diplomatic arbiter: war. So, including competing civilizations seemed to demand that a whole new layer of wargame strategy be mated to the existing game of city and country development.

Meier, who somehow found time to remain an avid player of strategy games when he wasn’t developing them, had for years been playing one called Empire, a design so old that it had been born on a big DEC PDP-10 rather than a microcomputer. Empire has a complicated pre-commercial history, which is complicated further by the fact that at least three mostly or entirely separate games were given the name over the course of the 1970s. But the most relevant version for our purposes was created by Walter Bright, a 20-year-old student at the California Institute of Technology, in 1977. Bright himself later ported it to microcomputers, efforts which culminated in him selling the game to a small publisher called Interstel, who made something of a specialty out of pulling hoary old classics out of the dustbin of 1970s institutional computing, giving them a coat of spit and polish, and introducing them to the home-computer-owning public. (Their first game, 1984’s Star Fleet I: The War Begins!, had done the same thing for the old mainframe Star Trek game.) It was Interstel’s version of Empire, published in 1987 with the subtitle Wargame of the Century, that Sid Meier knew best.

At a time when companies like SSI were publishing bafflingly complicated wargames in the name of faithfulness to history, Empire stood out for its elegant simplicity; it was more Risk than Squad Leader. A world on which to play is chosen or, more commonly, generated randomly for each game. You begin in possession of a single city surrounded by just eight visible squares of the 5684 of them that make up the map; the rest of the world remains a mystery. Each city can be assigned to build one of a handful of armies, aircraft, and ships, each of which demands a set number of turns to bring to completion. Your first objective must be to build a unit in your first city and set out to explore the map as quickly as possible, taking possession of any neutral cities you discover. But eventually you run into the units and cities of your competitors, whereupon you all duke it out, leaving the last person left standing as the winner. Simplicity really is the watchword throughout. The military units, for instance, have their capabilities abstracted into just a handful of numbers: a movement speed, an attack rating, a defense rating, a damage rating describing the number of hits required to destroy it. Combat occurs when one player drives a unit into a square occupied by an enemy unit, whereupon the computer throws a virtual die, runs the result through an equation, and announces the outcome of the battle. A certain kind of player lauds Empire as a pure strategy game, a balanced challenge which rewards purely strategic thinking instead of muddying the issue with the superiority of Nazi optics versus the better armor of Allied tanks and all the rest. (Of course, another kind of player, of a more experiential bent, finds it utterly uninteresting for the same reason.)

Issuing orders to a unit in Empire

…and doing the same thing in Civilization.

There’s really no delicate way to put this: confirming the old adage that good artists borrow while great ones steal, Sid Meier pretty much ripped off Empire wholesale and transported it into his burgeoning Civilization. The unknown map just begging to be revealed, the combat system, even many of the specific commands a player could issue to her units… all arrived virtually unchanged in Civilization, to such an extent that anyone who had played Empire — and Bruce Shelley, for one, certainly had — would immediately know what to do. Where Meier did make changes, it was generally to simplify Empire‘s already hugely abstracted approach to wargaming yet further. For example, he removed the damage rating from his units altogether in favor of a one-hit-and-you’re-done model. (This would lead to one of the more indelible images of Civilization in the cultural memory: that of a Greek phalanx destroying, thanks to a lucky roll of the virtual die, a platoon of modern tanks.)

By this point, Meier and Shelley had a fairly credible game already, a version of Empire grafted to a city-building game of economic development which determined how many and what sorts of military units the player could produce and support. Said units were confined to the ancient era: legions, phalanxes, chariots, cavalry. Shelley remembers the two of them discussing the fact that, should worse come to worst, they could probably just polish up what they had and release it as a beer-and-pretzels strategy game of the Punic Wars or something. Yet neither one was at all inclined to do so; to turn Civilization into a just another conquer-the-world game would be to lose some palpable if unarticulated sense of otherness that had been lurking within the project from the very beginning.

Civilization‘s Advances Chart is one of the most awe-inspiring documents I’ve ever encountered in my life. Colloquially referred to as the “tech tree,” it actually encompasses much more than that name would imply. It’s rather an endlessly fascinating chronicle of human progress, of what begot what, not just in the realm of technology but in those of art, culture, thought… in everything. I love it so much that I very nearly started another blog just to explore its interconnections. Yes, really.

The moment when they discovered their game’s true reason for existing came when they conjured up the “Advances Chart,” a timeline of scientific, technological, and cultural advancements up which the player could guide her civilization. With this idea, the third and most defining layer of the game fell into place. Not only did it change the game, it also changed the nature of the design process. The pair’s afternoons were soon filled by discussions — and occasional arguments — ranging back and forth across the timeline of progress. Others inside MicroProse’s cramped offices found these discussions so fascinating that they couldn’t help listening in, to the detriment of their own productivity. Shelley remembers making one proposal that wouldn’t ultimately make it into the game, for introducing a technology no less plebeian than the stirrup to the Advances Chart. “Why the stirrup?” asked a baffled Meier. Well, explained Shelley, horse-borne warfare didn’t instantly begin when people began riding horses; if you hit someone with a lance while riding without stirrups you’d wind up pushing yourself right off the horse. Knights in shining armor, massed cavalry charges, cowboys and Indians… the humble stirrup, just as much as the domestication of horses, had been the key to all of it. These were the sorts of insights Civilization was now giving its designers, as it soon would its players as well.

Beyond the starting slate of seven possibilities for research, the Advances Chart was based on prerequisites: to research Mysticism required one to already have discovered Ceremonial Burial, to research Chivalry required one to have Horseback Riding and Feudalism. The prerequisites were partially based on gameplay considerations, but at least as often teased out real, sometimes subtle linkages between the great achievements of humanity. Why, for instance, should Democracy require Literacy? Because a functioning democracy requires a literate population able to read for themselves and make responsible decisions from a position of knowledge, that’s why. Why should Labor Unions require Mass Production? Because the awful working conditions in factories provided the impetus for organizing and collectively demanding better conditions from the moneyed interests who owned the factories, that’s why.

In order to form such connections, Meier and Shelley spent hours poring over history books, trying to understand what begot what and why. They were undoubtedly punching above their weight in trying to wrestle into place so all-encompassing a document as the Civilization Advances Chart — who wouldn’t be? — but they were helped by the fact that both had been dedicated readers of history for years, amassing substantial personal libraries.1 And when said personal libraries failed them, they could take advantage of the location of MicroProse’s offices in suburban Baltimore by making the short drive to one of the Smithsonian museums or the Library of Congress.

