Lydia C. Buchanan
I am France and the year is 1444. Although this computer game—a wildly complicated, expansionist dreamboat of a historical simulation that allows players to play though time as virtually any European city state existing in 1444—is calling me a “Great Power,” I do not feel Great. I feel full of ideas and unsure where to click. I could change history, re-design borders, start and stop wars we never knew existed, if only I knew how to begin.
In the beginning, before time began and 1444 started slipping away, I choose who, what I wanted to be. The game told me: Spain is an interesting choice at this time. England is an interesting choice at this time. Prussia/Russia/Austria is an interesting choice at this time. But, to my surprise, I clicked France. Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, the Bible says. No part of me knows why I made this choice.
French history does not compel me: the highlights are so gruesome, the ordinary moments so tedious and ornamental, the present so self-impressed. Perhaps this is what my right hand was thinking: we know we are going to lose this game, and lose it many times. We do not want to get attached. We want to feel nothing when our capital is sieged and taken over by computer-generated foes. We need distance, disinterest.
I am France, I suppose.
The “France” of 1444 is like puzzle pieces of 21st century France. Proto-France. My part is purple, but it’s broken up by sections of pink (Armagnac), mauve (Valois), blue (Maine), green (Anjou): independent city-states. Burgundy, plus the neighbors it owns, are Burgundy. Not purple, not-France, not mine. If someone successfully invades my space, it becomes striped: my color and theirs battle for visual dominance until one of us wins and the stripes dissolve.
I think it is my goal to build the France I had to learn about in high school French class: I must create a wobbly, purple pentagon in Western Europe. But within ten minutes of starting, six months of game time, I feel certain that France is an abstract concept, a construct. It does not exist, not really, not if it has to be color-coded into reality, not when all the city states I’m supposed to conquer are the names of regions, micro-cultures I know exist today. They did not become monolith.
The world blown open, I search for other goals. Perhaps I will conquer Holland, or fulfill the dream of owning England. Perhaps I will expand westward, or try to get the French navy started. To do that I would need to defeat the British navy, which sounds onerous. British ships are always hovering, distressing my merchants and pestering my western ports. I have little patience for them. I have little desire to know what they’re truly capable of. Perhaps I will do nothing and see what happens, the devil’s France.
Perhaps I will do nothing because most things in this game are complicated and inscrutable. Around my screen is a series of icons: a scroll, a pen, a dove, a coat of arms. When I click them, a chart descends with more icons, that when selected, reveal another chart.
I don’t think real diplomacy, or monarch-hood, or absolutism is so technical. Complicated, sure. But not a series of boxes the monarch had to manage alone. That’s what servants and ministers were for. The monarch sits at the head of the meeting, listens to her ministers bicker over what should be done, and then barks out her decision.
Tangibly, I have a few armies. I know how to build and move armies because these skills were covered in the 5-minute, in-game tutorial in which everything went smoothly. As instructed, I clicked the army. Next, I right-clicked the enemy territory I wanted them to attack. They marched over and conquered, and then the territory turned purple. Mine. I thought I knew what to do, how to be in this predictable world. But I didn’t. In the tutorial, there were open borders. The enemy army was a joke. They surrendered quickly. I learned nothing about how to survive under pressure, how to fight for what I wanted.
In the real game, my two armies move slowly, painfully, get stuck at regional borders and no one notifies me. I click and click and click and they will not pass through as ordered. I thought I was their sovereign, almighty; I thought my crest was on their flags, but they follow the AI’s rules.
When my army becomes too frustrating, I stop time (PAUSE) and read my alerts. I am a good reader.
Holland has sent me an INSULT. I do not know what it is, only that it is rude enough I now have an excuse to start a war against them. I don’t want to start a war with anyone outside of the French cultural pentagon. I don’t know how to win a Big War. Plus, I am not sure where, on this map in this 1444 world, Holland is. I scroll around the northeast corner of my map, and then do nothing.
