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Sequels in Strategy Gaming, Part 1: Civilization II

How do you make a sequel to a game that covers all of human history?

— Brian Reynolds

At the risk of making a niche website still more niche, allow me to wax philosophical for a moment on the subject of those Roman numerals that have been appearing just after the names of so many digital games almost from the very beginning. It seems to me that game sequels can be divided into two broad categories: the fiction-driven and the systems-driven.

Like so much else during gaming’s formative years, fiction-driven sequels were built off the example of Hollywood, which had already discovered that no happily ever after need ever be permanent if there was more money to be made by getting the old gang of heroes back together and confronting them with some new threat. Game sequels likewise promised their players a continuation of an existing story, or a new one that took place in a familiar setting with familiar characters. Some of the most iconic names in 1980s and early 1990s gaming operated in this mode: Zork, Ultima, Wizardry, King’s Quest, Carmen Sandiego, Leisure Suit Larry, Wing Commander. As anyone who has observed the progress of those series will readily attest, their technology did advance dramatically over the years. And yet this was only a part of the reason people stayed loyal to them. Gamers also wanted to get the next bit of story out of them, wanted to do something new in their comfortingly recognizable worlds. Unsurprisingly, the fiction-driven sequel was most dominant among games that foregrounded their fictions — namely the narrative-heavy genres of the adventure game and the CRPG.

But there was another type of sequel, which functioned less like a blockbuster Hollywood franchise and more like the version numbers found at the end of other types of computer software. It was the domain of games that were less interested in their fictions. These sequels rather promised to do and be essentially the same thing as their forerunner(s), only to do and be it even better, taking full advantage of the latest advances in hardware. Throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the technology- or systems-driven sequel was largely confined to the field of vehicular simulations, a seemingly fussily specific pursuit that was actually the source in some years of no less than 25 percent of the industry’s total revenues. The poster child for the category is Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series, the most venerable in the entire history of computer gaming, being still alive and well as I write these words today, almost 43 years after it debuted on the 16 K Radio Shack TRS-80 under the imprint of its original publisher subLogic. If you were to follow this franchise’s evolution through each and every installment, from that monochrome, character-graphic-based first specimen to today’s photo-realistic feast for the senses, you’d wind up with a pretty good appreciation of the extraordinary advances personal computing has undergone over the past four decades and change. Each new Flight Simulator didn’t so much promise a new experience as the same old one perfected, with better graphics, better sound, a better frame rate, better flight modeling,  etc. When you bought the latest Flight Simulator — or F-15 Strike Eagle, or Gunship, or Falcon — you did so hoping it would take you one or two steps closer to that Platonic ideal of flying the real thing. (The fact that each installment was so clearly merely a step down that road arguably explains why these types of games have tended to age more poorly than others, and why you don’t find nearly as many bloggers and YouTubers rhapsodizing about old simulations today as you do games in most other genres.)

For a long time, the conventional wisdom in the industry held that strategy games were a poor fit with both of these modes of sequel-making. After all, they didn’t foreground narrative in the same way as adventures and CRPGs, but neither were they so forthrightly tech-centric as simulations. As a result, strategy games — even the really successful ones — were almost always standalone affairs.

But all that changed in a big way in 1993, when Maxis Software released SimCity 2000, a sequel to its landmark city-builder of four years earlierSimCity 2000 was a systems-driven sequel in the purest sense. It didn’t attempt to be anything other than what its predecessor had been; it just tried to be a better incarnation of that thing. Designer Will Wright had done his level best to incorporate every bit of feedback he had received from players of his original game, whilst also taking full advantage of the latest hardware to improve the graphics, sound, and interface. “Is SimCity 2000 a better program than the original SimCity?” asked Computer Gaming World magazine rhetorically. “It is without question a superior program. Is it more fun than the original SimCity? It is.” Wright was rewarded for his willingness to revisit his past with another huge hit, even bigger than his last one.

Other publishers greeted SimCity 2000‘s success as something of a revelation. At a stroke, they realized that the would-be city planners and generals among their customers were as willing as the would-be pilots and submarine captains to buy a sequel that enhanced a game they had already bought before, by sprucing up the graphics, addressing exploits, incongruities, and other weaknesses, and giving them some additional complexity to sink their teeth into. For better or for worse, the industry’s mania for franchises and sequels thus came to encompass strategy games as well.

In the next few articles, I’d like to examine a few of the more interesting results of this revelation — not SimCity 2000, a game about which I have oddly little to say, but another trio that would probably never have come to be without it to serve as a commercial proof of concept. All of the games I’ll write about are widely regarded as strategy classics, but I must confess that I can find unreserved love in my heart for only one of them. As for which one that is, and the reasons for my slight skepticism about the others… well, you’ll just have to read on and see, won’t you?

Civilization, Sid Meier’s colossally ambitious and yet compulsively playable strategy game of everything, was first released by MicroProse Software just in time to miss the bulk of the Christmas 1991 buying season. That would have been the death knell of many a game, but not this one. Instead Civilization became the most celebrated computer game since SimCity in terms of mainstream-media coverage, even as it also became a great favorite with the hardcore gamers. Journalists writing for newspapers and glossy lifestyle magazines were intrigued by it for much the same reason they had been attracted to SimCity, because its sweeping, optimistic view of human Progress writ large down through the ages marked it in their eyes as something uniquely high-toned, inspiring, and even educational in a cultural ghetto whose abiding interest in dwarfs, elves, and magic spells left outsiders like them and their readers nonplussed. The gamers loved it, of course, simply because it could be so ridiculously fun to play. Never a chart-topping hit, Civilization became a much rarer and more precious treasure: a perennial strong seller over months and then years, until long after it had begun to look downright crude in comparison to all of the slick multimedia extravaganzas surrounding it on store shelves. It eventually sold 850,000 copies in this low-key way.

