When we think about Roman history, we generally have an idea of what we are talking about and what a game would look like. Same with Greek and Egyptian and even American. A few centuries or milennia have been compressed into cultural shorthand for a population that has only the vaguest idea that the Golden Age of Athens was not the entirety of Greek history or that Egyptians stopped building pyramids well before their Golden Age even started.
So how do you sell something like Chinese history? They don’t even have ninjas or samurai or cherry blossoms like Japan. There’s a wall and a history of warlords. And old faiths. But there is no iconic idea of the Chinese city in the Western mind, I think. Thousands of years of history with invasions and inventions and even a Western brain accustomed to think of the mysterious Orient as an exoticized other can’t really conjure what a Chinese city builder is supposed to look like.
Playing Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom convinces me that I’m not really alone fumbling for something to hang Chinese history on. Co-developed by city building masters Impressions and Maryland’s own Breakaway Studios, Emperor is a mess conceptually even if its design makes major leaps sideways in the standard Impressions mold.
Emperor is the only city builder I can think of that lets you choose from a wide range of historical starting points, each of which makes different buildings available to you. If you start in the bronze age you will have different religious and production options than you will in the steel age. From an historical perspective, this is a clever idea since it tries to capture the miliennia of Chinese history in all its variety. From a gameplay perspective, this is a mini-disaster since you don’t see much of the content unless you really commit to learning how the game changes in each era. These are, admittedly, small changes. Getting a feel for where buildings fit in the build order and which goods make for quick profits is still something that requires a significant time investment and changing the industries can disrupt that process. If the changes between the different ages are minor and cosmetic (which some people think) then the disjunction is even more curious.
Emperor‘s big innovation was multiplayer – just after the Anno games did it and before Cities XL did it. The more I think about it, the more I become convinced that multiplayer city builders are a bit of a stupid idea. The games take too long to really be competitive and in a persistent world like Cities XL you are designing against the primary appeal of city builders – being god-mayor without the interference of other pesky people. Emperor went about it in an unusual way…. Emperor’s idea of competition was to have two players isolated from each other try to complete the same objectives. It was an interesting idea, but I doubt it attracted any real player base.
Did it feel like China? I was never sure. Even though the Caesar games were not Rome, they were Roman enough to be persuasive. Pharaoh and Children of the Nile fudged a lot of stuff about Egypt, but by tying everything to the cycle of the river they made games that felt as authentically historical as any more serious wargame or simulation. Where Romance of the Three Kingdoms has a clearly historic Chinese voice, Emperor never really communicates how it sees Chinese civilization. It’s worse than an error-filled stereotype of marble filled Rome; it’s a bland melange of elements that doesn’t speak to any understanding of The Middle Kingdom.
Emperor is certainly a very good city builder, probably the best that Impressions ever made. They had perfected the template by this stage of its history, but it feels dry to me. Lifeless even, despite the Feng Shui. Where 1998’s Zeus embraced a strange mix of classical architecture and Greek myth, Emperor embraced all of Chinese history and therefore none of it.
Of course, there’s another possibility here – I’m just not interested in a Chinese city builder and am not familiar enough with that world to appreciate how Emperor represents it. We all build up cultural biases and tastes as we evolve and, being as steeped as I am in Western history and myth, there’s probably some personal baggage that has me preferring Pharaoh to Emperor, Crusader Kings to Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Rome: Total War to Shogun: Total War. My wife, an expert in Asian American history, has certainly done her part in breaking the hold of the Western canonical history on my imagination and it’s still hard to undo twenty years of education that privileged certain histories over others, for both legitimate and illegitimate reasons.
I know I’m not alone in this. There has not been a flood of city builders that move out of the Mediterranean basin or Medieval castle era. SimBaghdad, SimTenochtitlan, SimKyoto…they all appeal to me as a rational historical thinker. When it comes down to it, most gamers prefer to replay stories in worlds they already know. People do Google searches for adding Hitler to Civilization 4 but not for Tang Taizong. I’m like most gamers.
Emperor stands somewhat apart from the Impressions legacy. It never quite fits even though it is, design wise, the logical conclusion of years of refinements. Part of the problem is its lack of voice. Part of the problem is me.
Next up, Bruce Geryk looks at how Soldiers of Anarchy reveals how he has changed along with games.