Meier and Shelley didn’t, as would have been all too easy for two old grognards like them, limit their research to the realm of the military, nor for that matter to the military-industrial complex. As some of the examples I’ve already named illustrate, they really did try to encompass everything on their Advances Chart, including philosophy, the arts, even the slow march of human rights toward true equality. They resisted the natural urge to dismiss or belittle those things which fell outside the compass of their usual interests. Here, another Shelley anecdote is telling. Very late in the game’s development, he asked one of MicroProse’s artists, who given the company’s usual product portfolio was accustomed to drawing pictures of soldiers, tanks and airplanes, to draw a picture of Michelangelo’s David statue for the Civilization manual. Why on earth do you want a picture of that, asked the artist. Shelley admitted that he was no great art historian or even art enthusiast. But, he said, people who are those things have told me via their books that this statue is very, very important — even, some of them might say, one of the great achievements of human civilization — and I respect their point of view. That noble broad-mindedness became an essential part of Civilization‘s personality, keeping it from becoming just another min-max-ing exercise in conflict management. I recently praised the Dr. Brain series of educational games from Sierra for their unwillingness to be confined to a single topic, for the implicit argument they make that all fields of human endeavor are equally worthy. Vastly different though it is as a game, Civilization manifests the same spirit.

By the time the Advances Chart extended to roughly the present day, the simple mechanisms Meier and Shelley had built the game around were finally beginning to break down. Meier remembers the introduction of aircraft units, which demanded that some ugly special rules be grafted onto the heretofore beautifully simple Empire-derived military layer, as a particular inflection point, a sign to the two designers that it was about time to wrap things up. He recalls introducing pollution to the game at least partly as a way of sending the same signal to the player.

Still, the spirit of the Advances Chart would clash horribly with a game which could be won only by conquering the world. What could become an alternative endgame for the player who preferred building to conquering? It was Shelley who suggested the perfect builder’s path to victory: advancing all the way to the end of the Advances Chart would allow you to build and launch a spaceship for Alpha Centauri, thus inaugurating the next great phase of humanity’s existence. Granted, it didn’t quite make sense in the context of the rest of the advances chart, which otherwise confined itself to things that had already been discovered or that hopefully would be in the fairly near future. Civilization would offer no explanation of how humanity would go from Robotics, (Apollo-style) Space Flight, and Plastics to bridging the 4.37 light years that separate our solar system from its closest neighbor — a leap that could require a whole other Advances Chart at least as big as the one Meier and Shelley already had to actually bring to fruition in any sort of grounded way. One could argue that a voyage to Mars might have made a better final goal, but Meier and Shelley clearly wanted something audacious, and audacious a trip to Alpha Centauri certainly is.

Now it only remained for the two designers to glue their three layers of gameplay into a coherent whole. On the surface, this seemed far from a simple task. The issues of scaling they faced would have defeated many a designer: military operations took place on a scale of days and weeks, construction projects played out on a scale of months and years, while cultures moved up the Advances Chart only over a time frame of decades and centuries.

My regular readers may recall that this same pair of designers had faced an only slightly less extreme version of this clash of time and scale with Railroad Tycoon. There the question had been how to integrate the operational aspect of the game — also known as the “model-railroading” aspect — with the business of running a real railroad over a period of years and decades. They solved the problem, you may recall, by effectively ignoring it, by running the entire game on the macro time scale of the business layer and just letting the operational layer deal with it. This meant that individual trains could take months between leaving one station and arriving at another, and that major transportation corridors like Boston to New York might be served by just two or three train departures per year. You could rationalize all of this as an abstraction of the hundreds of trains that were really running over these tracks, or you could just not think about it at all. The point was that it led to a fun game that captured the spirit of its subject matter.

Faced with the same problem in Civilization, Meier and Shelley took the exact same approach. The game would run on a time frame appropriate to the theme of human progress on the grand scale. Each turn would represent fully twenty years from 4000 BC to AD 1000, followed by ten years until 1500, five years until 1750, two years until 1850, and one year thereafter; the shortening spans of time would depict the steadily accelerating pace of progress as the world lurched toward modernity. This had some extremely weird implications for the Empire-derived military game in particular: it meant that battles could conceivably span centuries —  the Trojans and the Greeks had nothing on this lot! — and wars could potentially span millennia. For that matter, it meant that just marching a phalanx from one side of one’s country to the other could require a couple of centuries in itself. You can, once again, choose to rationalize this as an abstraction of reality, or you can just not think about it. Yet again, the point is that it’s fun and that it works for the game.

With the three layers of the design thus welded together, the rest of the game we’ve come to know as Civilization fell into place. Meier and Shelley turned to the history books again to select fifteen current or historical cultures for inclusion, from the Americans to the Zulus, one of which the player could choose to play, the others of which would serve as potential rival civilizations. Fairly rudimentary artificial intelligence came in for this last group, with the behavior of each rival civilization’s leader defined on an axis of three values, from “militaristic” to “civilized,” from “aggressive” to “friendly,” from “expansionist” to “perfectionist.” An extremely rudimentary diplomatic model came in, with geopolitical relations boiled down to make war or make peace, demand tribute or pay tribute.

The final indelible piece of the Civilization experience arrived in the form of “Wonders of the World,” special structures which only one civilization would be allowed to build in one city in the course of an entire game. Each would confer some tangible benefit, but just as important would be the bragging rights of having constructed the Pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall of China. While the idea and the name were obviously inspired by the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Meier and Shelley wound up using only four of the Seven. The balance of the list was filled out with seventeen other landmark achievements, many of them not actually physical structures at all: Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the United Nations, the Apollo moon landings, even — reaching now into the realm of wishful thinking — a cure for cancer. Just as had happened with the Advances Chart, the list of Wonders became far more wide-ranging than one would have any right to expect. How many other grognards would have taken the time to single out women’s suffrage as one of the Wonders of the World?

Other designers — some of them great ones — had occasionally dreamed about a game of this scale and scope, but none had ever come close to bringing the dream to fruition. At the very same time that Meier and Shelley were working on Civilization, two other hugely admired designers were coincidentally each working on a similarly themed project of their own, only to be forced to scale it back dramatically. Dan Bunten2 wound up with Global Conquest, a competent but less than earth-shaking conquer-the-world strategy game, while Chris Crawford wound up with a game every bit as unfun as its title would imply: The Global Dilemma: Guns or Butter.

Why, we might ask, did Civilization turn out differently? A big piece of the reason must be Sid Meier’s unwavering commitment to fun as the final arbiter in game design, as summed up in his longstanding maxim of “Fun trumps history.” Meier, Bunten, and Crawford actually met on at least one occasion to discuss the games of everything they each had in progress. Crawford’s recollections of that meeting are telling, even if they’re uttered more in a tone of condemnation than approbation: “Sid had a very clear notion: he was going to make it fun. He didn’t give a damn about anything else; it was going to be fun. He said, ‘I have absolutely no reservation about fiddling with realism or anything, so long as I can make it more fun.'”

