A Dark Age of Infinite Scope

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  • The following is a reprint from Unwinnable Weekly Issue Forty. If you enjoy what you read, please consider purchasing the issue or subscribing


    UW40-small-coverEmperor of the Fading Suns is a monster. Ancient, shambling; mostly forgotten. Like most monsters, it’s also a reminder of something repressed.

    Emperor, for those not in the know, is a turn-based 4x – that is: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate – strategy game set in the universe of the Fading Suns role-playing game. A mélange of Herbert, Wolff and Simmons, Fading Suns is known for having everything: mystery, intrigue, aliens, demons, monsters, priests with psychic powers and knights riding spaceships.

    Sometimes this works – scheming nobles and religious ascetics coming face to face with nightmarish demons that may or may not be advanced technology – and sometimes you get badly drawn aliens and camp Herbertese. The kitsch is piled high and it decays, stinks, takes on a life of its own. Surprising things take root.

    The galactic dark age standard, for example, is taken seriously and used to great effect. In a sense, this is an anti-Dune: where Herbert’s toffs and mystics willingly discarded machines, Fading Suns’ teeming humanity fell screaming from its iron caul as the great and the good of the universe hoarded guns and intellectual property.

    The new reality is infected, alien and terrible. The nightmares of the preterit world still linger, and sorcerers who traffic with these demons can unleash catastrophe, wittingly or otherwise. Plagues ravage the galaxy. Sinister monsters, visible and invisible, lurk at the edges of understanding. The masses are kept poor and ignorant, and the magnates who would protect them are often little better than the dangers they fear. The suns themselves are disappearing one by one, driving people to hopelessness and superstition.

    In such a galaxy, the Orthodox Church offers consolation for a re-enchanted world and protection from its devils and princes. The dark age of the Fading Suns universe might not be a fair account of the twilight of Rome (interestingly, Fading Suns’ universe is centred around “Byzantium Secundus”, the new Constantinople, as well as the Islamic and Germanic models chosen by Herbert), but it does a good job of encouraging players to empathise with institutions that modernity holds in contempt.

    Create a mediaeval setting and players might roll their eyes at the ignorant Church with its hypocrisy and persecutions and preening nobles with their serfs and vendettas; but in a universe in which demons and miracles seem to be real, no one cares for ordinary people but the Church. And when the end may truly be nigh, priests and heroes, while pernicious, may well be humanity’s last best hope.

    This goes for Emperor as well. The Church’s habit of proscribing technologies as “odious to humanity” and sending squads of bright-eyed, flamethrower-toting zealots to crucify those who research them and burn the evidence is a nice twist on the standard tech tree. On the one hand, as a player, these proscriptions seem like arbitrary and irritating obstacles to the will to power.

    On the other: that’s the point. Civilization has trained me to view relentless technological progress as my God-given right and duty. When the Church insists that, actually, no, I don’t have a right to transform my conscripts into cybernetic monstrosities or bombard my enemies with pustulator artillery, it might just have a point. There’s nothing like having your researchers crucified by Avestite Inquisitors to make you reconsider your scientific priorities.

    Emperor further emphasizes the Church’s perspective by writing its entire codex (the equivalent of the “civilopedia”) in the voice of a certain Bishop Holst, who offers a mix of catechism, sardonic commentary on his Church’s occasional over-zealousness, and frank horror at the grotesque weapons employed by the galaxy’s secular powers. This is a universe in which humanity has reaped the rewards of uninhibited technological progress in the service of authority, and the Church preserves the memory of these stigmata.

    Emperor, then, can be read as a morbid reminder of just how much Western moderns (and their videogames) take certain ideas for granted: progress, rationalism, individual and societal betterment and empowerment. That said, I don’t want to overstate the sympathies of the source material. Fading Suns, the pen and paper game, describes itself as a “passion play,” but it also emphasizes the attempt of the new Emperor Alexios to escape feudal strictures, discern the cause of the fading suns and return to something like liberal progress.

    Emperor, which makes its players warlords during the brutal civil war before the pen and paper game’s imperial restoration, is necessarily more cynical. Perhaps it would be better to say: the game is about the tension between hope for progress (and despair over its fragility) versus the dark forces it unleashes. The Byzantine references are significant here: Fading Suns’ Constantinople is imagined, as it often is in reality, as the bridge between stereotyped Western provincialism and Islamic sophistication, simultaneously brilliant and degenerate, the last remnant of the glorious Republic (Fading Suns had one of those, too).

    There is another sense in which Emperor is a monster. A “monster” is a type of wargame. Monsters are defined by sheer mass; they take a maximalist approach to everything, piling on rules, units and terrain until the result is a nigh-unmanageable mess. The time investment required to actually play a monster means that they tend to be poorly tested, with balance and flow often lurching off in strange directions.

    I can’t accurately judge how well balanced Emperor is, because I simply haven’t played it enough; but there is something enchanting about its ludicrous ambition. This isn’t a game, it’s an entire galaxy. Each planet has its own hex-map to be conquered and developed, Civilization-style, and there are dozens of them. There are hordes of similar but slightly different units, whole tech trees worth of tanks, infantry in power armor, psychic terror troops and genetically engineered horrors to shuffle around the galaxy as you expand your influence.

    There is a diplomatic sub-game of trading council votes in order to elect a regent who can then appoint other players to imperial offices, each with its own perks. The Church and the merchant League have their own diplomatic offices. You will never lack things to do in this game. More likely, you will be overwhelmed.

    Even Earth is there, though the so-called Holy Terra is ruled by the Church. I think this is symbolic of the game as a whole. Someone had to map Earth into the game, build its cities and resources, create a Church AI to command its formidable defences and yet there is very little reason for any player to interact with it. In a more modern design, the Church, like the alien Symbiotes or the planetary maps in general, would be abstracted and simplified.

    Except, modelling the temporal power of the Church in with the same mechanics as everything else makes it more real somehow. You can conquer Earth, even though you probably won’t. This is a game enraptured by its own fiction, one that refuses to compromise. As with the equally ambitious Star Citizen, enthusiasm for the setting seems to drive the game’s systems to the point where it becomes a fetish.

    It’s childish and a little embarrassing to watch, but it’s also somehow glorious, and I think it raises questions about just what games are or should be, and why we play them. If Emperor is a bad game, is it bad because it’s not enough of a game, or because it’s pure game?

    Frankenstein was repulsed by his patchwork creation, the fruit of his fanatical pursuit of science and progress as he imagined them. Some monsters run amok; others are left to decay.

    Games, Unwinnable Monthly