Yet neither MicroProse nor Sid Meier himself did anything to capitalize on its success for some years. The former turned to other games inside and outside of the grand-strategy tent, while the latter turned his attention to C.P.U. Bach, a quirky passion project in computer-generated music that wasn’t even a game at all and didn’t even run on conventional computers. (Its home was the 3DO multimedia console.) The closest thing to a Civilization sequel or expansion in the three years after the original game’s release was Colonization, a MicroProse game from designer Brian Reynolds that borrowed some of Civilization‘s systems and applied them to the more historically grounded scenario of the European colonization of the New World. The Colonization box sported a blurb declaring that “the tradition of Civilization continues,” while Sid Meier’s name became a possessive prefix before the new game’s title. (Reynolds’s own name, by contrast, was nowhere to be found on the box.) Both of these were signs that MicroProse’s restless marketing department felt that the legacy of Civilization ought to be worth something, even if it wasn’t yet sure how best to make use of it.

Colonization hit the scene in 1994, one year after SimCity 2000 had been accorded such a positive reception, and proceeded to sell an impressive 300,000 copies. These two success stories together altered MicroProse’s perception of Civilization forever, transforming what had started as just an opportunistic bit of marketing on Colonization‘s box into an earnest attempt to build a franchise. Not one but two new Civilization games were quickly authorized. The one called CivNet was rather a stopgap project, which transplanted the original game from MS-DOS to Windows and added networked or hot-seat multiplayer capabilities to the equation. The other Civilization project was also to run under Windows, but was to be a far more extensive revamping of the original, making it bigger, prettier, and better balanced than before. Its working title of Civilization 2000 made clear its inspiration. Only at the last minute would MicroProse think better of making SimCity 2000‘s influence quite so explicit, and rename it simply Civilization II.

Unfortunately for MicroProse’s peace of mind, Sid Meier, a designer who always followed his own muse, said that he had no interest whatsoever in repeating himself at this point in time. Thus the project devolved to Brian Reynolds as the logical second choice: he had acquitted himself pretty well with Colonization, and Meier liked him a lot and would at least be willing to serve as his advisor, as he had for Reynold’s first strategy game. “They pitched it to me as if [they thought] I was probably going to be really upset,” laughs Reynolds. “I guess they thought I had my heart set on inventing another weird idea like Colonization. ‘Okay, will he be too mad if we tell him that we want him to do Civilization 2000?’ Which of course to me was the ultimate dream job. You couldn’t have asked me to do something I wanted to do more than make a version of Civilization.”

Like his mentor Meier, Reynolds was an accomplished programmer as well as game designer. This allowed him to do the initial work of hammering out a prototype on his own — from, of all locations, Yorkshire, England, where he had moved to be with his wife, an academic who was there on a one-year Fullbright scholarship. While she went off to teach and be taught every day, he sat in their little flat putting together the game that would transform Civilization from a one-off success into the archetypal strategy franchise.

Brian Reynolds

As Reynolds would be the first to admit, Civilization II is more of a nuts-and-bolts iteration on what came before than any wild flight of fresh creativity. He approached his task as a sacred trust. Reynolds:

My core vision for Civ II was not to be the guy that broke Civilization. How can I make each thing a little bit better without breaking any of it? I wanted to make the AI better. I wanted to make it harder. I wanted to add detail. I wanted to pee in all the corners. I didn’t have the idea that we were going to change one thing and everything else would stay the same. I wanted to make everything a little bit better. So, I both totally respected [Civilization I] as an amazing game, and thought, I can totally do a better job at every part of this game. It was a strange combination of humility and arrogance.

Reynolds knew all too well that Civilization I could get pretty wonky pretty quickly when you drilled down into the details. He made it his mission to fix as many of these incongruities as possible — both the ones that could be actively exploited by clever players and the ones that were just kind of weird to think about.

At the top of his list was the game’s combat system, the source of much hilarity over the years, what with the way it made it possible — not exactly likely, mind you, but possible — for a militia of ancient spearmen to attack and wipe out a modern tank platoon. This was a result of the game’s simplistic “one hit and done” approach to combat. Let’s consider our case of a militia attacking tanks. A militia has an attack strength of one, a tank platoon a defense strength of five. The outcome of the confrontation is determined by adding these numbers together, then taking each individual unit’s strength as its chance of destroying the other unit rather than being destroyed itself. In this case, then, our doughty militia men have a one-in-six chance of annihilating the tanks rather than vice versa — not great odds, to be sure, but undoubtedly better than those they would enjoy in any real showdown.

It was economic factors that made this state of affairs truly unbalancing. A very viable strategy for winning Civilization every single time was the “barbarian hordes” approach: forgo virtually all technological and social development, flood the map with small, primitive cities, then use those cities to pump out huge numbers of primitive units. A computer opponent diligently climbing the tech tree and developing its society over a broader front would in time be able to create vastly superior units like tanks, but would never come close to matching your armies in quantity. So, you could play the law of averages: you might have to attack a given tank platoon five times or more with different militias, but you knew that you would eventually destroy it, as you would the rest of your opponent’s fancy high-tech military with your staggering numbers of bottom feeders. The barbarian-horde strategy made for an unfun way to play once the joy of that initial eureka moment of discovering it faded, yet many players found the allure of near-certain victory on even the highest difficulty levels hard to resist. Part of a game designer’s job is to save players like this from themselves.