Armagnac, an orange state in the south west, would like to form an ALLIANCE through marriage. This means I click a button and send one of my monarch’s “family members” to them. We all know it is a daughter who will never see her home or her family again. Marrying her to them is bad for my prestige (a points system) because Armagnac is not a Great Power, like me. But it is good for stability (a points system) and raises my chances of having an heir (a percentage, points system). I give Armagnac a daughter and come to regret it, because it means I cannot invade without appearing war hungry (a point system called Aggressive Expansion). I wonder how many game years it takes for family ties to lose meaning. I am equally sure that there is an equation for this and that I’ll never find it.
Castille has designated me a RIVAL. I do not know what this means. It has happened many times, and no rivals have attacked me. I wonder if I should make Castille my RIVAL too, or if it is better for me to take the high ground. I am magnanimous.
Wrong: The AI overlords tell me I need at least 2 rivals not to have penalty to my POWER PROJECTION SCORE. The point system, again. I plan to choose rivals but get distracted by trying to match coats of arms. More alerts.
I learned about this game from my older brother, who has been playing for years. When I announced my intention to begin, he recommended that I start watching tutorials.
He did not mean the 5-minute in-game overview of how to move armies. He meant all the YouTube tutorials made by super-players explaining how they managed to re-build the Roman Empire during the Renaissance or unite all of Europe into a single country named for themselves or stop the American Revolution. I am more of a doer than a listener, so I did not watch these tutorials.
Sometimes, in this game, real historical events happen. Right now, my alerts tell me I am suffering from something called The Great Bullion Famine, a shortage of precious metals in Europe in the 15th century, my exact location. Perhaps this is why I don’t have any money. The game notified me when the famine was about to begin, but it didn’t tell me what this famine meant for France, or if I should attempt to do anything about it. It didn’t seem like a thing I could fix. You can’t grow more gold. I did nothing, again.
I am always reading and choosing not to act.
Except for war and marriage, everything here is an attempt to make the abstract concrete, virtually, numerically. Enough points will make me popular, will bring proto-France into a new intellectual era, will change religious beliefs of my people or my enemies, will maybe bring me allies. If I am good enough at managing math, I can do anything, charm anyone.
I’m not exactly bad at math, but when presented with options, I never choose it.
After ten minutes of tinkering with the icons and googling their purposes, I decide to invest my Authority Points—don’t ask me whence they came—in IDEAS. From what I understand, if I do this enough, France will, eventually, leave the Feudal Era.
This is how we change the world: invest an abstract in an abstract to shift into a new state of human self-consciousness.
For a while, instead of this game I played an older, childhood favorite: Majesty, the fantasy kingdom. In that game, I fought off dragons and minotaur invasions and the Liche Queen and built trade routes and sent my heroes on quests for missing orbs that would release the realm from a curse. I was a Majesty and I had an advisor with a Scottish accent who would warn me about problems I already knew existed.
Your Majesty, the palace is under siege!
If our kingdom is to prosper, it needs more heroes!
Your Majesty, the royal treasury is nearly empty!
I never saw my advisor, and he was never helpful, but at least I knew he was there. At least I knew who I was, what I was: human, majesty. I knew how to make money by building marketplaces and trading posts and how to recruit heroes through guilds and how to use cheat codes, if necessary. I only used cheat codes for money, not to win battles. I have principles.
Each game had a goal and, when I achieved it, my advisor would tell me: We are victorious! A trumpet would sound and I would sit back in my chair, release my shoulders, and feel proud. Look what I’ve done with my evening.
There is nothing I love more than tangible goals. Perhaps in this too, I fall for the trick of the tutorial.
In this new game, I do not know how to do anything but build and move my army. That is, there are many charts that require points, but no explanation of how to get or when to use these points. The way I think of it, things like authority and social change should come with time and, if I am patient, they will appear when they’ve been earned. But the longer I wait the further ahead my AI enemies get. They understand the game. They are the game.
More urgent: it’s becoming apparent that I need to make money, another abstract turned into a number, turned into a screen number. After opening all the charts, I have found my budget—a list of amounts I pay to advisors and to maintain the military and then, at the bottom, a red or green sum total. It is always red. When it gets really, really red, the game borrows money for me. I do not know the name of my lender or the terms of my loan, only that money appears when the AI decides I need it.
