Realism Invictus

Thu May 9 '24

Civilization IV is a computer game from 2005. It’s a strategy game where you pick a country, build cities, and send your people to kill people in other countries and take their cities. It’s great fun.

It was built to support mods, allowing users to change the game’s content and add their own. Rise of Mankind: A New Dawn was a popular overhaul mod that affects nearly every aspect of the game – adding military units, city improvements, natural resources, and technologies. Build new wonders, like the Hanseatic League, and defend your vertical farms with genetic soliders in an extended late-game with a new sci-fi future era. Fall from Heaven was a similarly impressive fantasy overhaul – of elves, orcs, demons, and deer-people – replacing everything with a fictional fantasy setting and a world of magic and good versus evil.

Realism Invictus is another overhaul that got a lot of attention after receiving significant updates in this decade. The highlights for me include balances to unit stacking[1], production chains, and revolutions and breakaway civilizations if your empire stability falters.

There were also cosmetic changes that I ended up appreciating more than I expected.

Unit names and graphics vary between civilizations. Instead of a fight between two identical generic archers, you may see a Roman Sagittarii trade shots with a Celtic Sotaroas. Instead of the same two fighter planes, we get a dogfight between the French Mirage F1 and an American F-15 Eagle.

Civilization names and flags change through time depending on the politics, era, and leader. You can play as the Turkish Empire, but the game may describe you as the Seljuk Empire, Ottoman Caliphate, or Sultanate of Rum depending on conditions like the politics you choose.

Even cities can rename under different powers. The city of Constantinople may be titled Byzantion when occupied by a Greek leader, Tsargrad under Russia, or Istanbul under the Ottomans.

Admittedly, Civilization isn’t a historical reenactment. It’s a game. And the empires and leaders in it are icons. And all this naming stuff is just flavour text. Who cares? It’s a strategy game and I just want to sink my teeth into those crunchy game mechanics.

That was my thinking. I went in with that attitude but found myself enjoying these additions more than I expected. I’m not sure why. It’s like the game feels grounded in some way. So as you change the character of your empire, so does your flag and title change. From the Holy Roman Empire, The Hansa, the Kingdom of Prussia, or the German Reich. And these icons of real things become connected. Connected to regions, leaders, and eras of time in history. It’s like a kind of world-building.

The intention in writing this was to briefly introduce Realism Invictus, explain succinctly why it’s cool, and then talk about something else which I have entirely forgotten about at this point. But I think part of understanding why Realism Invictus is cool requires understanding the appeal of Civilization IV. And I don’t know how to convey that either. I’d have to get you to experience what I experienced; which was the game imprinting on me when I played it as an adolescent boy two decades ago. And since web browsers don’t support that yet, I’ve just tried to make do here in text and explain it in relation to an entirely different game from Realism Invictus, but one that is much simpler to put into words.

The most recent game in Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls series, Skyrim, is very popular[2]. It’s a game in a vaguely viking world of medieval fantasy and magic. You play as character with the power to shout. This power allows you to project an obnoxious breeze in front of you that can cause creatures caught inside to stumble, possibly getting down on one knee to regain their footing.

This legendary strength earns you the title of Dragonborn and it is central to the game’s story and setting. It’s what makes the player heroic and able to defeat the baddies. And, when you start the game, the main menu announces your arrival with the theme song which, though it’s sung in a made up dragon language, testifies to your bellowing baritone.

And the voice, he did wield, on that glorious field,
When great Tamriel shuddered with war!
Mighty Thu’um, like a blade, cut through enemies all,
As the Dragonborn issued his roar!

It’s appropriate in a game with a hero and where that hero is the player. Where the world doesn’t really move or change without the player. Every non-player character’s job is to wait for the player to either talk to them or to kill them. The only conversations between non-player characters happen when the player is nearby and they are always obviously about a quests for the player. Apparently, there is a civil war going on in Skyrim, but no sides do anything unless the player carries it out or is witness. The game is a stage, like an imitation (or a satire) of a world with a life of its own.

And that’s what Bethesda games are and what people expect of them. Which is fine. But, to me, it sorta feels like a freaky museum. A place where visitors travel corridors or some circulation with features placed along the way in deliberate order. Things are lit, presented thoughtfully, and preserved so they can be experienced out into the future. The visitor’s experience of the those features is important[3]. But, ordinarily, the features have importance beyond of the fact that they’re there[4] and that we experience them. We aren’t fascinated by museum exhibits, simply just because they’re there[5].

