One of the many things I love about the Crusader Kings games is their ability to maintain a relatively consistent tone when, strictly speaking, they should be all over the place. These are, after all, games about the acquisition of power. They model the full range of monstrous things which people are prepared to do to each other to get it, and they don’t shy away from the consequences.
But then, these are also games where spymasters can plot to murder themselves, and where a horse can become Pope. For all the thrill of forging a dynasty over the course of six centuries of roleplaying, there’s no denying that some of the finest moments in Crusader Kings come from those times when things get silly.
Crusader Kings 3, for my money, achieves an even more deft balance than its predecessor. It feels, for the most part, like a dead serious game. But whenever all the fratricide, heretic-burning, torture and disease is threatening to leave a bad taste in your mouth, the game will turn and give you a cheeky little wink.
It might just be a wry little bit of phrasing in the acknowledgement text for some ghastly assassination. It might be the moment where you have war declared on you by a king who’s billy-bollocks naked, because of his peculiar splinter branch of Orthodox Christianity. It might even be the moment where your character decides to torture somebody... by reading them their Vogon-standard poetry.
Whatever form it comes in, it’s always just enough to let a little air out of the grimdark balloon, without ever deflating it entirely and making the whole game seem like a clown show. That’s bathos, that is - the chaser of the ridiculous to the pint of the sublime - and Paradox make a masterful job of it.
"That’s bathos, that is: the chaser of the ridiculous to the pint of the sublime".
There’s a lot of events in Crusader Kings 3 that provide this effect, but my favourite to date has to be the event players will no doubt already know as “medieval tinder”.
If your character’s life has led them to develop a keen interest in ye olde fuckynge (I think it’s the temptation lifestyle focus, specifically), they will occasionally be hit with an event in which - bizarrely - they will decide to dust off a load of paintings of regional nobles, and peruse them in search of someone new to seduce. It seems really odd for a moment, until you realise it’s a parody of Tinder, and have ye a lyttle mirthe.
Your character puts the pictures on a left pile or a right pile, and ruminates on each of them. Sometimes, the event text informs you that a potential seductive has “attached a very long and amiable letter to their portrait. At the very end, they urge [you] to write back soon, “but only if you exceed a height of six feet”.”
It’s a cute little bit of satire. But crucially, it stays period-plausible enough that it doesn’t pull you out of the game entirely. It reminds me of the legendary event in Crusader Kings 2 where your character will - seriously - go into a bloke’s shed to play warhammer. Or another CK3 event where, if you’re part of a warrior lodge in a tribal culture such as the Norse, you can end up in a Flyting with someone, which is very much played like a rap battle.
I actually really like the fact that CK3 makes these little fourth-wall-bending nods to modernity. I’d go so far as to argue, in fact, that for all they bend period accuracy, they do a surprising amount to lead the player into useful ways of thinking about history.
One of the biggest and weirdest barriers to understanding the past, is our tendency to view people who lived in other eras as aliens at best, and philosophical zombies at worst. For whatever reason, it’s bastard hard to wrap your head round the fact that, whatever conditions they grew up in, your ancestors were still people just like you.
It’s one of those things that seems really obvious when you say it in such plain terms, but it’s surprisingly difficult to get your head around. And I reckon that the reason Crusader Kings does so damned well at staying tonally consistent, is that it subtly builds its entire narrative on that principle. Yes, you might be a haemophiliac witch stuck in a desolate war with her aunt over a corner of Norway. But you’re a haemophiliac witch who despondently scrolls through dating apps, and who accidentally confesses family secrets while pissed at a wedding. And that, right there, is the stuff history is made of.