Checkpoint

Sometimes, Pixelated Spectacle Is All You Need

This column is a reprint from Unwinnable Monthly #118. If you like what you see, grab the magazine for less than ten dollars, or subscribe and get all future magazines for half price.

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Corey Milne stands at the intersection of gaming and world history to see what he can see.

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What I was hoping to get from Domina when I picked it up was a tongue in cheek gladius thrust at capitalism, through the medium of wine-soaked slave combat. Domina isn’t that, but it’s an enjoyable enough, simple game about sending men out with swords and spears to kill for you. What it lacks in narrative it makes up for in gory pixelated spectacle.

One of the first upgrades you can select in Domina is the ability to take direct control of a single fighter during a match. It’s labeled as “mind control” in-game and serves to add some more gameplay mechanics, letting players take an active part in the fighting. Perhaps this is how the game is supposed to be played, but I refuse to bloody my own hands during the contests.

As the Domina (a roman title of some importance. Your in-game avatar is a woman, Dominus being the male title) it would be beneath me to become directly involved in the fighting. Yes, my family has fallen on hard times which has forced me to seek wealth and glory as a lanista in the games. Even so, I own people for that kind of thing.

The most direct control I have over my fighters (other than outright owning them) is selecting the equipment they take into battle. Most of my coin goes into purchasing greaves, blades and shields. I’m particularly fond of my retiarii, who fight with tridents. In my eyes, you’re not a true gladiator if you’re not throwing nets at people. I’ve hired men to repair equipment, train my gladiators to improve their stats and teach them the importance of washing their hands to keep them healthy. There’s always someone willing to do the work for a little coin. I’m the one running this operation, do you actually expect me to do any work?

I’m the one running this operation, do you actually expect me to do any work?

Under the surface, the systems are there to turn you into a brutal Roman capitalist. Officials can be plied with wine to make them more agreeable. I got the Legate on my side and in the next match I found my opponent chained to the arena, making him all the easier to kill. So the rules are somewhat flexible to those with the resources. In the midst of all of this I try to be a good master. A parent to these violent children of mine. They’ll get their share of wine and even a coin on occasion. I’ve freed a fighter, so the others know if they work hard enough, they too could be unshackled one day. I would also never execute any of my gladiators, which seems to be an option. It’d lower morale, but more importantly I’d lose access to that man’s labor. They need to do their dying in the colosseum, not in my backyard. It’s what I occasionally pay them for.

Win or lose, I tend to be awarded a slave or two after every official arena match. Compensation for the loss of property I’ve suffered should my champion be vanquished. So I’m never a man short for long. It’s the equipment they wear that puts a hole in my coin purse. Maybe they don’t need those leg guards after all? I’m sorry Maximus, we don’t have a helmet budget this quarter, but going into a fight without one will let the crowd see those strong pixelated features of yours.

Death was very much a part of life in ancient Rome. Gladiators were celebrities in their day. They weren’t just meat. The successful ones had hordes of loyal fans that’d come to see them fight. Some did so well they were given sponsorship deals. Lives were bought cheaply while deaths cost dearly. They were of lowly social status but the ability was there to rise above.

Domina is only a small game developed by an even smaller studio, but I’d like to see it lean into this side of things a bit more. The systems are sound and it’s a decent management game already. Jupiter would surely shine upon the game if it had a narrative throughline to cement you in its world of blood, fame and power. Rather than the domina I’ve taken on the role of the lanius, but at least there’s wine.

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Corey Milne is an Irish freelance writer who likes to poke at that strange intersection where games meet history. A roundup of his writing can be found at coreymilne.com. You can join his Rad-Lands motorcycle bandit gang on Twitter @Corey_Milne.

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