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The Aztec National Character

November 14th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 16 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about.

If the Aztec had faded into history like the Maya did, they would probably not be the popular draw that they are for strategy game designers. If they have to pick one pre-Columbian civilization, it will always be the Aztecs even if the Maya had better science and writing, the Inca controlled more territory, and the Iroquois had a more interesting government.

The Aztecs, you could argue, are included because of the glory of their fall more than their many accomplishments. Yes, they built a great city in a lake and exacted tribute from most of central Mexico. But it was the Spanish account of the golden city of Tenochtitlan and of the blood thirsty rituals of the Aztecs and of how they fell to a few dozen conquistadors (with a few thousand of their closest Mesoamerican friends) that made Montezuma a name familiar to many schoolchildren and his piteous death that made the Aztecs stars of history.

And it’s a great story. The idea of an advanced human civilization being mistaken for gods by a less technologically adept one has taken a hold of science fiction, fantasy lit, pulp novels, great fiction and cartoons.

But does it bother anyone else that the biggest thing games want to say about the Aztecs is that they loved human sacrifice?

In Civilization 4, the Aztec special building is a sacrificial altar that serves as a courthouse and reduces the unhappiness penalty for using slavery to rush a building or unit. In Rise of Nations, they get extra resources for every enemy they kill and double the plunder (it is even called “Power of Sacrifice”). In Civ 5, killing enemies gives you a small culture bump, giving you a reason to obliterate the army you see in front of you, not just run around it. You would think that there was nothing more to the Aztecs than more blood for the blood god.

What we think of as the Aztec civilization was, historically speaking, a blip – a couple of centuries of real power bookended by a mystical quest that led to the founding of Tenochtitlan and a bloody conquest and conversion that erased much knowledge and understanding of the Aztec people from the face of the earth.

You often hear people say that history is written by the winners. It really isn’t. The legend of the Lost Cause and the oppressed South dominated understandings of the American Civil War for a long time. The Greeks wrote about how they civilized Rome. The near genocide of America’s native peoples is not an untold story. The power of nationalist and separatist groups demonstrates how history is always contested territory.

History is, in fact, written by people who write it, so there is very little Aztec history. Just as the story of the Mongols was told by their mostly terrified neighbors, the historical Aztecs almost appear as outsized monsters from the perspective of their tributary states and as barbarous blood thirsty heathens from the view of the crusading and gold mad Spanish.

Given how much of Aztec culture was torn down, paved over, or burned, you could make the case that game designers, charged with sticking a template on a nation, are working with as much legend as truth.

In some ways, the Aztecs play the role of the “savage civ” in strategy games, that old historical trope of a grand but primitive nation built on the corpses of its neighbors. Civ IV went as far as to make Montezuma the biggest jerk and worst neighbor in the game, building early stacks of doom and running over you for laughs. (And it’s always Montezuma because nobody knows anyone else, and specifying that it is Montezuma I – as Civ 5 does – doesn’t erase the fact that his son was a terrible king and that’s all anyone knows.)


Of course, most nations in video games are mostly mythic avatars of some cultural personality. Rarely is the avatar so consistently unpleasant, however, so rooted in a single cultural event like human sacrifice; it would be as if someone made a game about Utah that understood that state primarily through the lens of plural marriage.

Not that human sacrifice was not important to the Aztecs – from my reading, you can exaggerate its importance to Aztec expansion, and (as a pseudo-slave state) there were other reasons to take prisoners in war or demand hostages as tribute beyond offering their hearts to the sun god. You cannot exaggerate its centrality to the priestly cults that dominated Aztec politics and society (assuming the Spanish got something right in their narrative.)

But it is a captivating picture, isn’t it? One that grabs the imagination with both horror and astonishment. A great empire, strongest nation in its region, whose power and expansion is fueled by a desire to placate fickle gods (the Aztec pantheon is a wonder of consonants and mythology) with the organs of enemies. Civilization V poses its Montezuma behind a fire – it casts ominous shadows and he always sounds pissed off. Sex may sell to some people, but monsters are also good business.

The other side of the coin, though, is the alternate history – imagining a world where the Aztecs can resist the conquest. If the Tlascalans or Aztecs had cut Cortez’s throat or Malina had murdered him in his sleep, who knows how long it would have been before the Spanish had expanded to the mainland? (Yes, European diseases were an important factor, but so was political division among the natives. Even calling them “the natives” assumes a unity of purpose that never materialized.)

Though not technically about the Aztecs, an underappreciated European RTS tries its best to put the player in the position of a Mesoamerican leader who knows the Spanish are coming. The player, comfortable in this century, always knows the Spanish are coming.

