The 4X genre has always been held back by the logic of its imperial fantasy. You enjoy a world where decisions carry precious little weight in all but the most raw strategic terms. If you put your troops on the wrong square/hex, you may well suffer a certain kind of consequence if you’re in the midst of a war.
Beyond that, though, the world is your silent ally, mute and immobile as you strip mine it to fund those wars. It was always a slightly aggravating thing, too neat and too pat; too flip and obvious in being a colonial fantasy. The terra is always nullius and eagerly invites your exploitation; indeed, it’s required.
There’s still a long way to go before the genre really takes its next big leap forward and meaningfully addresses that problem, but a significant step was made by Civ VI's latest expansion 'Gathering Storm.' Here, at last, the world fights back and your actions have far-reaching, unintended consequences down the ages and across the whole of the map.
A whole new world
The expansion finally introduces climate change, along with geology and weather effects (the latter actively actively exacerbated by climate change).
Now you must contend with floods, and the facts you learned in high school history about the fertile Nile River valley have finally been integrated into the game that owes so much to those heroic stories of Ancient Egypt. Rising flood waters devastate the surrounding terrain, but also fertilize it. Volcanoes erupt across the landscape. Blizzards, hurricanes, and sandstorms pummel their respective biomes.
Gaia is back in a big way. But more than that, the world stops yielding to your will and runs out of control.
Now the Industrial Age and all that coal you mine has a cost that will claim your low lying cities if you’re not careful. Pump enough CO2 into the air, and the ice caps will melt causing sea levels to rise incrementally until whole shorelines disappear.
From Civ's god’s eye view, you can see the sweep of climate change at a stroke -- worldwide weather, the state of your coastlines, the (often eye-popping) cost in carbon exacted by your power plants and your units. In Civ you always see its world through a spectrum of data; inputs, outputs, figures, rankings, and infrastructure. Firaxis has brilliantly turned that to its advantage by creating a credible simulation of one of our world’s most complex problems.
In most things, Civ is an intentionally silly caricature of humanity and our history; not here.
The History of Civilization's Future
This isn’t the first time a Civ game has played with climate change, although the last time it did it was complex and unofficial. The 1999 Civilization: Call to Power spinoff game, which was not owned by Firaxis and not made with Sid Meier’s blessing, has occupied a vexatious and uneasy place in Civ canon. For Civ purists, it was not Meier’s brainchild and thus verboten. For others, it had a bounty of good ideas that--it’s hard not to notice--have been integrated into later official Civ games: clearly defined national borders, advanced trade networks, specialist non-combat units, and now: sci-fi speculation and climate change.
Call to Power’s system was innovative for its day. Pollution could effectively destroy tiles if it got bad enough, and cause sea levels to rise by the mid game (CTP ran all the way into the very distant future, so the Modern Age was hardly its final act). It was, however, very simple and opaque at the same time. Civilization VI has built a whole system around climate change that clarifies a lot, while also adding many more moving parts, and illustrating the difficulty of tackling real world climate change.
Dreaming of Infrastructure
This is all to the good. Gathering Storm adds much to the game. Little things like naming rivers so they gain a bit of personality, and big things like bringing back the Giant Death Robot; more importantly, however, the latter is tied to Civ having a new Future Era that looks quite cyberpunk. Instead of the game ending in something like the present, we now embrace a sci-fi future as part of the endgame, replete with exotic technologies, futuristic governments (yet another Call to Power idea that it was time to revisit), and Blade Runner-esque skyscrapers in your cities.
"Instruct the children not to dream of toys or sweets," a leader in Civilization: Beyond Earth is quoted as saying. "Instruct them to dream of infrastructure!" He was in the wrong game. The Gathering Storm expansion adds all manner of infrastructure to the game, bringing railroads back, and adding a bevy of structures that have never before existed in Civ.
Canals have been formalized at last--the old trick of plopping a city on a narrow isthmus to create a de facto canal has finally been embraced by Firaxis and expanded upon. Canal districts let you dig further across the terrain; the Panama Canal world wonder allows you to go further still. You can connect islands with a Golden Gate Bridge, you can tunnel through mountains, you can dam up flooding rivers. And you can build tidal walls to save your sea-level cities.
Infrastructure becomes a theme in this expansion, grand projects that both shatter and save the world. This is a fantasy as well, but at least a refreshingly different one from what we’ve seen in past Civs. It at least admits that the world is destructible. The game’s resources, once static, are now consumable. You develop and consume stockpiles of, say, coal or oil, and these fuel the power plants that dramatically boost your late game production. Infrastructure binds you.
It’s a motif that reaches its highest expression in the late game when climate change really rolls in.
In Gathering Storm, climate change barrels towards you with all the mercy of a freight train. It gathers pace and then becomes all but unstoppable. Almost. But curbing your carbon output alone isn’t the solution to your problems. You also have to build. Solar farms, wind farms on and offshore, hydroelectric dams, tidal walls, sea habitats, nuclear power stations (as well as projects to recommission them and keep them safe), and a futuristic carbon recapture project.
A massive investment in totally retooling your economy, in other words. In a strange way, it’s empowering to be able to just do that, even as real world politicians bicker over getting started in confronting our own “late game” challenges.
The right medium for the job
It’s rare for so complex an issue to lend itself so well to a video game. Often, games twist themselves into knots by mathematically simulating everything from love to survival. The end result is almost always far less than the sum of its carefully calibrated parts. But climate change is nothing if not an exponential equation. And so, suddenly, there’s a happy symmetry between medium and message.
Thee game tracks every extraction in the form of CO2 output. Everything I did, even when I thought I was being parsimonious, whether it was building that lumber mill or coal mine, was building my game up to a climactic final confrontation. Not with another civ, but with the planet itself.
There was actual stress, even on easier difficulty modes, as I raced against the clock time and again to heal the planet or at least save my own civilization. The problem was global. Isolationism wouldn’t help, military solutions would only make the problem worse (a huge navy powered by oil certainly won’t do you any favors). But the newly frenetic endgame has its seeds planted very early.
Deforesting to build your districts or build lumber mills, even in the Medieval Age, will have consequences for climate change later on. The game still bids you to follow its extractive logic, but now it makes you pay dearly.
The end result is one of the best, most accessible simulations of climate change available. Climate change is the sort of thing that, precisely because it’s so well-modelled, lends itself to interactive representation in a computer game.
Your inputs alter the world’s climate by degrees and you can see the consequences of it over the sweep of history, in a way few of us would otherwise have access to.
We often have to justify the medium’s existence -- why do such-and-such with a game when a movie or book might do? -- and while such objections are wrongheaded as a matter of principle, they wither in the face of experiments like Gathering Storm, which could only exist as a game.
Of course, as I said, there’s still a fantasy at work here (our tech will save us!) and a certain dark side to the ruthlessness of Civ's climate change. It’s nearly impossible to fix, short of destroying every other civ. It scales up and then it just runs and runs. Even with several of my cities running carbon recapture projects, it felt like using a bucket to bail a rapidly sinking ship.
All you can do is hunker down and build all the infrastructure you’ll need to weather the rising seas. Eventually... they stop. The game’s algorithm runs out of sea level increments, and you are, hopefully, safe behind your sea walls. Looked at one way, it sends a painfully mixed message; optimistic in one sense, deeply fatalist in another. With each passing day it feels grimly apposite, and yet too hopeful by far.
Firaxis ended up creating a deeper text than they might have imagined.