Crusader Kings II

The Game

Crusader Kings II (CK2) is a real-time grand strategy game with RPG elements. A case in point for the inability of genre-keywords to tell you anything about a game. CK2 is effectively a feudalism simulator. You play, not as a particular character, but as a dynasty. You cultivate your character, usually starting as a count with a small domain, and work your way up to the conquest of Europe. Maybe. That’s not the only way you could play it.

The game itself has a vast array of historically based characters loaded into its database. These include the counts of each county but also their courtiers, families, the Pope, their religious affiliation, etc. etc. It is massive and has a very steep learning curve. After years of trying to play the thing, I finally managed to have a game get going that I felt like I was playing, rather than the game playing me. My experience so far should make a good first attempt at the sort of analysis I want to try and make of video game experiences. See my last post for some of the theory behind this analysis.

Narrative Reconstruction

I start well as a petty King in the south of Eire, but quickly a vassal takes a key county in revolt against me, becoming my liege, usurping my crown. My military strength is more than halved. My plans are set back years. I bide my time. I start to scheme against the usurper. I get married. Have four male sons. This is a strong start to my dynasty in a culture where only the male children can inherit titles. Meanwhile, a witch visits my court and shows me some strange rites that can lead to immortality. I work with her and take her as a concubine. If I can be immortal, I won’t need my children. My power grows.

Having forged an alliance with a powerful lord now taking control of half of Ireland (my housemate), I launch a war to retake my titles from the usurper. At the last moment, before the usurper’s army folds against the might of the army lead by my marshall and my ally, the witch comes to me in my chambers. She has one last rite to perform. The one that I have been waiting for. She will make me immortal, finally. But, it goes wrong. I die. The witch flies. Play transfers to my first lord’s first son, a four-year-old. The war collapses. The usurper keeps the titles. My dynasty is set back generations. I must bide my time.

Power truly resides now with the Bishop of my diocese, who has claimed the regency, thanks to my father’s neglect in appointing one. I, now a boy of 4 years old, try to machinate, but to no avail. If I can convince powerful and gifted men to join my council, the Bishop dismisses them all, consolidating power for himself. And yet, I grow in talent as a schemer. What my father failed to achieve using raw military power, I might accomplish through cunning. I ensure my brothers train in martial lore, however, so that they can support me in the wars to come.

I develop an ambition to become a member of my liege’s council when I come of age. Things look good, as this usurper grows to respect this child-king, son of a former enemy. But, I fall ill. What at first appears to be the bubonic plague is revealed to be cancer. The Bishop is aware of some treatments that can help. I let him take the risk on these new ideas. I recover, but I am weakened. My influence grows only as my body fails. I grow to admire the actions of my brothers and councillors by proxy. I resign myself to a secluded rule.

I finally turn sixteen. I gain the full power and authority granted by my titles. The usurper immediately sends an emissary to invite me to the council. The fool. He has taken the bait. I will now be able to wreak havoc on his plans from within. The trap is finally set! I am ready to rule! And then I die. Power transfers to my eldest brother, only nine years old. The Bishop takes control of the council again. The dynasty must build again.


CK2 forces you to confront temporality in a very unique way. You don’t play as a character but as a dynasty. You are the dynastic will, fighting the will of fate and other dynastic wills. As such, you can become very easily alienated from your current head of the house. In my case, this happened in the first generation, when he got himself killed and in the second it was his youth and finally illness. With the third generation, I’m doing okay. When he rose to power he got rid of the Bishop and took back his titles, only to be forced into vassalisation by my housemate’s character, the ally from the first war. The game isn’t finished yet, though. Who knows what will happen now.

Compare this alienated relationship to the series Sid Meier’s Civilization (Civ). In these games, you play as a legendary ruler who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Your avatar for the game is Queen Victoria or Caeser, except without death. Gameplay is largely about building and supporting your civilisation, competing with other civilisations to gain land, money, build world wonders, and gain political, religious, military and cultural dominance. There is no death in this game, only setbacks to your growth as a power.

