I built Syphilisation to explore the idea of a postcolonial 4X game, to derive postcolonial alternatives to the established patterns of the 4X genre. The game succeeds at many of these but there are places where I just have not delivered on that promise and I wanted to go over the ones I could think of here. Naturally, there are more colonial statements in this game that I just have not identified myself and if you come across one, please tell me about it so that I can update either the game or, at least, this article.
I think it’s important for a game like Syphilisation to go through this exercise. I don’t know if it’s possible for a truly postcolonial 4X game to exist but I do know that Syphilisation is not that game and I want to make it clear that this is just an attempt to answer the question of what such a game would look like and not a definitive answer.
I would personally like a much more fluid simulation of the land than the game currently allows. The tiles and the regions are both very fixed entities. They encapsulate very rigid blocks of space. This is the perspective of someone looking from a map, not someone living on the ground. I’m sure that a much more clever approach exists.
However, it’s important to me that this game be very recognizably a 4X game. I wanted it to be familiar to 4X players and to Civ players in particular. My goal here is to demonstrate the viability of designing games with ideology in mind. I feel that if I let the game go too far from the genre roots then it becomes very hard for players to engage with the experiments of Syphilisation. By using a traditional map, I give players a very important entry point to the game.
My other issue with my implementation of land is that my representation of extraction is not violent enough. It’s important when representing extraction not to render the violence of it invisible through abstraction. You lose a key part of the story if you do so and right now, it feels like my game doesn’t do enough to make that aspect clear.
Growth for the Sake of Growth
It’s hard to escape growth for the sake of growth in a game like this. It’s baked deeply into both the genre and video games as a whole. So many of our standard solutions are built around this idea of continual escalation. The option / action systems in this game and the ways that production increases over time are all growth for the sake of growth mechanics.
Syphilisation complicates this with things like the pollution mechanics and the gear shifts, but this still runs through the game.
Additionally, the report rewards you for adding content and nothing more. Personally, I would hate to read a report like this, something that just inundates the reader with facts and has no structure or goal around it. I want my reports to be concise and to only show me what it needs to and not just whatever it finds.
Also, the tech tree in the game just keeps moving forward without reservation. Syphilisation doesn’t do much to represent the idea of how knowledge can be dangerous. It also sticks to the idea of a singular tech that the player chooses and that the civ ticks towards. This is one more place where I wanted to keep a very familiar mechanic in so that players have a good place from which they can approach the game, but it does mean that there are key concepts that the game just cannot represent.
I am a strong believer in decentralization. I think that an organization, whether government or business, that is too large to be accountable to those that it affects will no longer deliver results for those people. 4X games are always big government, a position that is in a strange conflict with the rest of their ideology but one that comes naturally from the trappings of video games. Syphilisation gestures at a more decentralized ideology through autonomous camps and the favor system but fundamentally, the player is still in charge of most of what happens and the game positions that as a good thing.
Additionally, the game only has you chasing big goals. I want a government that focuses less on national monuments and more on making my daily life a little better and Syphilisation really doesn’t have the ability to represent that at all.
There’s a lot of fungibility in Syphilisation. Every block of currency is the same as every other one. This abstraction is a key one for capitalism, where I can buy a can of Coke that’s the same as every other can of Coke, It’s opposed to the idea of craftsmanship though which recognizes that two different pieces of wood need to be engaged with in different ways.
Fungibility is particularly bad when it comes to abstracting people. I’ve tried a lot of things to get different citizens to feel meaningfully different in Syphilisation and none of them have done anything to move the needle. They all operate too far below the surface to make a difference to the player. Maybe I’ll be able to come up with something before I finish working on this game, but as of now, it’s just a problem that I could not solve.
I’ve been more unhappy with spirituality in Syphilisation than I am now. The inspiration / quiet / pollution mechanics are something like what I want. The deeper problem here is that I don’t have the spiritual roots of someone like Gandhi or Tolstoy. I can read what they have to say but I cannot really reflect their ideas in my game because I keep missing something core to their beliefs. I have a number of things planned that will make the existing mechanics clearer but I still feel like something is missing here and I’m not very clear as to what that is.