Friday, June 19, 2015

Children of the Nile For the Future

"Your people are your most important resource - use them wisely!"

Anyone else think that sounds just a bit creepy-like? Then again, this is an except from the tutorial of a game about the ancient Egyptians, the people who thought cat corpses make quaint tchotchkes. Or maybe it's just the motto of the rich, pharaonic or otherwise. Quoth Dilbert: "They're called 'Human Resources' because they're meant to be strip-mined." Just so you don't feel too guilty about doing so, Children of the Nile presents you with  the same comedically oafish populace one comes to expect from City-oriented Sims, wandering your lands going about their placid, algorithmic ways as you scowl down from on high because damnit, it's been half a year and that temple still isn't built; get on it you lazy sandbums!

I skipped CotN when it first came out because, glimpsing a few screenshots, I thought to myself "meh, I've already played Age of Empires so's whadda I need with this?" Gold mines, workers, masonry, spears... throw in some green body paint and ya gotcherself a zug-zug, right? Wrong, of course, even if it took me a decade to ignore the screenshots of charioteers and find out this is actually a city-building sim and not an RTS. In my defense, however, CotN's reliance on units instead of buildings shifts gameplay toward RTS mechanics in more than a superficial manner. In most such games the citizens are mere window-dressing, a set of graphics generated by the buildings you place merely as illustration of their activities. In CotN, on the other hand, they are your main tool and obstacle, the life of your kingdom.

As per city sim definition your main activity as pharaoh is placing buildings. Uncharacteristically, these do not in themselves do anything. Linking them with roads does nothing. They will not draw power from any sort of divine electricity grid. A hospital will not immediately begin improving health around it wherever you plunk it down. Guard posts do not guard anything by themselves. A farm does not create food. Farmers do. Soldiers guard, priests pray and cure, scribes tax (my patience with their incompetence) and nobles, well... throw parties. Sure, ok, I mean, everyone's got their strenuous duties, right?
Even more frustrating to any starting player, the game uses no currency, no Simoleons, interstellar credits or Quatloos. There is no budget and no bottom line. Hilariously, this can obfuscate whether your city is growing or failing and you'll quickly learn how much more confusing it can be to keep a tyrannical strangle-hold on a scattered barter economy than on a conveniently centralized, aristocrat-friendly stock market.

However, Children of the Nile's central appeal can be grasped much more succinctly when compared to other sandboxish or open-world takes on FPS or RPG genres like STALKER, Mount and Blade or the Elder Scrolls series.
Rabiah Yutamun is deciding what to do (tm). Lost on a side-street between rows of farmers' hovels under the quixotic penumbra of monuments for the dead, one of the NPCs in your city is going about her own personal life. She may decide to go drop by the shrine of Bast and pray for the health of her children or help with her family's back-breaking work or maybe take a break to go shop for a pair of sandals (the sandal-maker down the street just invented heels) but whatever she does, she will do among a throng of other townsfolk all going about their own algorithmically forking paths. Just as you could trail a shepherd through his daily routine in Oblivion or a band of bounty hunters across the map in Mount and Blade, Children of the Nile places your grandiose aspirations in a meaningfully interconnected virtual world in which NPCs begin to seem less like props and more like fellow actors. The children are indeed the focus of this game, not the Nile itself.

Granted, that does come with some drawbacks. The AI in computer games is never quite sufficiently I to accomplish anything without tripping over itself. Though CotN gave up on the worst possible pitfall, pathfinding, by having its citizens walk more or less wherever they want, your humble subjects will still occasionally get stuck on some task or another. Having already related the saga of Anpu Tahet I must add that his is not the only such case I've encountered even in only a few matches. I've also had my economy stalled by an overseer refusing to shop at the stores right by his house and a graduate who refused to move out of his parents' house and get a job... and yes, that last one seems a bit on the nose when you're addressing gamers.

When you get a thousand different AIs all trying to interact they can very quickly turn into a constant Three Stooges routine. This may explain why games like CotN are so rare. Oblivion's populace was for the most part painstakingly scripted and did not act independently, and your success or failure in STALKER or Mount and Blade did not depend on the actions of any particular freewheeling, wandering NPC. Spore trivialized its otherwise robust simulation by giving you too many easy options toward victory, keeping the game stages short and keeping almost all of the elements out of the player's reach.
In CotN or the Majesty games, on the other hand, a single snapped lynchpin can too often break the game. Even ignoring what this means in terms of programming difficulties, the sheer amount of testing it takes to find and define such problems must make for very daunting development timeframes.

Still, can't we get more of this? The thrill of trying to establish a marble quarrying colony in CotN, coordinating bread, bricks, shops and cops, is enough to lead me to ignore the rudimentary flat map, blocky graphics and other flaws. Good music, a smooth interface, ambitious scale and detailed interactions plus some quaint street-level humor go a long way.

After the success of Minecraft and others, quite a few titles have sprung up promising sandbox interactivity on a large scale. Children of the Nile is old and relatively small by today's standards but it's going to serve as a nice reference point. Can you deliver a Pharaonic pipe-dream as good as this without retreating into small-minded Sims-style triviality, without taking the gold-mining and granite-quarrying completely out of players' hands, without giving up and scripting everything into submission? Can your AIs walk around without head-butting each other or am I going to find my good friend Anpu Tahet lodged in my spaceship's reactor intakes in The Mandate?

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