Children of all ages, from Bronze to Instagram, anticipate Horacetide with a cloying sense of anxiety in their gut and a glimmer of fear in their eye. When will Ursa Infinita blot out all the stars and gleefully coil around our planet, bestowing the gifts of terror and trembling? No one can say, although some children believe that when the calendar ends, the world will too. Silly children. The next entry is thinking long and hard about those children, and what to do with them.
It’s… Crusader Kings II.
It’s about people.
Playing Civilisation in my youth, I’d often wonder about the person who lived in the palace I’d spent centuries building. Was my ruler immortal, a skeletal Caesar guiding the Roman Empire into the 20th century and across space? I don’t think that’s what Sid Meier had in mind, but the fan-fiction I wrote is very convincing. Skeletal legions explored new worlds and crushed the puny empire of Zombiezuma.
Civilisation treats the leader as an abstract concept, as do most strategy games. You’re not really choosing to be Abraham Lincoln at the beginning of the game – you’re not picking a beard and a personality – you’re selecting some abilities and a couple of special units. The entities that wage war and engage in diplomacy are rarely more than a starting point, a measure of power and a tinted window onto the world.
Crusader Kings shows you a map and then invites you to meet the people who populate that map. There are wily popes, religious fanatics, incestuous heroes and virtuous villains. In the grand scheme of Paradox grand strategy, there is a unique attempt to reflect the interests and concerns of each period studied, whether it be the industrial war machine, the blood-red stain of empire or the cult of personality that defined so much of the late medieval power struggle. The idea of nationalism and its own brutal ends are for other times; here, the tracks of history are carved by the will of individuals whose birthright is a burden of responsibility.
I’ve spent more time with Crusader Kings II than any other game this year. A lot more. Remember leaving the vault in Fallout 3 and shielding your eyes as the sun tried to shrivel them in their sockets? That’s how I feel when I peer across from my collapsing Scottish Kingdom and see mighty powers rising on the mainland, knowing that the aftershocks of every war could reach my coastlines and change the small limits of my life for better or worse.
It’s rare to be in complete control and that’s a sensation that so many games could benefit from. Paradox don’t actually remove control, destroying the player in a cutscene, instead they rely on a simulation that can be as unpredictable and as complex as the characters that are at its heart. The world is full of life and even the mightiest king cannot control the irrationality of others, nor the qualities of his offspring. Every dynasty is a ship of fools in a storm-tossed ocean.
Paradox have crafted a machine that produces stories and that, for me, is the greatest thing a game can be. One reason that the game will endure is the breadth of genres that it flourishes its quill at. There are comedies, tragedies, epics, ballads, soap operas, murder mysteries, melodramas and romances. In fact, I’ve seen a few murder mystery romances and several of those involved drunken uncles. In common with the best history teachers, the ones that make you want to read and learn independently, Crusader Kings II trusts you with the high adventure and the low lives, providing enough to spark the imagination as well as the furrowed brow of concentration and serious business.
All of that would be enough to secure a place in The Most Magnificent And Important Calendar Of 2012 but there’s more. We should have seen this coming. The first Crusader Kings was superb as well and it laid the groundwork for the best character-driven strategy roleplaying game ever created. Even though Crusader Kings II improves hugely on its predecessor, it’s not so much better that it should be receiving so much of the attention that the original failed to attract.
I’ve heard from dozens of people who reckon this is the best game they’ve played in a year that was packed with excellent choices and that in itself is remarkable. For me, and for so many others, Crusader Kings II was necessary. It showed that Paradox can deliver the product that the talent of their developers deserves and it offered experiences that are constant reminders of my own development as a PC gamer, as well as the joys of the future.
It’s been a fantastic year and yet Crusader Kings II is almost completely out of step with the rest of the success stories on this calendar and on my hard drive. Take any other game out of the equation and I’d still be singing the praises of the last twelve months – remove Crusader Kings II and I’d have been missing something vital.