But another, less obvious piece of the puzzle is inherent to the way that Civilization was developed. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a designer who’s just decided to make a game about everything. How do you even begin? What rules, what mechanics, what interface can you possibly employ? It is, needless to say, a daunting prospect. Game design being an art of the possible, you inevitably begin to pare away at your grand vision, trying to arrive at some core which you can actually hope to implement. In the process, though, you also begin cutting into the soul of the idea, until you arrive at a dispiriting shadow of it like Global Conquest or The Global Dilemma. Sid Meier, by contrast, never really decided to make a game about everything at all; his design just kind of went there on its own. Thus while Bunten and Crawford were cutting back on their ambitions, Meier was expanding on his. Rather than arriving as an immaculate conception, Civilization was allowed to grow into itself, employing rules, mechanics, and interfaces which had already been proven on smaller scales.

A persistent question surrounding Civilization the computer game — and one that has come to have urgent legal relevance — has been the influence of an earlier game with the same name, a board game designed by Francis Tresham and self-published by him in 1980, then re-published under the Avalon Hill imprint the following year. The theme of the board game matches that of the computer game — the advancement of human civilization from its formative stages — and the two share other eyebrow-raising similarities. An Advances Chart not at all far removed from the one in the computer game is implemented in the board game as well via a deck of cards, and even some of the individual advances in the board game lend their names to those in the computer game. On the other hand, the board game ends in approximately 250 BC, while, as already noted, the computer game stretches into the near future.

Seasoned grognards that they were, Meier and Shelley could hardly not have been acquainted with the Avalon Hill game, which enjoyed considerable popularity in its day among the hardcore wargame crowd who were willing to devote the five or six hours that a complete playthrough of it usually required. Yet Meier — who, it should be noted, has always been very transparent about the inspirations for his games — has claimed to have played the board game only once in his life, and not to have had it in mind at all when he started making the computer game. Shelley, who worked at Avalon Hill prior to coming to MicroProse, admits to considerably more familiarity, but likewise dismisses the notion of having borrowed anything more than certain themes and a name, the latter apparently with no regard to what had come before. Sid Meier could be, much to MicroProse head “Wild” Bill Stealey’s chagrin, extremely naive about matters of business and intellectual property, and simply stuck the obvious name on his own game without ever thinking about what conflicts it might create.

Stealey was no grognard, and thus had no idea about the name’s history until MicroProse had already begun advance promotion of their take on Civilization. It was at this point that a very unhappy Eric Dott, the president of Avalon Hill, called him up and said, “Wild Bill, Civilization is my game. You’re stealing it.” Further complicating the situation was the fact that the same two men had had very nearly same conversation barely a year before, when MicroProse had published Railroad Tycoon. Dott had been convinced then that the game in question bore suspicious similarities to the Avalon Hill board game 1830: Railways & Robber Barons, ironically also a Francis Tresham design, and one on which Bruce Shelley had done some work during his time at the company. Stealey had been able to smooth things over then, but now here they were again, and with what seemed a much more clear-cut case of trademark infringement at that. To make matters that much worse, Avalon Hill was about to unveil a set of expanded rules for the original Civilization board game under the name of Advanced Civilization, and was thus particularly unenthused about having a computer game with the same name confusing the issue at this of all junctures.

Wild Bill can best explain what happened next in his own inimitable style:

So, I had lunch with Eric. I bought him lunch because I was buttering him up. I said, “Eric, I apologize. I didn’t know Sid was doing this, but I think it’s going to be a good game. I think we won’t sell near as many as you sell as boxed games.” You know, one of those games you buy in a box and play on a table — tabletop games. “What if I put a card in every one of the games that says, ‘Get $5 off Civilization from Avalon Hill,’ and you do the same for me?'” After two or three glasses of wine, he agreed — one of his bigger mistakes. He would have made a lot more money if he had said, “Okay, give me 10 percent of it.” All he got was a card in the game box. If he had 10 percent of Civilization, Avalon Hill would still be around today, right?

Of course, the presence of those cards in the boxes did nothing to ease the confusion surrounding these two very different games with the same name. To this day, there are many who believe Sid Meier’s Civilization to be merely a computerized version of the board game.

Stealey and Dott’s gentleman’s agreement wouldn’t keep the lawyers at bay forever; the issue would be revisited again, with major consequences for all involved. But that would be only years in the future, and thus must be fodder for a much later article of mine.

By the time Stealey and Dott had their tête-à-tête, the duo of Meier and Shelley had long since begun including their colleagues in the Civilization development and play-testing process. The game had a split reputation inside MicroProse. The technical and creative staff, almost to a person, loved it, was convinced that this was not just another game, not even just another very good Sid Meier game, but a true landmark in the offing for their company and for their industry. And yet the more businesslike side of the company, taking their cue from the man at the top of the food chain, was rather less enthused.

The fact of the matter was that Wild Bill Stealey wasn’t capable of getting truly, personally enthused over any game that wasn’t a military flight simulator. Just as had happened with Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier’s two earlier masterpieces, he never quite seemed to grasp what his star designer was on about with Civilization, couldn’t seem to understand why he preferred to spend his time on a high-falutin’ project like this one instead of, say, F-15 Strike Eagle III. Yet Meier, whose confidence in himself had grown with every game of his that MicroProse published, was no longer a designer to whom Stealey could dictate directions; the last gasp of that had been his reluctantly finishing up Covert Action at Stealey’s insistence. Faced with that reality, Stealey duly provided Civilization with the artists and other resources Meier and Shelley needed to finish it, announced the game to the press (thus leading to that fateful lunchtime truce with Eric Dott), and even ran some modest pre-release advertisements. But he wasn’t overly generous with the Civilization development team; certainly the finished game is no graphical feast, with a look that verges at times on amateurish. Shelley in particular has described his frustration with feeling perpetually under-appreciated by MicroProse’s management. The final insult came when, after shipping their staggeringly ambitious game in December of 1991, he and Meier saw their bonuses cut because they had done so six weeks late, missing the bulk of the Christmas buying season.

Whatever Stealey personally thought of Civilization, his ambivalence is by no means the only explanation for the relative lack of resources at his star designer’s disposal. Meier, who had co-founded MicroProse with Stealey back in 1982, had seven years later made a conscious decision to step back from the roller-coaster ride that running a company alongside Wild Bill was always doomed to be. In 1989, he had convinced Stealey to buy him out so he could focus strictly on designing games, becoming a “super contractor” for what had once been his own company. Still, nothing could entirely insulate him and Shelley and their latest game from an unstable situation around them. The fact was that MicroProse was in a rather precarious position as Meier and Shelley were finishing their latest masterpiece. The problems reached back to 1988, when Stealey, having seen his company clear $1 million in profit the previous year, embarked on two major new initiatives that pushed them well outside their comfort zone of military simulations for American home computers. Neither of them would have a happy ending.

