Why does anyone play video games? That’s a great question. Why do I? Why do you?
Other than the developers and professional players, we gamers don’t earn any tangible rewards for playing them. There is no remuneration to be had. Stores sell them. Programmers make them. Artists create the worlds and stories. Musicians create the mood. Voice actors sometimes create the deep connections we feel with the characters. But to be honest we, the players, seldom see anything in return. We spend anywhere from a few minutes to thousands upon thousands of hours playing these games. We could be out with family or friends. We could be working on that great book or painting. Rather than exploring the world around us and making life better for those that can’t do it for themselves, we sit in front of our monitors and push the boundaries of our biological limits to just get in one more turn.
Okay, just kidding, the crazy talk is over. Let’s get real here. I play video games, specifically 4X games, because I am a megalomaniac. Sometimes, I am a benevolent ruler who wants nothing more than to live in an isolationist haven where my nearest neighbor whispers my name behind closed doors with the candles dimmed. Other times, I want to ride my epic mount or tank over to that land beyond the sunset and leave nothing but dust in my wake. Basically, I like to feel all powerful and omnipotent. Who hasn’t had the kind of day that sent them running home as soon as possible to fire up the gaming rig (console/PC/Mac/handheld) and lay waste to whomever they so chose to feel a little bit better about themselves?
Am I a bully? Do I have anger management issues? Have I smashed a controller or mouse out of frustration because things weren’t going my way? That’s between me and my therapist. But seriously, I play because video games allow me to do things that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do in real life. In my day to day interactions, I am a nice person. I am a caring spouse and a patient parent. I try to be courteous to and patient with the people I meet, and less than ideal interactions with them don’t fill me with bile. If I get frustrated with an employee or a customer, I do not seethe inside. I do not hold it in and rush home to exact vengeance upon the innocent denizens within these imaginary realms in an attempt to relieve the anger I built up going about my daily routine. No, that’s not me.
Rather, I like to play out my fantasy of being a hero, a great general, or an emperor that is leading his people to success. I am a savior, and the tools I need to achieve my goal are present in the video game worlds I like to visit. This is why I play.
I imagine myself to be more capable than some of the historic figures I’ve studied or mythical ones I’ve read about. Ain’t revisionism grand? That’s what 4X does for me. It creates an environment where I get to test my crazy ideas against the reality of the world in which they are set. That’s why I want 4X games that are capable of engaging me. Games that can draw me in and help me lose myself in these fantasy worlds for as long as I’d like to stay there.
Books are great. You get to enjoy the vision as it is revealed to you by their authors. Music is fantastic since you can immerse yourself in the sound of creation by it’s composer. Film is a mix of those two. Plays, concerts, operas, are all fantastic means of enjoying your time. But none of them give you the freedom to rearrange the story to fit your mood. None of them can pull you in as you build your own world. They inspire you, but unless you are a writer, an artist, a cinematographer or even a musician, all you are is a spectator in the end. Video games give you agency – the ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone you’ll never be, someone super-human, fantastic, or other-wordly. You can play any and all of those roles.
Yet you are beholden to the programmer of the game, and, sadly, that’s where disappointment usually comes in. Bugs, poor AI, myopic vision and terrible execution – nothing can ruin a good gaming session like one of these. That’s why we need to support good developers, those that communicate with us and yet stick to their own vision and create a world for us to lose ourselves in. I am tired of playing the same game. I am tired of rehashing the same experience over and over. This is why RPGs have a limited amount of replayability for me. It feels like I am playing the same story over and over with little control over my destiny.
I am also tired of the vitriol that can be found in any online community. Yes, even the 4X community which is known for its older and more mature audience. That’s one of the reasons why I don’t play multi-player games. I want to play a game against an AI that will give me a challenge, and not get insulted when I critique the finer points of a game online.
