Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
You can feel it when you're about to lose a game of Kingdom: New Lands. The onslaught of the seasons pushes your farms into bare subsistence, the hordes of monsters that spawn from the portals start knocking down your walls, and your citizens lose their livelihoods. Some of the farmers start throwing their tools into the river. The fail state is rarely sudden. Instead, you plod toward it, marching toward the moment when a creature takes your last coin and swipes the golden crown off your head. A dynasty, broken, after twenty or thirty minutes of slow decay. It's glorious.
I was slow on the uptake for Kingdom. If you haven't played it, the game is simple. You're a crowned ruler on a horse, and you want to build a settlement. Unlike Crusader Kings or Civilization, it's not a god's eye view of looking down at a map. Instead, it's a side-scroller where the action rises and falls over seasons instead of seconds. The result is a much tighter, focused affair like a role-playing game or a roguelike. Even more unique is that the game takes place entirely on an X-axis, meaning that the player—a queen riding her horse—can only travel left and right along the banks of a forested river.
Building your kingdom is traveling here. There is only one button to interact with the game world, and you simply hold it down to spend the money in your bag of gold. This is how you fund your walls, your mead hall, or lure peasants to live in tents near your exercise in statecraft. At night, the monsters come, and you hope that the peasants that you armed with bows and arrows can fully embrace the transition from free agent to disciplined soldier.
The simplicity of building structures and recruiting citizens makes Kingdom feel really hopeful. After all, you begin the game with a scant few coins, two citizens, and a campfire. In just a few in-game days, you can have a dozen walls fortified by a dozen archers who are being watched over by defensive towers. You can have farmers farming, hunters hunting, and your builder units beefing up your already sizable holdings.
Then it all goes to hell. The seasons change, a blood moon rises, and a single wall falls. Everything spins into disarray, but it doesn't collapse all at once. You just start making less money each day, and you can't quite recruit enough new archers to replace the ones you lost, and you don't have enough builders to recreate your walls before the night and its dangers comes for your people.
In those big top-down simulation games like the Civilization series, it's common to see the end approaching in a slow way. You start a bad war, and it goes in the wrong direction for too long; you push your luck with science, but you know that you're way behind in the space race. Those games are about modeling big, bulky systems with lots of different actors affecting each other, and the "long game" of failure is a part of that.
In roguelike games like Dungeons of Dredmor, the end is much more sudden. You can be smashing your way through layer after layer of a dungeon only to kick open a door and be met by thirty new and different monsters who can all obliterate you in a timely fashion. Unlike the big picture strategy game, you've spent all this time with a character, and in the blink of an eye they're eliminated by some kind of skeleton king with a bad attitude.
The great thing about the coming of the end in a game of Kingdom is that the game melds those two types of gameplay, and in doing so it morphs together those forms of ending. On one hand, you can watch the creep of death and it rounds third base and knocks you over as it comes screeching in for the home run. On the other, you want to see it out until that end point because you did all of that work, all of that horse riding from one end of a river to the other, just to make sure that your damn town could have the biggest population that it could. You had to keep going back to that one wall to make sure it was repaired each morning because it was always the last rampart between your farmers and the portal beings that wanted to kill them.
It's easy for me to turn a strategy game off when I know that I'm in a spiral that's leading me to a death that I do not want. Oh well, I think, and then I'm off on the next iteration of global rule. I might stick around a little longer in a roguelike; there is, after all, always the chance that I could pull it off. But with Kingdom, I stick around through the death spiral. I tough it out until the bad end.
I think I feel guilt if I don't. It isn't just that I've sunk so much time and effort into my little duchy. Instead, it's that I believe that there's the smallest sliver of hope that I could make it. In a roguelike, I can at least have some faith in a good dice roll that can bring me out of the worst conditions, but there's nothing like that in Kingdom. Ice chunks begin to form in the river, and snowflakes begin to fall. Eventually there is a thin layer of snow over everything. Things tend downward.
It's a beautiful signal from the game. It's telling me that there's no hope for me, and the difference between what I want and what the game is going to give me is heartwrenching. There isn't a single bit of hope, and yet I can still cling to the people I've recruited in this kingdom I have made. I can ride my horse back and forth from frontier to frontier. I can monitor the portal that releases the monsters. I can watch them build, night after night, but if I've made it this far without winning then there isn't any real chance that I can. The game lets me wander around wanting something other than what I have been given, but it's all out of reach.
I watch the winter take my kingdom and my crown, and I think that it'll be better the next time.