This was in fact the one area of Civilization II that Sid Meier himself dived into with some enthusiasm. He’d been playing a lot of Master of Magic, yet another MicroProse game that betrayed an undeniable Civilization influence, although unlike Colonization it was never marketed on the basis of those similarities. When two units met on the world map in Master of Magic, a separate tactical-battle screen opened up for you to manage the fight. Meier went so far as prototyping such a system for Civilization II, but gave up on it in the end as a poor fit with the game’s core identity. “Being king is the heart of Civilization,” he says. “Slumming as a lowly general puts the player in an entirely different story (not to mention violates the Covert Action rule). Win-or-lose battles are not the only interesting choice on the path to good game design, but they’re the only choice that leads to Civ.”

With his mentor having thus come up empty, Brian Reynolds addressed the problem via a more circumspect complication of the first game’s battle mechanics. He added a third and fourth statistic to each unit: firepower and hit points. Now, instead of being one-and-done, each successful “hit” would merely subtract the one unit’s firepower from the other’s total hit points, and then the battle would continue until one or the other reached zero hits points. The surviving unit would quite possibly exit the battle “wounded” and would need some time to recuperate, adding another dimension to military strategy. It was still just barely possible that a wildly inferior unit could defeat its better — especially if the latter came into a battle already at less than its maximum hit points — but such occurrences became the vanishingly rare miracles they ought to be. Consider: Civilization II‘s equivalent of a militia — renamed now to “warriors” — has ones across the board for all four statistics; a tank platoon, by contrast, has an attack strength of ten, a defense strength of five, a firepower of one, and three hit points when undamaged. This means that a group of ancient warriors needs to roll the same lucky number three times in a row on a simulated six-sided die in order to attack an undamaged tank platoon and win. A one-in-six chance has become one chance in 216 — odds that we can just about imagine applying in the real world, where freak happenstances really do occur from time to time.

This change was of a piece with those Reynolds introduced at every level of the game — pragmatic and judicious, evolutionary rather than revolutionary in spirit. I won’t enumerate them exhaustively here, but will just note that they were all very defensible if not always essential in this author’s opinion.

Civilization II was written for Windows 3, and uses that operating system’s standard Windows interface.

The layers of the program that were not immediately visible to the player got an equally judicious sprucing up — especially diplomacy and artificial intelligence, areas where the original had been particularly lacking. The computer players became less erratic in their interactions with you and with one another; no longer would Mahatma Gandhi go to bed one night a peacenik and wake up a nuke-spewing madman. Combined with other systemic changes, such as a rule making it impossible for players to park their military units inside the city boundaries of their alleged allies, these improvements made it much less frustrating to pursue a peaceful, diplomatic path to victory — made it less likely, that is to say, that the other players would annoy you into opening a can of Gandhi-style whip-ass on them just to get them out of your hair.

In addition to the complications that were introduced to address specific weaknesses of the first game, Civilization II got a whole lot more stuff for the sake of it: more nationalities to play and play against (21 instead of 14); more advances to research (89 instead of 71); more types of units to move around the map (51 instead of 28); a bewildering variety of new geological, biological, and ecological parameters to manipulate to ensure that the game built for you just the sort of random world that you desired to play in; even a new, ultra-hard “Deity” difficulty level to address Reynold’s complaint that Meier’s Civilization was just too easy. There was also a new style of government added to the original five: “Fundamentalism” continued the tradition of mixing political, economic, and now religious ideologies indiscriminately, with all of them seen through a late-twentieth-century American triumphalist lens that might have been offensive if it wasn’t so endearingly naïve in its conviction that the great debates down through history about how human society can be most justly organized had all been definitively resolved in favor of American-style democracy and capitalism. And then the game got seven new Wonders of the World to add to the existing 21. Like their returning stablemates, they were a peculiar mix of the abstract and the concrete, from Adam Smith’s Trading Company (there’s that triumphalism again!) in the realm of the former to the Eiffel Tower in that of the latter.

Reynolds’s most generous move of all was to crack open the black box of the game for its players, turning it into a toolkit that let them try their own hands at strategy-game design. Most of the text and vital statistics were stored in plain-text files that anyone could open up in an editor and tinker with. Names could be changed, graphics and sounds could be replaced, and almost every number in the game could be altered at will. MicroProse encouraged players to incorporate their most ambitious “mods” into set-piece scenarios, which replaced the usual randomized map and millennia-spanning timeline with a more focused premise. Scenarios dealing with Rome during the time of transition from Republic to Empire and World War II in Europe were included with the game to get the juices flowing. In shrinking the timeline so dramatically and focusing on smaller goals, scenarios did tend to bleed away some of Civilization‘s high-concept magic and turn it into more of a typical strategic war game, but that didn’t stop the hardcore fans from embracing them. They delivered scenarios of their own about everything from Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology to the recent Gulf War against Iraq, from a version of Conway’s Game of Life to a cut-throat competition among Santa’s elves to become the dominant toy makers.

The ultimate expression of Brian Reynolds’s toolkit approach can be seen right there on the menu every time you start a new game of Civilization II, under the heading of simply “Cheat.” You can use it to change anything you want any time you want, at the expense of not having your high score recorded, should you earn one. At a click of the mouse, you can banish an opposing player from the game, research any advance instantly, give yourself infinite money… you name it. More importantly in the long run, the Cheat menu lets you peek behind the curtain to find out exactly what is going on at any given moment, almost like a programmer sitting in front of a debugging console. Sid Meier was shocked the first time he saw it.

