I found myself cranking through yet another game of Civilization V the other day and a thought crystallised in my brain that’s been niggling me ever since I started playing it back in 2010: for a game that is based so much around cities and the civilizations built from them, a city in Civ V is a staggeringly two-dimensional entity. Open up the city screen for your capital and all you’ll see is a big list of numbers, symbols and building names. Open up the city screen for your newest colony and you’ll see exactly the same thing; the numbers might be smaller and the lists shorter, but there’s nothing to really differentiate the two as entities apart from the name. Cities in Civ V exist purely as resource gathering and production nodes, and while this is certainly how they are supposed to function mechanically I feel that the game loses something for not having them feel like places.
It was not always thus.
These days the original Civilization is an astoundingly clunky experience. It’s not actively painful to play, but there are a lot of ancient mechanics that make me wish I was playing one of the newer iterations in the series. Settler units being responsible for terrain improvements. Food and shield upkeep for military units. The horrible, horrible combat system that cannot be trusted. Mechanically speaking it was showing its age ten years ago, and today it is quite literally a museum piece that’s almost only worth playing as a historical curio. Despite this, though, I do keep revisiting Civilization once every couple of years, and it’s entirely down to one thing: the city view.
Look at a typical gameplay screen from Civilization. The visuals are fairly basic, even for a game from 1991; there’s very little time devoted to artistic flourishes aside from some animated waves sloshing around the coastlines, and otherwise every single visual detail is there because it communicates some kind of mechanical information – tile types, resources, improvements and so on. It’s the same problem facing Civ V’s city screens, albeit one imposed by the technology of the time and the limited resources of a small development team rather than bad design. However, there’s a big difference in the approach each game takes to its rather stark portrayal of game information. Civ V prefers to ignore the problem of its lifeless cities, and hopes you’ll be able to draw some sense of atmosphere from the world map and the emergent narrative at the core of every Civilization game. The original Civilization on the other hand – which, let us remember, was made nineteen years earlier — attempts to tackle it head-on.
A city in Civilization is represented by this horrible square graphic which is designed to pack in the city’s vital statistics and nothing else. Click on the city and you get the familiar lists of numbers, albeit presented in a visual style that I happen to think is actually more effective than that used in Civilization V (I especially like coins and bulbs being represented as actual stacks of coins and bulbs rather than a coin or a beaker with a number next to it). There’s also a little line of figures along the top of the screen that represents your assorted citizenry, and if this were all Civilization bothered to do I think it’d already be taking a superior approach to injecting some life into the city screen through actually portraying your citizens as people rather than an abstract number or a little coloured circle.
Civilization doesn’t stop there, though. On the city screen interface is this button marked “View” which, when clicked, takes you to this wonderful panoramic cartoon view of your city. It must have taken ages to implement since it contains what are by far the most detailed graphics and animations in the game, and to their credit the Microprose development team made very effective use of it since it’s not just a static representation of the city in question. When you found a city with a settler unit you get a cutscene where the settlers drive up to the city site in their wagons and build some huts. While all the buildings you have built are represented somewhere in the city and can be viewed at any time, when you build them you’re treated to a little scene where it materialises in place which gives you a feeling of having accomplished more than adding 10% to the city’s gold output. Building a wonder is even better, since these are ridiculously huge structures that really stand out in the bijou depiction of the city view (the Colossus in particular is great, since all you can see are the statue’s feet). When the citizens of a particular city are unhappy they’ll march through the streets with pitchforks and torches or – later on – placards and signs. When you invade an opponent’s city you get to see an animation of your military forces doing the same, which is a nice excuse to show you what it is you just managed to capture.
So the city view isn’t just a more detailed picture of your city (this is where Civs 2 and 3 went horribly, horribly wrong), but is also used in as many situations as the developers can think of to add a sense of place to the game that’s sorely lacking from what you spend most of your time looking at in the world map. The view even updates from time to time as you advance technologically, with the wooden huts and dirt roads being replaced by skyscrapers and tarmac and your soldiers progressing from legionaries to musketeers to modern infantry. Even the bog-standard citizens stood out front will update, and there’s unique graphics for nobles, entertainers, tax collectors and scientists. The game does this in a few other places too, with the terrifying Sid Meier-analogue philosopher eventually being replaced by a scientist wearing a lab coat, and your advisors changing their appearance with time as well as with successive government types, but it’s in the city screen that this change is most striking.
This one seemingly-cosmetic feature does much to imbue Civilization’s cities with a sense of liveliness that’s missing from the sequels1. Civ V’s cities will visibly grow on the world map and the odd world wonder will show up outside them when you start construction, but otherwise one city looks much like another. Managing to build a wonder on the higher difficulty levels is a rare event, and so the game can’t rely on them to mark a city out as a distinct place. It has to do it through the features all cities have access to – their population and their improvements – and this is something that Civ V fails at in a rather abject manner, since both are barely represented on the world map.
From a game development perspective I can understand why this is so. Art assets are very expensive to produce, and coding non-interactive elements just to fulfil a sense of atmosphere is rightly seen as something of a lesser priority than, say, getting the AI to behave in a rational and sane manner.2 What Civilization does with its city view is also a big no-no in modern game design; jerking the player away from what they’re doing and shoving them into what amounts to a cutscene at the end of every turn is something that I probably wouldn’t look too kindly on if I saw it in a modern game.3 Still, I can’t help but think that Civilization regresses slightly with each new iteration; lessons learned during the design and development of the previous games are jettisoned, ignored, or simply not implemented due to lack of time and resources, and so each time I buy a new Civ game I’m struck by what is conspicuously missing rather than the brand new features the dev team spent hours laboriously coding. I accept that Civilization does have to iterate and come up with new design elements, and that Firaxis can’t just make the same game over and over again with prettier graphics, but I would have thought that atmospheric touches like the city view and the cultural unit appearances seen in Civ 4’s expansion packs would be universal across the entire series. A new game built on new technology is an opportunity to implement more of these; it is not an excuse to toss out old ones. That’s something I think the designers at Firaxis would do well to remember as their recent games (including XCOM) have been particularly afflicted by this peculiar brand of amnesia, and it’s made them substantially less than they would have been had they kept their past firmly in mind.
- I have lost count of the number of times I’ve muttered “Oh you fuckers” under my breath as the population of Brundisium takes to the streets for the umpteenth time in a row. ↩
- This is the part where I mention Jon Shafer basically did a mea culpa for Civ V on the Kickstarter page for his most recent project. ↩
- That being said Civ V’s UI loves to do this to you anyway, and if it’s going to break the rules like that it may as well break them to show you something cool instead of pointing out a unit you forgot to move when you click the “End Turn” button. ↩