As such, Civ is less of a strategy game than it is a race. Not a race between cars to get to the finish line, but a race between gods to get the finish line of enlightenment. Time behaves no differently in Civ than it does in Super Mario Kart, it’s just more boring. The classic moment where this is clear is the world wonders mechanic. You are only three turns away from completing Stonehenge, and then someone else beats you to it, and all that time and production is lost. It didn’t matter what you had planned, you have absolutely nothing to show for it because they got you first. This is no different than Koopa zooming past you with a booster pickup, half a second from when you are about to cross the finish line.

In CK2, there is no race. It is a brawl. It is a long drawn out struggle, not to get the highest score, but to reduce the power of your enemies to get through to the next match. CK2 is like playing Street Fighter II if it were written in Microsoft Excel. Like Street Fighter, failure of your aspirations to win the tournament is not your failure. It is the failure of your character. If only you’d been playing as Balrog instead of Guile, then you could have blocked that last move. If only my count didn’t have the ‘lunatic’ trait, my chancellor would be a human, and not a horse called Glitterhoof.

Comparison with Other Media

Playing as a dynasty rather than a single character immediately brings Doctor Who to mind: the entity that dies, is reborn, but with a slightly different character. But, the best comparison is thinking of the original Clash of the Titans, but from the point of view of the gods. Hera is consistently let down by the pawns in her game of chess against Zeus. When one fails, she moves onto the next one. In CK2, likewise, I have to play through what idiot I get lumped with, and may even have to try and get my count killed so that a better-skilled heir can take over.

Existential Analysis

The joy of CK2 is linked to what Heidegger calls thrownness and projection. The idea is that when I make a choice or perform any act, I just get roped up into another situation out of my control. Life is something we can never fully take mastery of. We do not choose what possibilities we get thrown into. All we can do is choose how to react to the possibilities that are given to us. I can project myself into the future, make plans and do my best to realise them, but nothing is stopping me falling flat on my face. Further, each choice I make is irrevocable and is the death of alternatives. This can be avoided in most games like CK2 by “save scumming”, but this misses a core lesson of the game: even if you were a near-immortal spirit of your dynasty, you still might not win.


Finding the Groove

The central idea is that video games require their own set of concepts to be analysed. Although games have narrative that can be analysed in terms of literary analysis, have art, sculpture, design and “visuals” that can be analysed in terms of aesthetics, and have ideological content that can be analysed in terms of critical theory, games also have an element that can only be analysed on its own terms: gameplay. My argument is that gameplay, as a balance between the active and the passive, between what I do and what the game does to me, can only be analysed existentially. And, when looked at existentially, which is to say how I live the game as a possible way for me to be, of all the traditional art forms it is closest to dance.

It is tempting–and I must admit I am very tempted to do this–to take this analogy too far. In so doing, I would produce a choreography of gameplay. I would sneak my way into this discipline, pillage it for concepts, and make a name for myself by talking about the “plié” in the key combinations of Street Fighter II whilst likening the combat system of Arkham Asylum to Black Lace action dances. This would make a farce of both the science of dance and the science of video games.

Nevertheless, our experience of dance, even if we have only ever tapped our foot along to YMCA as we sit beside the buffet at the family disco, is something we can examine and learn from. And, in so doing, we can see that our activity in moving our bodies in time to music is far closer to our activity playing Arkham Asylum than is our activity in watching The Dark Knight or reading The Killing Joke.

Take the Macarena: a dance that, bar disability, we can all attempt. It is not enough to know the actions, or indeed the order of the actions. I cannot simply act the Macarena in my own way in the way I can doodle a circle or a triangle. When I draw or write, the temporality of my action does not matter except that the act should be performed in the right order. What does not matter is the rhythm of my act. In contrast, to dance the Macarena, I need the beat. The easiest way of solving this problem, if I were to want to dance the Macarena in this Starbucks, would be to sing the song out loud or quietly in my head. If I have the appropriate timing, this will let me dance to the beat. Alternatively, I could dance the Macarena along to the smooth, inoffensive jazz track being played out the speakers here, provided the song is in the same time signature to the Macarena itself: 4/4. The dance moves themselves only require a beat in 4/4, a beat that can be imagined in my mind, sung, clapped, or some other song. The speed is variable, all that matters is that the correct beat is there, and that I move the body in time with the music, that I find my groove.

