Civilization In Decline

The year was 1991, and I was a freshman in college, studying studiously every night to prepare myself for the rigors of the adult world.

That is, if you count obsessively playing a computer game as studying. The game was called “Sid Meier’s Civilization” and advertised that it would let you nurture the course of your chosen people from the very first time they decided “screw this hunter-gatherer shit, let’s start farming”, to eventual world conquest, or perhaps even a spaceship colonization voyage to Alpha Centauri.

One thing you couldn’t fault the designers for was ambition, but more than that, they managed to make the whole process dangerously fun. In the beginning you chose from a list of the great civilizations of mankind (usually “ruled” by a particular exemplar of their respective golden ages), and you then founded your cities, developed your lands, discovered new technologies, and traded (and made war on) rival civilizations also competing to be #1. Unlike later real-time offerings such as Age of Empires, Civilization was turn-based, letting you strategize at your own pace and allowing for, in my opinion, a more epic feel since turns at the beginning of the game (which started circa 4000 BC) could be scaled to 100 years of “Earth time”, gradually speeding up until you reached a one-year-per-turn cycle in the modern age.

Anyone who equates “turn-based” with “I can walk away from this game at any time” has never played Civ. Yes, technically, you can go answer the door for pizza before moving your next unit, but Civ probably represents the first recorded epidemic of “onemoreturnitis” in computer gaming. There was always a new technology you were on the cusp of developing, a new Wonder of the World to be built, an enemy attack to be turned back or a new land to explore (you could play on an Earth map, but that was never as fun to me as having the game randomly generate a whole new world that you were quite literally “in the dark” about until you started scouting). As each new technology was developed and each new monument was built, pop-up screens would, if you so desired, link you to entries in the “Civilopedia” that gave you real-world historical information on the impetus and impact of the advancement. These entries were so well written that, had I been a History major, I might have been able to bullshit my way to saying that I was studying. Okay, probably not, but still, Civilization was doing its own version of Wikipedia hyperlinks ten years before Wikipedia existed (and for that matter, predating the World Wide Web itself).

Meanwhile, in addition to learning what the Colossus of Rhodes was all about, you got to see it actually appear astride the harbor of your city. As the eras progressed you would also watch that city go from a few thatched huts, to log cabins, to stone buildings, to bricks and brownstones, and finally towering skyscrapers of glass and steel. More and more citizens displayed, in guises appropriate to the age. Even the buildings you added would sometimes change form as appropriate, such as your ancient Colosseum acquiring electronic scoreboards, or your thatch-roofed granary becoming a modern aluminum silo.

If you question why it had to be called “Sid Meier’s Civilization”, let’s just say that between Silent Service and Pirates! alone, Sid Meier in 1991 was already the fucking man in terms of historically-researched-but-still-fun computer gaming. This was back when they still included actual printed manuals with games, and those manuals were jam-packed not only with game information but with stuff like why WWII pacific submarines were stuck for years with torpedoes that failed to work in alarming rates. It’s a far cry from today’s games where it seems like you get a tiny brochure, at best, or maybe get directed to an online PDF. I miss those big, readable, informative manuals. Cuz I’m a nerd, that’s why. A creaky old nerd.

Meh. Anyhow, basically I bring all this up because Civilization V, the latest in the series, has arrived, and after playing the demo I just don’t feel the same magic that I did with the first one, or for that matter with Civ 2 and even Civ 3. It wasn’t as big of a letdown as I got playing Civ 4 (which I was champing at the bit for), or Civ Revolutions (which thankfully I only rented), but it’s done nothing to reverse the trend whereby I feel… well, bored by the game. I mean, before even finishing the first playthrough (and I did multiple playthroughs of the first 3).

I’m trying to figure out what’s happened. It’s certainly not that the graphics are getting worse… and while there are some fundamental gameplay changes in Civ 5 that I didn’t like, those could be handwaved as just being a matter of needing time to get used to them.

I think it boils down to something Erik brought up a couple of months ago when he was discussing Star Trek Online and other MMOs: the “sense of accomplishment“. The feeling of being invested, of progressing and being rewarded for your progression. In the first few iterations of Civilization, successfully completing a Wonder of the World was a BIG DEAL, and treated as such. You got to see a cinematic and watch as it added itself to your cityscape, then got the Civilopedia entry giving the details on just why this particular thing was so damn special to the history of mankind, anyhow.

Hell, in the first games, even building a bank was something that you got to see happen, and from then on whenever you went to view your city, there was that bank, visually adding to the amenities of that particular corner of your civilization.

By the time we get to Civilization V, the building of a Wonder has been reduced to a static splash screen announcing it, and when you click that away, that’s it and you’re asked to choose your next item of production. Ka-chunk. It might even take you a minute to actually find the damn thing on or near the city you built it in, because they decided to do away with a city view entirely and just have everything represented on the world view instead.

I can’t begin to express how disappointed I am that they continued this trend, which I believe started in Civ IV. At first it sounded great, since the city and all its features would be an “organic” part of the landscape, but in practice things are so crowded and the zoom is so limited that even the majestic Pyramids become lost in the shuffle. Everything’s just so goddamn tiny, with no option anymore for getting a closer look at it and actually being impressed with what you’ve managed to build.