Cheating was an inherent part of the game now, right on the main screen? This was not good. Like all storytelling, gaming is about the journey, and if you’re actively finding ways to jump to the end, then we haven’t made the fantasy compelling enough. A gripping novel would never start with an insert labeled, “Here’s the Last Page, in Case You Want to Read It Now.” Players who feel so inclined will instinctively find their own ways to cheat, and we shouldn’t have to help them out. I could not be convinced this was a good idea.

But Reynolds stuck to his guns, and finally Meier let him have it his way. It was, he now acknowledges, the right decision. The Cheat menu let players rummage around under the hood of the game as it was running, until some of them came to understand it practically as well as Reynolds himself. This was a whole new grade of catnip for the types of mind that tend to be attracted by big, complex strategy games like this one. Meanwhile the loss of a high score to boast about was enough to ensure that gamers weren’t unduly tempted to use the Cheat menu when playing for keeps, as it were.

Of course, the finished Civilization II is not solely a creation of Brian Reynolds. After he returned from Britain with his prototype in hand, two other MicroProse designers named Doug Kaufman and Jeff Briggs joined him for the hard work of polishing, refining, and balancing. Ditto a team of artists and even a film crew.

Yes, a film crew: the aspect of Civilization II that most indelibly dates it to the mid-1990s — even more so than its Windows 3 interface — must surely be your “High Council,” who pop up from time to time to offer their wildly divergent input on the subject of what you should be doing next. They’re played by real actors, hamming it up gleefully in video clips, changing from togas to armor to military uniforms to business suits as the centuries go by. Most bizarre of all is the entertainment advisor, played by… an Elvis Presley impersonator. What can one say? This sort of thing was widely expected to be the future of gaming, and MicroProse didn’t want to be left completely in the cold when the much-mooted merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood finally became a reality.

Civilization II was released in the spring of 1996 to glowing reviews. Computer Gaming World gave it five stars out of five, calling it “a spectacularly addictive and time-consuming sequel.” Everything I’ve said in this article and earlier ones about the appeal, success, and staying power of Civilization I applies treble to Civilization II. It sold 3 million copies over the five years after its release, staying on store shelves right up to the time that the inevitable Civilization III arrived to replace it. Having now thoroughly internalized the lesson that strategy games could become franchises too, MicroProse sustained interest in the interim with two scenario packs, a “Multiplayer Gold Edition” that did for Civilization II what CivNet had done for Civilization I, and another reworking called Civilization II: Test of Time that extended the timeline of the game into the distant future. Civilization as a whole thus become one of gaming’s most inescapable franchises, the one name in the field of grand strategy that even most non-gamers know.

Given all of this, and given the obvious amount of care and even love that was lavished on Civilization II, I feel a bit guilty to admit that I struggled to get into it when I played it in preparation for this article. Some of my lack of enthusiasm may be down to purely proximate causes. I played a lot of Civilization I in preparation for the long series of articles I wrote about it and the Progress-focused, deeply American worldview it embodies, and the sequel is just more of the same from this perspective. If I’d come to Civilization II cold, as did the majority of those 3 million people who bought it, I might well have had a very different experience with it.

Still, I do think there’s a bit more to my sense of vague dissatisfaction than just a jaded player’s ennui. I miss one or two bold leaps in Civilization II to go along with all of the incrementalist tinkering. Its designers made no real effort to address the big issues that dog games of this ilk: the predictable tech tree that lends itself to rote strategies, the ever more crushing burden of micromanagement as your empire expands, and an anticlimactic endgame that can go on for hours after you already know you’re going to win. How funny to think that Master of Orion, another game published by MicroProse, had already done a very credible job of addressing all of these problems three years before Civilization II came to be!

Then, too, Civilization II may be less wonky than its predecessor, but I find that I actually miss the older game’s cock-eyed jeu d’esprit, of which those ancient militias beating up on tanks was part and parcel. Civilization II‘s presentation, using the stock Windows 3 menus and widgets, is crisper and cleaner, but only adds to the slight sense of sterility that dogs the whole production. Playing it can feel rather like working a spreadsheet at times — always a danger in these kinds of big, data-driven strategy games. Those cheesy High Council videos serve as a welcome relief from the austerity of it all; if you ask me, the game could have used some more of that sort of thing.

I do appreciate the effort that went into all the new nationalities, advances, units, and starting parameters. In the end, though, Civilization II only provides further proof for me — as if I needed it — that shoehorning more stuff into a game doesn’t always or even usually make it better, just slower and more ponderous. In this sense too, I prefer its faster playing, more lovably gonzo predecessor. It strikes me that Civilization II is more of a gamer’s game, emphasizing min-maxing and efficient play above all else, at the expense of the original’s desire to become a flight of the imagination, letting you literally write your own history of a world. Sid Meier liked to call his game first and foremost “an epic story.” I haven’t heard any similar choice of words from Brian Reynolds, and I’ve definitely never felt when playing Civilization I that it needed to be harder, as he did.

I hasten to emphasize, however, that mine is very much a minority opinion. Civilization II was taken up as a veritable way of life by huge numbers of strategy gamers, some of whom have refused to abandon it to this day, delivering verdicts on the later installments in the series every bit as mixed as my opinions about this one. Good for them, I say; there are no rights or wrongs in matters like these, only preferences.