Groove is analogous to gameplay. Groove does not exist either in the dancer, the dance moves, nor the music nor the beat. Groove is my timing to the music as I move. To bring in some Kantian terminology, it is a synthesis the dancer performs between their body, the moves, and the beat. Similarly, gameplay is a synthesis the gamer performs between their bodies, the controlling device, and the game itself. It is not an action I perform, but it is a sewing together of my acts with a set of rules determining how I should act and when. Groove and gameplay are both a nexus of parts, an emergent property of the audience and artwork.

Learning to play a game is never about learning a set of rules or the “mechanics”. it is never enough to know the rulebook or the instructions. The rules must be inhabited, incorporated into my habits, and lived as a skill. For example, I have been trying to learn how to play Crusader Kings II for years now, and constantly failed. I understood, before I bought the thing, the basic principles, mechanics, and rules: build your stats, keep your vassals and council happy, take over Europe by acquiring land through military, political, and economic might. I understand these things intellectually, I know how to do each act through the interface. However, I could not find my groove. I could not play the game, despite being able to perform the actions. Similarly, being able to walk on the tips of your toes and kick does not mean you can perform the dance of the cygnets.

The roadblock: I tried to play the rules and not the game. I tried to perfect each movement of the arms and legs, not find the groove and simply play. I treated the game like it was a spreadsheet I had to get to add up to 100%. However, when I took the time to just let the clock tick, to allow bad things to happen to my dynasty, in short, to listen to the rhythm section of the game’s performance, I found the groove, and was able to play, albeit badly.

To learn the game, you have to hear the beat and find your groove. You have to move your body (even if this is only mouse clicks) in anticipation of what the core gameplay loop wants you to do. If you fight the loop, for example, if you try to play Doom (2016) as a sniper, you may as well try to dance the Macarena to Take Five. You know, because it’s in a 5/4 time signature


Game, Film, and Dance

This is a blog about thinking about games, in the sense that Film Philosophy thinks about Film, and Literary Analysis thinks about literature. More than that, I will be thinking about games in the terms of the relationship between gamer and game: gameplay. Now, games are preeminent in combining narrative and activity. They can, therefore, be analysed through their narrative. This is entirely appropriate for most modern games. For decades, game developers have sought to emulate and appropriate the grammar of film, and the narrative component, the “ludonarrative”, easily admits of the sort of analysis common to film. This can lead to the neglect of the activity of the gamer, the play. Under the banner “existential analysis”, I want to analyse the play.

It’s tempting to call film a “passive” and game an “active” artform. Indeed, film and game are most appreciated in their passivity and activity respectively. But, the terms are misleading, because there is no absolute passivity or activity, and both artforms rely on both extremes of this spectrum. Film is not passive. It does not require me to act, but it does require me to throw myself into it. This is clear from the times that I have failed to follow a film because I am texting, or the times I have disliked a film in the first instance, but come to love it at a later time, in a different place, and a better mood. Film can equally play with audience “activity” by soliciting certain expectations, whether to subvert them or confirm them. Game also requires passivity. If I am too active, clicking through prompts, skimreading key instructions, ignore dialogue, I will lose critical elements of the gameplay, and not only enjoy it less, but more importantly not experience the game in its intended play.

Film and Game are similar, therefore. Both are visual-temporal artforms that require activity and passivity. The terms reveal something about the phenomena, but obscure parts of it as well. It’s better therefore to use different words to more authentically grasp what we want to say when we call film active and game passive. I believe these are to say that film is lived in “listening” while game lives in “doing”. The philosophy of “doing” is existential philosophy.

Existential Philosophy has demonstrated that doing is not purely active, but always has its own form of passivity. I can jump only because I am the “passive” recipient of a ground, of a body, and of laws of motion. Video games create a pseudo ground, body and physics: all games create a “virtual reality”, whether or not they are played with a headset. We call the essence of the individual video game “gameplay”. This term can be radicalised to mean the interplay of player and game: of activity in ground and ground of activity.

Games are not unique in having this play of activity and passivity. Dance is constitutionally similar. Music serves as the ground of dance. The dancer, improvising or not, responds to their “passive” reception of the beat, and plays within it. This is an indication that game is a Dionysian artform.

Gameplay is ludo-dancing: the joy of doing within and through a rhythm of the rules. The “mechanics” of the game are the music, the activity of the gamer the dance.
Gameplay is an existential phemenon, a phenomenon that lives in the doing of a human being