Civ III Takes a Back Seat to No More Heroes

So I was wrong. My first full game of Civ III actually took, according to the clock that pops up after finishing, 24 hours. Wow. That's a lot longer than I thought. Although I think it's actually a little closer to 20 hours, because I left the game running by itself a few times. Either way, that's a lot of time to devote to one play through of an infinitely replayable game. I just don't have that kind of time to commit to one game anymore, as much as that saddens me. Plus, Civ is so addicting, that it's very easy to just not stop playing.

With that in mind, I will be drastically cutting back on my Civilization play time now to focus on other games. I'll still play Civ III, but it will serve more as a second or third game, to be played a few turns at a time (if that's even possible) when I'm not doing anything else. One way to hopefully help with this goal, is that I'll be switching from playing the epic main game to trying out the 9 or so scenarios included in the Conquests expansion. I just started the Mesopotamia scenario, which is significantly shorter than the main game, coming in at a paltry 160 turns.

Since Civ III is on the back burner for the time being, what will I be focusing my energies on: the glory that is No More Heroes. I advanced up to the 4th assassin rank this afternoon, so I'm getting closer to the end. Soon I'll start a series of posts about NMH, which of course I know has already been talked up to death. But I'll try to find a fresh angle.

Tomorrow I'll post about the gaming gear I'm strongly considering purchasing in the near future. Until then, make sure to go outside and get some fresh air between GTAIV sessions.


Wrapping Up Civ III (I Hope)

In my last post, I wrote about the cultural assimilation mode of conquest introduced to Civ III. I'm nearly done with my first full game of Civilization, and I have a few more thoughts about it. First is that Civ III does a great job of really giving you a 'feel' for the flow of time. A single game is played out over 540 turns or less, depending on how quickly you can meet certain victory conditions. At different points in the game, each turn represents differing numbers of years. For example, in the very beginning of the game, at 4000 B.C., each turn represents something like 50 years of game time. But by 1950 and the modern era, each turn represents only 1 year of the in-game history. What this does is really give you a sense of how daily life and scientific progress was significantly sped up beginning with the industrial revolution in the 1800s.

In its own right, 540 turns of a turn-based strategy game is a lot. I've probably spent at least 10 hours on my first game. But the last 150 turns or so really make you feel like your civilization is advancing at the speed of light. For the beginning of the game, you largely have the same units. Sure, there are a few upgrades, such as knights, but the number of units available to create doesn't expand significantly. However, in the modern era, once you start researching things like Flight and Modern Warfare, you suddenly have dozens of military units available to choose from, all of which are significant improvements over their predecessors. Your world, and the game, literally change exponentially overnight. The rush of scientific advancement is huge. In this sense, Civ III does an outstanding job of making you 'feel' the flow of time, and the weight of history.

Second, as I've already mentioned, this game is long. But as long as an individual game might last, I totally see how people could play it repeatedly, trying new strategies and new civilizations. The constant building and discovery of new things makes the game incredibly addicting. As of right now, Civ III would easily be my Desert Island Game. To compound the lengthiness, if you're engaged in a war (or two), the game slows down to a crawl. Because now, not only are you managing all your cities, but you also need to micro-manage all of your armed forces. And to be honest, as a Civ novice, I don't fully understand how the combat works quite yet. I've been successful only because I'm playing on the easiest difficulty setting.

As you can tell, I've absolutely fallen in love with Civ III. But it's also a huge time sink, so after I finish my current campaign, I'm going to devote my primary game-playing time to something else, and put Civ III as my secondary game. I just look forward to some day having a new computer and getting Civ IV. I'm also eagerly awaiting Civilization Revolutions, which I'll probably get for the DS. A faster, more stream-lined version of Civilization would be a blessing.


