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Monthly Archives: December 2013

Crusader Kings II

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Strategy games have always been my weakness, the games that I fall into for hours, from sunset to sunup, until I stagger away like a drunk from an all-night bender. The first one I remember falling in love with is Deadlock, which is a sci-fi battle for planetary dominance with similarities to both Masters of Orion and Alpha Centauri, which was a spin-off of maybe the most successful strategy franchise, Civilization. All of those games have sucked away whole days, even weeks, of my life. I may have even written fan-fiction based on Deadlock, before I even knew what fan-fiction was. I may have been inspired to model future Earths in my science fiction after the results of games of Civ III, in which the mighty Zulu battlefleet threatened to overwhelm the Aztec-French Alliance. It’s dramatic stuff.

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I may be in love with Alpha Centauri.

Crusader Kings II, the second-most-recent installment in Paradox Interactive’s sweeping and immersive history-based strategy games, is full of drama. You control Medieval lord, and strive to guide that lord and his or her heirs through the next several centuries of European civilization. Intrigue against other nobles, arrange profitable marriages, make war on your neighbors, and try not to annoy the Pope. It all comes down to a series of choices, and the choices you make can change history. Will you create the Empire of Russia? Will you conquer Iberia for Islam? Will your king or queen convert to the Cathar heresy and try to replace Catholicism as the One True Faith?

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The game world is dynamic and ever changing.  In my last game, the Merchant Republic of Gotland took advantage of the chaos caused by the Mongol invasion of Scandinavia to conquer most of Norway, Denmark, and Finland. As the Golden Horde collapsed and its former subjects returned to their original faiths, the population shift caused the Zikri sect of Islam to replace the Sunnis as the dominant non-Shia Muslim faith. Due to a confusing series of crusades, the Iberian peninsula became a patchwork of Castilians, Scots, Irish, Italians, and Aztecs, while the Kingdom of Sicily colonized North Africa. When you begin a game, a whole new European history begins to unfold, and the fun of it is deciding where to reach in and change the flow for yourself. Exert what influence you have to cause the Pope to declare a crusade against that heathen whose territory you want, lend aid to struggling provinces rebelling against oppressive rulers, or conspire with others to overthrow your own feudal overlord. Again, it’s all about choices.

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What a mess.

Similarly to the Total War series, Crusader Kings adds an RPG element to the strategy mix. Each character, from highborn king to lowborn peasant rebel, has certain traits, such as Brave, Deceitful, Drunkard, or Craven, and may gain others during play. You will be presented with a series of decisions and random events. Will you abuse your power to sleep with your courtier’s wife, or will you allow your arranged marriage to deepen into true love? Will you convert to the heresy that is sweeping your lands, or will you make a pilgrimage to the holy sites of your faith? Each choice changes your character, and can affect the game in far-reaching ways. Neighboring kingdoms may become friendlier, your own courtiers may begin intriguing against you, rebels may rise up against your unjust and heretical rule. Think carefully before making a decision that could create more enemies than you can handle.

ck2_20Your trusted councillors/most likely assassins

The depth of play is tremendous, and this makes the learning curve a little steep, even for veteran strategy gamers. It’s not Dwarf Fortress (in which Losing is Fun!™), but skills learned in Civilization or StarCraft don’t necessarily apply here. You don’t have much control over the units you build or the technology you develop, because this is feudal times, bruh, and learning is for Jesuits and Parisians. You do have control over your armies, and to a lesser extent, the generals who lead them. And your family and your court allow you to create alliances and engage in intrigue and murder plots. You can spend your tax and trade income on mercenaries, castles, city development. There are many different ways to play the game, even within one campaign. It’s possible to play one ruler as a war-leading badass, another as a contemplative and pious builder, another as a backstabbing and ruthless powermonger. Wage war to restore your courtiers to the titles they have lost, or throw them all in prison for being disloyal jerks. It’s up to you. And the gameplay changes further depending on whether you are a count or a king, a Catholic or a Muslim, a Pagan Norseman or an Ashkenazi Jew.

