Author: John Legendoffzelda
In 1991, a definitive year of video game history in many different respects, the young programmer Sid Meier created his masterwork: an epic world-history tableau that’s become one of the all-time important achievements of PC gaming. It was called Civilization, and Meier put his name in the full title as a statement of ownership, for the same reasons we might talk about “Michelangelo’s David”. While the game wasn’t a place where players could construct a world, it was a place where they could define who inhabited it. Across centuries of time, the small groups of nomads that they controlled in each new session would grow up to form the major nations of the world.
Consequently, players realized the amazing way these nations interacted with each other transcended the rigid boundaries of time. It was hailed as a fantastic simulation game, so advanced in its scope that the Super Nintendo could only catch up in terms of technology four years afterwards. When the hardware did catch up, it was a moment of celebration for simulation fans. Koei’s port of this game is a masterful translation of MicroProse’s material, one that’s as expansive and faithful to Meier’s original creation as could be.
Depending on who the player selects at the beginning, they can spend the game guiding the historical path of what will become France, Russia, Japan, Mongolia, or even the United States, and that’s not even the half of it. The unique thing about guiding these countries is that, whichever one the player chooses, all of them inhabit what’s approximately the same vast area of existence.
It seems to change shape depending on which nation is selected but it looks like the same space; an unnamed continent that stretches from green fields to deserts to oceans without any seeming reason, and may very well exist in a universe of its own. It could almost be Earth. The ostensible plot pushes the proceedings further into fantasy, explaining that a goddess appeared before the leader of the player-selected people in 4000 BC, and told them to advance their civilization so that it would flourish.
In spite of the story beginning before the Bronze Age, each nation’s leader is initially named after an individual important to their history; America is led by a person named Lincoln, and Russia is led by someone named Stalin. The cities that will be formed over the centuries have similarly anachronistic names, going by the likes of New York or Paris or Tokyo. The player is free to change these names if they desire, but their predetermined presence defines exactly what the point of this game is. This is the chronology of humankind as the player defines it, determining the decisions and achievements of the people controlled as they explore both the universe around them and the untouched realms of human possibility.
Mankind in this game can keep growing up to the year 2050 AD, at which point they’ll have made so many advancements they will successfully reach the Alpha Centauri star system, and whatever possible forms of life exist there. In contrast, the player can also choose to stay on Earth and have their nation conquer everybody, becoming recorded kings of their own hill. They have that gameplay option, and the enticing detail about it is that there’s a lot of Earth to see.
The main screen of every new game begins with a wagon resting on a patch of land surrounded by a dark void. As the player moves that wagon around, the void is filled in by new patches of land and sea, and the world begins to unfold around them. Over the decades, the player can choose where they will erect cities, and with the right decisions these cities will grow in population and prosperity. They will gain armies that will travel the rest of the land and discover new sights, enemy tribes and benevolent tribes that will share their wisdom. These cities will grow through the development of roads and trade, and the people will acquire life-altering skills like masonry and literature and science.
Making all of these decisions in the game involves the use of an on-screen cursor; the player uses it to navigate a litany of menus, with each selectable option carrying out some kind of action. A turn-based element creeps in here, making the player assign one action at a time, cycling between armies and city maintenance as he tells the actors on stage where to move around or which skill they will learn. The gameplay here is akin to playing a long board game by way of a Windows 95 interface, and in fact the little squares representing the interactive player pieces even have the clean-cut definitions of desktop icons.
This game is going to take an extreme amount of patience to play properly: there will be a lot of menus to make sense of, and a lot of waiting for your nation’s treasury to replenish so that you can afford to make another major development. But with the right mindset, none of this is ever boring – it’s watching the elaborate process of history unfold.
Going along on this journey of expansion, you might anticipate running into another nation on the world map. Now your own people’s history has the opportunity of dovetailing with another’s: you can go to war with them as part of ultimate conquest, or agree to cooperate with them in the human effort to reach the heavens.
The one unalterable thing about these interactions is that while you can change names, all of the encounters with other countries present the fact that, yes, you really are interacting with Abraham Lincoln, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Ramses II. Going even beyond the aforementioned concept of customizing human achievements, Civilization outright abolishes the restrictive ideas of linearity. It doesn’t just turn world history into a board game, it turns it into a toy box, and it presents the world as a giant space where the player can use anyone to do everything.
Their people can build the pyramids, or discover nuclear fission; they can travel the seas and find caches of gold, and go on to invent radical new forms of transportation. They can take advantage of the Aztecs’ immense wealth, or create a partnership between France and Rome that will withstand the ages. Once you grow accustomed to the needy micromanaging, this game fully lets you spread your imagination all over the history books, giving human chronology the addictive, time-consuming joy of a giant LEGO set.
Much the way it is on the Super Nintendo as it is on the PC, Sid Meier’s Civilization is an experience that must be earned, but also one whose sense of fun is combined with a pantheon loftiness. All video games are art in some way, but only a select group of them have a non-ambiguity about the matter, and this game’s concept puts it squarely in that group.
Through its innate interactivity, people are able to choose the epic course of history – to choose how they interpret their own cosmic heritage. Just like the on-screen torch that represents the unseen hand of fate, Sid Meier’s indelible opus will last eternally, glowing with the flame of imagination and life.
Five out of five stars.
Ed. note: Sid Meier’s Civilization is compatible with the SNES mouse, which may be the preferred way to play for many.
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