Cultural Assimilation in Civilization III

One of the new features added to Civ III (way back in 2001) and refined in Civ IV was culture. Prior to Civ III, once the world had been settled, the only way to expand your borders and power was through military conquest. That's still a popular strategy in current Civ iterations, but with culture, if one of your border towns has enough culture, there's a chance a neighboring civilization's border town will defect and join your own empire. You'll even be notified with a message along the lines of, "The heathens of the Aztec empire have overthrown their government and pledged their loyalty to you." Of course, the same can also happen to your outlying cities if you don't manage their cultural growth. In Civ IV, you can even drop a "culture bomb" into one of your cities, greatly increasing its cultural score and also raising the chance of defection to your side.

Besides the fact that increasing your culture and stealing enemy cities is very enjoyably, I'm really intrigued by the developers' approach to this mechanic. First, this is viewed as a good alternative to war. Normally, once the world map has been completely settled by the various civilizations, the only way to expand your empire is through force. But culture provides you with a nice, clean alternative. While declaring war to secure a few more cities enrages at least one civilization (and possibly more depending on alliances), gaining another city through the strength of your culture has very few negatives.

This cultural acquisition is viewed as a positive development. No one declares war on you, your empire is bigger, and if you keep increasing culture you can possibly entice further cities. But what I was reminded of is how resistant some countries are to outside cultural influences. In countries like France and Canada, laws are in place to try to preserve their respective cultures. I believe that a certain percentage of songs on the radio must be by artists native to that country, for example. What I think Civ III brings up is the issue of how do people try to preserve their own culture, while also being open and friendly to things from foreign cultures?

The Civilization games are all about conquest and domination, but that's a post for another time. Even the 'peaceful' cultural alternative is just a different, non-violent form of conquest. But in the real world, culture is much more complicated than a numerical value. It includes vastly different things, such as food, religion, music, McDonald's, and even language. The balancing act between preserving your own heritage and growing through the inclusion of others is a delicate, controversial issue. And I wish Civ III's implementation of it was a little more complex.

That being said, stealing city's through culture does demonstrate some ideas about assimilation. Assimilation is simply the idea that a minority group will eventually be absorbed into the dominant group, although it's a very complex issue. When you obtain a new city by cultural means, the citizens within that city retain their original nationality. However, over time, as new generations of citizens take over, their nationality begins to change to that of your civilization. This is a rough approximation of the sociological idea about immigration that "what the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember."

The sociologist in me was surprised and delighted to find this little, pared down touch of reality. But I do wish there were more negative reactions to a strong culture in the game. Maybe an uber-powerful culture could lead to some civilizations being hostile towards you, because they see your culture as a threat. It's also important to remember that culture is not a one-way street. Even the dominant culture absorbs some aspects of the smaller culture.

Oh yeah. And if you declare war on someone in Civ III, don't be surprised if the rest of the world declares war on you in return. It happens.


Civilization 3 is My Kryptonite

To those of you who found my blog courtesy of GameSetWatch, welcome, and I hope you stick around. Feel free to comment on any other articles as well. I try to respond to everyone who comments.

That being said, the GameSetWatch link was based on my last post about Ikariam. Unfortunately, I think I'm finished with it. For good. Last time I posted that I could see the beginning of the end. Well, that day has come. I can't foresee logging into my account and checking on my miniature Yamagata town anymore. It was a pleasant diversion, and I took great pride in sneaking in this game at work, but it's been replaced by something much bigger and better. Grander, even. The replacement is: Civilization 3.

For those of you who don't know, the Civilization series of games are turn-based strategy games in which you try to cultivate an empire from 4000 B.C. to the modern age and beyond. The game is highly customizable, and no 2 games will ever be alike. And I've absolutely fallen in love with it. Much to the chagrin of my girlfriend, I actually proposed to Civ 3 last night, but she said no, citing my amateurish civ-building ability.