One of the new initiatives was an aggressive expansion into the European market, including a new branch office in Britain and the purchase of the Firebird and Rainbird labels from British Telecom. In principle, opening a MicroProse subsidiary in Britain was a smart, even visionary move to get in on the second biggest computer-game market in the world, but the move was horribly mismanaged from the start, collapsing into chaos in the summer of 1989, when Stealey flew to Britain to personally accuse a managing director of embezzling £200,000 from the company coffers. The purchase of Firebird and Rainbird, on the other hand, didn’t make much sense even at the time as anything other than expansion for expansion’s sake — their collection of action games and old-school text adventures didn’t sit terribly well beside the MicroProse catalog — and quickly turned out to be a bust, with both labels, which had enjoyed considerable respect at the time of the purchase, disappearing entirely by 1991 under a cloud of yet more transatlantic miscommunication.

Wild Bill Stealey with his ill-fated F-15 Strike Eagle arcade game.

But it was the other big initiative of 1988 that was closest to Wild Bill Stealey’s flyboy heart. Frustrated by the limitations of the personal computers which ran his beloved flight simulators, he concocted a scheme to build his own hardware in order to do them justice. Gene Lipkin, a former executive with the original Atari, took charge of a project to build coin-op versions of MicroProse’s games for arcades, beginning with F-15 Strike Eagle, their most successful game of all. The arcade version of that game, which was unveiled in 1990, could draw 60,000 polygons per second to its huge 27-inch screen at a time when the average PC-based MicroProse simulator was pushing about 1500. But, impressive though the hardware may have been, the whole project was profoundly ill-conceived from a business perspective. Like its microcomputer equivalent, the arcade version of F-15 Strike Eagle was a deep, fairly realistic game that would require some time even to fully understand, much less master. That was fine for home-computer software, but totally at odds with the quick thrills typically offered by arcade quarter-munchers. The extended play time, the complex missions which the player had to earn the right to play… none of it made any sense whatsoever as an arcade game. Even the First Gulf War, which was being televised live every night on CNN and creating a voracious appetite for flight simulators on home computers, couldn’t save it. It flopped.

As all of these misbegotten ventures ran their course, the losses piled up at MicroProse: $1.4 million in 1988, $300,000 in 1989, $600,000 in 1990. In 1991, Stealey decided that the best way to clear all of his failed ventures off the books and start moving forward again was to launch an IPO. On October 3, 1991, just as Meier and Shelley and their helpers were in the midst of the final mad scramble to finish Civilization, MicroProse issued 2 million shares at an initial price of $9 each. It was, to say the least, an unconventional move; companies normally launch IPOs when things are going well, not when they’re going poorly.3 For MicroProse, it would prove only the most short-lived of bandages on a series of financial wounds Stealey would only continue to inflict on his company.

 

Nevertheless, Civilization did come out that December, in a nice-looking box, with a fat manual (largely written by Shelley) and a pull-out insert for that magnificent Advances Chart. No one, of course — not even the game’s designers or its most zealous devotees among MicroProse’s creative staff — had any idea of what it would ultimately come to mean for its industry or its art form. Certainly no one could have dreamed that Civilization would still be going strong as I write these words more than a quarter of a century later, that it would become the sort of game quite likely to go on for as long as our own civilization exists to sustain it. “We knew it was a fun game,” remembers Meier, “but there had been no historical example of a [computer] game that had that kind of longevity at that point. We didn’t have a sense that this was going to be so different from the other games we had made. We thought it was good and creative and had new ideas in it, but had it flopped we would not have been shocked.”

Following the lead of its designers, gamers at large for the most part regarded Civilization as merely the latest release from the highly respected Sid Meier, albeit perhaps one with an unusually intriguing premise. Most of the initial reviews showed no inkling of the game’s ultimate importance, although they were universally positive. The one reviewer who did seem to grasp the game’s timeless quality was Alan Emrich. Writing in his usual affected style for Computer Gaming World, the journal of record for hardcore strategy gamers, he concluded his review by saying that “a new Olympian in the genre of god games has truly emerged, and Civilization is likely to prove itself the greatest discovery in computer entertainment since the wheel.”

But most importantly, Civilization sold quite well following its release, spending several months among the top ten sellers in the industry, rising once or twice as high as the number-three spot. Whatever he personally thought of Sid Meier’s recent esoteric project choices, Wild Bill Stealey couldn’t complain about the commercial performance of this, his latest effort, which earned back all of the money it had cost to make it in fairly short order.

And then, something else started to happen. After those first several months were over, when sales of any other computer game could normally be expected to fall off a cliff, they did no such thing in the case of Civilization. Month after month, Civilization kept right on selling. It became that rarest of beasts in what was becoming an ever more ephemeral, hits-driven industry: a perennial. Over the course of its first four and a half years on the market, it sold 850,000 copies, while becoming a huge influence on a whole new generation of ambitious turn-based grand-strategy games. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley had never made a sequel in their careers, and never had any inkling that this latest game of theirs would spawn a franchise, much less a genre — much less, for some players, a veritable lifestyle. But when MicroProse bowed to their customers’ demands and belatedly returned to the well in 1996 with Civilization II, the die was well and truly cast. Publishers, designers, and technology might come and go, but Civilization was forever.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, Game Design: Theory & Practice by Richard Rouse III, and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Game People Play by Morgan Ramsay; PC Review of August 1992; A.C.E. of May 1990; Computer Gaming World of January 1988, June 1989, September 1990, December 1990, November 1991, December 1991, and April 1992; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from October 25 1991, March 27 1992, June 5 1992, and August 14 1992; Soren Johnson’s interviews with Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier. My huge thanks go to Soren for providing me with the raw audio of his Sid Meier interview months before it went up on his site, thus giving me a big leg up on my research.)


  1. Soren Johnson, who many years later worked as co-designer of Civilization III and lead designer of Civilization IV, remembers Meier loaning him some reference books near the beginning of his involvement with the franchise, telling him that they might be good resources to use in refining or expanding the Advances Charts of the earlier games. Flipping through the books, he noticed underlined phrases like “ceremonial burial.” With a start, he realized that he had in his hands a history book that had itself become a piece of history: one of Sid Meier’s original sources for the original Civilization

  2. Dan Bunten began living as the woman Danielle Bunten Berry shortly after the publication of Global Conquest. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

  3. MicroProse had become a distributor of “affiliated labels,” smaller publishers who paid for access to their distribution network, in the late 1980s. In the run-up to the IPO, trying to make their bottom line look better, they abruptly stopped paying such labels for the games they sold. Among the publishers that were nearly undone by this move was Legend Entertainment. In light of episodes like this, it’s perhaps not a big surprise that, while Sid Meier was universally liked and respected, Bill Stealey’s reputation within his industry was, at best, mixed. 

 
 

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Wing Commander II

If there was ever any doubt inside Origin Systems that Chris Roberts’s Wing Commander was destined to join Ultima as the company’s second great franchise, it was banished the moment the first game in the new series was released on September 26, 1990, and promptly sold by some accounts 100,000 copies in its first month on the market. Previously known as a maker of highly demanding CRPGs that were devoured by an exclusive audience of loyalists, Origin was suddenly the proud publisher of the game that absolutely everybody was talking about, regardless of what genre they usually favored. It was a strange turn of events, one that surprised Origin almost as much as it did the rest of their industry. Nevertheless, the company wouldn’t be shy about exploiting the buzz.