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Sometimes becoming King causes Death by Close Relative

I started my last game as the sovereign Grand Prince of Novgorod, took part in the civil wars of the early Kingdom of Russia, spent a generation or two as a minor vassal of the Golden Horde, gained my independence through an unexpected trick of succession and wound up ruling for the next 50+ years as a woman who became Queen Feodora the Great of Wallachia and Ruthenia, uniting most of the former Russian territories under her rule before the invasion of the Timurids ruined everyone’s day and her grandson had to become a vassal king under the rule of the Greek Byzantine Emperor just to stay alive. Several times I thought I would lose the game, only to re-emerge stronger than ever. You don’t lose unless you lose control of all your lands and titles, and there isn’t a set win condition, like conquering a certain amount of territory or eliminating all your enemies. There is a score, an end date, and your own ambition. It’s a giant sandbox, and because you can play as just about any landed noble in all of Europe, the Middle East, or Northern Africa, across almost six hundred years of history, the replay value is enormous.

ck2_4She crushed multiple rebellions and foreign invasions, and reconquered most of Russia. And spoke Greek.

The game has a bunch of expansions and downloadable content. Legacy of Rome, Sword of Islam, Sons of Abraham, and The Old Gods add tons of options to the various religions and cultures of the game, with the last one extending the start date to 867 AD, the Age of Vikings. The Republic adds additional options for the various trade republics of the medieval period, and is probably essential if you want to play as Venice or Genoa and show those snooty Kings and Emperors what a boatload of money can get you on the road to Constantinople. Sunset Invasion is a fantasy expansion that triggers an Aztec invasion of Western Europe, which in my game resulted in the conquest of Ireland, Great Britain, and most of France, the rampage only ending when the second Emperor, a half-Irish imbecile who would rule for 60 years, converted to Catholicism, and then later, Catharism, spreading my favorite heresy over most of England and France. You can also purchase DLC to expand the range of character portraits for a little more visual variety.

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Result: Aztec Cathars with French dynastic names and violent fits

Crusader Kings II might be my favorite Paradox Interactive game, due to the depth of character and gameplay. I love being able to play the Duke of Parma or the King of Croatia and blaze a path of glory across Europe. I enjoyed being Queen Feodora the Great and smashing every rebellious vassal who would not be ruled by a woman. I enjoyed seeing history play out in new and unexpected ways with each new King, Emperor, or Pope. I just thoroughly enjoy this game.

crusaderkings2_old_gods_bannerPlus there are Vikings.

Purchase it from Steam or GamersGate, and check out Paradox Interactive’s other games at Paradox Plaza.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, and Lenny Kravitz

Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt

Based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Directed by Francis Lawrence

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And so we return, coughing at the dust, pulling cobwebs from our eyes, bursting with thoughts and opinions on Katniss Everdeen. It’s weird to me that Catching Fire is what finally got my fingers moving, because the first Hunger Games film left me kind of cold. I liked it well enough, it had some memorable moments, and an actually brilliant narrative trick in which the viewer is encouraged to cheer the “good” tributes only to be reminded that the Games aren’t actually a competition, they’re a bunch of children being forced to murder each other for the entertainment of the elites and the distraction of the masses. It’s not about winning. It’s about control. However, as a whole, the film had no staying power for me, and left me with no excitement about a sequel. Catching Fire changed that.

Catching Fire picks up a year after the first film. Although basically set for life with their winnings, Katniss still goes out into the forest, where she sits silently and shoots nothing, and Peeta spends long hours in the kitchen, baking endless bread. However, Katniss and her mockingjay badge have become a symbol of resistance in the Districts, so President Snow requires that their victory tour be a performance to pacify the restless and the oppressed, a believable pop idol romance to distract the people from their hunger and their hope. And if they fail, he will conclude that the Victors have become a liability to the State. Katniss and the defiance she inspires must be undermined or they must be destroyed, utterly, like District 13. And the way to do that is, of course, with a new, all veteran Hunger Games.

A coworker of mine pointed out that Katniss actually has little apparent agency. Her most important choice happened at the beginning of the first film, when she volunteered, impulsively and heroically, to save her sister’s life. Since then her life has been rapidly yanked from her control, and this only becomes more acute after she survives the Games. The President himself comes to her home to tell her she will put on a performance, or lose her family, her District, and her life. Effie and Cinna, delightful though they are, tell her how to dress and what to wear as she prepares to die. Hamich works around her prickly disposition to arrange alliances and conspiracies. And Plutarch Heavensbee, the new showrunner for the Games, literally and directly controls her entire future, with a complex and shadowy agenda. Not to mention that by simple virtue of being brave, compassionate, and good, she has become a hero to the oppressed. Then again, while Katniss doesn’t have control over sweeping political events or the Big Picture, that’s never been what she cares about. She hates the injustice she’s seen and had to be a part of, but what matters to her has always been the personal: Prim, Gale, Peeta. They are what drives her, what focuses her intense, brilliant anger into the sharp point she needs to survive. They are what make her fight.

