Spacing Out: The Trouble with 4X Games
Hey guys, welcome to my weekly op-ed column that I’m calling “Spacing Out” (the name was a joint effort between my girlfriend and I ;). I realized I’d not been really writing enough op-ed pieces, and came up with the idea of doing them weekly, both as a writing exercise and a way to put thoughts and ideas out there to share and discuss with y’all. :) I’ll be doing these every Wednesday, because if I don’t set a specific day to do ‘em, I never will, you know? ;) Recently, 4X games have been on my mind after the recent release of StarDrive. After I made my decision to put my review of the game on hold, I was taken to task on a forum I frequent for not liking other recent entries in the 4X space race, such as Endless Space and Sword of the Stars II. This got me to thinking, what HAS been going on with spacey 4X games of late?
Possibly Spoiled by Distant Worlds
Now before y’all grouse me about this one, I wanted to get it out there first thing. Yes, Distant Worlds has been my favorite 4x game for over a year now, and there’s nothing that’s even come close to it. The living universes with their amazing size and scope, the sense of exploration and discovery, the multitude of options to tweak the game my way and so on keep me coming back to this more than any other 4X since Imperium Galactica II. There’s something so compelling, so engaging about how busy the universe in this game is the multitude of things that can happen, the way it just feels so ALIVE, and so forth. I’ll admit, it was hard NOT to compare it to StarDrive because was trying to do some of the same things (real-time, automated AI, detailed ship construction, etc.), but I tried my damnedest not to compare the two as I was going over it with a critical eye. I’m only human though, so I’m sure it crept in.
Regardless, I’m sure I’ve been spoiled by Distant Worlds in many ways, but one of the most important things the game has that many recent space 4x games HAVEN’T had, it seems, is soul. It’s a hard thing to describe, but I’m gonna try…
It’s All About Soul
What do I mean by soul, especially when it comes to 4X games? Well, a 4X game in any genre is about making all these moving parts (exploration, diplomacy, combat, colonization, etc.) work together to make as seamless a game experience as possible, or at least I think so. The thing is, I don’t always want to SEE those moving parts. While I typically revel in the details, sometimes it’s good for things to be abstracted, at least enough to make me use my imagination to fill in the missing pieces. I think that’s why games like Master of Orion and Distant Worlds succeed on so many levels. These games have plenty of detail, but they also know what to show me and what to keep hidden, which I appreciate as a player. This also allows them to fill in some of the missing pieces with fleshed out events, diplomatic conversations and so on. Little things that just add so much texture to a game, you know?
In the last several years, however, some 4X games have come out that appear to be just about the numbers rather than about the textures. Games such as Galactic Civilizations II or Endless Space look great, have great features, and play by the numbers as a 4X game should, but in the end, they feel like they’re just made up of numbers, at least to me. It feels like I’m doing research just to get that +1 gun, or colonizing planets just to get that 1.5 resource boost, you know? There’s little in the way of nuance, of texture, of feeling like I’m at the head of a mighty empire. Rather, it kind of feels like work.
Stuck in the Middle with You
This is why I find games like StarDrive and Sword of the Stars II so…depressing at times. These games HAVE texture. They have life, they have stories ready to be told beyond the numbers, but something gets in the way. In the case of these games, it’s either lacking features or obtuse interfaces. It’s like, there’s a GAME back there just WAITING to be enjoyed, you just have to dig beyond all this CRAP to enjoy it. It’s sad because I WANT to like these games, but lack of time/patience or whatever else prevents me from doing so. These games, to me, are stuck between the games above. Not numbers-driven, but not at the sweet spot between detail and abstraction, soul and lack thereof. They’re held back by incompleteness, confusing interfaces or so on, and it is just so sad to see these games at the cusp of greatness.
So Where Does That Leave Us?
Well, like so many folks, it leaves many of us replaying Master of Orion II over and over again, in many cases, or wishing Distant Worlds was cheaper (you and me both, friend). Hope isn’t lost, however. According to the dev. StarDrive is a commercial success, which hopefully means with more time in the oven we’ll see it get better in the future. We also have a slew of 4X games coming up, such as Deep Space Settlement, Predestination, Beyond Beyaan and so on that will hopefully have the soul other games have been lacking.
What do you guys think? Is there a dearth of soulful 4X games, or am I just being picky in my old age? I look forward to talking with y’all in the comments, and hope you enjoyed my rants.