At any rate, Civ 3 has grabbed me by the throat and is strangling me ever-so-slowly, turn by turn. I remember watching a friend play Civ 3 in college, and not really getting it. (What does it mean that I love video games enough to watch someone else play a turn-based strategy game?) But now, I get it. I totally see how the Civ series could have invented the phrase, "just one more turn." I'm still on my first play through, with just 1 of the 31 available civilizations, and I think I put in at least 10 hours this weekend alone. I can't stop. I always want to see my civilization grow just a little bit more, or research that next technological advance, or try to annihilate an entire country.

What I think is the beauty of Civ, the pure and utter genius of Sid Meier, is how the game provides you with constant feedback and updates. And I mean constantly. Every turn, a city will produce a new unit, or you'll need to decide what unit to create, or a new technology will be discovered and totally change your strategy, or another civilization will declare war on you. The list goes on and on. This game is so deep, I don't think I'll ever fully comprehend it. Surprisingly, I like that, unlike Brawl, where I'm annoyed that I will forever remain a novice fighter. Civ 3 constantly lets you know that you are advancing. It's very rewarding, and you really feel like you are in control of an entire culture.

I absolutely love it. I just need some way to curtail my adoption of this new hobby. Playing Civilization is almost a lifestyle unto itself. Stay tuned. I already have a couple more ideas brewing for posts about this amazing game.


Ikariam - The Joys of Civilization Contained in Your Browser

Although it was more serious than what I usually post about, I really enjoyed writing 2 posts about race and video games. I plan to come back to topics like that in the future. I particularly think it might be fruitful to bring my sociological training to bear on the video game medium. I have a couple ideas for some more posts in that direction.

In the meantime, after that brief foray into race, I have several other things I'd like to post about. First is Ikariam, sort of a simplified browser-based version of Civilization. After reading about Ikariam on Japanmanship and Gamers With Jobs, I was inspired to try the game and write a recommendation for it on ThatVideoGameBlog. Now that I've played it a little longer, I would still recommend it, although I'm starting to see some flaws peek out from between the cracks.

First, while the graphics are nice enough to look at, and very similar in tone to the upcoming Civilization Revolution, there's no animation. Well, there are 2 dolphins that jump around on the World Map screen, but that's it. Even in your town, if you upgrade a building, there's no building-in-progress animation. Your building is just replaced by a bare lot with a couple of planks in it.

But that's all cosmetic, and not really such a big deal. What is a problem is that I've been playing it for about a week, and am starting to get a little bored with it. My town now has most of the available structures, and I can maintain I decent flow of cash and supplies. I even founded a very expensive colony to provide my capitol with better access to resources. But it's starting to get tedious. Essentially, at this point, the game boils down to pick a building to upgrade, wait several hours, repeat ad infinitum. There's a little more to the game than that, but not much.

I'm still enjoying watching my town expand and grow, but I can feel the beginning of the end. That feeling that soon, there will come a day where I just won't log in anymore. The one aspect of the game I haven't really messed around with much is the warfare. You can build armies and attack other towns, and even spy on them beforehand to gather intelligence. I've primarily focused on economic growth, so a small war campaign could be my last hurrah before I retire as commander-in-chief of my humble town.

Still, Ikariam is a nice little diversion. It's best feature is the ability to log in and make a few changes and upgrades to your town in just 5 or 10 minutes. So give it a shot. If you don't like it, you barely wasted any time at all.


Resident Evil 5 - The Dangers of Stereotyping

My post yesterday about the intense reaction to N'Gai Croal's comments about the Resident Evil 5 trailer led me to think even more about it. And thanks to those of you who read my short post via The Brainy Gamer.

In my subjective experience of Japan, it does seem like there are very narrow views of not just race, but also ethnicity and nationality. As an example, I'm American, and have been repeatedly, seriously asked, "How many guns do you own?" My truthful answer is, "none." Yes, there are serious gun control problems in the U.S., but I have literally zero experience with firearms. What I think this illuminates is that Japanese culture, just like most others, tend to rely on stereotypes to inform their worldview.

