A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of fascism. Or maybe it's the spectre of terrorism, nativism, Russian irredentism, or any number of other unpleasant isms. But it's clear the world is on the brink, and no country, not even a United Kingdom or United States now seemingly on paths to isolationism, can do very much about it.
This is where the world stands in 2016. And it is also where the world stood in 1936, which is when the storyline of the recently released World War II simulation Hearts of Iron IV begins.
Paradox Interactive, the game's publisher, has relied on its ever-expanding suite of grand strategy epics (the open-ended space empire builder Stellaris was released this year, too) to build a corporation able to float 15 percent of its stock on Sweden's NASDAQ. All of the company's games are different, with different resources to manage and technology trees to research, but all of them are fundamentally the same. Because the world you inherit in each one is always a world on the brink.
'Hearts of Iron IV', release trailer
In Crusader Kings, the vast, disjointed empire forged by the Frankish king Charlemagne has begun to fracture, and Islamic expansion threatens both Western and Eastern Europe. In Europa Universalis, the great city of Constantinople is about to fall, and little seems likely to stop the advance of the Ottoman Turks. Victoria takes Europe's great powers through an age of empire building, culminating in the chaotic Great War that sets the stage for Hearts of Iron. Stellaris, I guess, constitutes the futurist instalment of this epic history, a chance to extend a now-spacefaring mankind's destiny to the stars and beyond.
Every moment of each of those games amounts to a crisis point; every decision has consequences that can resonate months or centuries later. Hearts of Iron IV is the most immediate of these, with gameplay simulating the hours of the day as the player proceeds from 1936 to 1948.
The USSR arguably won the war for everyone else, but since victory came at the highest of all possible costs, I assumed that with the benefit of hindsight I could surely do better.
In this game, WWII is mere years away, and nothing can prevent its occurrence. In my first playthrough, I used the Soviet Union, a large but backwards nation-state being propelled irresistibly into the future by the storm of progress. The USSR's role in WWII is downplayed in US, but through a combination of poor generalship and worse leadership, it managed to lose over 26 million people during the period covered by Hearts of Iron IV.
Yet the USSR also arguably won the war for everyone else, at least the war in Europe, by virtue of its ability to rapidly re-establish its industrial operations east of the Ural Mountains and then toss wave after wave of men and materiel at the German military. This victory came at the highest of all possible costs, so I assumed that with the benefit of hindsight I could surely do better.
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And I suppose I did do better, at least according to how Paradox measures such things. I completed my purge of Leon Trotsky and his faction almost immediately, then invested heavily in factory output, tank and plane technology, and the defensive "people's army" military concept.
I also tried to approach my foreign policy in a thoroughly realist manner, as various neoconservative and neoliberal wonks often claim to be doing. It didn't make dollars and sense to wage war against Germany and Japan, so instead I initiated a "lend-lease" program to subsidise their military efforts and focused on maintaining decent relations with both countries. The actual German advance had cost millions of Soviet lives, so it made little sense to directly engage with them.
As I made my uneasy way from 1936 to 1948, a question kept nagging at me: why must all of Paradox's grand strategy efforts come down, in the final analysis, to manpower and superior military technology? Over the course of their various games, I had played everything from dukes to galactic viceroys, but my road to victory was always the same: seize resources, always militarise, and be willing to make strategic sacrifices.
Ideology matters in Paradox's games, since some of the bonuses and modifiers associated with ideology groups can make or break you. In the end, however, every player becomes a fascist dictator, and the best of these dictators are also vicious imperialists. I still vividly recall the night when, during a game of Europa Universalis IV, one of my best friends said to me, "Oh, I've had my eye on those gold mines in Mombasa for a couple decades. We absolutely need to get them."
And so the two of us, both dyed-in-the-wool leftists, tossed hundreds of thousands of simulated souls against a heavily fortified coastline thousands of miles from our European home bases – all to secure the revenue stream we needed to finish carving up the rest of the world between ourselves.
In Hearts of Iron IV you run the show, but that show is a ghoulish bloodbath, and the winner is simply the last hegemon standing.
In Hearts of Iron IV, I was a far worse communist than the real-life Joseph Stalin ever was. That guy, though badly off his rocker by the late 1930s, had at least been something of a true believer as he rose through the party ranks. I had no ideological pretensions; I merely wanted the Baltic States and all of Scandinavia, and I didn't want to fight the United States or Germany if I could help it.
Since this was my first playthrough, I botched a number of operations. I didn't figure out supply lines until late in the game, messed up a naval invasion, never used paratroopers, and my construction queues remained a mess. However, the country's "national focuses" ensured I kept reinforcing and resupplying, allowing me to hammer away at Scandinavia while lend-leasing tanks to Germany to kill Brits and Americans.
Viewed historically, I suppose the game was a smashing success. By the time the United States and United Kingdom were sending hundreds of divisions at me from several directions, only four million Soviet citizens had died. The game doesn't track deaths in the gulags or ethnic cleansing – how could it, and still expect to sell? – so I had to imagine that, even if the death toll were twice that, it still wasn't bad. Though the world was collapsing around us, my country had survived.
Paradox's grand strategy games force a curious kind of perspective on the player. On the one hand, you regularly squander thousands of human lives without a second thought, ideally in the course of committing mass genocide against a hated foe. But as you make these simulated decisions, you remain aware that they are utterly inconsequential; they are just moves in a game. You might be racing against the clock as the simulator runs to the end, but you are not living in the end times.
The state of contemporary politics, both in the US and elsewhere, is much more confusing. No lone mastermind can sit back and marshal the resources of one of these declining Western democracies in pursuit of some glorious victory at all costs. Yet we have begun to see simplistic-sounding solutions prevail, whether they're Trump's shocking rise in the American polls or the UK electorate's surprising decision to exit the European Union.
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Unable to escape the angry rhetoric that drives cable news ratings, it's understandable that some people's minds begin to entertain thoughts of fascist national revival. Let a strongman take the reins, goes the reasoning, and he will show them – whoever they are. The idea is comforting, but the reality is another matter altogether. In Hearts of Iron IV and Paradox's other offerings, you run the show, but that show is a ghoulish bloodbath, and the winner is simply the last hegemon standing.
"To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire; and where they make a desert, they call it peace," wrote the Roman historian Tacitus. Such a barren peace might be the best and final solution in grand strategy video games, but a steady diet of this violent virtual realpolitik leaves you wondering why anybody would ever want to make our real world a closer approximation of that.
Hearts of Iron IV is out now for Windows, Linux and Mac OS. Find more information at the Paradox Interactive website.
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