Once, an alert popped up announcing that a loan was coming due. I could pay it back or extend the terms. Pay it back, I clicked. This debt was making me nervous. Another alert: I did not have the money to pay it back. Terms automatically extended. Normally, I play games to escape from this kind of quotidian stress.
I could, as my brother suggested, watch tutorials that might solve my money problems: How to Get Rich! and 12 Ways to Improve Your Economy Without War or Trade and Trade Guide 2021: Trade Nodes and Steering Guides. I have no idea what a trade node or a steering guide is. The shortest video is 15 minutes, the longest 38. But is there anything worse than watching a video of another person’s screen? I think not. I continue to abstain and continue to borrow money.
I’m not too worried. Nothing is real.
So far, apart from opening and closing my charts and reading my alerts, I’ve declared one war and made one peace treaty in which I bullied a small city state with few allies into giving me half of its territory. I did not even think to ask for money. But Bearn is mine now. I even made it a core, whatever that means. I’m hoping it means it’s harder to lose.
Searching for something I’m good at, I try to build more armies, but the game tells me my economy can’t support this. The buttons to click to build more armies are turned off. I think it’s trying to tell me to stop preparing for war and actually begin one, a big one. History needs wars. But I am too aware that, though I know how to send an army in to attack, I don’t really understand war, not really, not when the parties are equal and the moves many.
Outside of the game, I am outraged that my buttons can get turned off. I only understand a few, to have them disabled is like feeling the brakes go out in my car. I careen. I rage—as a monarch, especially a French monarch, I would not brook refusal. I am absolute, powerful, ruthless. This button shut-off seems a design flaw. I consider complaining to the game-maker, but I worry that I might enter into an email war with whatever chart-loving abstract being built this world and I do not need more sources of frustration in my life.
Also, despite my dreams, I’m not, technically, a monarch in this game. My country has monarchs, but they are not me. They have personalities—LOOSE LIPS and CRUEL—based on their real lives. They marry (sometimes without my permission) and, unless the game alerts me they are INFERTILE, they procreate and, eventually, they die and I remain. I am never wounded. I never procreate or marry or love anyone. I live through the ages. Humans are distant blips with weaknesses. Their lives pass by like pixels of smoke. Souls die at my command. I have the power to pause time.
Am I God?
If I am God, who am I borrowing money from? Who is deciding that I need to borrow money?
Eventually, fate (the AI) grows tired of waiting for me to poke it. England invades the continent. Maine and Paris are striped. I send armies to meet her, but they are slow and lose often, for reasons I’m not sure of. Perhaps, like everything else, someone is just doing math—whoever has the most soldiers wins. But what about strategy? Where is the place for human genius in this AI world?
I suppose I have none, so it’s no use complaining about disregard.
Portugal is attacking me now, too. I have done nothing but recruit soldiers and bully Bearn. I have given them no cause (Causus Belli) so attacking me hurts their Aggressive Expansion score. They must not care. I didn’t realize that was an option.
Are we rivals? Are they allied with England? Between both of them, my armies disappear quickly.
I try to build more armies again—it is the only way to save proto-France—but my buttons are still turned off. The game tells me I no longer have the MANPOWER to do anything. It makes sense. Most of the men are dead. I sent them to die.
I try to recruit mercenaries but, for the first time ever, the game tells me I cannot afford this. It does not explain why I cannot get a magic loan, only that the way is shut.
I am losing. I sue for peace, but am rejected.
I could click the button, just below “Sue for Peace” that says “Unconditional Surrender,” but I will never click this button. Never. I have no idea what would happen if I did, and I don’t want to find out.
Like so many generals, I realize that I would rather die in battle than accept, sign, a humiliating peace treaty.
But death is not an option here. I am outside of history; I cannot die. There is no honorable escape.
I exit the game, end history without saving, despite the AI’s prompting. It might have won the game, but I am God. I turn the computer off and go to bed angry.
I forgot that, though I might not be attached to France or proto-France, I am very attached to myself.