The first dribble in what would become a flood of additional Wing Commander product was born out of a planned “special edition” of the original game, to be sold only via direct mail order. Each numbered copy of the special edition was to be signed by Roberts and would include a baseball cap sporting the Wing Commander logo. To sweeten the deal, Roberts proposed that they also pull together some of the missions and spaceships lying around the office that hadn’t made the cut for the original game, string some story bits between them using existing tools and graphic assets, and throw that into the special-edition box as well.

But the commercial potential for the “mission disk” just kept growing as customers bought the original game, churned through the forty or so missions included therein, and came clamoring for more. Roberts, for one, was certain that mission disks should be cranked out in quantity and made available as widely as possible, likening them to all of the “adventure modules” he had purchased for tabletop Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. And so the profile of the so-called Secret Missions project kept growing, becoming first a standalone product available by direct order from Origin, and then a regular boxed product that was sold at retail, just like all their other games. “When I make the decision to purchase a product,” Roberts noted in his commonsense way, “I want to go to the store and buy it immediately. I don’t want to make a phone call and wait for someone to ship it to me.”

The add-on disk’s mission design wasn’t as good as that of the original game, which had already done a pretty good job of digging all of the potential out of the space-combat engine’s fairly limited bag of tricks. With no way of making the missions more interesting, the add-on settled for making them more difficult, throwing well-nigh absurd quantities of enemy spacecraft at the player. But it didn’t matter: players ate it up and kept right on begging for more. Origin obliged them again with Secret Missions 2, a somewhat more impressive outing that employed the engine which was in development for a standalone Wing Commander II, and was thereby able to add at least a few new wrinkles to the mission formula along with a more developed plot.

It was Wing Commander II itself, however, that everyone — not least among them Origin’s accountants — was really waiting for. Origin hoped to get the sequel out by June of 1991, just nine months after the first game. Chris Roberts, now installed as Origin’s “Director of New Technologies,” had been placed in charge of developing a true next-generation engine from scratch for use in the eventual Wing Commander III, and thus had a limited role in this interim step. Day-to-day responsibility for Wing Commander II passed into the hands of its “director” Stephen Beeman,1 who had just finished filling the same role on Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire.

Beeman’s team of coders improved the space-combat engine in welcome ways. They properly accounted for the speed of the computer running the game, thus mostly fixing the speed issues which have dogged the first Wing Commander to this day. They added an innovative layer of adaptive artificial intelligence on the part of enemy ships, so that if the player flew and shot better the enemy did as well and vice versa, in an effort to remedy one of the primary complaints players had made about the Secret Missions disks in particular: that too many of the missions were just too darn hard. And they also created a whole new slate of ships to fight and to fly; most notable among them was the Broadsword, a lumbering torpedo bomber of a spaceship with rear- and side-facing gun turrets which the player could jump into and control.

Wing Commander II‘s most obvious new gameplay wrinkle is the Broadsword torpedo bomber, in which you can control gun turrets that shoot to the sides and behind. But it doesn’t work out all that well because your ship just keeps flying straight ahead, a clay pigeon for the Kilrathi, while you’re busy in the turret. I tend to ignore the existence of the turrets, and I suspect I’m not alone.

With Wing Commander II, Origin’s artists began using Autodesk 3D Studio. Jake Rodgers, the first 3D artist they hired to work with the new tool, had learned how to do so at an architecture firm. “After talking with Origin, I decided that creating spaceships sounded a lot more interesting than working on buildings,” he remembers. The actual game engine remained only pseudo-3D, but Rodgers and the artists he trained were able to use 3D Studio to make the sprites which represented the ships more detailed than ever, both in the game proper and in some very impressive animated cut scenes. The 3D revolution that was destined to have as huge an impact on the aesthetics of games as it would on the way they played was still a couple of years away from starting in earnest, but with the arrival of 3D Studio in Origin’s toolbox the first tentative steps were already being taken.

Wing Commander II introduces the possibility of good Kilrathi, thus softening some of xenophobia of the first game. And yes, it remains completely impossible to take these flying Tony the Tigers seriously.

Most of all, though, Origin poured their energy into the story layer of the game — into all the stuff that happened when you weren’t actually sitting in the cockpit blowing up the evil Kilrathi. Wing Commander II: Vengeance of the Kilrathi took an approach to game design that could best be summed up as “give the people what they want.” With barely six months to bring the project to completion, Origin combed through all of the feedback they had received on the first game, looking to punch up the stuff that people had liked and to minimize or excise entirely the stuff they seemingly didn’t care so much about.

And they found out that what the people had really liked, alongside the spectacular graphics and sound, had been the feeling of playing the starring role in a rollicking science-fiction film. The people liked the interactions in the bar with their fellow pilots, the briefing scenes before each mission, and the debriefs afterward. They liked the characters of their fellow pilots, to whom they claimed an emotional bond that surprised even Chris Roberts. And they liked the idea of all of the missions they flew finding their context within a larger unfolding narrative of interstellar war — even if, taken on its own terms, the story of the first game was so vague as to barely exist at all. Faced with such a sketchy story, alongside a collection of characters that were often little more than ethnic stereotypes, players had happily spun more elaborate fictions in their minds, reading between lines the game’s developers had never drawn in the first place. For instance, some of them were convinced that Angel, the female French pilot, secretly had the hots for the hero, something that came as news to everyone at Origin.

But there were other innovative aspects of the first game which, equally to Origin’s surprise, their customers were less keen on. The most noteworthy of these, and a consistent sore point with Chris Roberts in particular, was the lovingly crafted branching mission tree, in which the player’s success or failure affected the course of the war and thus what later missions she would be assigned. Despite all of Origin’s admonitions to the contrary, overwhelming evidence suggested that the vast majority of players replayed each mission until they’d managed to complete it successfully rather than taking their lumps and moving on. Roberts and his colleagues found this so frustrating not least because they had poured a lot of energy and money into missions which the majority of players were never even seeing. Yes, one might argue that this state of affairs was to a large extent Origin’s own fault, the natural byproduct of a design which assigned harder rather than easier missions as a consequence of failure, thus sending the honest but not terribly proficient player into a downward spiral of ever-increasing futility. Still, rather than remedy that failing Origin chose to prune their mission tree; while limited branching would still be possible, the success and failure paths would be merely slightly modified versions of the same narrative arc, and failing two mission series in a row would abruptly end the game. Origin wanted to tell a real story this time around, and that would be hard enough; they didn’t have time to make a bunch of branching stories.

Who would ever have guessed that the black pilot would be the one named Downtown?