I want to be impressed with stuff I build in Civ. Even if it’s just that I’ve built my first ever marketplace, I want to tangibly see that happening, not just get a pop-up and an increase in my gold flow per turn. For that matter I also miss seeing my cities developing from humble huts… in Civ 5 I founded Athens and right away it was a city of white marble and red-tiled roofs that I never saw change except to sprawl outwards. At least wait until I’m in the Classical Age for that, right? But then again, all I get for entering a new Age now is a pop-up notification and a pithy voiceover quote. The original Civ had a dissolve from old to new, which kept that feeling of flow, of inexorable progress, going strong.

Here, now, in Civ V, everything just seems to be reduced to bare mechanics. Archers have been built. Animal husbandry has been researched. The Hanging Gardens have been completed. Where are the milestones? Where is the sense of the earthshaking breakthroughs that keep the centuries from blurring together? Or how about your ruler’s palace that started as out as some roughhewn stones, but over time you were gifted with improvements to until it became an architectural marvel fit to house your greatness? No, really… why did they take that feature out? Did it take up too much memory? Keep in mind here, the 1991 game shipped on a handful of 3&1/2 inch floppies.

And in an irony of ironies, the Civilopedia that was once so user-friendly, interlinked, and informative, has become a nightmare to try to navigate… which is not good when you combine that with the disappearance of a comprehensive printed manual. Are you really expected to tab out and comb through the PDF to find out what a “Pact of Cooperation” means when Bismarck asks for one? Cuz trying to search for it in the Civilopedia will get you fuck all nowhere.

It is insanely frustrating, and while I admit that I don’t know if my complaints are due to the fact that I only had a 100 turn demo rather than the retail version, I look at the disappointments and design decisions in Civ 4 and Revolutions and have decided that Civ 5 is merely continuing the trend. I’m not shelling out $50 for it. I’m not even motivated to deal with the virus-fest of ripping it from a Torrent site. Computing technology may have evolved in a staggering fashion in the last 20 years, but as far as I’m concerned, for at least the last five years Civilization has been in a steady decline. That’s a shame, because there are bits of Civilization V that show real care to them, such as the FMV diplomatic conversations with the other civilization’s leaders that are actually performed in their native languages (translated in the text, of course). When a game takes the time to have Moctezuma greet you in accurate Nahuatl, I’m impressed. I just wish I could say the same about the rest of it.

The series continues, and I’m sure there’s legions of fans both old and new still clicking through for “one more turn”. But for me, the heart’s gone out of the game. I’m done. Had I gotten that far, I would probably have considered Gandhi’s inevitable nuking of me a mercy killing.

Seriously, just ask Justin. Civ Gandhi will nuke your ass.

That said, if they ever go through with a sequel to Alpha Centauri I’m all set to get my fragile hopes up again.

[ NOTE: No blog next Saturday, since I’ll be busy with final preparations for Long Beach Comic Con, including the co-hosting of a panel for the first time. I know, you’re all heartbroken. Old man ranting will continue in two weeks. ]

About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
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8 Responses to Civilization In Decline

  1. Justin says:

    Gandhi: fuck that guy.

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  4. Horace says:

    The problem with Civ5 is the same with virtually all computer games nowadays:

    It’s a company PRODUCT based on market studies and finantial formulas, developed under established theories and a fixed schedule, the decisions made by an executive boss; as opposed to a work of ART made with passion and energy by an independent, innovative talent.

    It’s fast food vs a good home made dinner.
    It’s Spider-Man III vs Indiana Jones.
    It’s globalized, standardized and politically correct vs the truth.

    The times, they’re a-changin’.

  5. Shawn says:

    You’ve said exactly what I’ve felt about CIV since sequel 4. I loved watching my civilization progress, in fact it felt great seeing your nation as industrial while your pathetic neighbors were still living in the ancient or middle ages. It felt as if you and your ‘people’ had achieved something.

    In CIV 4 my first disappointment was when I started the game in the stone age and yet Roosevelt was wear a suit and tie, or playing through the Japanese or French Civs still wearing the same damn, out of date clothing! Part of the fun of CIV III was watching the dress change as well. Again, as you said, it felt as if you had achieved something. Especially if you were far ahead of your rivals.

    CIV 4/5 Never gave me that feeling of being addicted, I mean with the previous games I would go to bed thinking “how can I do this?” or “How can I win a war against so and so to get to a certain resource.” …

    Civilization lost it’s soul… and that was the only thing that made the game fun for me.

    • Clint says:

      Right, I mean, in the later games you can still ask “How can I win a war for that resource?” but it seems more of an exercise in mechanics than you writing a living, breathing chapter of alternate history. I mean, c’mon, as I recall Civ used to have Moctezuma in a business suit when you reached the modern age, or Jeanne D’Arc in Napoleonic uniform for the Industrial period. That sort of speculative storytelling was another thing that kept me hooked, I really wanted to see what a literal “Modern Day Caesar” could look like, so I played through the Romans in part just to experience that.

      In the new games all that creativity seems to have been lost, in addition to the happiness of your cities having skyscrapers when the guy next door still has huts. Which in Civ 3 usually meant those hut dwellers were a few turns away from flipping to your side because, hey, that whole “culture with indoor plumbing” thing looks mighty good to them.

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