A stereotype is a simplified image or idea held by one group about another group. These generalizations tend to hold that a group of people has some characteristic in common. In some ways, stereotypes are similar to making a good first impression. That first impression is what's remembered most, even if it's partially or completely inaccurate. If someone is presented with only 1 image or idea about another group of people (say, on TV), it's very difficult to think of alternatives to that stereotype on our own, at least until we're repeatedly presented with new information and slowly change our perspective.

Since pictures speak louder than words, let's compare a couple of images.
The first image, of course, is from the RE5 trailer. The second is of a common black stereotype, the brute. The brute image portrays black men as savage, violent, and extremely aggressive. Besides an advanced graphics engine, there's not that much difference between the two images. Giving the image of the savage African a different contextual back story doesn't change the socio-historical meanings associated with such a powerful image. Those meanings of violence, conquest, and domination are still there, even if the characters have now been changed to zombies. And I don't think Capcom means to imply these associations intentionally. But lack of intent doesn't negate the meanings that can be collectively inferred from the image.

I'm not in a position to comment on the development practices of Capcom, or their rationale in presenting the RE5 trailer in the manner they did. Even my perceptions of Japanese culture are very subjective, from having lived here for 2 years. But I do know that racial stereotypes are a very slow and difficult problem to overcome. Hopefully it will help as Japanese game developers, just like many other businesses in the U.S., start to diversify. As more people like JC Barnett at Japanmanship join Japanese developers, or more people like Andrea Rubenstein enter Japanese design schools, a wider variety of viewpoints might be incorporated into the design process. But then again, maybe the Old Guard will stay in power and only promote those who share their own narrow views of the world. Either way, changing the attitudes of individuals or groups is a long and painful process, and won't happen overnight.

I'll end with this: Is there such a thing as a good or positive stereotype? I argue that positive stereotypes do not exist. Even those stereotypes that have positive connotations are ultimately detrimental to society as a whole, if for no other reason than they are a generalization and obscure or distort the truth. A simple example of a positive stereotype gone bad is the idea that all Asians are really smart. This puts tremendous pressure on those Asian students who aren't naturally good at school to try to live up to their stereotype. It can lead to psychological problems, high stress levels, and even increased cases of suicide. Being smart is a positive attribute, but is detrimental when everyone in a group is expected to live up to an unrealistic standard.

And just as a reminder, everyone thinks in stereotypes at some point, and not just about race. It's a reaction to situations based on our learned experiences. Oh yeah, and everyone's at least a little bit racist, too.

Race in Games - Not Caring About it Doesn't Make it Go Away

With the explosion over N'Gai Croal's comments about the Resident Evil 5 trailer, I feel like there's one issue that hasn't really been addressed yet. Basically, Croal said that we need to be careful with the kind of racial imagery as portrayed in the RE5 trailer, and a huge firestorm of comments erupted, some intelligent but most hateful, ignorant, and racist. This was particularly evident when Kotaku linked to the interview.

What really made me think, though, is demonstrated by this comment:
People who see all those little things "They're hidden in shadows, you can barely see their eyes, and the perspective of the trailer is not even someone who's coming to help the people. It's like they're all dangerous; they all need to be killed." are people who are keeping racism alive. If he was like the rest of us who didnt care and just want to play a kick ass game then racism would die a little...
Ignoring racial issues, in games or anything else, doesn't solve anything. If there's one thing I learned as a sociology major in school, it's that most things in society have meaning because they are socially constructed. Basically, over time, aspects have society literally come into existence because we agree that they exist. Race is a great example of this. Race itself, that people have different colored skin, has no meaning from a biological standpoint. It's just one of innumerable differences among people. But within the last few hundred years, race has come to be incredibly meaningful, largely as a result of slavery and colonial expansion. Just not caring about race and playing a "kick ass game" will not erase hundreds of years of economic, social, political, and psychological prejudices and injustices.

Furthermore, even if some people don't think a particular media text contains any racial issues, that doesn't mean they're not there. For example, as Croal articulates, it doesn't take a whole lot of imagination to see the problems in having a game where you shoot dozens of Africans. Granted, the game is not even out yet, but I agree that the trailer raises some concerns.