Given the new emphasis on story, Stephen Beeman was fortunate to have at his disposal Ellen Guon, the very first professional writer ever to be hired by Origin. Guon came to the company from Sierra, where she had polished up the text in remakes of the first King’s Quest game and the educational title Mixed-Up Mother Goose. Before that, she had written for Saturday-morning cartoons, working for a time with Christy Marx, another cartoon veteran who would later wind up at Sierra, on Jem and the Holograms. She’d also seen some of her science-fiction and fantasy stories published in magazines and anthologies, and her first novel, a collaboration with the more established fantasy novelist Mercedes Lackey, was being published just as she was settling in at Origin. Beeman and Guon developed the initial script for Wing Commander II together, learning in the process that they had more in common than game development; Ellen Guon would eventually become Ellen Beeman.

Chris Roberts badly wanted not just a more developed story for the second game but a darker one, an Empire Strikes Back to contrast with the original game’s Star Wars. Beeman and Guon obliged him with a script that sees the Tiger’s Claw, the ship from which the player had flown and fought in the first game, destroyed in the opening moments of the second one by a Kilrathi strike force that, thanks to the secret stealth technology the flying tigers have developed, seems to come out of nowhere. The hero of the original game, who sported whatever name the player chose to give him but was universally known to the developers as “Bluehair” after the tint Origin’s artists gave to his coiffure, is flying a mission when it happens, and through a not-entirely-sensical chain of logic winds up being blamed for the tragedy. But the prosecution fails to prove his negligence or treasonous intent beyond a reasonable doubt at the court martial, and instead of winding up in prison he gets demoted and assigned to fly routine patrols with “Insystem Security” from a station way out in the middle of nowhere. Finally, after years of this boring duty, the Kilrathi unexpectedly come to his quiet little corner of the galaxy, and the “Coward of K’Tithrak Mang” — that being Bluehair — gets his shot at redemption, under circumstances that see him reunited with many of his old comrades-in-arms from Wing Commander I and its mission disks.

A rule of war movies applies here. If someone starts talking about her family…

The increased emphasis on storytelling — on cinematic storytelling — is all-pervasive. The original game played out in a predictable sequence: conversations in the bar would be followed by a mission briefing, which would be followed by the actual mission, which would be followed by the debrief. Now, the “movie” takes place anywhere and everywhere. In order to inject some cinematic drama into the mission themselves, Origin introduced cut scenes that can play at literally any time as they unfold.

Wing Commander II really is all about the story. It doesn’t want you to spend a lot of time working out how to beat each of the missions; it just wants to keep the plot train chugging down the track. Thus the new adaptive artificial intelligence, which keeps you from ever getting stuck on a mission you just can’t crack. At the same time, however, the selfsame artificial intelligence contrives to make sure that none of your victories are ever routine. “If you meet eight enemies and manage to take out the first seven,” noted Beeman, “the last ship’s intelligence is increased by a few notches. Engaging the last ship results in a really tough dogfight.” Wing Commander II is meant to be a relentless thrill ride like the movies that inspired it, and is always willing to put a thumb on either side of the scale to make sure it meets that ideal.

…and then starts talking about her impending retirement…

From a business standpoint — from that of making games that make money — Wing Commander II could serve as something of a role model even today. There was no trace of the indecision, over-ambition, and bets-hedging that so often lead projects astray. Stephen Beeman had a crystal-clear brief, and he achieved his goals with the same degree of clarity, bringing the project in only slightly over time and over budget — not a huge sin, considering that Origin’s original timing and budget had both been wildly overoptimistic. The important thing was that the game was done in plenty of time for Christmas, shipping on August 30, 1991, whereupon Origin was immediately rewarded with smashing reviews. Writing for Computer Gaming World, Alan Emrich optimistically said that the plot had begun “bridging the chasm from ‘genre pulp fiction’ to something that could be more accurately regarded as ‘art.'” Even more importantly, Wing Commander II became another smash hit. It sold its first 100,000 units in the United States in less than two months, and a truly remarkable 500,000 copies worldwide in its first six months.

…it can only end one way for her.

Yet in my opinion Wing Commander II hasn’t aged nearly as well as its predecessor. Today, the two games stand together as an object lesson in the ever-present conflict between narrative and interactivity. In gaining so much of the former, Wing Commander II loses far too much of the latter. Speaking at the time of the game’s release, Origin’s Warren Spector noted that “we’re still learning how to tell stories on the computer. We’re figuring out where we can be cinematic, and where trying to be cinematic just flat doesn’t work. We’re finding out where you want interaction, and where you want the player to sit back and watch the action.” It’s at these intersections between “being cinematic” and not being cinematic, between interaction and “sitting back and watching the action,” that Wing Commander II kind of falls apart for me.

I’m no fan of bloated, shaggy game designs, and generally think that a keen editor’s eye is one of the best attributes a designer can possess, yet I would hardly describe the original Wing Commander as over-complicated. In the second game, I miss the many things that have been excised as superfluous. I miss the little ersatz arcade game that lets you practice your skills; I miss winning medals and promotions as a result of my performance in the missions; I miss climbing the squadron leader board as I collect more and more kills. In the first game, your wingman could get killed in battle if you didn’t watch out for him properly, resulting in a funeral ceremony, a “KIA” next to his name on the leader board, and your having to fly all by yourself those subsequent missions that should have been earmarked for the two of you. This caused you, for both emotional and practical reasons, to care about the person you were flying with like any good wing leader should. In the second game, however, this too has been carved away. Your wingmen will now always bail out and be rescued if they get too badly shot up. They die only when the railroaded plot demands that they do so, accompanied by a suitably heroic cut scene, and there’s isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. Wing Commander II thus robs you of any real agency in what is supposed to be your story. Even the idea of a branching narrative, though poorly executed in the first game, could have been done better here instead of being tossed aside as just one more extraneous triviality.

After I published my articles on the first Wing Commander, commenter Jakub Stribrny described his experience with that game:

I decided to do one true honest playthrough. Just one life. If I got shot down, there was no loading the state. I had to start from the very beginning.

And that was when I discovered what the simulator was good for. Since I had only one life I had to make sure I was really prepared before each mission. So I devised a training plan for myself. An hour in the simulator before even attempting the first mission and then two simulator sessions between each subsequent mission. This proved very effective and I was able to clear almost the whole game. In the end I died just a few missions from the end when attempting to attack a group of Jalthi – fighters with extreme firepower – head-on. Stupid.

But I never got so much fun from gaming as when I really had to focus on what’s happening around me, cooperate with my wingman, carefully manage missile use, plan optimal routes between navigation points, and choose whether it’s still safe to ignore the blinking EJECT! light or it’s time to call it a day and survive to fight the battles of tomorrow. Or when I was limping to the home base with both cannons shot up and anxiously awaiting whether the badly damaged and glitching comms system would hold at least long enough for me to ask the carrier for landing clearance. My fighter failed me then and I had to eject in the end, but boy was that an experience.