Postscript: The Eternal War

In 2012, a fan with the online handle of Lycerius struck a chord with media outlets all over the world when he went public with a single game of Civilization II which he had been playing on and off for ten years of real time. His description of it is… well, chilling may not be too strong a word.

The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation. There are three remaining super nations in AD 3991, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.

The ice caps have melted over 20 times, due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swampland, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.

As a result, big cities are a thing of the distant past. Roughly 90 percent of the world’s population has died either from nuclear annihilation or famine caused by the global warming that has left absolutely zero arable land to farm. Engineers are busy continuously building roads so that new armies can reach the front lines. Roads that are destroyed the very next turn. So, there isn’t any time to clear swamps or clean up the nuclear fallout.

Only three massive nations are left: the Celts (me), the Vikings, and the Americans. Between the three of us, we have conquered all the other nations that have ever existed and assimilated them into our respective empires.

You’ve heard of the 100 Year War? Try the 1700 Year War. The three remaining nations have been locked in an eternal death struggle for almost 2000 years. Peace seems to be impossible. Every time a ceasefire is signed, the Vikings will surprise-attack me or the Americans the very next turn, often with nuclear weapons. So, I can only assume that peace will come only when they’re wiped out. It is this that perpetuates the war ad infinitum.

Because of SDI, ICBMs are usually only used against armies outside of cities. Instead, cities are constantly attacked by spies who plant nuclear devices which then detonate. Usually the downside to this is that every nation in the world declares war on you. But this is already the case, so it’s no longer a deterrent to anyone, myself included.

The only governments left are two theocracies and myself, a communist state. I wanted to stay a democracy, but the Senate would always overrule me when I wanted to declare war before the Vikings did. This would delay my attack and render my turn and often my plans useless. And of course the Vikings would then break the ceasefire like clockwork the very next turn. I was forced to do away with democracy roughly a thousand years ago because it was endangering my empire. But of course the people hate me now, and every few years since then, there are massive guerrilla uprisings in the heart of my empire that I have to deal with, which saps resources from the war effort.

The military stalemate is airtight, perfectly balanced because all remaining nations already have all the technologies, so there is no advantage. And there are so many units at once on the map that you could lose twenty tank units and not have your lines dented because you have a constant stream moving to the front. This also means that cities are not only tiny towns full of starving people, but that you can never improve the city. “So you want a granary so you can eat? Sorry! I have to build another tank instead. Maybe next time.”

My goal for the next few years is to try to end the war and use the engineers to clear swamps and fallout so that farming may resume. I want to rebuild the world. But I’m not sure how.

One can’t help but think about George Orwell’s Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia when reading of Lycerius’s three perpetually warring empires. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, his after-action report has the uncanny feel of a dispatch from one of our own world’s disturbingly possible futures. Many people today would surely say that recent events have made his dystopia seem even more probable than ten years ago.

But never fear: legions of fans downloaded the saved game of the “Eternal War” which Lycerius posted and started looking for a way to end the post-apocalyptic paralysis. A practical soul who called himself “stumpster” soon figured out how to do so: “I opted for a page out of MacArthur’s book and performed my own Incheon landing.” In the game of Civilization, there is always a way. Let us hope the same holds true in reality.

(Sources: the book Sid Meier’s Memoir! by Sid Meier; Computer Gaming World of April/May 1985, November 1987, March 1993, June 1996, July 1996, and August 1996; Retro Gamer 86, 112, and 219. Online sources include Soren Johnson’s interviews with Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds, PC Gamer‘s “Complete History of Civilization,” and  Huffington Post‘s coverage of Lycerius’s game of Civilization and stumpster’s resolution of the stalemate. The original text of original Lycenrius’s Reddit message is posted on the Civilization II wiki.

Civilization II is not currently available for online purchase. You can, however, find it readily enough on any number of abandonware archives; some are dodgier than others, so be cautious. I recommend that you avoid the Multiplayer Gold Edition in favor of the original unless you really, really want to play with your mates. For, in a rather shocking oversight, MicroProse released the Gold Edition with bugged artificial intelligence that makes all of the computer-controlled players ridiculously aggressive and will keep you more or less constantly at war with everyone. If perpetual war is your thing, on the other hand, go for it…

Update: See Blake’s comment below for information on how to get the Multiplayer Gold Edition running with the original artificial intelligence, thereby getting the best of both worlds!

Once you’ve managed to acquire it, there’s a surprisingly easy way to run Civilization II on modern versions of Windows. You just need to install a little tool called WineVDM, and then the game should install and run transparently, right from the Windows desktop. It’s probably possible to get it running on Linux and MacOS using the standard Wine layer, but I haven’t tested this personally.)

In a feat of robust programming of which its makers deserve to be proud, Civilization II is capable of scaling to seemingly any size of screen. Here it is running on my Windows 10 desktop at a resolution of 3440 X 1440 — numbers that might as well have been a billion by a million back in 1996.


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Sometimes these articles come from the strangest places. When I was writing a little while back about The Pandora Directive, the second of the Tex Murphy interactive movies, I lavished with praise its use of a free-roaming first-person 3D perspective, claiming in the process that “first-person 3D otherwise existed only in the form of action-oriented shooters and static, node-based, pre-rendered Myst clones.” Such a blanket statement is just begging to be contradicted, and you folks didn’t disappoint. Our tireless fact-checker Aula rightly noted that I’d forgotten a whole family of action-CRPGs which followed in the wake of Ultima Underworld (another game I’d earlier lavished with praise, as it happened). And, more pertinently for our subject of today, Sarah Walker informed me that “Gremlin’s Normality was an early 1996 point-and-clicker using a DOOM-style engine.”

