Scale and Storytelling in Civilization

Adrian has been writing a fascinating series of posts on Civilization over at mssv. I’m a massive Civ fan myself. I installed the very first version of the game from floppy disks onto my mom’s computer back in 1992. It was a beige IBM desktop, whose processing power would seem puny next to a lot of mobile phones today. The game sound was mostly beeps from the internal speaker, and the graphics were in mighty 16-colour VGA.

And it was awesome. I still play Civ to this day – it’s one of two games that I’ve never gotten bored of.

There are a lot of good things about this game. One of them, as Adrian wrote, is that the game’s structure really encourages storytelling – or rather, I would say, story-making. Adrian has already mentioned the game’s structure as a strong factor in this. I think there’s another: its scale.

Weaving a Structure for Plot

Every game of Civ starts with you in control of a wandering bunch of nomads. The game’s progress is always the same: you pick a spot, found a city, expand, meet other civilizations, trade, develop technologies, go to war. Eventually, if you aren’t destroyed, you either conquer the world one way or another, or leave it altogether and strike out for the stars.

The game’s unbelievable replayability comes from the fact that the game world is generated anew, every time you start a game. Much like Settlers of Catan, this means that you never really play the same game twice. But the plot structure is the same: found cities, develop tech, go to war, dominate the world.

I’ve played a lot of games of Civ, and it’s all to easy to weft the threads of your imagination through these barest threads of plot. As Adrian mentioned, it’s a structure with a good beginning, middle and end.

But the game’s scale is so epic as to be abstract. Cities are mere dots. Entire armies are represented by an icon of a single soldier. Entire wars are portrayed by three or four of those icons clashing. Very abstract. So why does the game encourage, even invite players to spend so much mental energy populating their game world with imagined governors, generals and families, making up names for provinces, and even writing epic histories of their ascent to world domination?

This is an important question, because stories are the vehicles of empathy. We identify with people, their personalities, their triumphs and failures. This emotional attachment through story is something apart from the gameplay itself, but it makes the totality of the game experience much more powerful.

Epic Scale and the Canals of Mars

I think that Civilization invites story-making precisely because of its vast scale. You experience Civilization on the scale of cities, entire armies, vast swathes of countryside. Ordering one worker unit to mine a hill square is the equivalent of conscripting 10,000 peasants to dig up an entire moorland looking for gold. You hover above the world, shaping 6000 years of history, more like a god than a king. From your vantage point, all you see are dots. The game’s storytelling resolution isn’t sufficiently fine for you to identify individual people.

So there’s room for you to make them up.

In storytelling terms, it’s something like Giovanni Schiaparelli’s canals of Mars. In the late 19th century, looking at a distant planet through shimmering night air, Schiaparelli could only get tantalizing glimpses of the planet’s surface features. His imagination did the rest: in an age of canal building on Earth, he imagined that he could see a network of canals on Mars, spanning the planet, bringing water from the polar caps to irrigate vast equatorial cities.

Civilization does something similar: it provides just enough detail for the player to hang her imagination on. Our urge to shape and tell stories is as impulsive and irresistible as our urge to play games. If we’re given a chance like this, it’s hard to pass it up. I often find myself assigning personalities to the commanding officers of my armies, or mentally describing a particular corner of my empire, without really trying to. It’s because they’re sufficiently far away from me that I can’t actually see them – so I make it up, instead.

Storytelling Resolution

A game like Gears of War, for instance, doesn’t let you do this. You play one person, and you see other single people – characters – around you. The gameplay is at a human scale, and it’s in HD, and you can see every bullet, drop of sweat and gobbet of Locust innards flying across the screen. There simply isn’t as much room for your imagination to wander.

One way to put it is that Gears of War has a finer storytelling resolution: when you tell the story of a particular game, you can say that you ran from this rock to that corner, pitched a grenade there, then charged forward and sawed a couple of Locusts in half with your chainsaw bayonet.

If there was a Locust tribe in Civilization, you could still play that battle – only you’d be in control of 10,000 other soldiers, too, and you’d have to imagine all the bullets, drops of sweat and rivers of gore.

Sandbox type games seem better at encouraging this sort of story-building, and the larger the scale, the better. You can just about get away with it – just – in a game like Starcraft, and you can definitely do it in a game like Sim City.

Graphics play a role, too. It was easy to get lost in imagining the world you were walking through in the original Legend of Zelda for the NES. The caverns, forests and towns were iconic, and your imagination did the rest. Grand Theft Auto IV is a sandbox game like Legend of Zelda – but the resolution of the graphics is much, much higher, so there’s less room for your imagination to fill it in. As graphics have gotten better there’s less need for your imagination, so that particular avenue of enriched experience has been replaced. But having the right storytelling resolution is independent of graphics – it’s a question of scale and detail.

Ahh, the joys of crushing your enemies in 16 colours. Those were the days.

2 thoughts on “Scale and Storytelling in Civilization

  1. Very astute – Civ clearly gives more room for your imagination than more focused games. I actually think that Alpha Centauri strikes an even *better* balance, because it has more interesting and better defined sides, that still leave enough room but spark the imagination a bit better. Something I’ll cover in a later post 🙂

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