Wing Commander II obviously pleased many players in its day, but it could never deliver an experience quite like this one. Nor, of course, was it meant to.

In the years that followed Wing Commander II‘s release, a cadre of designers and theorists would unite under the “games are not movies” banner, using this game and its successors as some of their favorite examples of offenders against all that is good and holy in ludology. But we need not become overly strident or pedantic, as so many of them have been prone to do. Rather than continuing to dwell on what was lost, we can try to judge Wing Commander II on its own terms, as the modestly interactive cinematic thrill ride it wants to be. I’m by no means willing to reject the notion that a game can succeed on these terms, provided that the story is indeed catching.

This is hands-down the funniest picture in Wing Commander II, almost as good as the Kilrathi helmets with the ears on top from the first game.

The problem for Wing Commander II from this perspective is that the story winds up being more Plan 9 from Outer Space than The Empire Strikes Back. No one — with, I suppose, the possible exception of Computer Gaming World‘s Mr. Emrich — is looking for deathless cinematic art from a videogame called Wing Commander II. Yet there is a level of craftsmanship that we ought to be able to expect from a game with this one’s stated ambitions, and Wing Commander II fails to clear even that bar.

Put bluntly, the story we get just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What exactly did Bluehair do to cause the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw, a tragedy for which only he among the carrier’s entire air group was blamed? Why was everyone so quick to believe that a decorated war hero had suddenly switched sides? Why on earth — excuse me, on Terra — would the Terran Confederation reassign someone widely suspected of high treason to even an out-of-the-way posting? And once the game proper gets going, why does Bluehair’s commander persist in believing that he’s a traitor even after he’s saved the life of said commander and everyone aboard his ship half a dozen times? And if the commander does still believe Bluehair is a traitor, why does he keep assigning him to vital missions in between bitching about what a traitor he is and how much it sucks to have him on his ship? Etc., etc.

Now, you could accuse me of over-analyzing the game’s action-movie screenplay, and you’d perhaps have a point. After all, Wing Commander‘s inspiration of Star Wars is hardly the most grounded narrative in the world. What I would also say in response, however, is that there’s a craft — a sleight of hand, if you will — to keeping the reader or viewer from focusing too much on a story’s incongruities. The writer or screenwriter accomplishes this by offering up compelling characters that are easy to root for or against and by keeping the excitement ever on the boil.

This game’s story makes me feel like Bluehair looks in this picture.

And here too Wing Commander II drops the ball. At the center of the action is the charisma vacuum that is Bluehair. The first game held back on characterizing him, letting the player imagine him to be the person she wished him to be. That can no longer work in the more developed narrative of the second game, but Origin still seems reluctant to fill in the lines of his character, with the result that he falls smack into an uncanny valley between the two classic models of the adventure-game protagonist: the fully fleshed-out individual whose personality the player is expected to assume, and the proverbial “nameless, faceless adventurer” that she can imagine to be herself. Bluehair becomes what my dear old dad would call a “lunk,” a monosyllabic non-presence who rarely has much to say beyond “Yes, Sir,” and “No, Sir.” It feels like a veritable soliloquy when he can manage to muster up an “I’m not guilty, sir. I won’t sign it!” or a “Go to hell, Jazz!” And when the romance subplot kicks in — duly following the stated desires of their players in this as in all things, Origin made Angel the love interest — it starts to get really painful. One does have to wonder why everyone is getting so hot and bothered over this guy of all people. Luke Skywalker — much less Han Solo — he definitely ain’t.

So, we might ask, how did we wind up here? How did one of the first Origin games to take advantage of real, professional writers not turn out at least a little bit better? A strong clue lives in a document that’s been made public by the website Wing Commander Combat Information Center. It’s the initial script for the game, as prepared by Ellen Guon and Stephen Beeman and completed on November 29, 1990, before production got underway in earnest. The version of the story found herein differs considerably from that found in the completed game. The story is more detailed, better explained, and richer all the way around, including a much more dynamic and assertive Bluehair. It might be instructive to compare the opening of the story as it was originally conceived with what that of the finished game. Here’s how things started back in November of 1990:

Establishing shot — Tiger’s Claw floating in space.

Narration: CSS Tiger’s Claw, six months after the Vega Sector Campaign…

Establishing shot — Tiger’s Claw briefing room. We can’t tell yet who the commander is.

Bluehair: Okay, everyone, settle down…

Cut to Bluehair. Now we see that Bluehair is in Colonel Halcyon’s familiar position.

Bluehair: Pilots, I’d like to welcome you to the Tiger’s Claw. I’m Lieutenant Colonel Bluehair Ourhero, your new commanding officer. I hope everyone’s recovered from the farewell party for Paladin, Angel, Spirit, Iceman, and General Halcyon.

Hunter: An’ don’t forget that bloody lunatic, Maniac! They finally transferred ‘im to the psych ‘ospital.

Bluehair: Sad but true, Hunter. Now, pay close attention, pilots. We’ve just been assigned a top-priority mission, to spearhead a major raid deep into Kilrathi space to their sector command post in the K’Tithrak Mang system. The plan is to jump in with a few carriers and Marine transports, hit the starbase hard, then jump out.

Hunter: ‘nother bleedin’ starbase, eh?

Bluehair: (smiles) You got it, mate. Let’s just hope it’s as easy as the last one. Now, listen close, everyone. Knight and Bossman are Alpha Wing — check for enemy fighters at Nav 2 and 3. Kilroy and Sabra are Beta Wing…

Narration: You assign all the wings. All but one.

Bluehair: I saved the most important wing for last. Computer, display Kappa. On our way to the starbase, the Claw will pass close to the asteroid field at Nav 1. We don’t know what’s out there, so Hunter and I are going to sweep the rocks as the Claw begins its approach. We’ll either take out whatever we find or hightail it back here to warn the Claw. Any questions, pilots? Good. The Claw will complete her last jump in approximately seven minutes. Get ready for immediate launch. Dismissed.

Animation of crowd rising — different backs! Animation of Tiger’s Claw jumping.

Narration: K’Tithrak Mang system, deep within Kilrathi space.

Animation of launch-tube sequence.

Mission 0. This really should be a basically easy mission. However, just as Bluehair is returning to the action sphere that contains the Claw, we cut to a canned scene.

Bluehair: No!

The Tiger’s Claw floats in the medium distance. Close to us, three Kilrathi stealth fighters in a chevron uncloak, launch missiles, then peel off in different directions. The missiles impact the Claw and blow it to kingdom come.

Dust motes are zooming past us, as if we were headed into the starfield. Now a space station appears in the far distance, rapidly getting closer. We zoom in on this until we start moving around the station. As we do so, the planet Earth comes into view on one edge of the screen. The station itself remains center frame.

Narration: Confederation High Command, Terra system, six months after the destruction of the Tiger’s Claw.

