Tuesday, 15 April 2014
Majesty 2’s Monsterculturalism
As I said in the first post, Majesty 2’s third and final expansion was called The Monster Kingdom, and this expansion let you play as the monsters rather than as the humans (and elves and dwarves). Not only did that excite me to no end, but I found the narrative even more compelling than I had anticipated.
Monster Kingdom begins with the Conclave of High Priests stealing the Crown of Ardania, using it to summon the legendary Spirit of Kings, and storming the palace. The Sovereign—that is, the player’s avatar—is smuggled out of the palace thanks to the quick thinking of the Adviser—the Sean Connery-esque narrative voice of the game—but the Conclave succeeds in installing the Spirit of Kings on the throne as their puppet. In order to find safety and muster an army to reclaim your throne, the Adviser forges an alliance with a tribe of goblins. Thus your quest to return to power begins by reconciling with your former enemies. As you reclaim territory and build up an army (and the infrastructure to sustain it), you must gain the trust of other goblin tribes and incorporate other creatures into your polity: liches, minotaurs, werewolves, koatls. Often you must undo actions you had completed in the previous games; in order to win the liches to your side, you must help resurrect an especially powerful lich that you had killed previously, and in order to recruit the minotaurs, you must destroy the ancient defense towers you helped Baron Pampa rebuild—towers which forced the minotaurs out of the area and prevented their access to ancestral territory.
What is interesting about this narrative is that all parties are changed by it. It is not only about how the humans' long dominance came to an end, but also how the monsters were brought together into a single polity—the eponymous Monster Kingdom. The goblins are now organized in a way more reminiscent of human than goblin culture, after all, since you run the kingdom the same way you ran your human one. Minotaurs now adventure with liches and ratmen. And the end of the game promises to involve integrating the human kingdom with your monster kingdom, once you get the Conclave under control. Grum-Gog’s shamans would have a place on that Conclave, and one of the liches’ demands before joining your cause was that you reserve for them three seats on the Council of Archmages. The minotaurs had their own demands, too, most of which involved a recognition of minotaur culture. Unfortunately, that is where the game ends; I assume we do not get to see what happens when humans and monsters are made to live in one kingdom. (I have not finished the game yet, so I cannot be sure.) But even prior to this it is clear that you are forging a new culture, a mix of human, gnome, goblin, ratman, lich, minotaur, koatl, and werewolf influences.
I am, alas, overstating the degree to which the game presents this cultural development. For one, there is little sense that the Sovereign and what remains of his human court really value anything the monsters offer except their military force: there is a running joke that the goblins’ pumpkin-based cuisine is unappetizing, and the way the game presents the minotaur demands suggest that they might be a joke about political correctness. (I actually think the things the minotaurs ask for are great: they want one of their holidays officially recognized, they want cultural centres and museums that attest to the fact that they have a civilization of their own, and, most interesting of all, they want a human legend re-written so that it no longer represents minotaurs are wild and bestial. I love that last one, because it actually demands that the other races change how they understand the minotaurs; however, it could also be a joke at the expense of feminist or anti-racist retellings of legends, fairy tales, and history.) And there isn’t much sense that the monsters change in response to one another, either. Ratmen seem to have little to no impact on the kingdom’s culture, despite being a part of it from the very beginning. Other than the fact that all of your heroes are equipped with goblin or human goods, there is little sense that they are learning new skills (or lifeways) from each other. Rather, they are living side-by-side in the same community, they have found a place for themselves within the goblin/human political and economic structure, and that structure has accommodated them, but they remain otherwise unaffected by their new-found proximity, even when you’ve assigned goblins and ratmen and werewolves all to the same party. Were is the minotaur who decided to become a shaman? Were is the gnome who decided he could be a hero rather than a labourer or guard? An why are the fire elementals, who show some signs of sentience, not volunteering to join the Monster Kingdom?
The only instance of one monster race adopting the lifestyle, values, or technologies of another race comes in the option to upgrade Ratman Robbers to Paladins to Grum-Gog. The story goes that the paladins of Daurus went underground as missionaries to the ratmen, but it seemed that their words fell on rocky soil. Some years later, however, humans began encountering the Paladins to Grum-Gog; it turns out that the ratmen had no interest in Dauros, but they were impressed by the idea of a paladin, and applied that idea to their own god, instead. Except it’s interesting to note that Grum-Gog is not, exactly, the ratmen's god; at least as established in the original Majesty, which Majesty 2 occasionally references as its own past, Grum-Gog is explicitly the goblins' god. Not only have the ratmen adopted a human type of religious specialist, but they have applied it to a goblin god. However, all of this occurs before the development of the Monster Kingdom. We do not get to see any of this syncretism or religious inculturation within the timespan of the game. Each race is for the most part content to live in the same community, but not in the same way, as the other monsters.
Of course this is a common way of thinking about multiculturalism, at least in Canada: there is one core or standard cultural framework, which is willing to accommodate other cultures, so long as those cultures are willing to fit within that framework. So, English or French culture makes the framework, and other cultures must fit into it. But the framework-cultures are also understood as flexible (after all, in its secularism it can accommodate the others) and evolving (it is the culture that drives technological development and social reform). The other cultures do not, in the multicultural imagination, evolve; they are time-bound, old-fashioned, traditional; they are relics. Members of those other cultures (other races, that is) are allowed to practice their time-bound cultures, we have allowed them to do that, but if they want to move forward, they had better adopt parts of the mainstream, dominant, evolving culture. The problem with this vision, of course, is that all cultures change and evolve, borrowing from one another and developing their own forms; no culture is locked in time, except and unless social governmental structures lock them in time. (I am drawing from Thobani’s argument in Exalted Subjects here.)
The way Wade Davis describes cultures in The Wayfinders seems relevant here: people have a finite amount of intellectual/creative resources (time, energy, material goods, and capital), and any use of these resources is a kind of investment. Different cultures have invested in different things, at first as a response to the physical environment and then in response to both the physical environment and the social environment that has developed. You wouldn’t go to the Polynesian wayfinders if you wanted brain surgery, he writes, but if you knew what you were doing you would go to the wayfinders before going to Westerners if you wanted to sail the ocean. Cultures are specialized, he is arguing, and they contain specialized knowledge that other cultures do not contain. When cultures come into contact, the people of those cultures would do well to learn from one another rather than engage in cultural conflict or, as in multiculturalism, build cultural siloes.
I’m not seeing, in Monster Kingdom, how the monsters are learning from one another, and I’m absolutely not seeing how the humans learn from the monsters. I think I know why this is: the game developers do not want to change the political and economic structure because they do not want players to have to learn to play a new game on top of familiarizing themselves with new units. RTSs with different kinds of units work best if those units fit in rigid, distinct niches; if they started learning from one another, these niches might start to erode. And more importantly, they need these units to be visually distinct, so it might be confusing if some of the archers you recruited were ratmen rather than goblins. While it would still be possible to make the game that I want without compromising on these practical necessities, I don’t think most players would care one way or another, so the developers have no incentive to make that game. But still, there is an interesting story about the formation of a new culture, maybe even a new kind of culture, and I would like to see that developed more. I would like to see the monsters learn from each other; I would like to see the humans learn from the monsters.
And before anyone else says it, yes, I know the answer to my problem is fan fiction.
Posted by Christian H at 22:14