The Concept of Caricature as a General Philosophy for Implementing History as Game Mechanics

This contribution from guest writer Jim McNally, President and Lead Designer at Longbow Games, is the first in a multi-part series on the issues raised by Longbow Games’ ancient real time strategy series, Hegemony.  Hegemony: Philip of Macedon was released in 2010 and was followed by Hegemony Gold, which included the Peloponnesian war.  Longbow is currently developing a new Hegemony focused on Caesar’s Gallic Wars. In future installments, Jeremiah McCall and Kevin Ballestrini at PtP will reflect on the current and future Hegemony Games and, hopefully, interview the folks at Longbow.

This first post offers PtP readers a very valuable and less readily available insight into the interaction between the past and present: how a game developer views the connections between history and video games.

The title gives us a lot to consider, so let’s define some of the parts. Let’s define caricature as an exaggeration of existing qualities we can use to simplify and highlight specific features and concepts. It’s a way for us to take all that history and distil it down to the essence of what we want to get across. We’ll define philosophy as a logical, analytical approach to a problem, and history as the documentation of past events, preferably from a neutral or unbiased perspective. Game mechanics are pretty easy to define as the game engine, the map, and the rules that go into giving us the gameplay. And to make everything circular, the quality of the gameplay ties back to the quality of the history and the caricature we derive from that history.

Why do we use a caricature of history? Because a caricature is easier to manipulate than the raw history. A caricature is a simplification that distorts the history to highlight major concepts or points of interest. Those simplified points of interest can then be manipulated by the game engine rules, much like the points of a digital model can be manipulated by an animator to create an expression or artistic image. For example, our current project, Hegemony Rome: Rise of Caesar, is not intended to be an exhaustive simulation of the Roman Empire, or Roman society, or even the life of Caesar. It focuses on a single extended military campaign, and even with that the simulated elements must be abstracted in such a way to highlight the historical concepts; distortion can illuminate.

But to work well, the specific caricature has to be “good”, or in other words, valid! If the historical data is flawed or translated into a poor caricature then there’s always the risk of “garbage in, garbage out”, which can lead to a weak understanding and ultimately an unfulfilling or mediocre game. To lessen the risk, we start with the best available historical research and carefully simplify and amplify to create an acceptable caricature of the history that can then be manipulated by the player through the game engine.

From this concept of simplifying history through caricature and building a game engine utilizing that simplified framework, let’s proceed with the premise that the love of military history leads to the desire to relive, manipulate, control, and ultimately reproduce or change the outcome of a battle, war, or imperial destiny. Historical fiction and movies can partially fulfil those fantasies, but for the real armchair general the ultimate medium is games. Either with traditional table-top wargames or modern video games, nothing gets you closer to the history than to step into the shoes (or sandals) of a famous general and, after analyzing the battlefield, making your own decisions to either follow history or to chart your own course.

To highlight this concept of caricatured history in practice, we’ll use examples from the development of our Hegemony series of historical wargames, specifically our current project, Hegemony Rome: The Rise of Caesar.

One of the clearest examples of caricature in Hegemony is the game map. In its most basic implementation, the map provides an aesthetic backdrop on which the battles take place. However, one of the defining elements of the Hegemony series is how local geographic features like mountain passes or river crossings influence the tactical and strategic decisions in the game. So when designing our map, we needed to carefully balance the aesthetic factors, which are important to a player’s immersion and enjoyment of the game, against the map’s ability to convey critical information like the location of resources or the accessibility of the terrain. To ensure that these geo-specific constraints reflected the history, we started from NASA satellite height data and then, using historical references, sculpted the coastlines to reflect over two thousand years of river silting and erosion. Our philosophy for decorating the map was that once a player had explored a region they should be able to quickly assess where the relevant resources are and identify the various passages leading into or out of the area. To accomplish this, we minimally sculpted the terrain by widening passes or exaggerating impassable mountains by stretching them vertically, and we placed dense forest over terrain that was too rough for units to march while leaving crossable terrain relatively open. Occasionally, this resulted in a golf course like appearance where open fairways contrasted with forested “rough”, but through experimentation we were able to find a successful balance between realistic looking terrain and a clear “gameboard”.

Perhaps the most prominent example of caricature in the Hegemony games is the transition that occurs when you zoom out far enough with the camera. One of the things that sets Hegemony apart from other games in the genre is how the tactical game takes place on a single seamless map covering the entire theatre of war. This feature allows for a more natural flow of combat as small skirmishes can escalate into large field battles and allows you to smoothly switch between tactical and strategic decisions without the interruption of loading screens. Early in development we found we were really craving a complete view of our empire, but when we zoomed out too far it became impossible to distinguish units from features on the map. Our solution to this was to smoothly cross-fade to a stylized 2D parchment map as you zoomed out. On this strategy map, geographic features are represented as hand drawn icons, and units, resources, and cities are displayed as boardgame miniatures. This dramatic level of abstraction and caricature worked perfectly to highlight the important elements of the game while removing the details that, at high altitudes, were indecipherable from noise.

We already mentioned the importance of geo-specific constraints to the gameplay in Hegemony, so you can understand that it is often important for the player to know where they are in the world even when looking at just a small portion of the map. To help the player recognize their general location, one of the improvements in Hegemony Rome was to break the map into approximately half a dozen biomes and use unique geotypical textures and plants to decorate the map in that area. For example, English oaks naturally grow on the European mainland, but we decided only to plant them on the British Isles so that players would have visible reminders as to where they were fighting without needing to zoom out to reorient themselves. Similarly, we wanted to emphasize the cultural differences between the factions on the map, so we designed exaggerated architectural styles allowing players to quickly assess whether a town was Roman, Gallic, or German just by looking at it rather than needing to select it with the mouse.

These are all examples of visual caricatures in the game, but the concept is even more important as it applies to gameplay. When designing Hegemony, we wanted to emphasize the importance of logistics to ancient military strategy while simultaneously avoiding having the player drown in a sea of spreadsheets and micromanagement. So, after analyzing the historic events that we wanted to represent, we distilled our concept of logistics down to these basic rules: “food=morale=combat effectiveness”, where food is a local resource carried by units or stored in cities, and units will automatically consume, share, and pick up food when it is available. While obviously a gross simplification of the needs and operations of an ancient army, these easy-to-grasp rules allowed us to recreate the important strategic decisions that Ceasar faced as well as specific notable historic events like Caesar’s capture of the Helvetii baggage train or his effective blockade and siege of Alesia.
Just as an expressionist painter can reveal unseen truths by distorting reality to emphasize the essential elements, combining simplification with exaggeration to create a caricature of history works equally well whether one is shooting a film, building a model railroad, or creating a game. With respect to historical wargames, it’s all about distilling the complexities of history into enjoyable morsels that can be kneaded together to create satisfying gameplay to be experienced and savoured for one’s pleasure and edification.

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