Civilization and Storytelling

I’ve only ever written fan fiction twice in my life, and both times it’s been for Sid Meier games.

Nurturing a civilization from a band of illiterate settlers to an empire that’s trading goods and blows across the world tends to make you feel rather attached to your people, and it’s hard not to be personally offended when the sanctimonious Americans team up with the Zulus and backstab by landing an army of knights and cavalry on your home shores. From there, it’s only a small step for you to start imagining the newspaper headlines flying out across your nation and the whispers of rebellion in your threatened, remote outposts.

The freedom that Civilization affords players is not unusual when compared to other sandbox games, most notably Will Wright’s SimCity and The Sims, and there’s no shortage of fanfic for those. But I think there’s something special about the structure and complexity of Civilization makes writing fanfic irresistible.

Civilization has quite a bit of structure – it has a fixed beginning and end, with a set of basically linear paths that players must proceed down in order to win (or at least have an interesting game) such as researching technologies, founding new cities, etc., and these paths map pretty well onto what people are taught about history and politics in school. The game’s broad span of time – from 4000BC to 2050AD – also gives it a far greater scope than strategy games like Europa Universalis or Anno 1404, which concentrate on much narrower historical periods. There’s nothing wrong with that, but chances are that you’ll find something in those 6000 years that will spark your imagination, whereas if you’re not into WW2 or Renaissance sea trading, it’s that much harder to conjure up stories, let alone write any fanfic.

It was precisely the fact that games of Civilization go on for thousands of years that I wrote my first bit of fanfic, called ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera: Three Generations of the English Union’, based on an epic game of Civilization 2 that I’d been immersed in. I can’t read it now without wincing at the heavy-handed data-dumping, but what still surprises me is the effort I went in to making the story sync up with the actual gameplay. For example, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

Andrew laughed out loud, shaking his head. England had been negotiating with France for as long as he could remember about the ever-shifting border agreements. As England’s western borders extended inexorably outwards, eating up the territory once held by the French cities of New Salamanca and Tlacopan, French troop incursions had increased constantly. It wasn’t too surprising; France had pretty much neglected the cities they’d taken back in 1715 during the Second Aztec War, allowing to remain as backwater provinces.

England, on the other hand, had promoted the expansion and improvement of the city infrastructures of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Xochicalco, known as the ‘New Territories.’ These were three of the new cities on England’s western border that had been liberated during the two Aztec wars. Today, they were thriving metropolises with over a million citizens apiece and intensively irrigated and mined land. France’s nearby cities could only offer less than a fifth of that population, and far less satifisying cultural attractions.

Yet still France complained at the result of each of the border discussion conferences, even though they grudgingly accepted the outcomes. Lately though, in a show of defiance, they had begun to conduct military exercises close to, and sometimes within, England’s borders on the hills and mountains that straddled them. Despite the overwhelming superiority of the English armed forces, if not numerically then technologically, the English were quite worried. And it appeared that, as Andrew listened to the show with interest, the President had decided to do something about it.

Gripping stuff, no? But this excerpt demonstrates a couple of interesting things. Firstly, I’d clearly checked over the dates and places quite carefully to make sure I had my story straight, which was quite a bit of effort. Second, it shows the rather odd way in which I’d been playing this particular game.

I’m not an expert Civilization player, but I’ve played it enough to settle on a difficulty level that gives me a challenge yet almost always lets me win (clearly this says something worrying about my personality). While this makes for a pleasant and fairly stress-free experience, I can get a bit bored unless I try something different, which is what’s happening in ‘Ad Astra’. This time, I’d decided not to take over the world – even though I was fully capable of doing so – but instead I was aiming for an Alpha Centauri victory.

An Alpha Centauri victory means developing your civilization’s research and production capabilities to the point where you can build an interstellar spaceship. Attempting this usually causes rival civilizations either to build their own spaceship, or if they can’t, invade and blow yours up; in ‘Ad Astra’, I helped unite every single other civilization in the game in an alliance of blow up my spaceship.

I knew this was coming, but based on some more self-imposed rules in this game, I’d decided on my borders a while earlier and ringed them with tanks. If you’ve ever played Civilization before, you know that this is a really stupid thing to do, but the gesture felt pleasingly romantic and doomed, in that very English way. I also liked the idea of being under siege from comparative barbarians on all sides while my scientists were frantically bolting together solar panels and fusion engines in various cities.

Unsurprisingly, my wall of tanks eventually gave way to the mass of enemy infantry, but the game had timed it to perfection such that the perfidious French and American cavalry reached my cities’ walls just in time to see my rockets lift off. Take that, suckers!

