It’s June 1808 and, in perhaps the greatest comeback of human history, the Byzantine Empire is the foremost world power. Having nearly succumbed to the ravages of the younger and more powerful Ottomans way back in the middle of the 15th century, Byzantium somehow survived. Then it thrived. Its borders stretch from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. It lays claim not only to Constantinople but to Cairo and to Rome. It holds colonies in Africa and in East Asia. Its standing army alone numbers nearly half a million men. Its citizens are the freest, richest and most enlightened in the known world.
The story of how it got there is a gripping one to be sure, full of daring military manoeuvres, desperate alliances and strokes of economic brilliance…
But what now?
As I played through my Europa Universalis III Byzantium game I was treated to one of the most exciting and intriguing strategy experiences in my gaming life. There were several moments across the nearly four hundred years of game-play when it all looked like it was going to collapse. Dealing with the Ottomans at the very beginning was hugely precarious, requiring every dirty trick in my arsenal just to survive. Even once I’d put them out of the running I faced a bleak strategic reality. I was a weakened Orthodox power with vengeful followers of Islam to the east and greedy Catholics to the west. I had few friends, a backward army and an even more backward attitude to science and technology. The experience of pulling my people out of that miasma of hopelessness and re-forging the greatness of the Roman Empire was tremendously rewarding.
Fast forward a few hundred years and I’ve just beaten the Spanish in yet another continental war, forcing them to release Portugal from their Iberian stranglehold and gobbling up more of their territory. Meanwhile I’ve been slapping around the Holy Roman Empire for the last few decades. Apparently they objected to my unseating the Pope from Rome. As I watch yet another Austrian army retreat from me, bloody and battered, I realise that I’m just not having fun any more. I’ve reached the singularity. In fact I probably reached it a while ago and I’ve just been in denial.
You see, there came a point, probably in about the mid 18th century, when my empire went from being an emerging world power to being a juggernaut that absolutely could not be stopped. Once there, there was just no shifting it from this lofty vantage point of economic, political and military dominance. The rest of the game was a formality. I finally realised this in 1808 and just stopped playing. Oh sure, I could have gone and finished Spain off. I could have back-stabbed my Prussian allies just for the hell of it. I could have even helped Britain stop those alarmingly successful Cornish rebels they seemed to be having trouble with. But there was no point.
Unlike the famous victories in the early and mid game where there was everything to play for and everything to lose, the end game had none of that mouse gripping tension. Each action had a foregone conclusion. I could crush those Cornish Rebels but the act would have been hollow because there was no risk. In a game like Europa Universalis, defined as it is by its emergent game-play, there always comes a point when you reach that difficulty singularity. It’s a point of no return past which the game will offer you no further challenges.
It is, of course, possible to invent your own challenges once you’re past the singularity. I could have sent a simultaneous declaration of war to every other nation on Earth. I could have released all the nations under my control or ramped up taxes and war weariness until every single citizen was a rebel. I could have done that, but these are hardly the acts of a rational and competent administration — something that (for the most part) I’d been for the entire game.
It’s not just EU3 that suffers under the yoke of the difficulty singularity. Total War is another example. There always comes a point when you realise that the Empire you’ve worked so hard to build is a self-perpetuating model of success. It doesn’t need your guiding hand any more. Just build endless troops with the endless supply of money from that incredibly well crafted economy and steam roll your way to world domination.
To their infinite credit, the designers of these games are always trying to come up with new ways to challenge the unstoppable Empire and to delay the singularity. Creative Assembly introduced the hordes in Rome: Barbarian Invasion, which were occasionally scary enough to put a serious dent in your plans. They expanded on this in Medieval 2, with the Mongol and Timurid hordes that turn up at a random place and time with a nigh unstoppable force to which several provinces must usually be sacrificed. They went even further in Total War: Shogun 2, with the entire nation of Japan turning against you once you reached a certain level of success.
All of these innovations show us that designers are acutely aware of the problem, but do they go far enough? The end-game of a grand strategy like the titles listed above has always fallen a little flat. These titles are great because they are so open-ended, because they are great at answering the “What ifs?” of history, but because they are open-ended they are also unfocused. There’s no real ‘ending’ that a developer can shoehorn in beyond a generic victory movie or a dry list of your achievements. How can we resolve this? Can it be resolved?
One of the interesting things about the Empires of history is that they’ve never disappeared in a slow and stately decline lasting hundreds of years. Every human Empire, from the Roman to the British, has suffered a short sharp dissolution of only years or decades. They take centuries to build and mere moments to collapse. Now I’m not suggesting that the reward for your hard work and hours of commitment should be an unavoidable and instantaneous decent back in to chaos. Indeed, those who wish to remember their Empire at it’s zenith can take their screen-shots and walk away feeling justifiably proud. What about those of us who want go further though? Are there other, more innovative ways to beat the singularity within the remit of the game? Could we see optional simulations of a couple of decades of inept rule or another similar mechanic?
We have seen this type of device before, of course. I remember playing Sim City on the Amiga and there was nothing more satisfying than building up a bustling metropolis, only to unleash Godzilla and a tornado on it just to see what happened. Perhaps it’s the same base instinct that causes us to build an intricate and grandiose sandcastle only to kick it all down again once we’ve finished admiring it.
It’s an admittedly fine line for developers to walk. Too many random empire-breaking events and the whole exercise would become frustratingly pointless. Angle the difficulty proportionally up with the player’s success and we’d just have a strategy version of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Yet I do think we’re missing a trick here. We’re missing an ending. Once past the difficulty singularity the game gives up and, consequently, so must we.
My Empire of Byzantium doesn’t have a heroic last stand. It doesn’t have an earth-shaking rebellion to contend with, a sacrificial war against an evil regime or any other suitable climax to crown it’s imperial glory. It has no end. It simply stops in June of 1808 because there is no-where else for it to go. After such a satisfying and challenging road to that day, it seems to me to be something of a shame. Where do we go from here? Is it too much to ask for something more?
I love these games, but I can’t help feeling they’d all be that bit richer if they paid as much attention to their endings as they did to their beginnings.