I can’t say how it is in the books, never having read them, but taking the Big Picture out of Katniss’s hands also forces the film to focus on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. Though strained by Peeta’s unrequited love, they are bonded in adversity. They share the same psychic scars, and a unavoidable closeness. When Katniss wakes up screaming, it is Peeta who understands and comforts her. Linda Holmes at NPR has a beautiful analysis of the way their relationship defies typical Hollywood norms with regard to gender, but for the purposes of this review, I’d just like to focus on their relationship on its own terms. For all their estrangement, it seems clear that they would do anything for each other. Peeta has a mastery of interpersonal relationships and social politics that Katniss completely lacks, and he uses them to protect and support Katniss. He is sad, even bitter, after her rejection, but avoids behaving like Actual Boyfriend, Gale, who sulks and snipes like a petulant teenager, which, of course, he is. Katniss, for her part, takes responsibility for Peeta, who is not weak and is reasonably competent but clearly couldn’t survive without her. It is important to her that Peeta live. It is essential. She can control nothing else in the world, but she desperately needs to control this. She needs to make sure that Peeta survives.

I mention this because it is one of the core tensions of the film, but also because trauma, pain, and grief are the motifs of Catching Fire, the uniting narrative threads. You may have noticed from previous reviews that I think it’s important that action heroes, if they are truly going to be heroes, suffer terribly before they win. They have to feel things, not just physically but emotionally, and in a way that feels genuine. Less screaming and emptying your clip into the sky, more pulling shards of glass out of your feet while trying to convince your only friend that you are hanging in there. Ranging from the kind of vivid, hallucinatory flashbacks that movies have taught us are the hallmark of post-traumatic stress, to the more subtle look of pain that crosses Katniss’s face when she aces a marksmanship challenge and realizes how easy and reflexive killing has become, Catching Fire shows us just how costly our hero’s survival has been. And it’s not just Katniss. The  bulk of the cast are victors from previous games, brought back to be traumatized all over again by their government. They are broken and damaged, strange, eccentric, and angry. They invade personal space and strip naked in elevators, they’ve lost their power of speech and sit there, eyes rolling anxiously. Every single one of them is a survivor and a killer, from raging Johanna to gentle Mags. Is it any wonder that Hamich drinks? Or that Johanna, in one of my favorite moments from the film, tells the entire Capitol to go fuck themselves? They have all been forced to do, and be, terrible things. As Hamich says, there are no winners in the Hunger Games. Only survivors.

I liked Katniss in the first movie, but it’s really in Catching Fire that she starts to feel truly heroic, despite how much of that heroic image is out of her hands. She doesn’t actually want to be a hero at all. She seems incapable of seeing herself as powerful and transformative. She does what she does out of necessity, because it is her nature. Where others see her as strong, proud, resourceful, a potential leader, she only sees her own anger and pain and fear. This doesn’t diminish her. She is strong, resourceful, and in possession of a forceful, earnest nature and deep well of compassion that draw people, the best people, to her. And she has courage, in abundance. She has always been one to take on the world alone, and to sacrifice herself for others. All of these qualities combine to make her a hero, and her flaws, her temper and aloofness and Games-inflicted pain, make her one we can believe in and admire. After Catching Fire, I admire Katniss Everdeen. I think that’s a worthwhile quality in a hero.

This movie made me feel things. I came close to crying quite a few times, embarrassing my friends with my sniffles. It is an emotionally charged story about sacrifice, defiance, grief, pain, and betrayal. It is a well-executed film, and I can’t praise Lawrence enough for her ability to channel raw emotion in a way that breaks my heart. Despite its narrative flaws and somewhat ponderous length, Catching Fire managed to redeem a franchise that I was having a really hard time being excited about. I’m excited about it now. I’m committed enough that I feel justified writing over a thousand words about it, and there’s still so much to say. This is a film that causes emotions and thinking and conversations, with a compelling hero and an escalating conflict. It is what I love about watching action movies.

Pre-order on Amazon! Still in theaters, go see it!