Northern Beholder

Where history and gaming collide.

Month: September, 2012

On FTL and Challenge in Games: Skill-test Satisfaction

Something of a follow-up to the last post, in which I discussed difficulty in games and how FTL is really difficult.  Which it is!  It’s downright frustrating at times being so much at the mercy of an RNG, especially when trying to survive long enough to complete the unlock chain for a new ship – the randomly-seeded start event for which you may not encounter again for another dozen playthroughs. But it’s because of that difficulty that success feels so rewarding, and that’s where the fun of the game comes into play.

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On FTL and Challenge in Games

Steam tells me I've already sunk 15 hours into FTL. Where does the time go?

FTL (Faster Than Light) is an indie offering from Subset Games.  It is, in the simplest expression, a spaceship roguelike.  It’s immensely fun and immensely frustrating all at the same time, and has sparked some debate over the merits of game difficulty.  Not being one to miss a bandwagon when I see it, I naturally have my own perspective to add to the debate, a mere two weeks after the game released.

If I commented on something current, it wouldn’t be a history blog, would it?

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Political Masterclass: Constantine and Christianity, V

Whew.  Oddly, turning an academic paper into something approaching readable ended up being a lot more work than just crafting a series specifically for the blog, as I did with Underappreciated Empire.  There’s just so much assumed knowledge associated with a formal paper that needs to be expanded on and explained for anyone that’s not a historian by trade, as well as loosening up the general tone.

Still, valuable experience.  The Political Masterclass series will continue in the future with Alexander the Great, but there’ll be some gaming news between now and then. Gotta pretend this isn’t just a history blog, after all.

Now, as I drew on one of my own papers for Constantine and Christianity, a lot of the sources are from published academic journals that you need either faculty/student or paid access to see for yourself (not to mention the dry nature of their content).  However, I did use two actual books.  For those interested in the tensions between the pagan and Christian religious adherents during the late Roman period, I recommend Pagan & Christian in an Age of Anxiety, by E.R. Dodds.  For a larger historical overview, including Constantine’s military campaigns, I suggest A History of the Later Roman Empire by Stephen Mitchell.  As always, be aware of potential bias when reading from older sources – no scholar is truly immune.  Except me, I’m always right.

Hope you enjoyed, and I’ll see you on Wednesday!

Political Masterclass: Constantine and Christianity, IV

While Constantine’s support, including the bestowing of honours and privileges upon Christian churches and leaders while depriving the Pagan cults of the same, did lead to the Christian church stepping into the role of the state religion of the entire Empire, and his own conversion encouraged a flood of other converts, the church’s official adoption by the Empire led to the loss of legitimate autonomy for the religion and its leaders, who became closely bound bound to the whims of the state. The synthesis of church and state also led for many important and influential figures in the Church hierarchy to enter into state politics and political intrigues; some certainly in the hopes of securing greater concessions or glory for the Church, others with entirely selfish motives.  The end result in both cases was to further entwine state and church together, though the balance of power that would result is likely not the one Constantine would have wished.

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Political Masterclass: Constantine and Christianity, III

Scholarly opinion rests at all points on the scale when it comes to opinions on the genuineness of Constantine’s fathering of the Christian religion and soon-to-be church, from the motives of a true and deep religious conversion at one extreme to the moves of a calculating statesman consolidating his empire at the other, along with all points in between. However, regardless of how deeply genuine his conversion may or may not have run, Constantine would not have been able to help looking at the Christian through the eyes of a sovereign – a sovereign educated in the belief that the success of the Roman Empire was due at least in part to the unifying influence of the official state cult. As Christianity continued to spread and gain in numbers, he would have been hard-pressed not to see it as a potential replacement for the old Imperial cult, if only its issues with internal unity could be resolved.

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Political Masterclass: Constantine and Christianity, II

To most Roman officials, the early Christian cult fell under the category of ‘godless’. Its adherents paid no respect to traditional temples or images, including the Imperial cult, a tradition that started with Augustus I’s deification of his adoptive father Caesar and which was used as a political tool to encourage the loyalty of imperial citizens.  While the same issues prevailed with the Jews of Palestine, they were begrudgingly tolerated based on their faith’s ancient roots, a claim the new Christian adherents could not match. Combined with a penchant for meeting in secret and exclusive gatherings, this led to a rather negative image for the relatively new cult.  Despite this, or perhaps because of it, there had been notions since the third century C.E. that the Christian deity, in the person of Jesus, should be absorbed into the larger polytheistic pantheon of gods that the rest of the Empire worshipped, an idea the Christians themselves opposed due to the strictly monotheistic nature of their faith. Their claims of an exclusive revelation ruled out the possibility of coexistence with, or recognition of, other religions.

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Political Masterclass: Constantine and Christianity, I

So. The Emperor Constantine. In the early 4th century AD, he brought a close to a massive civil war that had raged between the Eastern and Western Roman Empire through a crushing military victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, slaying his opponent and slaughtering a great many of his supporters. Christian chroniclers of the time painted evocative verbal imagery of hosts of angels leading the charge of Constantine’s troops to destroy the heathens, because Constantine was their saviour, the first Christian Emperor, a true adherent of the true faith to save them from the pagans.

Or was he?

There is ample evidence to suggest that Constantine’s conversion was cunning political intrigue rather than genuine religious faith.  In this series, we will be examining the potential motives behind Constantine’s conversion and promotion of Christianity, his plans, and the consequences both short- and long-term of his actions.  This was actually the subject of a paper I wrote in university, and I will be drawing heavily from it to produce this series, with appropriate editing to liven up the dry and academic tone and hopefully make it more accessible to those who have not spent years of their life studying history.  As with the previous series, a list of source material and further reading will be available following the conclusion.

Of course, my interpretation of events is not the be-all and end-all of the situation. There’s no way to know what Constantine truly thought or believed; as in all historical matters, it is up to the historian to collate and analyze what evidence is available and use that knowledge to re-construct events as best they can.  My research has led me to conclude that Constantine’s conversion was far more in the realm of cynical political calculation than genuine religious zealotry, and the reasoning behind that conclusion will become clear in the coming weeks. I look forward to you joining me.

The Death of Single-Player is the Death of EA

Covering current(-ish) news isn’t really the remit I had in mind for a history-focused blog, but EA’s latest stunning decision in a string of stupid decisions deserves special mention.  It’s pretty straightforward, actually: as of September 5, EA is officially no longer focusing on the single-player experience. It’s a terrible idea that means I’m even less likely to purchase their products than I was before.

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Historical Game Spotlight: Expeditions Conquistador

So, one of the semi-regular features to appear on Northern Beholder – in between rants on game design and long essays on historical topics – is going to be the Spotlight, taking a look at a game with a historical setting (ideally, one I’ve actually played) and seeing how it matches up to my stated standards for a historical game. Our first contender is the in-development tactical RPG Expeditions: Conquistador.

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History as Games

Leading on from Wednesday’s discussion of Rome: Total War and my praise for the Creative Assembly’s attempt at recreating the tensions between highly ambitious men which led to brutal civil war, it’s time to talk about ways in which historically-based games can present their information in a way which engages and excites the player, rather than following the path of so many well-intentioned but ill-fated “educational games” and the sorry end they inevitably meet.  The secret is to make the world interesting, rather than a dry and exact replication.

The best example comes from a non-gaming source: HBO’s excellent series, Rome.  If you haven’t seen it, I can’t recommend it more highly, so go out and rent both seasons before we continue. I’ll wait.

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