Preservation Society: Civilization III

I was introduced to the Civilization franchise while getting foot surgery at the age of 11 – the strange birthmark on the outside of my left foot had proved itself worrisome, and doctors voted for it to be excised before anything more serious could happen. As my foot tingled with orange iodine I played Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages on my Gameboy Advance and made small talk with the man with the scalpel. He too was into videogames, but because he was a Grown-Up™ he played games for Grown-Ups™; he told of a game where you built a civilization, and made grand armies fight each other while trading with dangerous neighbors and shaping the course of history itself. Seeing myself as a sophisticated 5th grader I had to have it – I hobbled out the building with seven lucky stitches and asked my dad if I could get a new PC game. His eyes filled with that worry a parent has when their child asks if they can spend more time indoors with constructed realities instead of the one their given, and said he’d think about it.

I hadn’t forgotten about the game when I saw it on the highest shelf of the software isle at a local OfficeMax – the game was on sale for a whopping ten dollars! I begged and made the case that Civilization III was an educational game, dad! He bought it.

I didn’t realize just how educational Civilization III was going to be for me – I got the game, then my friends got the game, then we all traded stories about how our various dice-rolled histories played out, and the wars we fought and the cities we built. By playing out our own version of the world’s events, we sought out the facts and events of reality to compare and contrast them. We were conquerors, diplomats, malevolent and benevolent rulers of the annals of humanity.

Civilization III by today’s standards is still a marvel to behold, and in comparisons to its successors, holds a distinctly different tone and style, as if it were a flesh-and-blood younger sibling, not yet grown up.

The menus are made of parchment and stone, and the world looks more like a diorama made for a school project or better yet a museum than 2010’s Civilization V and its realistic shaders and water simulations. The music is more of a tribal fare than of a statesman’s, with exotic flutes and rhythms pushing the player through the centuries. Indeed all of Civilization III is concerned with the days of hunter-gathers than it is with our modern, self-aggrandizing selves; the technology tree is filled with things like “Mysticism” and “Ceremonial Burial”, and ends at “Integrated Defense”, not “Particle Physics” or “Nanotechnology”.

The game is about survival, and little else; its world is alive and messy, filled with villages with names of ancient civilizations like the Numerians and Sumerians, and barbarians that roam more freely and will attack cities more often than Civilization V, due to their inherent weakness. World Maps are the simplest metric of progress and when meeting another civilization, the easiest way to rank them in the world around you: if they know so little of the terrain and resources around them, what are use are they to me? Workers and Settlers can join cities to make their populations grow more quickly, and all units can be disbanded at any time to get rid of their dead weight. Combat is not about placement and strategy but about attrition – the famous “columns of death” strategy where the player stacks tens of units on top of each other before throwing them all at an enemy city is the default for combat, and there’s a sense of terrible dread as you watch your units get cut down one by one in a tense maneuver of desperation.

Through survival the player gets a much more potent sense of personalization, and of caring for their civilization - this thing they built. In Civilization V your empire is a Jenga stack you have carefully built since the beginning, a feat of tactical and logical progression; in Civilization III your kingdom is a child you’ve brought up from a young age – you’ve grown alongside it, and you have mementos of your time. The palace building mechanic, whereby when the player does well enough as a ruler that their people reward them with aesthetic upgrades to an entirely ornamental palace, lets you look at your accomplishments in a concrete emotional way – your people gave you this house, and they will burn it to the ground if you fail them. Similarly each city can be zoomed in upon and each improvement looked at – once the city of Rome has every improvement you can afford it, it looks like a grand capital, and you are proud of your accomplishments. This is your Rome.

If Civilization V is, as Errant Signal’s Chris Franklin would put it, about the “adulation of THE STATE”, then Civilization III is about just how far we have come, in a primordial sense – what were we, 10,000 years ago? Where are we now and how did we get there? Not always through cold calculated strategy and war, but through people and resources and building up communities. Humanity is, in the form of your civilization, a child to be guided through the dark forest of the world and brought to the here and now, where things may not be better, but they are at the least illuminated.