The first time you enter the capital city of Skyrim, no matter what time it is, there’s a scripted event of an execution of a guard. The characters in the game explain that the rebellion leader came to the capital and killed the king of Skyrim. And that this guard opened the gate for the rebellion leader to leave the city freely. The accused, clearly lacking council, explains that the killing was a done with the consent of both parties and is therefore legal. The player is invited to wonder; did the guard know about the killing, or were they just a doorman doing their job? Does the legal system recognize duels to the death? I just came here looking for an inn, why is this execution happening at three in the morning? But the crowd has no questions and urges the executioner to hurry along. As if they know better than to waste time cultivating interest in the characters or story of the world they are just exhibits in. Like some kind of perverse self-referential museum filled with features intended to remind you that they only exist for your amusement – with no meaning or importance beyond that. And worse, each exhibit, though they’re video game characters that depict people, behave as if they know how pointless they are and act in a way to remind you of that. It would be like if your food that knew that it was food – and let you know that it knows that it’s food – and it isn’t even happy about it. And so the crowd hurries along the execution so they can resume their script as backdrop for a story that is tired of itself.

To be fair, comparing a Bethesda title to the Civilization series is a bit strained. In Civilization, you don’t play as a hero out to save the world. You choose your Civilization, like the Aztec, and play as a leader, like Montezuma. You found Tenochtitlan and rally your Jaguar Warrior to fight for your empire.

Leaders are showcased during diplomacy and, in Civilization V, each is voiced in the language spoken by the people of the time. When Montezuma stares you down, an audience off-screen is hyping up the negotiations. Cheering when you come to agreements. And booing if he turns you down.

Civilization V Leader | Montezuma of the Aztecs by FoxxySphinx on YouTube

The game isn’t full of heroes, but icons of influential people, things, and places in the past. Like wonders of the world that you race against other civilizations to finish first. And the mechanics are still there underneath it all. Claim some nearby marble and build a quarry on it to boost the construction speed of the Hanging Gardens of Detroit. Finish construction first to lock out other civilizations from building it, ensuring the empire growth bonus it brings is exclusive to your American Caliphate. It’s still a crunchy strategy game with win and lose conditions and things that you, the player, can do to bring about your victory.

Just as in history, conquest, even the threat of it, is a big part of every game of Civilization. War and oil shaped the world in the 20th century and the introduction music to Civilization IV could have featured an anthem about imperialism, conquest for natural resources, or expanding your influence through special military operations at the expense of the sovereignty of neighbouring states. Or it could have been without any lyrics, a popular choice for games of this genre.

Instead, the game’s opening video and main menu music features a Swahili translation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father, who art
in Heaven. Amen!
Our Father,
Hallowed be thy name.

Christopher Tin - Baba Yetu (Official Video) feat. Soweto Gospel Choir by Christopher Tin on YouTube

It’s not that I think Civilization is fun because I like history or I think history is fun or something. History is far too real to be fun. Civilization is fun because it doesn’t follow history and that things can play out in fun and wacky ways. And, by being fun, the game tricks me into thinking that history is fun and interesting. I’m not saying the game develops cultural literacy – though, a couple times, Realism Invictus has encouraged me to look something up on the Wikipedia and it’s hard not to accidentally learn something when you do that. But if you’ve moved or travelled, you might know the feeling of seeing things you didn’t know were there or could be different because you took them for granted. Because they were a fixture of the place where you were and you only saw them after they weren’t there anymore. Like, when you wake up in the morning and the electricity is still on, you don’t notice that or appreciate it. Or appreciate everything that exists and had to happen for you to not notice or appreciate it. Or what even is a transistor and where do they come from and what does it mean that there are a bajillion of them in the devices used to write this and for you to read it. And it’s not just about admiring the past, but about seeing how the past became the present, as to imagine what we might do with the present to make the future.

All that stuff is lore. And the flavour text that Realism Invictus adds is a kind of world-building. Empires changing flags and names with their politics and their time. The diverse and culturally distinctive units. The details of things we take for granted. It’s part of the design of the Civilization series to point at human culture and history and to make our world feel lived-in. And to make it feel like lore instead of history. In its essence, Realism Invictus is the most Civilization game I’ve played.

Also, Walter Hawkwood, Realism Invictus’s current curator, picked a real banger for the menu music. Blizzard by Kai Engel.