At first glance, it's a canvas of green or yellow rather than the blue planet it will eventually become in the estimation of generations to come. Eventually, if progress isn't halted, it'll become nothing more than a dot.
In between that early vibrant canvas and the final departure, Earth is going to get a whole lot more cluttered though, and a whole lot uglier. I recently returned to Civilization VI [official site] and quickly realised that I had no desire to build or settle. All I wanted was to explore the untouched world.
A note before I begin: Civ VI isn't the only 4X game that produces randomised worlds for me to sully with agriculture and industry, but as it's fresh in my mind and because its pristine maps are particularly beautiful, 'm going to use it as my primary example.
As a new game begins, the desire to leave the world untouched is an aesthetic impulse. That first city, usually planted in the very first turn, might look handsome nestled by a river delta, in the shade of a mountain range, but it'll become a node in a network of roads and rails. It may not have the fidelity of later games but the age of steel and industry in the first Civ is as grim as any image of Dark Satanic Mills I can bring to mind right now.
Continents look like they're riddled with cracks or festooned with cobwebs. The whole infrastructure is scaffolding on a world in the process of being constructed and the process of construction never seems to end. New layers on top of old layers until the green and the yellow and maybe even the blue can no longer be seen..
Don't get me wrong – I love watching my cities as they grow, seeing the shift from open fires in clearings to checkerboards of electric light on the side of skyscraping glass and metal monstrosities. I love the districts that take up the surrounding land in Civ VI, and I love them for the music and sounds that they create as much as for the way they look. Cities are aesthetically pleasing too.
But once 4X games cease to be about exploration – the first of the Xs in the 4X formula – they rapidly become games about filling the map with stuff. The end result is that the map is obscured and, eventually, all but irrelevant. Technologically advanced transportation options for either tiles or units take away movement penalties, improvements that exploit the land initially require resources but eventually circumnavigate them to some extent, and eventually you reach the plateau of progress where everything is just fine but nothing is particularly unique anymore.
It's only natural, at that point, to cast your mind back to those initial steps into the unknown. The first time you saw the ocean, impassable but bountiful. That mountain range that your scouts discovered, an obstacle and a shield, and maybe a proof of god (or gods). The mystery of the horizon.
Perhaps I want a 4X game about a nomadic people and perhaps At The Gates will be that game. But I also want the discovery of a new continent or archipelago to feel significant and that's so rarely the case. By the time I've founded a second city and entrenched myself in neighbourly diplomatic disputes, exploration is just a way to find new spaces to fill. New Worlds feel too much like the Old World.
Is there a strategy game that will let me explore and exist without leaving a trace? If so, I don't think I've ever found it, and that's one reason why I start so many games of Civ without finishing them. I know what the tech tree is going to tell me and I know how my cities will look, but I still don't know what's beyond those mountains, or what the horizon might hold.