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'Civilization VI' Shows How Small Things Can Sabotage a Big Game

Like a bad TED Talk, 'Civ VI' repackages big ideas into empty, bite sized chunks.

by Rob Zacny
May 29 2017, 6:12pm

courtesy 2K Games

Lately I've been playing Civilization VI, really getting into it after the game failed to capture my imagination last year. As a colleague put it to me the other day, it's a game full of brilliant new ideas that somehow doesn't seem to add up to something very brilliant or new. Maybe this is the curse of the Civ series: When you're iterating on one of the greatest strategy games ever made, even a great new edition struggles to stand-out.

But playing it, I'm struck by another aspect of the Civilization VI experience: It keeps trivializing what you're doing. Like it's bored with itself.

The primary offender is the quotes that narrator Sean Bean reads for each new technology of civic development. Some of them are your typical Civ citation: grand, thought-provoking declarations from history that says something about how we relate to a particular development or discovery. So when you discover the Code of Laws, we get Aristotle: "At his best, man is the noblest of all animals. Separated from law and justice, he is the worst."

But then there's vaudevillian Will Rogers on mining: "When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging." Shipbuilding might be accompanied by the captain of the Titanic's remark that, "I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder … Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that." The diplomatic service gets you this line: "A diplomat is a man who remembers a woman's birthday but never remembers her age." Classic diplomat, am I right? Surely this has appeared on a Hallmark card at some point, preceding "Happy 40th, Mom!"

It'd be one thing if Firaxis were using humor and satire to address the "myth of progress" that underpins the series, but that's not really what it's doing. Instead, it's trying to have it both ways: It tells the same story of historical achievement and progress that it always does, but then keeps busting out grating one-liners in an effort to be relatable and irreverent. Civilization VI talks like a substitute teacher whose sole prep for today's lesson was stuff they copied out of a recent edition of Bartlett's.

This tonal shift has a knock-on effect when it comes to the rest of the game. We don't really get Wonder videos but instead get a little animation where a miniaturized landmark comes together somewhere on the map. Each Great Artist that your civilization attracts needs to have a museum or a gallery where they can store their iconic works before you can use them. Neither of these ideas are offensive in themselves, but in a context where there is seemingly nothing that cannot be encompassed by a bon mot from Will Rogers, Civilization VI starts to suffer from a sense of smallness and small-mindedness.

And so a game about the sweep of human history and the achievements of different civilizations and eras begins to feel like a dull game of meaningless acquisition. Every new technology gets a smirking remark that calls attention to how little the human experience has changed, every new wonder quickly blends into the scenery, and every new Great Work is just some fucking tchotchke that you have to find room for in your national curio cabinet so that people can come from around the world to gawk at it.

It's frustrating because in many ways this is the most exciting and open-minded Civ game in ages, taking inspiration from across its own history as well as the broader strategy game landscape. Yet every time it opens its mouth to articulate its historical vision, Civilization VI becomes the TED Talk Civ, where great problems and great ideas are repackaged into relatable anecdotes and witty observations. Discovery and wonder are commodities to be given approachable new packaging for an audience that wants to be delighted, but never challenged.