There’s an inherent awkwardness in historical strategy games as entertainment, which is just how much of history is made up of stacked atrocities. Abstraction can do a lot to sidestep this, of course: many games feature real historical cultures, but pit them against each other in virtual petri dishes which might as well be fantasy worlds. Time, also, has a strange capacity to dilute grimness - whether rightly or wrongly, the more ancient a game’s setting, the more carefree we tend to be about burning farming settlements to the ground for the sake of expansion.
But if developers want to make games about real history, especially stuff which has happened within a generation or two of living memory, things become a lot more stark. Victoria 3, the next grand strategy project from Paradox, will see players take the reins of nations on the global stage of the 19th century. That means industrialisation, massive social upheaval, and a thousand other fascinations. But it also means rapacious national expansion, colonialism, and slavery - issues on which the public conversation has advanced a lot since Victoria 2 came out in 2010.
Nevertheless, after speaking recently with game director Martin Anward and game designer Mikael Andersson, I'm feeling hopeful. Because while they’ve both been quite clear in their intention not to pull punches in presenting the reality of 19th century imperialism, they also realise the challenge of making this playable with good taste. They've said it's something they're going to detail in greater depth closer to Vicky 3's release.
We discussed the idea of playing as a power with no interest in colonisation at all. "It's something we've tried to enable," says Andersson. "We don't want people to feel that if they want to be successful in Victoria 3, they have to play as one of the big powers. They should be able to have a great deal of fun not only building up a small power, but even remaining a small power and being locally powerful and influential."
It's already been made clear that Victoria 3 will be much more a management game than a war game, and the idea that conquest isn't key to satisfactory play is impressive. One of the things Paradox's grand strategy titles have always struggled with is a compelling case for players to go 'tall' rather than 'wide' in developing their nation, and it's also an idea that plays well against the general expansionism of the era portrayed.
As tends to be the case with Paradox's big strategy series, Victoria's simulated world is coming back in much greater resolution this time around. Territories are split up into smaller units than before, and with more nations settled among them, there are simply more options when it comes to playing outside the bloc of big European powers. Most excitingly to me, this means more opportunies to play as cultures on the other end of colonial hegemony.
In Victoria 2, it was possible to play as a non-European power, but aside from a few exceptions these were grimly classified as "uncivilised" nations, which could only advance in the game by westernising. Happily, this system has now been rewritten, and it sounds like there's a lot more mileage to be had in playing as indigenous societies - I was given examples across Africa, Patagonia, and New Zealand, for a start.
"The vast majority of countries are playable," explains Anward, "with the caveat that some are categorised as 'decentralised' - that is, those with a more fluid idea of their borders, or without a strong ability to enforce them." Those, to put it bluntly, are the cultures whose lands will be open for colonisation from the word go. But Anward doesn't want to rob them of all agency, and understands that for many players, the power fantasy of resisting colonisation is more compelling than that of driving it.
"We definitely have the idea that you should be able to play as one of these countries that was colonised in history, throw back the Europeans, and be recognised on the world stage," he says. "And while the decentralised countries aren't playable on release, we do want to make them playable in future - it'll just take work to do them justice." This seems fair enough to me. Paradox's worlds are enormously intricate, and the studio has a track record for filling in the major powers on day one, and then adding detail to other regions via patching and DLC.
"We definitely have the idea that you should be able to play as one of these countries that was colonised in history, throw back the Europeans, and be recognised on the world stage."
Of course, there are historically colonised nations which will be playable on launch, due to their classification as being centralised. These starts won't be easy, though, and although Andersson notes that measures have been put in place to "make sure you're not steamrollered instantly", the odds are realistically stacked against you in practice.
Most indigenous nations, Anward says, have 'unrecognised' status, where the European powers don't recognise you as an equal, and you must gain that reputation through diplomacy or by force. There's no economic penalty to being unrecognised, apparently, but it does come with diplomatic drawbacks: you'll be treated more poorly in negotations, and moves made against you will cause fewer raised eyebrows for aggressors.
In short, playing as a historically colonised power is tough. "The United Tribes [one of the Māori nations you can play as] is probably the single most difficult start there is right now," says Anward. "I've tried several times, and only succeeded once in getting away from Britain." That sounds like a fairly compelling challenge to me - a Gate Pā moment would be a hell of an objective to work towards.
And being frank about it, I think it's no bad thing that non-European starts will be a challenge. Showing consideration and respect for the subjects of historic injustice doesn't mean rewriting history to make them superpowers, after all. In this case I think just telling their stories, and allowing players to live them out in as great a depth as they might those of their oppressors, is a good indicator of a thoughtful approach. I've got my fingers crossed.