Civilization VI Tells a New Tale of Human History

Also published at AiPT!

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I played a lot of Civilization IV back in Seminary. A lot. To the point that it certainly interfered with my studies and almost definitely influenced the direction my life took professionally. Given the choice between yet another class period spent parsing out the Minor Prophets in their original Hebrew or playing hooky to build an empire to stand the test of time, the later usually won out. Realizing where my interests really were convinced me against a career in the cloth to instead cover pop culture media through a theological and philosophical lens. Mere months after dropping out of Seminary, Civilization V dropped, which would wind up becoming among my most played games at over 750 hours. Between the implementation of one unit per tile, the move from squares to hexes, and the inarguable graphical improvements, even the day on, patch 1.0, out-of-the-box vanilla version of Civilization V was significantly superior to the complete edition of Civilization IV. But whereas Civilization V was one giant leap forward, Civilization VI is one small step laterally.

To be clear, such faint praise is far from damning criticism. Look at any list from the past five years of the greatest games of all time, and Civilization V will certainly be near the top (and probably still ranked too low) – and already Civilization VI is at least up to par with its predecessor. But unstacking cities via the new Districts mechanic and the introduction of a civics tree parallel to the preexisting technology tree is not nearly as revolutionary as unstacking units and a hexagonal grid. Moreover, the graphics merely go in a different direction than a clear progression; the stylized art is in some aspects an amazing improvement – while in other ways way worse.

None of which is to say that Civilization VI does nothing new.

As a philosopher and theologian, my natural tendency in initially analyzing a work in a given medium is to ask “What does this mean?” For video games, any thesis on the part of the developer tends to be relegated to its story, mostly due to gaming’s indebtedness to cinema. Sid Meier’s Civilization series, now on its 25th anniversary and sixth instalment, is a rare and refreshing reprieve from such. It attempts not to recreate movie moments, but rather to recapitulate human history, from the deep recesses of the past when our ancestors abandoned their hunter-gather nomadism to found the first cities, forward to a future utopia marked by technological advances and global unity. Like the story of our species, the narrative in any given game of Civilization VI is emergent, guided perhaps by providence or the player, but bearing no clear evidence of authorship. And since the developers at Firaxis cannot be said to have scripted such scenes as Cleopatra’s foolishly and fatal surprise attack against my crusading Spaniards, any intended meaning in the game must be found elsewhere. And indeed, it’s in Civilization VI’s ludic elements that Firaxis has most stretched its legs as storytellers, telling a new tale of human history by means of a new historiography.

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Historiography includes, among other matters, the methodology for forming an account of historical events, providing a framework as to how to interpret the various documents and sources available to the historian. It is the lens through which pieces of pottery, papyrus, parchment, and paper all become tales of tragedy or triumph, heroism or villainy. Moreover, it is one’s method of ascribing meaning along clear and consistent lines. Take as an example the Great Man Theory popularized by historian Thomas Carlyle, who wrote, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” It is a rejection of Hegel’s teleology and similar views of history as an unalterable force flowing forward towards a predetermined end irrespective of individuals. Instead, it posits that history is substantively shaped by a select few men of intrinsic greatness who are not primarily the products of circumstance.

If this sounds somewhat familiar, it should; the same premise underlined the Great Person mechanic in Civilization V, and is reintroduced and reworked in VI to better conform to Carlyle’s claims. Whereas in V all the various heroes are homogenous, each Great Artist, General, and Scientist indistinguishable from any other, all advancing their nation along linear lines, in VI each Great Person is truly unique. Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations and the father of the field of economics, grants – appropriately – an additional economic policy slot to the nation which sires him. Meanwhile, industrialist tycoon John Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil monopoly, provides a copy of the Oil resource – a more strategically limited and situational benefit to his civilization, yet in certain circumstances more crucial. Likewise, Levi Strauss provides Blue Jeans, which we all know is the ultimate expression of cultural colonialism (right up there with Rock music and McDonald’s). All are Great Merchants, and yet all affect their respective civilizations along radically different directions, and none of necessarily net their nations more gold, as in Civilization V. While such was certainly implemented because the decision to patron or pass up particular personages is more interesting than the previous (more passive) method, it must also be seen in part as an endorsement of a certain characterization of history itself by means of the game’s mechanic.

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It is this notion of relating the game’s underlying ideas not through narrative events but by means of mechanics that most set Civilization VI apart. Other games I’ve reviewed recently, such as Deus Ex, Doom, and The Division, could presumably have told their same stories as entirely different game genres; only Quantum Break intimately married its story to its structure. Even when past Civilization games exhibited such, it was either to a lesser degree or made less interesting observations about history. Take the technology tree, a series’ staple since its introduction. As abovementioned, its segregation from the newly introduced civics tree and the implementation of inspirations and eurekas (actions in the game that boost research forward) are relatively minor alterations, so much so that they could presumably have occurred in an expansion pack or patch for Civilization V. But the way they play is less interesting than what they say.

In Civilization V, progress along the tech tree was determined almost entirely by the amount of science per turn, itself mostly determined by the number of science building a civilization had constructed. And since there were both bottlenecks in the tree, requiring all previous technologies prior to progressing forward, as well as an ideal path along the tree, the result was a monotonous march which suggested scientific and social developments were more or less linear and inevitable, with no conceivable counter-histories. Never mind if my Mayans had started at the center of a Pangea map with nary a lake or river nearby – their scientists would be as concerned with and proficient at shipbuilding as the costal Celts to their east. Civilization VI is more cognizant of such factors as geography, warfare, and even unique individuals in contributing not only to the speed of scientific developments, but their direction as well.