I must confess that I’d never even heard of Normality at that point, but Sarah’s description of it made me very interested in checking it out. What I found upon doing so was an amiable little game that feels somehow less earthshaking than its innovative technical approach might lead one to expect, but that I nevertheless enjoyed very much. So, I decided to write about it today, as both an example of a road largely not taken in traditional adventure games and as one of those hidden gems that can still surprise even me, a man who dares to don the mantle of an expert in the niche field of interactive narratives of the past.

The story of Normality‘s creation is only a tiny part of the larger story of Gremlin Interactive, the British company responsible for it, which was founded under the name of Gremlin Graphics in 1984 by Ian Stewart and Kevin Norburn, the proprietors of a Sheffield software shop. Impressed by the coding talents of the teenagers who flocked around their store’s demo machines every afternoon and weekend, one-upping one another with ever more audacious feats of programming derring-do, Stewart and Norburn conceived Gremlin as a vehicle for bringing these lads’ inventions to the world. The company’s name became iconic among European owners of Sinclair Spectrums and Commodore 64s, thanks to colorfully cartoony and deviously clever platformers and other types of action games: the Monty Mole series, Thing on a Spring, Bounder, Switchblade, just to name few. When the 1980s came to an end and the 8-bit machines gave way to the Commodore Amiga, MS-DOS, and the new 16-bit consoles, Gremlin navigated the transition reasonably well, keeping their old aesthetic alive through games like Zool whilst also branching out in new directions, such as a groundbreaking line of 3D sports simulations that began with Actua Soccer. Through it all, Gremlin was an institution unto itself in British game development, a rite of passage for countless artists, designers, and programmers, some of whom went on to found companies of their own. (The most famous of Gremlin’s spinoffs is Core Design, which struck international gold in 1996 with Tomb Raider.)

The more specific story of Normality begins with a fellow named Tony Crowther. While still a teenager in the 1980s, he was one of the elite upper echelon of early British game programmers, who were feted in the gaming magazines like rock stars. A Sheffield lad himself, Crowther’s fame actually predated the founding of Gremlin, but his path converged with its on a number of occasions afterward. Unlike many of his rock-star peers, he was able to sustain his career if not his personal name recognition into the 1990s, when lone-wolf programmers were replaced by teams and project budgets and timelines increased exponentially. He remembers his first sight of id Software’s DOOM as a watershed moment in his professional life: “This was the first game I had seen with 3D graphics, and with what appeared to be a free-roaming camera in the world.” It was, in short, the game that would change everything. Crowther immediately started working on a DOOM-style 3D engine of his own.

He brought the engine, which he called True3D, with him to Gremlin Interactive when he accepted the title of Technical Consultant there in early 1994. “I proposed two game scenarios” for using it, he says. “Gremlin went with the devil theme; the other was a generic monster game.”

The “devil theme” would become Realms of the Haunting, a crazily ambitious and expensive project that would take well over two years to bring to fruition, that would wind up filling four CDs with DOOM-style carnage, adventure-style dialogs and puzzle solving, a complicated storyline involving a globe-spanning occult conspiracy of evil (yes, yet another one), and 90 minutes of video footage of human actors (this was the mid-1990s, after all). We’ll have a closer look at this shaggy beast in a later article.

Today’s more modest subject of inquiry was born in the head of one Adrian Carless, a long-serving designer, artist, writer, and general jack-of-all-trades at Gremlin. He simply “thought it would be cool to make an adventure game in a DOOM-style engine. Realms of the Haunting was already underway, so why not make two games with the same engine?” And so NormalityRealms of the Haunting‘s irreverent little brother, was born. A small team of about half a dozen made it their labor of love for some eighteen months, shepherding it to a European release in the spring of 1996. It saw a North American release, under the auspices of the publisher Interplay, several months later.

To the extent that it’s remembered at all, Normality is known first and foremost today for its free-roaming first-person 3D engine — an approach that had long since become ubiquitous in the realm of action games, where “DOOM clones” were a dime a dozen by 1996, but was known to adventure gamers only thanks to Access Software’s Tex Murphy games. Given this, it might be wise for us to review the general state of adventure-game visuals circa 1996.

By this point, graphical adventures had bifurcated into two distinct groups whose Venn diagram of fans overlapped somewhat, but perhaps not as much as one might expect. The older approach was the third-person point-and-click game, which had evolved out of the 1980s efforts of Sierra and LucasArts. Each location in one of these games was built from a background of hand-drawn pixel art, with the player character, non-player characters, and other interactive objects superimposed upon it as sprites. Because drawing each bespoke location was so intensive in terms of human labor, there tended to be relatively few of them to visit in any given game. But by way of compensation, these games usually offered fairly rich storylines and a fair degree of dynamism in terms of their worlds and the characters that inhabited them. Puzzles tended to be of the object-oriented sort — i.e., a matter of using this thing from your inventory on this other thing.

The alternative approach was pioneered and eternally defined by Myst, a game from the tiny studio Cyan Productions that first appeared on the Macintosh in late 1993 and went on to sell over 6 million copies across a range of platforms. Like DOOM and its ilk, Myst and its many imitators presented a virtual world to their players from a first-person perspective, and relied on 3D graphics rendered by a computer using mathematical algorithms rather than hand-drawn pixel art. In all other ways, however, they were DOOM‘s polar opposite. Rather than corridors teeming with monsters to shoot, they offered up deserted, often deliberately surreal — some would say “sterile” — worlds for their players to explore. And rather than letting players roam freely through said worlds, they presented them as a set of discrete nodes that they could hop between.