Admiral Tolwyn presides over Bluehair’s court martial. A very formal-looking bench with seven dress-uniformed figures, Tolwyn in the middle, is in the back pane. Bluehair and his counsel are sitting at a table. Spot animations of camera drones with Klieg lights will help convey the information that this trial is based more on media image than justice.

Tolwyn: Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, stand at attention. Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, you stand accused of negligence, incompetence, and cowardice under fire. Your actions resulted in the death of 61,000 Confederation defenders. Despite your plea of not guilty and your ridiculous claim that the Kilrathi used some non-existent stealth technology, flying invisible ships past your position…

Bluehair: It’s true, sir.

Tolwyn: …you are obviously guilty of these crimes against the Confederation. But, fortunately for you, this court cannot prove your guilt. Our primary evidence, your black-box flight recorder, is missing from the Confed Security offices. Because of the lack of physical evidence, this court is required by law to dismiss your case. We find you not guilty of crimes against the Confederation. This court is adjourned. Lieutenant Colonel Ourhero, report to my office at once.

Establishing shot — Tolwyn’s office

Tolwyn: I wanted to talk to you in private, Bluehair. The court couldn’t convict you because of a technicality, but we all know the truth, Ourhero. You’re a coward and a traitor, and I’ll personally guarantee that you’ll never fly again. Your career with the Navy is over. As I assumed that you have some small amount of honor left, my secretary has drawn up your resignation papers…

Bluehair: I won’t resign, Admiral.

Tolwyn: What??

Bluehair: I’m not guilty, sir. I refuse to resign.

Tolwyn: Then I’ll offer you one more option, just because I never want to see your face again. I have a request from Insystem Security for a mid-ranked pilot. If you’ll accept a demotion to captain, it’s yours. Otherwise, pilot, you’re grounded for life.

Bluehair: I’ll accept the demotion, sir.

Tolwyn: Very well. Get out of here… and you’d better hope we never meet again, traitor.

Below you can see the finished game’s interpretation of the story’s opening beats.


Some of the choices made by the finished game, such as the decision to introduce the villain of the piece from the beginning rather than wait until some eight missions in, are valid enough in the name of punching up the anticipation and excitement. (One could, of course, still wish that said introduction had been written a bit better: “Speak of your plans, not of your toys.” What does that even mean?) In other place, however, the cuts made to the story have, even during this opening sequence, already gone deeper than trimming fat. Note, for instance, how the off-hand epithet of “traitor” which Admiral Tolwyn hurls at Bluehair in the initial script is taken to mean literal treason by the final game. And note how the shot showing the court martial to be a media circus, thus providing the beginning of an explanation as to why the powers that be have chosen to scapegoat one decorated pilot for a disastrous failure of a military operation, gets excised. Much more of that sort of subtlety — the sort of subtly that makes the story told by the first draft a credible yarn within its action-movie template — will continue to be lost as the game progresses.

There’s no single villain we can point to who decided that Wing Commander II should be gutted, much less a smoking gun we can identify in the form of a single decision that made all the difference. The closest we can come to a money quote is this one from Chris Roberts, made just after the game’s release: “We learned some lessons. We tried to do too much in too little time. None of us had any idea that the game had grown so large.” Like politics, commercial game development has always been the art of the possible. Origin did the best they could with the time and money they had, and if what they came up with wasn’t quite the second coming of The Empire Strikes Back which Roberts had so wished for, it served its purpose well enough from a business perspective, giving gamers a much more concentrated dose of what they had found so entrancing in the first game and giving Origin the big hit which they needed in order to stay solvent.

Origin, you see, had a lot going on while Wing Commander II was in production, and this provides an explanation for the pressure to get it out so quickly. Much of the money the series generated was being poured into Ultima VII, a CRPG of a scale and scope the likes of which had never been attempted before, a project which became the first game at Origin — and possibly the first computer game ever — with a development budget that hit $1 million. Origin’s two series made for a telling study in contrasts. While Wing Commander II saw its scope of interactivity pared back dramatically from that of its predecessor, Ultima VII remained as formally as it was audiovisually ambitious. Wing Commander had become the cash cow, but it seemed that, for some at Origin anyway, the heart and soul of the company was still Ultima.

Origin thus continued to monetize Wing Commander like crazy to pay for their latest Ultima. In a cash grab that feels almost unbelievably blatant today, they shipped a separate “Speech Accessory Pack” simultaneously with the core game. It added digitized voices to a few cut scenes, such as the opening movie above, and let your wingmen and your Kilrathi enemies shout occasional canned phrases during missions. “You want to buy our new game?” said Origin. “Okay, that will be $50. Oh… you want to play the game with all of the sound? Well, that will cost you another $25.” Like so much else about Wing Commander II, the speech, voiced by members of the development team, is terminally cheesy today, but in its day the Speech Pack drove the purchase of the latest Sound Blaster cards, which were adept at handling such samples, just as the core game drove the purchase of the hottest new 80386-based computers. And then two more add-on mission disks, known this time as Special Operations 1 and 2, joined the core Wing Commander II and the Speech Pack on store shelves. Well before the second anniversary of the first game’s release, Origin had no fewer than seven boxes sporting the Wing Commander logo on said shelves: the two core games, the four add-on mission packs, and the Speech Pack. Few new gaming franchises have ever generated quite so much product quite so quickly.

Where it really counted, Wing Commander II delivered.

Of course, all this product was being generated for one reason only: because it sold. In 1991, with no new mainline Ultima game appearing and with the Worlds of Ultima spin-offs having flopped, the Wing Commander product line alone accounted for an astonishing 90 percent of Origin’s total revenue. Through that year and the one that followed, it remained undisputed as the biggest franchise in computer gaming, still the only games out there scratching an itch most publishers had never even realized that their customers had. The lessons Origin’s rivals would draw from all this success wouldn’t always be the best ones from the standpoint of games as a form of creative expression, but the first Wing Commander had, for better or for worse, changed the conversation around games forever. Now, Wing Commander II was piling on still more proof for the thesis that a sizable percentage of gamers really, really loved a story to provide context for game play — even if it was a really, really bad story. After plenty of false starts, the marriage of games and movies was now well and truly underway, and a divorce didn’t look likely anytime soon.

(Sources: the book Wing Commander I & II: The Ultimate Strategy Guide by Mike Harrison; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from June 21 1991, August 7 1991, October 11 1991, October 25 1991, November 8 1991, January 17 1992, March 13 1992, and May 22 1992; Retro Gamer 59; Computer Gaming World of November 1991. Online sources include documents hosted at the Wing Commander Combat Information Center, US Gamer‘s profile of Chris Roberts, The Escapist‘s history of Wing Commander, Paul Dean’s interview with Chris Roberts, and an interview with Richard Garriott that was posted to Usenet in 1992.

Wing Commander I and II can be purchased in a package together with all of their expansion packs from GOG.com.)


  1. Stephen Beeman now lives as the woman Siobhan Beeman. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times.