Dragon Age, Tropico, and Ruling Badly

Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening has come to a close. Defeat the last boss, and fade to ending summations of what happened to you and your companions. The last boss battle was an intense flurry of action, but frankly the ending’s an anti-climax. You get Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening less for the story, it turns out, than another chance to sink your teeth into its juicy tactical combat.

But that’s not what I want to talk about here. There’s one small portion of Dragon Age: Origins: Awakening that both intrigues and frustrates me. You are placed as commander of a keep, and have to make decisions with regard to gaining the loyalty of the nobility, of the town, and of your own soldiers. You also have to make decisions as to fortifying the keep. I’ve been reading a lot of English medieval history lately, and it got me thinking. Normally when I get to these sorts of choices, I try to take the most even-handed but ultimately merciful approach. I’m a bit of a softy, but I’m also consciously trying to identify what the developers want me to do in this situation to get the best possible outcome. This time, I decided what if I was more King John than Henry V–not that Henry V was a saint. What if I tried to play as a singularly tyrannical ruler? It turns out, not much changes, and I didn’t really expect it to.

My frustration is two-fold: if I didn’t want to play that way, nothing really compelled me to consider it, other than a desire to roleplay a little differently. King John was a disastrous ruler in part because he was inept, in part because he tried to resist the pope, and in part because he faced a series of colossally expensive military defeats. Some of this was his own fault, and some of this was simply a weak man reacting to the pressures of the time and the power of being king. A better example might be Charles I. Again, personal flaws aside, he was a king faced with a Parliament that didn’t want to give him enough money to live on, so he decided to do without. He faced political and religious pressure from his wife and from the nations he was forced to make peace with in order to remain financially solvent. He ended up needing Parliament, and that ended up being his undoing.

Recently, I played Tropico 3. The premise of the game is that you rule a small generic Caribbean nation, and your goal is to stay in power as long as possible. I played the prefect democratic ruler. I never once felt like I had to resort to the more sinister tactics the game allows in order to stay in power. What was particularly striking is that I was playing it shortly after the massive earthquake obliterated what little infrastructure Haiti’s capital had. In the game, earthquakes are one of several random events that will occur from time to time. The worst that happened to my little island was that a couple of buildings were destroyed. I rebuilt them nearly instantly. There was no dealing with looters or getting medical aid to injured people, nor questions of whether to accept foreign aid.

Some of this was a problem with my approach. If I had decided that my goal was to enrich myself personally, siphoning government money off to a Swiss account, the game would’ve gotten a little hairier. But a flawed moral character is only one part, and not necessarily an essential part, to being a bad ruler. In fact, most kings who are remembered for being “pious” are also remembered for being inept. Staying in power, even in a democracy, generally requires a certain amount of ruthlessness.

I want a game that pushes me to deal with some serious dilemmas in order to stay in power, or rule well. A game that constantly tempts even the most pious of Players to make the ruthless choice in order to keep the kingdom from descending into chaos. A 4X-style game, perhaps, that instead of giving the Player godlike control over their kingdom, gives them exactly the powers of a king. A game in which those powers shift as new philosophies and technologies emerge (and in this game, technologies develop at their own rate, impacted by the king’s choice to fund certain sectors perhaps, but not chosen by the Player a la Civ). Perhaps even a game that tasks you with playing an entire lineage of kings, where each of the heirs has different traits that make it easier or harder to rule well, to balance out the Player’s natural inclination to find a way that works and stick with it. If your great king’s successor has a low charisma (for a very simple example), suddenly the deals the great king made with his nobility with ease are a greater challenge. You must decide what approach you will take to make up for this. If your ruler lacks military prowess, diplomacy with other nations takes on a whole new character, and so on.

Does a game like this exist? If so, I would very much like to play it.

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