Why did they choose this slightly awkward approach? As happens so often in game development, the answer has everything to do with technological tradeoffs. Both DOOM and Myst were 3D-rendered; their differences came down to where and when that rendering took place. DOOM created its visuals on the fly, which meant that the player could go anywhere in the world but which limited the environment’s visual fidelity to what an ordinary consumer-grade computer of the time could render at a decent frame rate. Myst, on the other hand, was built from pre-rendered scenes: scenes that had been rendered beforehand on a high-end computer, then saved to disk as ordinary graphics files — effectively converted into pixel art. This work stream let studios turn out far more images far more quickly than even an army of human pixel-artists could have managed, but forced them to construct their worlds as a network of arbitrarily fixed nodes and views which many players — myself among them — can find confusing to navigate. Further, these views were not easy to alter in any sort of way after they had been rendered, which sharply limited the dynamism of Myst clones in comparison to traditional third-person adventure games. Thus the deserted quality that became for good or ill one of their trademarks, and their tendency to rely on set-piece puzzles such as slider and button combinations rather than more flexible styles of gameplay. (Myst itself didn’t have a player inventory of any sort — a far cry from the veritable pawn shop’s worth of seemingly random junk one could expect to be toting around by the middle stages of the typical Sierra or LucasArts game.)

By no means did Normality lift the set of technical constraints I’ve just described. Yet it did serve as a test bed for a different set of tradeoffs from the ones that adventure developers had been accepting before this point. It asked the question of whether you could make an otherwise completely conventional adventure game — unlike its big brother Realms of the Haunting, Normality has no action elements whatsoever — using a Doom-style engine, accepting that the end result would not be as beautiful as Myst but hoping that the world would feel a lot more natural to move around in. And the answer turned out to be — in this critic’s opinion, at any rate — a pretty emphatic yes.

Tony Crowther may have chosen to call his engine True3D, but it is in reality no such thing. Like the DOOM engine which inspired it, it uses an array of tricks and shortcuts to minimize rendering times whilst creating a reasonably convincing subjective experience of inhabiting a 3D space. That said, it does boast some improvements over DOOM: most notably, it lets you look up and down, an essential capability for an old-school adventure game in which the player is expected to scour every inch of her environment for useful thingamabobs. It thus proved in the context of adventure games a thesis that DOOM had already proved for action games: that gains in interactivity can often more than offset losses in visual fidelity. Just being able to, say, look down from a trapdoor above a piece of furniture and see a crucial detail that had been hidden from floor level was something of a revelation for adventure gamers.

You move freely around Normality‘s world using the arrow keys, just as you do in DOOM. (The “WASD” key combination, much less mouse-look, hadn’t yet become commonplace in 1996.) You interact with the things you see on the screen by clicking on them with the mouse. It feels perfectly natural in no time — more natural, I must say, than any Myst clone has ever felt for me. And you won’t feel bored or lonely in Normality, as so many tend to do in that other style of game; its environment changes constantly and it has plenty of characters to talk to. In this respect as in many others, it’s more Sierra and LucasArts than Myst.

The main character of Normality is a fellow named Kent Knutson, who, some people who worked at Gremlin have strongly implied, was rather a chip off the old block of Adrian Carless himself. He’s an unrepentant slacker who just wants to rock out to his tunes, chow down on pizza, and, one has to suspect based on the rest of his persona, toke up until he’s baked to the perfection of a Toll House cookie. Unfortunately, he’s living in a dictatorial dystopia of the near future, in which conformity to the lowest common denominator — the titular Normality — has been elevated to the highest social value, to be ruthlessly enforced by any and all means necessary. When we first meet Kent, he’s just been released from a stint in jail, his punishment for walking down the street humming a non-sanctioned song. Now he’s to spend some more time in house arrest inside his grotty apartment, with a robot guard just outside the door making sure he keeps his television on 24 hours per day, thereby to properly absorb the propaganda of the Dear Leader, a thoroughly unpleasant fellow named Paul Mystalux. With your help, Kent will find a way to bust out of his confinement. Then he’ll meet the most ineffectual group of resistance fighters in history, prove himself worthy to join their dubious ranks, and finally find a way to bring back to his aptly named city of Neutropolis the freedom to let your freak flag fly.

Adrian Carless. It seems that the apple named Kent didn’t fall far from the tree named Adrian…

There’s a core of something serious here, as I know all too well; I’ve been researching and writing of late about Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in China, whose own excesses in the name of groupthink were every bit as absurd in their way as the ones that take place in Neutropolis. In practice, though, the game is content to play its premise for laughs. As the creators of Normality put it, “It’s possible to draw parallels between Paul [Mystalux] and many of the truly evil dictators in history — Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin — but we won’t do that now because this is supposed to be light-hearted and fun.” It’s far from the worst way in the world to neutralize tyranny; few things are as deflating to the dictators and would-be dictators among us than being laughed at for the pathetic personal insecurities that make them want to commit such terrible crimes against humanity.

This game is the very definition of laddish humor, as unsubtle as a jab in the noggin, as rarefied as a molehill, as erudite as that sports fan who always seems to be sitting next to you at the bar of a Saturday night. And yet it never fails to be likeable. It always has its heart in the right place, always punches up rather than down. What can I say? I’m a simple man, and this game makes me laugh. My favorite line comes when, true adventure gamer that you are, you try to get Kent to sift through a public trashcan for valuable items: “I have enough trash in my apartment already!”

