Civ II: The Eternal War and Chaos in Gaming

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 2:34 pm
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We all knew Civilization II was fun -- but ten years fun?

I've got a soft spot in my heart for Sid Meier's Civilization II. I discovered Civ II's simple, elegant approach to strategy gameplay in high school, when my social life consisted of hanging out with my cat and playing computer games. I had played strategy games before, but something about Civ II drew me in and kept me in a strange, micro-managing trance like nothing I'd experienced before. I went off to college, and it became a more communal experience -- I'd play with a buddy and a forty of Smirnoff Ice (this was part of the ritual... I don't know why...), and we'd stay up developing technologies and building roads so late that sometimes we would only leave our Civ world when dawn was upon us.

So I was delighted when Civ II burst back into the spotlight during the past week, thanks to a Reddit post gone viral. Turns out that redditor Lycerius started a Civ II game ten years ago that he still plays today.  The resulting post-post-post-Apocalyptic scenario has ignited the imaginations and nostalgia glands (what? I'm not a doctor) of gamers across the web, to the point where the story has been covered by such major news outlets as CNN.

Why is this such a big story? Well, I think people are interested in it for two reasons. For one, it's just a fun news story about the longevity of good video games. But I also believe that the tale of "The Eternal War" has connected with people because it displays one of the most fascinating things about video games: the potential for a video game to create its own self-sustaining environment.

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In Civ II you control a civilization from man's first technological advances (little things you may have heard of like "the wheel") to just beyond the modern era. The end of scored play is around the beginning of the 21st century. At this point, if no one civilization has yet destroyed all others, dominated the U.N., built a spaceship or fulfilled any of the other instant win conditions, the civilizations are ranked and end game is declared. However, you do have the option to play on into the future if you'd like to, and Lycerius evidently chose this option years ago.

In the ten-year-old save game that's causing so much excitement, the year is 3991 AD. Three superpowers remain locked in constant battle: the Celts (a communist state), the Vikings and the Americans (both fundamentalist dictatorships). The world is covered in radiation and toxic waste due to the millenia-long nuclear conflict. Cities that were once thriving metropolises have been reduced to ragged hamlets by lack of food and constant war.

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DAMN YOU, GOLDWATER!

Some parts of the scenario are a little ridiculous since this particular game has been played so far beyond the intended turn limit. For instance, even though the game takes place a couple thousand years into the future, there are no hoverboards or plasma rifles -- all the game's technology only advances up until 2020 or so, and from there on is stuck in the same place forever. Also, somehow, the polar ice caps have melted several separate times, due to pollution and lack of green energy.

Redditors have gone insane over this kooky vision of a terrible, distant future. Insane in a really impressive way. Among other things, posters have shared gorgeous maps they've made based on the political boundaries of Lycerius's 3991 AD world, wonderfully designed Celtic propaganda posters, and creative short stories set amidst the fury and the fallout.

The exciting thing about Civ II and The Eternal War is that it shows us in vivid detail that an open-world game with well-programmed parameters can create situations that are entirely unexpected for gamers and developers alike. These games offer something that even games with the most adventurous branching storylines don't -- authentic chaos.

Even for non-gamers, the idea of a game that creates a truly unpredictable environment is kind of thrilling; after all, a virtual world that is so complex that systems within it interact in ways that are not easily foreseeable is, potentially, a hugely entertaining prospect. The other game I thought of when considering The Eternal War was the famously complicated lo-fi masterpiece Dwarf Fortress.

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This, I think, is using a custom tileset. That's right: Dwarf Fortress's default graphics are worse than this.

Dwarf Fortress is such a singular gaming experience, so full of possibility, that the New York Times wrote a feature on it that can only be described as awed and bewildered. Dwarf Fortress is a game where you control a group of dwarves that, you guessed it, may be inclined to built a fortress. Beyond that, there is no set plot and there are no grand quests. The graphics are truly abysmal. But once you learn the scope of what your dwarves can do and the natural elements that can come into play, Dwarf Fortress seems less like a strategy game and more like an alternate universe.

The in-game physics are advanced, and can be controlled by savvy players to create complicated traps. Each dwarf has mental health that can be affected by events in-game. Everything from goblins to hippos to foreign dwarven nobility can show up and interact with the player's dwarves. The learning curve is cliff-face-steep, but once you've got the many controls down, almost anything can happen.

These kinds of games don't produce rigid plotlines for players to trot through.  They produce intricate settings for narratives to arise as they do in the real world -- organically. And the fact that we're creating games that have the ability to surprise us so thoroughly is, I think a good sign.

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