Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Multiculturalism in the Monster Kingdom: Part I

Race, Religion, and Culture in Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Simulator

This two-part informal essay was written to be one post, but it wound up far too long, so I have  broken it into two parts. This first part will simply explain the mechanics of the computer games I will discuss, and why they appealed to me; if you are familiar with both Majesty and Majesty 2, I imagine you could skip right to Part II, though it might be good for you to read this one if you want to know how I am framing them for discussion.

Paradox Interactive’s Majesty 2 is the sequel to Cyberlore’s Majesty: the Fantasy Kingdom Simulator; the first Majesty was my favourite game for most of my life and still ranks in at least the top three. Both games are real-time strategy games (RTSs), putting you in the role of the Sovereign of a kingdom in a fantasy world called Ardania. You can order the construction of buildings and the research of improved technology. You can recruit heroes to defend your kingdom and enforce your decrees. You can set tax and building repair policies. You can commission spells from local temples and wizard’s guilds. As Sovereign, you attempt to complete quest, which usually involves building up a settlement, earning gold, and, invariably, trying to rout out the enemy monsters and defend your village against dragons, ratmen, goblin hordes, and the like.

What sets the Majesty games apart from other RTSs, however, is that you cannot directly control your heroes; instead, you can try to motivate their behaviour using reward flags (in the original, only Attack and Explore flags; the sequel adds Defend and Avoid flags), providing them with equipment, and constructing specific buildings which promote certain behaviours. You also carefully choose which heroes to recruit: Warriors tend to be stalwart and aggressive; Rogues are cowardly but highly motivated by gold, and also tend to steal from you; Rangers prefer to explore above all else and will; Paladins are stubborn and tend to take on foes well out of their league. (If you can’t tell, the franchise draws heavily from D&D.) These quirky, flawed, endearingly predictable, and frustratingly autonomous heroes are the heart of the game; the storylines leave much to be desired, but that’s usually fine given the minor dramatics your heroes will be getting into spontaneously.

In the original Majesty, there were three non-human races[1] you could recruit—elves, dwarves, and gnomes—but since elves and dwarves shared a mutual enmity, and neither of them cared for gnomes, you would have to choose only one. Which you chose would have an effect on your whole settlement, since if you chose dwarves, you could then defend your settlement with much superior defense towers; if you chose elves, your economy would grow but gambling halls and elven “lounges” (thinly veiled brothels) would pop up; and if you chose gnomes, slums would appear. In a subtle but important way, which non-human race you chose would influence your settlement’s culture, both cosmetically (lots of blue-tiled roofs if you choose elves) and mechanically (everything will be in good repair if you choose the handy gnomes).

And there was more: you could build temples to the assorted deities of Ardania, but these gods (and their followers) had a complex set of alliances and rivalries which meant that by building certain temples, you prevent yourself from building some of the others. For example, if you build a Temple to Dauros, god of law and commerce, or a Temple to Agrela, goddess of life, you can no longer build a Temple to Fervus, god of chaos and nature, or a Temple to Krypta, goddess of death. Again, your selections have subtle impacts on the culture of your settlement, both in flavour and mechanics. For instance, if you go with Krypta and Fervus, your settlement will likely be swarming with packs of charmed vargs (wolves) and rats thanks to Fervus’s cultists, and protected by mobs of skeletons thanks to Krypta’s priestesses.

Majesty 2 did not keep these mutual exclusions; instead, it limited the number of Temples you can build, in order to keep the need to choose between them, and it programed rivalry and hostility into the characters’ own decisions: paladins will attack a friendly priestess’s skeleton bodyguards, for instance. In addition, you can assign your heroes to adventuring parties, which stay together until you re-assign the heroes to new parties; there is an art to putting together a successful party, and part of the fun is pairing up mutually antagonistic characters together. I do not know how I feel about the change: on the one hand, you do still need to be deliberate about which temples you build, and it is fun to make dwarves and elves go a-Viking together; on the other hand, you settlement does not gain the same unique culture depending on your choice of temple. I miss the sense of custom-building local character depending on your navigation of these alliances and rivalries. (I suppose, in a way, what I liked about this RTS is that it had an element of an RPG to it: you could customize your kingdom by your choice of temples and non-humans much as you can customize your character in an RPG by whatever choices such a game offered. Majesty 2 loses some of that.)

Enter the Monster Kingdom expansion. This expansion was, in a lot of ways, exactly the game I had been day-dreaming of for years, for the simple reason that it lets you play as the monsters: your heroes are goblins, ratmen, minotaurs, and liches, not humans, dwarves, elves, and gnomes. (It wasn’t quite the game I dreamt of, only because the cosmetic change between Majesty and Majesty 2 meant the goblins I could play as were not quite the same goblins as in the original game, the ratmen weren’t quite the same ratmen as in the original, and so on. But close enough.) But in some ways it was more than I had been hoping for, in that the narrative frame holding the expansion together was far more interesting than what I would have written.

I will deal with that in a second post.

[1] I have a lot of trouble with this use of “race” in fantasy fiction and gaming, but I’m going to keep using it because Majesty uses it. If I had my druthers, the word we’d use would be “species.”

No comments:

Blog Widget by LinkWithin