Sunday, February 23, 2014

EU IV 1650: I've become an overlord

A progress report from my Europa Universalis IV game.

I've reached the mid 1600's.

Sometime in the early 1600's, my country became advanced enough to begin exploring the larger world and founding colonies.

My first colony was in South East Asia, on the island of Sumatra I think, and I was pleased to see that I had not only established a new colony, but would be exporting "spices".

A few years of game time later, I founded a colony in Southern Africa, somewhere near modern-day Mozambique.

As my colony became established, the game presented me with a popup message, informing me that the exported resource of this colony would be: "slaves", and displaying an image of a manacle with a ball-and-chain.

The new colony immediately became of the highest-valued provinces in my empire, but have I no control over this decision? Surely it's historically accurate, but it's also rather disturbing.

I can't help but think that the sudden onslaught of massive wars initiated by Russia and Austria over the next few years is somehow due to this event.

How does the game make these decisions and trigger these events to occur? It's fascinating to see how it immerses me in the history of the times, and in the complex emotions and social issues that were occurring then.

Obviously, I'm not the only person to find this a troubling question; just read some of the forums.

Or, better, have a read of the fine and thoughtful essay by April Daniels: Europa Universalis IV is The Best Genocide Simulator of The Year.

As Daniels writes:

Let’s be clear about one thing: in real life, the colonization of North America by European settlers was only possible because of the accompanying slow-motion genocide of the people who were already living here. The First Nations of the Americas did not have castles, or royal dynasties, or a continent-spanning church like the Europeans, but they did have a civilization.

They had politics, trade, cultural exchange, territorial disputes, and wars. They built cities and temples, domesticated animals, and mastered their environment just as thoroughly as any other people on the planet.

I knew going in that I’d playing a game about a topic that, in real life, is horrifying to my (white, privileged) progressive sensibilities. I thought I was prepared for it.

Then I actually saw how they treat the Americas.

The question is: is Europa Universalis IV a game about trying to understand history? About trying to explore what happened, in a moderately realistic fashion, with as much depth and sophistication as can be provided, while still keeping it fun enough to be a game?

Or is it a toolbox for trying to rewrite history, to change the outcome, to make a world that wasn't?

I think that the team at Paradox Interactive are pretty clear on what their goal was, and why they built the game. As they say in the initial Development Diary:

In all our games we aim to have believable mechanics. When playing a Grand Strategy game it should be about immersion and suspension of disbelief. You should feel like you are playing a country in the time period.


I'll try to clarify a confusion about sandbox, historical events and plausibility. Europa Universalis have always been about historically plausible outcomes, as I mentioned over six years ago , and EU4 is no different in that regard. No determenism or full sandbox will ever be in the EU series. In EU3 we scrapped historical events and added lots and lots of system and mechanics to create more plausible gameplay. While we are continuing on that concept and keep making more plausible mechanics, we are in EU4 doing something new...

We'e adding in Dynamic Historical Events. We'll have more of those than we had historical in EU2, and together with a fair amount of other planned features, this is creating an even more immersive type of gameplay, where countries feel far more unique than they did in any previous game in the series. A 'dynamic historical event', or DHE for short, is an event that has some rather rigid triggers that they feel plausible to happen with, ie, no Spanish Bankruptcy just because its a certain date, but events that tie into mechanics rather heavily.

The example I want to talk about is War of the Roses for England. At any point of time, before 1500, if England lacks an heir, then the chain for War of the Roses can start, which creates a lot of interesting situations for the player, as well as giving unique historical immersion.

It's clear that the development team set out with a goal, and I think it's pretty clear that they achieved it. Perhaps the best evidence of that successful result is the reaction it inspires in commentators like Daniels, who notes:

For a game about creating alternate histories, Europa Universalis IV has some very firm opinions about what should happen to the peoples living in the parts of the world that aren’t Europe. None of them good. I don’t mean to say that it endorses genocide, merely that it doesn’t question it. The game accepts it as natural, inevitable, and unworthy of comment. For a game about creating alternate histories, Europa Universalis IV has some very firm opinions about what should happen to the peoples living in the parts of the world that aren’t Europe.

The (human) history of our world is complex; you may spend your entire life studying it, and thinking about it, and trying to understand what it all means.

And, of course, it's happening all around us, right now.

It's important to keep in mind that Europa Universalis IV is a game, though set in a very specific time period in a very specific world. Colonialism occurred. Conquest occurred. Religious wars and rapacious exploitation occurred.

But I think it's possible to enjoy (to greatly enjoy, in fact!) playing the game, even while it does something that not every game does, nowadays:

It makes you stop and think.

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