Normality‘s visual aesthetic is in keeping with its humor aesthetic (not to mention Kent’s taste in music): loud, a little crude, even a trifle obnoxious, but hard to hate for all that. The animations were created by motion-capturing real people, but budget and time constraints meant that it didn’t quite work out. “Feet would float and swim, hands wouldn’t meet, and overall things could look rather strange,” admits artist Ricki Martin. “For sure the end results would have been better if it had been hand-animated.” I must respectfully disagree. To my mind, the shambolic animation only adds to the delightfully low-rent feel of the whole — like an old 1980s Dinosaur Jr. record where the tape hiss and distortion are an essential part of the final impression. (In fact, the whole vibe of the game strikes me as more in line with 1980s underground music than the 1990s grunge that was promised in some of its advertising, much less the Britpop that was sweeping its home country at the time.)

But for all its tossed-off-seeming qualities, Normality has its head screwed on tight where it’s important: it proves to be a meticulously designed adventure game, something neither its overall vibe not its creators’ lack of experience with the genre would lead one to expect. Thankfully, they learned from the best; all of the principals recall the heavy influence that LucasArts had on them — so much so that they even tried to duplicate the onscreen font found in classics like The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, and Sam and Max Hit the Road. The puzzles are often bizarre — they do take place in a bizarre setting, after all — but they always have an identifiable cartoon logic to them, and there are absolutely no dead ends to ruin your day. As a piece of design, Normality thus acquits itself much better than many another game from more established adventure developers. You can solve this one on your own, folks; its worst design sin is an inordinate number of red herrings, which I’m not sure really constitutes a sin at all. It’s wonderful to discover an adventure game that defies the skepticism with which I always approach obscure titles in the genre from unseasoned studios.

The game begins in Kent’s hovel of a flat.

The game’s verb menu is capable of frightening small children — or, my wife, who declared it the single ugliest thing I’ve ever subjected her to when I play these weird old games in our living room.

Sometimes Normality‘s humor is sly. These rooms with painted-on furniture are a riff on the tendency of some early 3D engines to appear, shall we say, less than full-bodied.

Other times the humor is just dumb — but it still makes me laugh.

The game ends in a noisy concert that’s absolutely off the hook, which is absolutely perfect.

Normality was released with considerable fanfare in Europe, including a fifteen-page promotional spread in the popular British magazine PC Zone, engineered to look like a creation of the magazine’s editorial staff rather than an advertisement. (Journalistic ethics? Schmethics!) Here and elsewhere, Gremlin plugged the game as a well-nigh revolutionary adventure, thanks to its 3D engine. But the public was less than impressed; the game never caught fire.

In the United States, Interplay tried to inject a bit of star power into the equation by hiring the former teen idol Corey Feldman to re-record all of Kent’s lines; mileages will vary here, but personally I prefer original actor Tom Hill’s more laconic approach to Feldman’s trademark amped-up surfer-dude diction. Regardless, the change in casting did nothing to help Normality‘s fortunes in the United States, where it sank without a trace — as is amply testified by the fact that this lifelong adventure fan never even knew it existed until recently. Few of the magazines bothered to review it at all, and those that did took strangely scant notice of its formal and technical innovations. Scorpia, Computer Gaming World‘s influential adventure columnist, utterly buried the lede, mentioning the 3D interface only in nonchalant passing halfway into her review. Her conclusion? “Normality isn’t bad.” Another reviewer pronounced it “mildly fun and entertaining.” With faint praise like that, who needs criticism?

Those who made Normality have since mused that Gremlin and Interplay’s marketing folks might have leaned a bit too heavily on the game’s innovative presentation at the expense of its humorous premise and characters, and there’s probably something to this. Then again, its idiosyncratic vibe resisted easy encapsulation, and was perhaps of only niche appeal anyway — a mistake, if mistake it be, that LucasArts generally didn’t make. Normality was “‘out there,’ making it hard to put a genre on it,” says Graeme Ing, another artist who worked on the game — “unlike Monkey Island being ‘pirates’ and [Day of the] Tentacle being ‘time travel.'” Yet he admits that “I loved the game for the same reasons. Totally unique, not just a copy of another hit.”

I concur. Despite its innovations, Normality is not a major game in any sense of the word, but sometimes being “major” is overrated. To paraphrase Neil Young, traveling in the middle of the road all the time can become a bore. Therefore this site will always have time for gaming’s ditches — more time than ever, I suspect, as we move deeper into the latter half of the 1990s, an era when gaming’s mainstream was becoming ever more homogenized. My thanks go to Sarah Walker for turning me onto this scruffy outsider, which I’m happy to induct into my own intensely idiosyncratic Hall of Fame.

(Sources: the book A Gremlin in the Works by Mark James Hardisty, which with its digital supplement included gives you some 800 pages on the history of Gremlin Interactive, thus nicely remedying this site’s complete silence on that subject prior to now. It comes highly recommended! Also Computer Gaming World of November 1996, Next Generation of November 1996, PC Zone of May 1996, PC World of September 1996, Retro Gamer 11, 61, and 75.

Normality is available for digital purchase at, in a version with the original voice acting. Two tips: remember that you can look up and down using the Page Up and Page Down, and know that you can access the map view to move around the city at any time by pressing “M.” Don’t do what I did: spend more than an hour searching in vain for the exit to a trash silo you thought you were trapped inside — even if that does seem a very Kent thing to do…)


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