Wednesday, February 3, 2016

You are weak (and also ripe for conquest)

"Master of puppets I'm pulling the strings
Twisting your mind and smashing your dreams
Blinded by me you can't see a thing
Just call my name 'cause I'll hear you scream"

Metallica - Master of Puppets


The Iridium Corporation is furious with me :(

I should probably pick a screenshot in which I have at least one green plus to offset all these red minuses but meh... that's just how I roll.

I've been giving Galactic Civilizations 3 yet another chance recently, hoping to somehow work my fifty wasted dollars into actual enjoyment, but as I mentioned in my previous posts about this expansive but uncreative waste of processor time, it's an outstandingly bland exercise in repetition. However, given how effectively its blandness molds itself to mass-market expectations, it does provide me a nice setup for me yammering about diplomacy in single-player strategy games at large.

Anyhow, the Iridium Corporation is furious with me. As you can see from the list above, that's partly because I suck at sucking up and my custom faction doesn't pay lip-service to their philosophical outlook and also because they're just jerks, but I'd like to focus on two specific causes for their declaration of war upon me:

1) You are weak
2) You are ripe for conquest

Was there a two-for-one sale on bellicosity? Why not just slap a "No Turtling!" logo on your game from the start? See, like most turn-based strategy games, GC3 theoretically offers several nominal paths to victory: technological, cultural, military, etc. In practice, it's set up to make it impossible to survive without a large military investment. Not content to dislike you to the tune of three angry red minuses, AI opponents fabricate a duplicate category to drive home the point that having a weak military is absolutely the worst diplomatic move you could ever make, bar none, period, no arguments, no way, no how! The rest of the game follows suit. Planets are utterly defenseless without ships to guard them, defensive structures (starbases) are anemic at best and bribing factions into liking you doesn't even work short-term. In the example above, they declared war on me just a few turns after we'd begun trading.

At its most basic, call it an abstract game design choice. "Turtling" in strategy games means hiding behind your own borders, fortifications, natural defenses, whatever, and diverting all your resources into gaining a technological or industrial advantage over your opponents. This being too subtle and patient an approach for the average mass-market deadhead, developers have increasingly punished players for adopting it even as they still pay lip service to it as a valid road to success, to retain some pretense of legitimacy as strategy games and not simply out-and-out brawls like Supreme Commander. Constant fighting however translates as "action, action, action!" to knuckledragging little cretins with backwards baseball caps, and that's where the money is. The more clicks, the more excitement.

Secondly, that same lowest common audience has grown up with the constant mass-media glorification of the American empire as well as those before it. The only way they know to be all they can be is by being square-jawed, gun-toting, tank-humping hired muscle. The game industry now toes the Hollywood line, a Thin Red Line as it were.
Think about what Stardock's diplomatic algorithm is really saying above. We hate you because you have no military. We hate you because you're not a threat to us. If this were a favorable stance everyone in the real world would be declaring war on Iceland. They don't because Iceland, astoundingly, turns out has its uses. A more rational diplomatic algorithm recognizes the value of trade partners. Sometimes it's more profitable to rip people off than to take them over.
Granted GC3 is a rather extreme example, as the "easy pickings" coefficient is simply set too high, resulting in most factions acting like Genghis Khan, but I'm curious how far this trend has spread these days. I could turtle in Civilization 4 to some extent and pay tribute but would still get attacked by civs much weaker than my own who simply saw one undefended city and couldn't resist the temptation. Routinely, my highest-rated ally would betray me with no diplomatic justification. How far will game developers go to punish those who plan ahead?

On one level this is simply lazy design. I can imagine it's quite difficult to create algorithms which take the long view of things, but AIs being immune to tedium and infinitely observant, they can easily spot the numerically weaker spots in a player's defenses. Developers take the shortcut of programming their single-player games to simply badger and harass the hu-mon into submission, to never let up. It's challenging... just not intellectually so. It's whack-a-mole.

However, it's also an internalization of the dogma of social domination spewed by the upper classes. Developers pander to their fatcat investors' politics: neoliberal economics, military-industrial lack of complexity, neoconservative family values, tribalism, plus the whole obedience training routine of achievement unlocks.

As one example, compare religion as a tool of social control in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri to a later game in the series, Civilization 4. Alpha Centauri contained a religious faction, but it was one faction out of seven with its bonuses and drawbacks just like the others. In Civ 4, published after the company had grown more and was addressing a larger audience, religion was not only a stabilizing influence on your medieval society (granted, homogenizing thought by indoctrination in primitive superstition is a great boon to the puppet masters) but more sickeningly, provided the bulk of your civilization's "culture" metric instead of appearing as the stranglehold on creativity it truly has been over the millennia. If you think I'm being unfair, do a Google image search on "madonna with child" - you could pave half a continent with the Byzantines' regurgitation of that tripe alone. What's more, the more religions your cities possessed even in a "free worship" society in the modern age, the happier your populace. Yeah, obviously that's what you get when religions meet, just a total ecumenical clusterfuck of peace and love all around. But hey, that's the line the rich are feeding us, so that's the line toed by spineless game developers.

Just as Cities XL offers you no choice but to pander to your "elite" citizenry as you tax the poor to death and choke them with factory fumes, just as everything in Space Colony boils down to ass-kissing and a fat paycheck, strategy games in turn reinforce the military side of the military-industrial complex. Where they pay lip service to the existence of ivory towers, they make sure to drive home the point that real winners destroy and subjugate. I suppose it's no accident that the best exception I know to this rule, Europa Universalis (in which bellicosity is the quickest way to get trampled) comes from Paradox, a Swedish studio, instead of the usual suspects.

As for the Iridium Corporation in GC3, it turns out they didn't actually have any combat ships that could reach me. Stardock's pathetic excuse for AI just really, really hated my lack of a military and wanted me to know it.

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