Croal's right. If video games are ever to be taken seriously, then developers need to think about issues such as race, sexuality, and gender. And so do we, the gamers. Because whether you want to believe it or not, race exists. And until there can be honest and open discussion about it, it will continue to exist and have meaning for millions of people for a long time to come.


Riviera: Final Thoughts

I know the title of this post leads you to believe I'll be talking about Riviera: The Promised Land, and I will. But I first I have a short diversion.

After finishing Riviera at the end of vacation last week, I reached a mental state I'm very familiar with: I didn't know what game to focus on next. Although I have many games I need to finish, I'm always racked by indecision right after completing one. I also like to play 1 console game and 1 handheld game at the same time. I know that my Wii time will be devoted to No More Heroes, but I was torn between starting a new game of Riviera, or reacquainting myself with or Final Fantasy III or Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones. I played 1 chapter of FE, and think that will be my portable game of choice for a while. Which brings me to my point.

In FE, you always face overwhelming odds. Your group of 10-12 troops often faces 20, 30, or even more enemies. If you level up properly, the enemies should be at or slightly below your level, with the exception of the obscenely powerful boss. But this army imbalance was taken to a ridiculous degree on a mission I played a couple nights ago.

In this mission (#5x) you are only allowed 4 units (really 3, since the game blatantly marks one as a soon-to-be traitor) with which to attack and seize an entire castle, annihilating the 20 or so guards within. The odds are about 7-1. Of course, my forces prevailed. But what this really points out is how most RPGs (and many other types of games) rely on a horde of relatively weak, simple enemies and a vastly overpowered boss to provide a sense of challenge.

What's different about Riviera (aha, back on topic), and 1 reason I love it so much, is that not only are there no random battles, there aren't battalions of weak enemies to wade through either. As far as I know, the vast majority of the battles are pre-planned and unskippable. Any single encounter could potentially wipe out your party if you aren't prepared. And you certainly won't do very well in these battles if you don't exploit enemy weaknesses, which is an integral part of the game. Every enemy is a threat, and must be treated with caution, and some degree of respect.

Unlike my FE example, where 3 people slaughtered an army, if you invest your imagination in Riviera's world, you could reasonably expect the protagonists to actually fight the included number of evenly-spaced battles. While the bosses are a little tougher than their underlings, the same tactics apply throughout: fight fire with ice, and you'll be fine.

That being said, for me the game play is the primary reason to play. The plot is OK, but generally boring with an obvious ending that has little...gravitas. The dialogue is cheese-tastic, although the characters are all distinct from one another. There are 5 endings (I think), 1 for each party member plus a "true" ending that's much harder to achieve. As much as I like finishing games 100%, I would only earn any different endings as an indirect result of being drawn back into the addicting game play in a few months.

In the end, I can forgive the weak narrative and ham-fisted characters in exchange for invigorating game play mechanics, which allows for a great deal of player decision-making despite the illusion of linear narrowness. I highly recommend Riviera as fun, unique, quality RPG. It really stands alone as a unique entry in the genre.


Back From Vacation

I returned from my spring vacation Sunday night, and am just now getting around to blogging again. The vacation was great. My girlfriend, her uncle, and myself traveled to Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji castle, and Hiroshima in western Japan. It was simply amazing, and very beautiful due to the prominence of fully-bloomed cherry blossoms. It was quite disappointing for it to end.

But I've been quite busy since then, and haven't had any time for blogging. What with accomplishing apartment and daily life tasks, sitting through endless ceremonies at school, and trying to adjust to the fact that 3 of the English teachers at my school (that's 75%) were transferred so I've been trying to get to know 3 new ones, it's been quite a stressful 3 days.

But I'm back, and I have some good ideas for my next few posts. One will be about a browser-based strategy game you may have read about recently, and another will cover a blood-spattered Wii game. Until then, I'm still recharging.