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I’d previously written about this inspiration mechanic in my article on The Ahistorical Representation of Religion in Civilization, suggesting that VI’s religion system could benefit from a similar attempt to represent the real ways in which religions develop their doctrinal differences. While that’s not the case in the retail release of Civilization VI, there are meaningful changes to the ways religion is portrayed mechanically. In particular, pantheon beliefs are now tied to the civilization which selected them instead of to the religion that civilization eventually founds. The Shintoism practiced by my Japanese in their capital of Kyoto was not the same Shintoism as practiced by their English allies across the sea, whose culturally enshrined pagan belief in a River Goddess was synchronized with Shinto’s commitment to Zen Meditation. Such reflect the real world development of folk religions, such as the Interpretatio Christiania’s substitution of local deities and customs with corresponding saints and feast days, or Hattian Vodou’s amalgamized admixture of African Vodun and Roman Catholicism.

Alternatively, the introduction of theological combat is a means in which Civilization VI portrays religion as more than merely a sociological phenomenon. When the proselytizers and missionaries of one religion engage the evangelists and apostles of another, they call forth a fire like lightning from the heavens, reminiscent of Elijah’s debate with the prophets of Baal atop Mount Carmel – with the faith found lacking losing many followers in a wide radius of hexes around them. This could have been visualized as any number of animations along a more secular bent, but Firaxis consciously decided to open the possibility that – at least in the game world – religion might not be merely cultural, but have a genuine supernatural component behind it. Some players have deprecatingly come to call this “wizard combat,” but by presenting the possibility for proselytizing to not merely be cultural colonialism but actually enlightening the civilizations of the world with the one true Truth, the game takes on a vastly less cynical and more favorable flavor to religion.

Another area in which both the mechanics and animations together express Firaxis’ reading of history is through the changes made to its leaders. Each includes both a unique ability and an agenda inspired by their historical personage. Whereas in Civilization V the American ability of Manifest Destiny had no historical connection to its leader George Washington, in Civilization VI, in addition to the national ability of “Founding Fathers,” leader Theodor Roosevelt also receives an ability and agenda appropriate to his accomplishments. Under the “Roosevelt Corollary,” he grants additional appeal to America’s national parks (he founded five during his presidency and was renowned for his conservationism), and gets the Rough Rider unique unit, which has a combat bonus on hills and his home continent (Teddy led the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Hill). The Corollary itself was his addendum to the Monroe Doctrine, defining the Americas as a sphere of influence exclusive to the United States over and against European intervention or interference. Such goes along with the game character’s “Big Stick” agenda (from Roosevelt’s quote, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”), which results in negative diplomatic modifiers between an A.I. Roosevelt and any civilization which starts wars on America’s home continent. As with the Great Persons mechanic, all of history in any given game is much more influenced by the particular personalities of select individuals than in past games. Moreover, these personalities are not merely mechanical, but excellently showcased in the leaders’ animation screens, with the coquettish Cleopatra and haughty Victoria proving particularly expressive.

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The stylized leaders are the best of Civilization VI’s updated art direction, but such is a mixed bag, with much to love and a bit to loathe. The stylized look was in large part chosen for readability. This certainly works for World Wonders, which segregated from the City-Center now occupy a tile of their own; it’s obvious at a glance what civilizations have constructed which Wonders. Less successful are the color-coded districts; yes, I can pick out the pink-toped Acropolis easily enough, but it lacks the austerity of the plain white marble Parthenon in the real Athens. And living in a college town, I can attest that I’ve never seen a blue-topped university building nor a green-roofed neighborhood, nor would I want to ever given how gaudy these buildings are across my English empire in my current game.

Yet while the color-coded districts were ultimately wrong for aesthetic reasons, they were at least sound in concept if not execution. Having everything outside the fog of war revert to sepia tones while everything within remain overly saturated was never going to aid in readability. I find myself constantly zooming in as far as possible to counteract the legibility problems which result from the Age of Exploration-inspired map style. Of course, such zooming does nothing to help the legibility of the user interface, which seems not to scale to resolutions above 1080 (I’m playing on a 34” 3440×1440 ultrawide monitor, a resolution evidently not supported for scaling according to the game options). Indeed, the UI design is the single most fatal flaw for Civilization VI. The stated theme of the game’s aesthetics was, as mentioned, the Age of Discovery, a period taking place from approximately the 15th through 18th century. Such corresponds roughly to the Renaissance and Baroque periods in art, the latter of which would have made especially exquisite icons, every bit the equal of Civilization V’s gorgeous Art Deco inspired interface. Instead, apart from the fog of war, none of the art assets reference the Age of Exploration whatsoever, with bland iconography that really does seem derived from the cartoonishness of mobile games, as per the original complaints about the rest of that game’s graphics (which were otherwise unfounded). Less than 1% of my time playing Civilization V was with the use of mods, but were someone to substitute VI’s assets with V’s art deco icons, I’d never not play with that mod installed.

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Aesthetic choices such as the style of the user interface and iconography matter because, as stated throughout, Firaxis communicates the ideas behind Civilization not in narrative but rather through mechanics and art design. While the latter is in various ways equally artful and awful, the former is the aspect in which Civilization VI truly advances the series. Instead of merely developing the game on the measures of balance and enjoyability, Firaxis has developed it by means of a more mature and thoughtful historiography. It is an examination and translation of human history not as concrete events that actually occurred but as interacting systems, from geography to great men, which well could have plausibly produced a counterfactual history to our own. And insofar as the real educational and entertainment value of the Civilization games is not in final victory at having had a civilization stand the test of time, but rather the whole process of producing its entire history up until that point, Civilization VI certainly gives its players the best tools yet to tell their own story of mankind.

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