Ever since playing a preview of the upcoming Civilization V expansion a few weeks ago I've been, as I predicted, sucked into the game. I started with small maps and few competitors, on easy modes, and with every win I've been ratcheting up the difficulty for the game that follows. Finally, I was playing a game I was proud of.
I chose the "Earth" map, and decided this time, I'd play as George Washington. The game plopped me down in North America, near the Rockies, so I named my capital "Denver" and ran with it. The rest of the world was, likewise, populated in a reasonable way. Genghis Khan and the Mongols ruled central Asia. Nebuchadnezzar II began the Babylonian empire in the middle east, then took over Africa. Isabella ruled Spain, but after circumnavigating the globe ended up conquering the many isles of the South Pacific and settled on a spot of land more or less equivalent to the Philippines. Askia of Songhai found himself in the Balkans, rather than in West Africa, but he also found himself between Genghis Khan and Nebuchadnezzar. That didn't last long.
Civ is by its nature a slow, strategic, thoughtful game. I decided I was going to go for a cultural victory this time, so I maximized my construction for gold and for culture. I managed a small empire, that in time did stretch from Baja California all the way to Maine, but that only had 5 cities in that span. I saved for the night, thinking that the next day, I might found a city in Alaska. I was getting close to the time when I'd discover oil, and I suspected I might well find some up north.
I saved. I went to bed. The next day, the game downloaded a patch when I booted up Steam. The Steam Workshop features were being added, a few other tweaks being made. Games patch all the time on Steam. It's one of the benefits. I thought no more of it, and loaded up George Washington's game.
America was still in place, with all my cities and their buildings and resources intact. But everything else looked... a little funny.
My suspicions were immediately confirmed when Ghenghis Kan, ruling the Inca from Madrid, suddenly popped up all friendly and offered me a research agreement. Harald Bluetooth of Denmark then likewise hailed me from the Babylonian capital, and Askia was back: this time, ruling Mongolia. From a city that hadn't been its capital before.
Nebuchadnezzar had Babylonian ships crowding my borders, but there was no Babylon any longer for them to return to. Isabella was completely gone, and a number of city-states that once had allegiance to Spain were suddenly up for grabs again.
My game of Civilization V had suddenly, and very startlingly, turned from a plausible if hugely simplified recreation of human history into what one friend on Twitter accurately called, "some sci-fi shit, right there." And for a while, that made it really fun.
What if Genghis Khan had been cheerful, friendly, and diplomatic? What if the Vikings were landlocked? What if the Inca survived and flourished? These were the same "what ifs" that Civ always makes a player wonder, amped up a hundred times. The world was sliced and diced like a science fiction novel, putting different places, times, and rulers together in a way that even video games do not usually account for. I shrugged and settled in for a wild ride.
Alas, it came to an end too soon. I hit F12 to capture a screenshot, and was forcefully reminded that bugs are trouble, not fun. On that key press, my entire game vanished and I suddenly found myself staring at another one entirely: a different map, with different civilizations, in a different year, with different rulers and terrain uncovered. I was apparently The Inca, now. (They just keep showing up everywhere!)
It's hard for me to break the habit of "one more turn," but having America simply vanish into the ether did me in, and I signed out for the night.
Sometimes we really can learn a lot from how these games play out. Sometimes we can examine our own priorities, or play with the idea that enough pikemen can take out modern weaponry. Sometimes a bug can make us examine our assumptions.
But sometimes, it just plain breaks the game. My story was at the mercy of software. I hope, tonight, the software will let me have my story back.