News, Events and Reviews

Game Spaces Part 4: Watching the Woods Grow

Beyond the walls of Akkad the forest grows deep. Gilga-mesh swims through its darkness, laying his thoughts down as rotten apples behind him. At night, Enki-du comes and swallows them up before they grow into new trees: he is afraid that Humbaba will find them and eat their fruit.


If you want to know about the inevitability of Western history, play games. Don’t be afraid of their profusions of colour and fancy graphics: the tireless exercise of knights against castles, hero against villain, soldier against soldier is just a front. To know history, you have to take a can-opener to the games that invite you to play with it. You have to dabble in their mechanisms, look through their pretty glass frontages and see the clockwork driving round behind.

A case in point: the Civilisation series of games has occasionally held a fascination for analysts and commentators beyond the narrower confines of games journalism. Stories like the dystopian future created in one person’s game of Civilisation 2 have created small ripples in a bigger media pond. Their marriage of mathematics with visual and verbal art has made them a machine for telling stories, a mechanical prompt for narratives about the history of the world. But the machinery itself tells a story about what civilisation is, a sort of twisted mirror to the versions told by books like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.

That story is clearest in Civilisation 4, arguably the best game of the series. As any Civilisation veteran will tell you, the key to the game always lies in technology. If your neighbours understand how to make cannon and rifles and you don’t, hope that your scientists will unlock their secrets very soon. It certainly isn’t knowledge for knowledge’s sake: playing against other humans quickly reveals that some technologies take precedence. In the ancient era of the game, for example, your civilisation will rapidly need to learn about bronze working. Bronze makes for strong chains and sharp weapons; it unlocks an economy that uses slavery to exchange population for production, enabling you to rapidly found new cities or recruit larger armies. With a little finesse you can win without slavery against AI players, but enslaving others gives your civilisation a clear edge, pushing it further and further up a curve of exponential growth.

The same is true for forests. With access to bronze tools your civilisation can cut down woodland outside its cities, clearing the ground for cultivation, denying cover to enemy armies and boosting your cities’ production. The exponential growth rule that governs Civilisation 4 dooms you to repeat Gilgamesh’s felling of the Forest of Lebanon over and over: cut your forests early and your cities will grow like weeds, surrounded by bustling farmland and outlying settlements. Bronze clears the land for exploitation and commerce; commerce earns wealth; wealth transforms itself into more and better technologies.


The kings send men to cut down the branches that grow over the city wall. Sometimes when they are cut the branches fall as fat cows, and they are brought to the palace to be counted. Sometimes the branches become warriors with bronze armour and dark eyes, fighting for breath in this world of living souls.


The pattern repeats itself as your civilisation progresses – and the Civilisation games certainly believe in capital-p Progress. The growth of cities (how much population they can hold) is held in check by two key factors, health and happiness. Each unit of population your city can hold increases its production or its commercial value, improving the speed at which you can race towards new scientific discoveries. These new technologies unlock different ways of increasing the productivity, happiness and health of your cities, so your civilisation is locked into an upward spiral of profit and discovery.

Technology is the key, and in every Civilisation game it’s laid out the same: a tree of knowledge that begins with hunting and fishing and ends in fusion technology and a race for the heavens. All human understanding is laid out there, predetermined and preordained. Your civilisation can take its own path through the tree, skipping some ideas and prioritising others, but some technologies are so powerful that the tree narrows down to a single powerful trunk in places. Bronze, iron, oil; writing, currency, civil service; rifles, cavalry, steel: they nourish your empire’s broad, sunny leaves like sap.

But even those broad leaves are higher and more nourishing than current events might have us believe. Problems like pollution and global warming have easy answers just a few steps higher up the tree. Nuclear power and its attendant dangers are a last resort, not a stopgap until sources of clean energy can be developed and popularised. And once all conceivable secrets of technology have been exhausted (cancer cured, fusion power made available to all) you can continue climbing higher and higher, discovering amorphous ‘future tech’ that continues to increase the health and happiness of your cities. Far from being an exploration of the bounds of the possible, this is human knowledge as clinging ivy, colonising the future’s certain heights.

So are the knights and castles just a front, then? Are the woods you cut down, the farms and cottages your citizens work, really just lovingly-drawn mittens for a fistful of mathematical rules? Yes they are: you, the player, already know the outcome of human history, written out in the sybelline leaves of the tech tree. Your warriors may ride in chariots or stealth bombers, the outcomes of their battles might be uncertain, but you still know that the winner will climb those upper branches where the stars hang like rotten fruit.

Babylon Civ 4


Are the rifles and cannon, the high walls and gore-stained breaches just a front, then? No they are not. They appear from the viewpoint of Yahweh-as-satellite: within your empire you are all-knowing, but you cannot see through your people’s eyes. You cannot comprehend their uncertainty about the future or their beliefs about the past. The borders of the known world are not scary places, inhabited by giants and witches, with troll-dams patrolling its liminal space; they are just a blackness from which the real world emerges, arranged in grid squares, mapped and ready to be settled.

As a player of Civilisation, you are caught between the worlds of gods and men: you see with a perspective that’s too lofty to be mortal, but not so divorced from a human understanding of the game world that its inhabitants are wholly alien from your desires. You set the cannon at the walls or send the boys into Pickett’s Charge because you can sense the bright crisp mathematical world your blood-stained actions might bring about. You train yourself to see the inside of events, the mathematics of their causes, because the outside is so easy to understand that it almost fails to register. The game says, here is a city, a road, a river; and you can see the forks in the road and the bends in the river and the tiny houses without having to step down into the narrow streets. There’s no alternative viewpoint to embrace in moving from the heavens to the earth, only your own knowledge of the true nature of things.

As a game it’s tremendously enjoyable, but sometimes I tire of being so divorced from a human view of the world. It makes me wish the creators of Civilisation 4 had spent a little more time listening to folk-tales and oral literature and less time ferreting for quotations among great literary works. Your climb up the tech tree resonates with quotes from the Bible, Herodotus, Shakespeare, Virgil, the Bhagavad Gita, a west-leaning canon of luminaries that forgets the rich dark soil they needed to set down roots. There’s no space here for the great lost literatures of Central America, the ballads and the folk-tales that remind us that games contain uncertain spaces, histories not quite written, futures that are not pre-determined. Perhaps it is a lot to ask that a game of strategy and empire building be ambivalent about the idea of strategy, or of empire.

But, by forgetting that even these ideas had to be invented, it also misses the crucial point about human knowledge and the games we play in it. It’s something that only a peripheral, marginal literature can express: the tree of knowledge isn’t really a tree but a sprawling rose bush that twines itself with uncertainty’s white briar. And the bushes are not alone, but they grow within a great forest that is sometimes dark and sometimes predictable. Or, to put it another way, the heart of the game is not an absolute set of rules or a winning strategy. It is a metaphor, an artistic creation that says this thing is itself but other: we have to understand the history and the philosophical engine that drives it together. Why else should we play games, unless we cared about their stories of warrior-heroes setting out towards the castle in the dark wood where the trees grow and grow and grow?


Gilga says to his brother: one day we shall come to the centre of the wood and find the house where the gods live. But Enki hears the crying in Akkad, the branches pulling the wall down stone by stone.

Note: This piece was prompted by an ongoing video series created by veteran Civilisation 4 player and tester Sulla. The quotations in the game are read by Leonard Nimoy.

Posted 8 years ago

Leave a comment