Jonathan Blow, of Braid fame, recently gave an interesting talk at the FreePlay conference in Australia. (The video is available here.) His main point is that we are not asking ourselves “Why do I want to make this game?” Instead, we are usually asking “How” questions, such as “How do I get into the industry?” or “How do I get publishers to notice my game?” It’s an unusual way of looking at game development, and I bet most developers have never asked themselves this question.
I was asked a similar question a couple months ago by fellow Sporean (Sporite?) Chris Hecker – he asked if my game design had a theme. Was there a specific idea or experience that I was trying to convey to the player? The answer that came to me also answers Jonathan’s question. Namely, I want players of my games to feel that “no one choice is always right.” In other words, the challenge is adaptation, looking at a specific environment and finding a successful path. In Civ4 terms, if you start the game next to marble and stone, you might want to focus on wonders. If you start between Napoleon and Montezuma, you better make sure one of them is your friend. If you’re surrounded by jungle, better prioritize Iron Working; if you’re water-locked from the rest of the world, better get to Astronomy. Of course, in each game of Civ, multiple situations and challenges come at you at once, so it’s a question of prioritizing, deciding which opportunities to take advantage of and which ones to ignore.
So, why do I believe that it is important to understand that being flexible is better than being rigid? Why is it better to build a plan from your environment instead of forcing your strategy onto the world? The answer is my own philosophical background, my world view.
If the twentieth century has a single theme, it is that ideology itself is a dead-end, a failure. The growth of mass media enabled ideas to motivate people in ways never before imagined. Time and time again, these ideas allowed dogmatic leaders to demonize the “opposition,” which usually meant helping the strong to terrorize the weak. From the Nazi death camps to the Soviet gulags to China’s Cultural Revolution to America’s McCarthyism, the twentieth century was full of ideas that gave power to autocratic leaders not afraid to destroy the lives of those who resisted. Much as we hate to admit it, these leaders were supported by the masses of people who believed blindly in the ideas they represented. Before becoming a dictator, Hitler was initially elected to power. (“People will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.”) For much too long, Stalin had an embarrassing number of communist apologists all around the world. (“One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.”) They are now primarily remembered as mass murderers.
I personally despise ideologies because they inevitably lead to a belief that there is one set of solutions to the world’s problems. One set of solutions means all other options are heretical, which means they must be controlled. Ideologues put ideas above people, which is the beginning of terror and oppression. People are more important than ideas; in fact, people are more important than everything because they are, in fact, the only thing.
I don’t imagine that Civ4 tackles these issues as well as it could have, but I do know that my inherent distrust of ideologies does lurk under the surface of the game. Take the civics system, for example. Unlike previous Civ games, which let you could choose between broad labels like Democracy or Communism, Civ4 lets you build your government à la carte. You can mix State Property with Free Speech, or a Police State with a Free Market, or even Slavery with Universal Suffrage. Ideologues love labels because they dehumanize and obscure the opposition; both sides of the Cold War made liberal use of the terms “Communist” and “Capitalist” to differentiate each other, even though the United States government has slowly adopted communist programs piece-meal over the last century. Why exactly was the U.S. – a country with social security, medicare, welfare, a minimum wage, labor laws, and trade unions – fighting to keep Communism out of Vietnam? In fact, if you took a typical Red-fearing, trade-union-busting industrialist from 1907 and sent him 100 years into the future and explained how America now works, he would assume that the Communists won after all! Labels exist to separate and control people, and I wanted the civics system to encourage people to look behind the labels and at the actual choices a society needs to make when governing itself. It was no accident that I attached Mt. Rushmore to Fascism; carving mammoth statues of your country’s greatest leaders into a MOUNTAIN is fascist, even if we do not live under Fascism. Our own self-labeling as Democratic and Capitalist does not protect us from charges that our country is damaging the world when our policies hurt people, real people.
Of course, discouraging rigid thinking is not the only reason I make games, but it is the best answer I can give to Jonathan’s question. If I ever get to release my dream strategy game, this idea will be clearly be at the center of the design. It’s good to have a reason.