Theocracy is a strange game. It was never widely distributed on this side of the Atlantic, which is a shame. Not a great game by any stretch of the critical bar, it had an original idea behind it. What if you were a Mesoamerican people that had a chance to prepare for the holocaust on the horizon? Could you use conquest and economic strength to build a Mexico strong enough to resist the coming of the conquistadors?


The power of the priests was still clear. This was an almost Aztec civilization that relied on its religious infrastructure to win wars. And, again, sacrifice is a central mechanic. Sacrificing a slave to the gods will increase mana for your priestly spells, but you can’t keep doing this infinitely since the slaves themselves are the engine of production. Still, the opening cinematic climaxes in a priest plunging an obsidian dagger into the chest of a human victim. Theocracy indeed – priests have the power of life and death over every slave in the game.

But now the sacrifices aren’t just one thing that one civilization ruled by an obnoxious green colored prick king does. You make the sacrifice so you can power of your priests to kick some butt in the next battle. You are doing an ahistorical conquest of Central America to prevent the historical eradication of a way of life. No diseases, no horses, no gunpowder – not a single luxury will give the Spanish the edge over a united Mesoamerican nation.

Next we go to the cradle of civilization, the Fertile Crescent, and the rivers of Babylon.


16 Comments so far ↓

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  • Dirk

    This is an excellent piece. Thanks for putting craft and love into this series.

  • Scott

    “You often hear people say that history is written by the winners. It really isn’t. The legend of the Lost Cause and the oppressed South dominated understandings of the American Civil War for a long time. The Greeks wrote about how they civilized Rome. The near genocide of America’s native peoples is not an untold story. The power of nationalist and separatist groups demonstrates how history is always contested territory.

    History is, in fact, written by people who write it.”

    This is possibly the best thing I have ever read.

  • Fizish

    This series is awesome. Keep it up!

  • frags

    This is one of the best piece on Flash of Steel I have ever read. Bravo! What I find really perplexing is that Mesoamerica was very tribal in nature. For a civilisation to have such ‘tribal’ traditions is a little odd. If we look throughout Asia there were many tribes that did stuff like cannibalism and head hunting. But why were the Aztechs and Mayans so advanced when the tribe of Asia continued to be just tribes?


    Mesoamerica would make a great setting for a game(well at least a refreshing one). What would be cool is a Paradox Mesoamerica game. None of that mana, magic bullshit, sacrifice has real economic ramifications. Do it Paradox!

  • Gregory Sams

    We should not forget that the Aztecs originally made sacrifice of fruit and flowers to their Sun god. We might view the need for human hearts to be the Mesoamerican equivalent of the mythical “weapons of mass destruction” concocted by the Bush and Blair regimes. Sun worship, stripped of political needs, has much to commend it. What happens today when you Google sunofgod?

  • Gunner

    Great article, Troy. Quite looking forward to the rest of the series.

    On the topic of Mesoamerican game of some sort, Civ3 Conquests had a nice scenario of the same type included. Worth booting up if you’ve got the itch.

  • RitalinGamer


    I’ve always enjoyed Latin American + Mesoamerican history and you’ve really hit the nail on the head here. Game designers are pandering to the established pop culture vision of these nations, especially the Aztecs.

  • cuc

    “What we think of as the Aztec civilization was, historically speaking, a blip”

    And if such a “blip” were to happen in ancient Mesoptamia, the modern day pop culture would hardly notice it.

  • Ilya Belyy

    This setting seems very underdeveloped and underexplored. Few games, aside grand strategies, cover it and then at from a quite distant point.

    I think, a game of lesser scale, probably a squad based one, would benefit most from being set in conquest. The setting provides very interesting tactical opportunities. with two extremely different and asymmetrical sides.

  • Bruce

    Don’t forget that Dominions 3 has addressed this issue with its Mictlan nation.

    Good article.

  • kongming

    @Ilya Belyy
    I assume you’re referring to Cortez’s conquest? Your post is sort of ambiguous.

    The problem with that as a setting is that it’s one of those things fixed in the mind as a brutal conquest, followed by subsequent exploitation and colonization–which of course it was. I have no doubt that a small-scale game where you play a conquistador (or Cortez himself), managing your limited Spanish manpower and resources and negotiating the dangerous world of Mesoamerican geopolitics, would make for a fascinating small-scale strategy game, but it’s hard to get around the distaste one feels in being party to a colonization that still has resonance today. It’s a far cry from conquering Carthage as the Romans or what have you.

    I also think this concept would run the risk of removing any agency from Cortez’s Mesoamerican allies (e.g. the Tlaxcala). They were the real deciding factor, and their alliance with Cortez was for them a matter of venting their pre-existing grievances against their Aztec overlords. But a game about a Mesoamerican conquistador could easily portray them as some homogeneous ‘native allies’ gameplay element, completely robbing them of their own goals, motives, and humanity, and turning them into another goalpost on the player’s way to victory.

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