Clearly I was role-playing this game of Civilization as a leader who’d tried but failed to make peace with his neighbours and decided, screw it, we’re taking our toys and going to Alpha Centauri. At the time though, I just thought I was having a fun game – so fun, that I thought it was worth writing up. My plan was to tell the story of the English Union through a single family over three generations, starting from the first glimmerings of conflicts, through to a scientist doing early orbital research, to a military commander trying to hold the line. I only ended up writing 3000 words and didn’t even finish the first generation, but I’d hoped to post it on the Apolyton Stories Forum, where hundreds of other players had written equally epic stories with titles like, “The Folly of Caesar” and “So his name is Shaka?” Some day I intend to join those hallowed ranks…

Most games of Civilization aren’t this interesting and usually end up in a tedious mopping up exercise at the end as your aircraft carriers travel the world, bombing hapless knights and pikemen who’ve dropped behind in the technological race; it’s only when you find a particularly interesting challenge that you can easily conjure up a vibrant story for yourself.

Some players make a point of creating those challenges for themselves, such as the ‘One City Challenge’, which is as simple – and as difficult – as it sounds. Success at the OCC requires a deep understanding of the game and a passion for ‘micro’ (i.e. micromanagement) in order to squeeze every last resource and grain of food from the scant few workers you have. It also requires a fair bit of luck and rather ballsy manoeuvres, and it all makes for entertaining reading in the inevitable ‘After Action Reports’ which often combine excruciating detail with intellectual showing-off disguised as florid storytelling.

There are plenty of variations on the OCC, and they all boil down to tying one hand behind your back in order to make the game more interesting. That’s why Civilization is such fertile ground for storytelling – it has the perfect balance of structure, complexity, and randomness. When I play a game of Civilization, I know the moves to this dance, and I know roughly what my AI partners are going to do (basically, try and screw me over) but I don’t know exactly when or how they’ll do this. And unlike The Sims, there’s potential for real and utter failure in Civilization, which gives the game a palpably double-sided edge; sometimes you really want to win, and sometimes it’s really fun to lose.

Civilization isn’t completely unique in this regard. There’s a fantastic piece of ‘fan fiction’ by someone playing Football Manager 2009 over the course of a year, taking Pro Vercelli – a team firmly at bottom of Italy’s football scene – all the way to the top. What’s lovely is that the writer is as surprised as we are at his regular reversals in fortune, even though he’s played the game for hundreds of hours before. Like Civilization, Football Manager has a very clear structure of picking a team, training it up, playing matches, making negotiations, and slowly climbing the table, but within that structure, players have almost complete freedom.

Neither Civilization nor Football Manager can generate good stories on their own. The gameplay they create needs to be assembled into a narrative by the player, who then has to write it down, and as proven by my fan fiction, even if you get that far, the results aren’t always impressive. Most people wouldn’t think that a computer game would help them come up with a story, given that they have the complete plot to a bestseller already in their heads.

But what Civilization provides is a story with a beginning, middle, and end, which is three times more than what you probably started with. If you play the game in particularly interesting way, then you can be rewarded with a delightful, surprising experience that you can’t help but weave into a story, inventing characters and lovers and intrigues all round. This story might tug at you so insistently that you begin to jot down notes and timelines, writing diary entries and newspaper reports of battles. Eventually, you might join all those pieces up, rewrite them, throw it all away, and rewrite it again – and then you might call yourself a storyteller.

12 Replies to “Civilization and Storytelling”

  1. Are you familiar with Dwarf Fortress? It involves managing a group of dwarves founding a city. It doesn’t have an explicit win condition like Civilization does, although there are goals you can work towards (grow your city large enough to accomodate a dwarven king, or delve so deeply that foul monsters are released from their underground prisons). Even if there aren’t win conditions, there are many ways to lose (so much so that the motto of Dwarf Fortress is “Losing is Fun”). Many people play sessions of Dwarf Fortress with their own special rules, like the Hermit Challenge—kill off all but one dwarf and let him or her build the entire city.

    The point, of course, is that there are lots of people writing stories based on Dwarf Fortress games.

    DF Community Games & Stories Forum:

    And a year or so ago someone wrote a graduate thesis about this phenomenon:

  2. I don’t think there’s anything disturbing about you having picked a difficulty level that’s challenging, but nearly always lets you win. It means that you’ve got a good understanding of Csikszentmihalyian flow, and you’ve tuned your gameplay experience for maximum enjoyment: any easier and you’d get bored, and any harder and you’d get frustrated and it wouldn’t be fun.

    Also, I think there’s something else that makes Civ great for storytelling: its scale, and storytelling resolution.

  3. +5 points to you! It’s a good point, I think that Civ’s large number of difficulty levels really helps it cater to a wide range of players – it might seem a bit ridiculous to have more than half a dozen settings, but it serves a good purpose.

  4. John: I have seen Dwarf Fortress, and after reading the *epic* and hiliarious story of Boatmurdered – – I immediately downloaded the game, and ran into a brick wall when I discovered I didn’t know how the hell to play it.

    Still, people make some awesome stories with it, so it’s clearly doing something very well!

  5. So I’m not the only one doing fan fiction? Wonderful! (But I bet I’m the only one doing it with a 31 player multiplayer game!)

    Like you, I feel an inexplicable desire to make the story I write conform to the events of the game. Sometimes it’s a bit of a stretch trying to narrate why it takes one’s invasion fleet 25 years to cross the Pacific Ocean (the most logical being that the engines broke down and the crew has to row there).

    This series of articles makes for a great over view. Thanks for a great read.

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