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The RPS Advent Calendar 2021, December 15th

The real civilisation was the cultures we built along the way

The fifteenth door on the Advent Calendar is a bit of a mish-mash, almost as if six different artists had a go at making it at different times. Interesting. Let's see what lies on the other side of it.

It's the mixed up civilisations of Humankind!

Nate Crowley: The thing about a good 4X game (like Amplitude’s Humankind, for example!) is that - theoretically at least - you can play it forever. A 4X is a sort of fractally complex snowglobe, into which you tip a bunch of abstracted-down simulations of historical leaders, or alien warlords, or whatever, before giving it a good shake and… smashing it on your desk while bellowing Oppenheimer quotes? Yeah, sorry; didn’t think that metaphor through very well.

Still, you get the idea. With randomly generated worlds and rivals making for a slightly different challenge every time you play, it doesn’t really make a difference when you’ve seen all the stuff there is to see in a 4X, because the enduring fun is to be found in the combinations of said stuff. Case in point: Civilization 5, which I played regularly for ten years after its 2010 release, despite being a man who finds little comfort in repetition, just because the basic feeling of “playing Civilization 5” never really lost its lustre.

I did stop playing Civ 5 in the end though. And the reason (in what will hopefully appease the annoyance of anyone reading from Amplitude, after I spent the first three paragraphs of this post writing about Civ) was Humankind.

As I said, 4X games are all about replayability; about how long they can hold you off from the realisation that you’re spending a punishingly large amount of time doing the same thing over and over again. And the key to this is the number of variables open for recombination in subsequent games of the 4X in question.

Well, as you might already know about Humankind, it pulls a massive clever in this department, by offering the player a choice of ten civilisations to play as… six times over the course of a game. That’s a neat one million potential combinations, in theory. And almost as many in practice, too. As I play on, I keep encountering situations where civs I’d dismissed as total guff a dozen times previously, suddenly turn out to be circumstantial clutch picks, treating me to a whole new set of toys to play with.

I mean, the mix-and-match thing is an absolute torpedo of an idea when it comes to realism, obviously. Bit weird for a whole civilisation of proud and fearsome Greeks to suddenly decide “we’re Dutch now”, and get massively into the stock market, no? But let us face facts here: none of us ever played 4X games to savour the recreation of history (unless history involves a load of battles I never learned about, featuring infinitely dense mounds of cavemen obliterating battalions of tanks a la Civ 1).

I actually find Humankind’s civilisational identity crises thoroughly endearing.

I actually find Humankind’s civilisational identity crises thoroughly endearing. They put the anachronistic absurdity of historical 4X games front and centre, making the whole thing feel a little bit sillier, and making it easier to stop worrying about optimal efficiency and just roll with the punches. It’s one of the reasons why I find Humankind a little pacier than other 4X games, although I say that with the lead-lined proviso that it is still an enormous time sink.

Whether it’ll be another time sink capable of draining my vital forces for a full decade, remains to be seen. Already, I’ve found it has become a game I fancy a solid go at every month or so, rather than a default option constantly gnawing at the underneath of my executive function. But honestly, that suits me down to the ground. It’s like my mate Ghoastus always says, Rome wasn’t built every day.

Ollie: My favourite thing about every Amplitude game I've played has been the music. I routinely listen to the Endless Legend soundtrack while working, and it's long been one of my favourite game scores. But there's just something special about the sheer grandeur and scope of Humankind's soundtrack which has enabled it to entirely usurp the Endless Legend soundtrack as my go-to background music.

Humankind - An island city with an Eiffel Tower, skyscraper, and other modern features across its districts.

On the day of Humankind's release, the devs released five soundtrack videos on YouTube. One is what you might call the "main" soundtrack, filled with the familiar music that plays across all games and worlds. It's absolutely sublime, as you'd expect.

The other four videos are each 2-hour compilations of all the music that was written specifically for each of the 60 cultures in the game. That makes for eight hours (eight hours!) of wonderfully diverse, scrupulously authentic music, the cumulative efforts of goodness knows how many musicians, experts, and fascinating instruments from all over the world. All in addition to the main soundtrack, all with that same calm, soothing stateliness that has made composer Arnaud Roy's previous scores so wonderful. Sometime far in the future, I may eventually stop playing Humankind, but I don't think I'll ever stop listening to the music.

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