Not being American, I have no personal affinity towards Fourth of July celebrations. If I were though, you can bet your arse I’d be spending the day playing Sid Meier’s Colonization over and over and over again.
First released in 1994, Colonization remains something of a cult favourite amongst PC gamers, never reaching the heights of popularity or critical acclaim its “father” Civilization or its science fiction sibling Alpha Centauri managed.
Still, it’s my favourite game of the three. Here’s why.
I’m a history buff and a video game buff. Twice the buff, twice the man, as I wish my mother had always said. Being able to enjoy both those things in the one product is something of a rarity though, as those few games that are set in a previous time period are rarely, genuinely historical.
They may include muskets or swords, gladiators or samurai, but those are usually simple window-dressing to an action game. They rarely explore the themes of the time, the politics, the things that drove men (and women) to do what they did and which helped shape the world we live in today.
Sid Meier’s Colonization did this, and it did it in spades.
Landing off the coast of America in 1492, the player could choose to represent either Britain, Spain, France or the Netherlands, exploring the New World, establishing colonies, managing trade routes and dealing with the local Indian populations. Eventually, affairs would build towards an endgame where you would fight a war of independence against your chosen European power.
So far, so Civilization (well, except for the revolution part), but where Firaxis’ flagship series paints history in only the broadest of brushstrokes, Colonization has a laser-sharp focus that lets it explore the history of the time better than any other game has ever explored a period in human existence.
How? By stripping away forced narrative, and narrowing down the time period represented. Colonization never once seeks to ram down your throat the common story-telling thread that the British are en evil imperial force, the Americans a hardy band of freedom-loving individualists fighting for their rights. That one side were the bad guys, the other, the good guys. Which is great, because history is rarely so simple.
Instead, it places you at the centre of a number of forces pulling at your colonies, and your attentions. Your home monarch may be a bastard who rises taxes in accordance with the level of rebel sentiment in your settlements, but he is also “home”, the source of all your money and settlers throughout the bulk of the game. The man who gave you your start in the game. Because of this, you develop a strange sense of affinity towards your European masters over the course of the game.
It’s also able to let you manage your cities right down to assigning who will be a lumberjack and who will be a teacher, who you can retrain to man a stockade with a musket and who is going to catch all the fish. By focusing solely on a select time and place in history, it also lets things like trade, exploration and settlement become richer, more detailed affairs. Because of this, you develop a love of your people on an individual level, which makes their hardship at the hands of a European monarch tough to bear.
Thus when, almost inevitably (though it’s never forced upon the player), war comes and your colonies attempt to rebel and establish the United States of America, things aren’t as black and white as you’d expect. Cut off from money and men, your colonies are suddenly exposed, weak and short of military might. And rather than unanimously rising up to meet the redcoats (or othercoats if you’re not playing as the British!) at Bunker Hill, you find that many amongst your people remain loyal to the Crown, and even take up arms against you.
It’s a mess. A chaotic swirl of mixed emotions, conflicting agendas, propaganda and subversion. And it rarely goes smoothly. Just like the actual American war of independence!
As I’ve argued before, this is exactly what a good historical game should do. Rather than try and recreate events as a story, told from a single perspective, Colonization gives you all the themes, tools and the diplomatic climate of the time and drops you into it so you can experience them all for yourself. Make your own judgements on what was good and bad, right and wrong. Then rerite it again and again as you see fit.
If you’ve got the day off and are looking to get in touch with the origins of the American nation, the original PC version is readily available online as abandonware, and there’s also an open source version out there called FreeCol. Firaxis released a a remake of the game a few years back, but it’s a cold and sterile affair; you’d be better looking for the original, its art style still holds up well today.
Total Recall is a look back at the history of video games through their characters, franchises, developers and trends.