Whenever I play Sid Meier’s Civilization V, I become somewhat obsessed. Civ V is an all-day affair for me, a 6-8 hour job in which I make an empire for the day, and try to keep it running for as long as possible. Civilization is a series of games centered around creating an empire, with the ultimate goal of winning through military, diplomatic, or scientific victories. It’s a turn-based strategy game, and consists of various cities, units and resources which must be placed and organized in the optimal way. Empires can be huge, or they can be small, but there is always a way to make your empire dominate the political playing field. I have had some great empires, and I have had miserable failures. But the thing that always keeps me coming back is the possibility of immersion.
Civ V is probably the best strategy game I have ever played. Its structure is fair, tactical, and simple enough for anyone to pick it up fairly easily. Beginners don’t have a steep learning curve in front of them, but experts can still feel the imminent crushing defeat when they research the wrong technology. The problem is that I never seem to finish a game. The games typically take 10- 20 hours to complete, a length comparable to the campaign of other games. However I have spent many more hours than that in a single game of Civ. While some would say this might be due to a short attention span or the desire to leave the house on the weekend, the truth is, I can never finish a game because the experience is not quite right. Even when I have a perfect setup going, it is still hard for me to continue with the game at hand. Sure, there are alliances, intrigue, spies and enmities, but it still is not quite an Empire. I can control an empire within the game, but I can’t be an Empire. The problem with the game is that I always want more. I don’t want to play Sid Meier’s Civilzation V, I want to play James Sheehy’s Civilzation V.
Videogames are tremendously subjective. Playing as a character can be extremely emotional, and the stories are rich and rewarding for those with the time and attention to appreciate them. The inherent problem with games is the lack of creation. Sure, there are loadouts to personalize, characters to create, and empires to build, but there is always the niggling feeling that something just isn’t quite right. I love games that try to be innovative, with a novel take on an outdated concept, or a new idea entirely. Special mechanics, an interesting concept, or a new style of RPG will always drive me to a game, but in the end, I always feel disappointed. The major source of disappointment is the fact that I still can’t control the core aspects of the game. True, I can control characters, vehicles, empires, even worlds, but in the end, there is always a limit to my creativity. Ultimately, there is only so much that my character can do. And every victory feels all the more hollow with the sense that the possibilities are limited by the vision of the creators.
There is an intricate connection between the two halves of video games. Games try to tell stories, while simultaneously trying to allow the player autonomy. These two halves are hard to manage. Allowing a player to do whatever they want means that sometimes there are huge gaps between the chunks of story. Try to create a coherent story, and autonomy is forced to take the backseat. Some of the best games try to blend these qualities, like Bastion, while others take the opposite path and ignore the story completely to try and create a better experience, like the Civilization series or to an extent, the Grand Theft Auto series. The inherent problem lies with the fact that the gameplay itself can never come close to real. Even with better graphics, there is a fixed limit on how much time and effort the developers are allowed to spend on creating subtle animations that people will never see. Though I acknowledge that there is no possible way to change that, I can’t help but feel frustrated.
Video games for me are not escapes, but rather mental exercises. What happens if I change a parameter? The games are as much a matter of focus as they are of entertainment. They are about a speedier return on investment of my time, a way to make noticeable changes within a short period of time. For me, the personalization of a game is imperative, and as such, I can never be truly immersed in a game until the day when anything can happen in a game. And though I wait for that day with bated breath, I realize that I will have to settle with the games that we have now, and even though my empire might not be as niched as if I ruled the world, it will do for now. In the meanwhile, I will try to sit back and finish an empire.