On meta narratives in games

I’ve been playing again some Endless Space (ES) recently, a new take on the classic 4X genre (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) in the footpaths of such titles like Sid Meir’s Civilization series or Masters of Orion. The game is a pretty straightforward galactic empire builder with several types of victory possible (from population, scientific achievement, conquest etc.) Reviewing the game is not really my point here, but here’s a very detailed re-examination of the game after its most recent expansion pack.

Three points that I kept coming back to while playing the game.

First, Space (the ‘final frontier’ kind) and spatiality in games are strange bedfellows. With all our fascination with space it’s hard for us to imagine it in its full 3D. The game reflects poorly the intricacies of how space ‘works’ with the building blocks of all actions being systems of planets connected to other systems via strings (which take time to travel) or wormholes (instantaneous, but at the cost of all movement points).

Endless Space map view from http://www.cinemablend.com It might as well have been a chess board.

So, everything is flat. There is not special spatiality to Endless Space’s space (try saying that three times). The game could’ve been about seafaring nations, for instances, with systems representing islands instead. The comparison stands even more so as the combat consists of three rounds where opposing fleets close in while exchanging barrages from their weapons. Criticizing is of course easier than doing and I have no better suggestion for doing “real” space. The last game I played which attempted adding the 3d dimension to space exploration/combat was the original Homeworld, and I can’t say that this worked for them so well.

The second point is the game’s interface. We have come a far way since Alpha Centaturi’s all-menus-all-the-time approach to game interfaces (AC is still incidentally one of my favorite games of all time, but I guess there’s nostalgia factor involved). ES does away with lists upon lists of menus, packing everything you need to do into graphically cohesive intuitive buttons. Touch-screen esthetics is clearly visible in the design and implementation of the game’s commands, opposing to Civ’s infamous mouse and keyboard shortcut-plagued super-menus. In fact, apart from the separation of left mouse button for select and right one to move in the map screen, very little prevents the game from a smooth porting to a tablet. As it stands now, most of the games I keep coming back on my iPad are turn-based, as they provide the casual-game-like ability to structure your play sessions according to travel/ waiting time. ES certainly fits the role.

The last point is games’ ability for creation of meta-narratives. In Thomas Malaby’s famous “Beyond Play” he talks about games as contingencies, being unpredictable and generative in their core, never irreducible to their core rule systems. Endless Space lacks ‘narrative’ in a regular game-y way. There are no protagonists, not storyline. There is lore (a galaxy after a civil war by the god-like Endless), several factions that differ primarily by ships’ graphic designs and few unique bonuses or changes in the technology tree and a cadre of “heroes” that can be recruited to help your empire, each with his or her own back story set within the lore but ultimately serving as mechanics pawn to increase productivity or win space battles. Yet, somehow out of all this miniscule elements, a grand narrative arises through each play through, not least from the spatial immersion into the ebb-and-flow of your empire borders.

For example, the game allows you to build your own custom faction, but always based on the basic traits (“affinity”) of an existing race. I ran my game with a custom faction based on the “Pilgrims”, the scientists-cum-mystics group engrossed by the Endless and their legacy. My variation of the faction was slower and weaker in combat, but possessed greater research capacity, envisioned as less dogmatic offshoot of the Pilgrim faction. Due to random faction selection, I ended up having the “original” Pilgrims as my next-door galactic neighbors. While initially trying to befriend them, our relationship quickly cooled while I achieved scientific and exploratory dominance, leading to them performing a sneak attack on me. Towards the end of the game I took most of their planets, and discovered that even despite some of these having Endless artifacts, the weren’t explored or restored. This of course has nothing to do with “the narrative” – the game’s AI simply made a decision (probably due to a prolonged war with a stronger faction) to not invest resources in this. But in my own private story, everything clicked. My new less-dogmatic faction of the Pilgrims is betrayed and subsequently discovers that the old guard, despite their proclaimed commitment for researching the Endless, did little indeed to do so. Poetic justice. Purification of the ranks. A new Pilgrim faction is born. And all this from a few game rules which randomly (nicely) stacked together with the fictions that emerged in my head.

2 thoughts on “On meta narratives in games

  1. I’ve often wondered why depictions of space combat can’t seem to go beyond slightly advanced naval warfare from around 18th to late 20th century. The most convincing answer seems to be that it is much more intelligible and cinematically exciting for our current tastes. But it is arguably lazy, of course.

    Mass Effect had a more thought out approach to space warfare in the first two games. In the codexes of ME1 and ME2, dreadnaught warfare is depicted as a natively space-borne affair. That of course all went out the window when they decided to show “epic” space fights in cutscenes for the third game, which regressed back to old cliches, so much so that some people on the BSN (of course) argued that battles during cinematics should be regarded as non-canon as they completely disregard the game’s lore.

    I completely agree with your point on the emergent narrative at the end by the way. I always imagined stories about my crew while playing FTL (that is when I didn’t name them after the Firefly crew of course).

  2. ME tried to do the good all hard SciFi ‘everything makes sense within our contemporary scientific knowledge if only X (where X= the mass effects in this case)”. I agree that their attempt at space-combat lore was rather commendable, however there’s still a big ‘but’, specifically the ME relays, which still allows for set points in 3D space that need ‘getting to’ or ‘defending from’ 🙂
    Though, again, it’s not like I have better ideas for showing how spatially alien space is. Ender’s Game (the book) did it quite well in the war room scenes, and Gravity was pretty phenomenal too, but they didn’t have to film a Reaper invasion mind you 😀

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