Games of yore #3 and #4: Age of Empires, The Rise & Rule of Ancient Empires

This is an edited version of a post I wrote a couple years or so back, which explains the length and unbridled rambling. I had to chuckle when I saw the original, smartass title: Old is Gold (and Food, Wood, and Stone).

I hold Age of Empires as one of the defining titles of my formative gaming years. Civilization meets WarCraft. The game that forever cemented the bird’s eye image of Greek hoplites and Egyptian chariots running amok, getting shot at by rickety watchtowers and archers with funky hairdos, in the memory of thousands of strategy gamers.

But before AoE, there was another: a far more obscure strategy title that holds the honor of first stoking my inner history buff. The Rise & Rule of Ancient Empires cemented in my memory the satellite’s eye image of entire continents crammed with symbols of more cities than common sense dictates have any right to be in existence on a landmass that size.

Aside from the ludicrous graphical memories, there was also the indescribable feeling of starting either game in charge of a handful of bedraggled pioneers, all the world in primeval dark, and knowing this, your first settlement of Stone Age man-apes, is all that stands between survival and slaughter at the hands of the savages you just know lurk in their own little village on the other side of the mountains. Or just across that river. In which case you had better discover how to make something other than stone clubs damned soon.

No day. No night. No weather and no seasons. These early strategy titles made it all “simple orders, Hal: find the enemy… and kill him.”

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Rise & Rule was a very different beast from the pressure-cooker, micromanaging-frenzy, real-time AoE. And it took a more macro approach, with cities and armies instead of buildings and soldiers. But the feeling of being strangers in a strange land wasn’t any different. Exploration was vital and every inch of forested, sandy, and mountainous terrain unveiled by your first intrepid scouts was an achievement; the first materialization of a foreign-colored dot on the global radar was no less poignant a moment than the lone Saracen horseman appearing out of the night to harangue the defenders of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven.

The very simplicity of games like these gave them a charm that made me, for one, content with being a frog in a well and building my little idyllic civilization within the borders of the little kingdom I had defined for myself. Never mind the aforementioned savages. The gods will protect us.

Gamers being what they are, 15-year old graphics might have a good deal to do with it; 16 in the case of Rise & Rule, whose highly abstract representations of nation-building and war seem homely and endearing in an age of visceral, gut-twistingly realistic visuals. Back then, combat between armies was basically one stylized chess piece eating another in a tiny puff of smoke and a soundbite of clashing swords! What’s that compared to the panorama of, say, the Total War games where you can practically glimpse whether each individual soldier shaved the morning of the battle and hear which parent they’re screaming for as they get cut down in the front rank?

So much less, and so much more.

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I don’t know if game engine limitations or ‘nobody thought of it’ is a more plausible reason, but the lack of a whole lot of things found in today’s strategy games could be what made those oldies so memorable and long-lasting. AoE didn’t even contain dialogue: the only instance I recall of the AI being scripted to break its eternal silence was a recurring demand for tribute in one of the story levels, and that was simply scheduling an existing random feature and setting it on repeat*. A light-years of a cry from the cutscene-studded battlegrounds of Warcraft III’s story levels where heroes and villains exchanged rhetoric and repartee every ten minutes.

* Compounding this was the fact that such tweaking was hardly something a click of a mouse away. For budding level designers crafting their own epic tales of conquest with the game’s beautifully conceived map editor, there was no native option for this kind of thing. It demanded they possess or acquire the technical savvy to make alterations to certain system files; in other words, something the devs did not intend you to do.

Well, Rise & Rule did, but only to the point of inevitably sending declarations of war after an early pretense of peaceful coexistence; it was a conquest-oriented game, after all. I can hardly forget my initial attempts at diplomacy, thinking the AI rulers would somehow respond to carefully worded overtures of military support and free trade. Such a lack of any real interaction, scripted or no, leaves a whole lot to the imagination. Perhaps that is why a good many folks enjoy such games more: they prefer using that to being led on rails by a pre-programmed sequence of events.

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It takes a different sort of mindset to appreciate. I count myself among these folks, to an extent, and can sympathize; just as in AoE, building my paradisal fishing village on a suitably scenic plot of land with as much of a blissful lack of care for potential invaders as the dimmest Andean llama, I found myself coming up with plots and subplots on the fly to flavor the near-constant action onscreen. Freedom from preset storytelling actually provided opportunities to come up with some fine ideas as to why I was forming this militia, or raiding that town, or building houses around that granary there by the stream.

Yes, the outcome was the same either way. If the mission objective is to raze a certain edifice or kill a certain enemy leader, nothing but the fulfillment of that will enable forward progress. But I didn’t see units whittling down the enemy empire city by city in Rise & Rule; I saw an imperialist march, a retaliatory campaign, vengeance for centuries of unanswered coastal raids and assorted depredations, to say nothing of humiliations on the fields of battle. I needed no scripted ingame politics; in fact, those might have interfered with my perceptions of the war and its twists and turns.

As I’ve always advocated, it’s about the journey and not the destination.

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Is it, perhaps, a tad unfair to attribute such freedom for personal storytelling to old games only? Try conjuring up your own rendition of what’s going on in the great adventure titles of yore, especially those littered with FMVs. Not a whole lot of room there. Modern titles may qualify as well, if not too restrained by script and cinematic; not a whole lot of room either in, say, Diablo III or Dishonored where protagonists are given so much background and exposition, players are made to feel less that they are roleplaying, and more that they are playing a role.

Players’ imposition of self-contrived personalities and happenings on mundane gameplay can have a powerful effect. Whether to fill a void created by devs’ omission of said elements or to accentuate their inadequate presence, it is personalization in a way unattainable by the best intentions of game writers and designers. That feeling of ownership of one’s ‘own version’ of a video game protagonist (Cmdr. Shepard in the Mass Effect games is a perfect example) springs not only from the pretty numbers and sprites racked up over untold hours of hurdle-jumping ingame. It often also owes much to the player projecting him/herself onto a loosely predefined mold and consciously making it his/her own.

It’s even more prominent in open-world RPGs and MMOs, where, despite all the freedom the devs try to give us, we often encounter awkward and unrealistic situations only external rationalization can address. Or decide we don’t want to be sticklers for norms and main quests, and roleplay our own way off the signpost-studded path. Such is, of course, the province of players truly keen on the immersion factor in a game, but using the game as a framework for constructing spurious, unguided adventures can make for a more value-added entertainment experience.

Plus, the feel of reenacting Jan III Sobieski’s charge of twenty thousand cavalry at Vienna, 1683, with a group of friends spamming mounted units is something that requires little imagination to enjoy.

Unless you happen to be Turkish and proud of it, that is.

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