That’s why I keep coming back to the 4X genre. So many viable candidates there to give me just what I want. Diverse worlds full of wonder and danger, unlimited potential for replayability, and vision for miles and miles are just of the few things that keep drawing me in. If I want historically accurate games, there are plenty. Space invasion or conquest? That’s there, too. Fantasy and empire management? There are plenty of worthy contenders. The 4X genre gives me the tools to live many lives without the inherent danger that such endeavors would pose should I actually want to pursue them in the real world. I think that’s why I play video games.
Of course, I also play them to have fun. However, as we age, our ideas of what is fun change. But somehow, 4X has remained fun for me. I don’t enjoy many of the games I used to back in the day, but I still get very excited about 4X games. I wake up in the morning thinking about some far flung strategies, and at night I convert them to practical tactics.
I have copies of console games that I used to drool over, and now I can’t even be bothered to re-install them. But 4X titles? I lose sleep over it if I can’t play them. Okay, okay, Red Dead Redemption is one console game I don’t think I will ever stop playing. Another is Ni No Kuni, but I am also a huge Miyazaki fan. Finally Okami, a game that moved me then, and still has the ability to move me now. How few of those there are, though. Too few.
Back to the 4X dilemma.
I keep hearing that 4X is in a tired old rut, a dark age of sorts. I don’t see it. I think people need to stop fantasizing about what could be, and enjoy what is. Let’s get together, share our ideas and work towards a common goal: the ultimate 4X game. There are three primary settings for 4X: space, fantasy and historical or alternate history. Is there a single game that meets every need? I haven’t found one yet. Is there a single studio capable of meeting all of these wants? I used to think so, but the AAA establishment has let me down time and again and no one else seems capable of filling that role for now. It is time to step out of our comfort zones and try some indie products, but first we must discuss what stands in the way.
There is a grey zone that exists between indie and AAA, where quasi-AAA/Indie studios exist. These mid-level studios are trying to break into the big leagues and leave the minors. But the funny thing is that, in the strategy arena, be it turn-based or real-time, 4X or 4X-lite or the hybrids that straddle the edges and center, there exists a very atypical dynamic. These studios release games which don’t sell millions of copies, yet they sell enough to keep the developers afloat. These studios have a rabid following from very dedicated communities and they keep pumping out title after title. But are they part of the problem, or perhaps the solution in disguise? I just don’t know. Some titles might be strong and innovative, while others merely rehash old ideas. It’s the same kind of criticism that is leveled at sport franchise games. They don’t take major risks or try to innovate too much. These mid-level studios don’t hurt the AAA franchises, but they might unintentionally stamp out the small indie developers.
Meanwhile, these smaller indie studios led by a tiny few are constantly trying new things. They are taking risks in an attempt to push the genre forward. They are vying for our attention, and seldom getting it. They try to climb like Icarus, but often burn out. Why? Because the strong PR machine that’s backing many of the sub-par efforts of AAA studios casts a long and dark shadow. Remember those quasi-AAA/indie studios? Well, they further prevent the typical gamer from discovering the real gems in the genre. If an indie developer can’t get a big publisher to take up their cause, they are forced to do it on their own. Word of mouth can help, as can social media or being Greenlit on Steam but, in the end, it’s not enough. The establishment doesn’t seem to care. It’s sad if you ask me.
I realize that I haven’t named any 4X games or game developers. You are probably wondering why. Because! This is an eXposition, and I am simply sharing my feelings. I am sure that if you follow eXplorminate4x.com at all, you know what I like. If you haven’t, you should. We are a group of players and fans dedicated to the greater 4X community and what it stands for, but that’s a whole other eXposition in and of itself.
So, who’s with me? Who is ready to buck the convention and support these smaller studios trying to push our genre in a new direction?
Let’s put on our war gear. Let’s pray to the gods and raise our battle standards! It’s time we spoke out and told the developers what we want, and held the publishers accountable. Stop buying the same rehashed gameplay and go try something new. 4X is not dead. 4X is not in a rut. Plenty of aspirants out there warrant our time and our attention. Let’s give it to them.
So, why do you play the games that you do?