Seven Cities of Gold - Ozark Softscape - Atari 800 - 1984
One of the great appeals of videogames is its ability to role-play. We are given the promise of visiting any land, any time, any place, seeing any sights the artists and designers can conjure, and experiencing any number of things we never can in real life. At the very least, that's the promise. Most games, since the very beginning, has been content to pound us with explosions and dumb violence.
When I think of the great potential of the videogame, as a entertainment and storytelling medium, I'm reminded of the sheer brilliance of Seven Cities of Gold. It is a game full of action, excitement, and suspense; but it can also inspire wonder and curiosity. It's imagination and originality shames most contemporary games.
Seven Cities of Gold allows you to recreate one of the most exciting periods in history - the Age of Discovery. It's a concept that seems so obvious, and yet it has been so rarely explored. Why is that, I wonder? Videogames have always been the domain of blowing things up - why not try to discover some uncharted territory?
The promise of sailing to the New World, to "discover" the Americas - what a great concept for a game! What a great way to relive history! I don't think this is merely my own nostalgia talking; show me a nine-year-old who wouldn't become hopelessly drawn in after a few moments of play.
So what do you get to do? Playing the role of a Spanish explorer in 1492, you are given men, supplies, and a fleet of four ships, and set sail for the New World. After a short journey across the ocean, you sight land, anchor your ships, and lead the expedition. You have discovered a New World!
What happens at this point is entirely up to you. For you see, this is not a game about high scores, or mission objectives, or poorly-scripted cut scenes. Seven Cities of Gold is a game about discovery, and the player has complete freedom to proceed as he or she sees fit.
Do you wish to travel along the rivers, and see where they lead? Do you wish to walk through vast mountain ranges and great plains? Or would you prefer to sail along the coast to see if you discovered an island or a continent? Build a fort or a mission? All of the above? None of the above?
This open-ended approach is one of Seven Cities' greatest strengths. There really isn't a goal, or a finish line, to be found. You can continue until you've discovered everything, and then begin again with a newly-constructed world. If that doesn't appeal to you, then check your imagination. Most people are sorely lacking.
Of course, you have another option, and this is where the game's real tension comes from. You can be explorers, but you can also be conquistadors.
Dan Bunten and Ozark Softscape created MULE with a keen eye on simulating market economics. They clearly wanted to teach their audience a few things while entertaining them. Seven Cities clearly pushes this idea forward. What better way to learn about history then to relive it? This is the insight that was imparted on Sid Meier, who then pushed the envelope even further with the great Civilization.
"Discovering" the New World presented a very real problem, since humans had been living there since the last Ice Age. How do these two very different cultures interact? How do they communicate?
Seven Cities of Gold addresses this dilemma masterfully. The character interface for most of the game is an abstract symbol - a compass. You are an alien in an alien world. But note how that changes when you enter a village. Now your avatar becomes a human character who walks among the Americans.
The various American peoples - including hunters, farmers, Pueblos, Aztecs, and the vast Incan Empire - are fearful, but also curious. Crowds immediately surround you, and follow you around as you slowly walk towards the village chief in the town's center. You share no common language, but you can exchange goods and build a relationship. A trust is slowly built up. On later visits, the people will carry along in their normal routines, and the chief will immediately welcome you.
Depending on geography and nation, the tribes will trade food, goods, and gold. And this is where history's complications set in.
You don't have to make peace with the Native Americans. You can kill them, and steal their resources. You can even eradicate them if you defeat them enough times. You have that freedom, and if you are equipped with enough ships and men, you can be very successful.
The throne in Spain will, of course, offer platitudes towards mercy, and condemn "your harsh treatment of the natives." But you will quickly learn the hypocricy of those words. Here, it's gold that talks, gold that buys more ships, gold alone that wins promotions from the King. Money talks.
Over the years, I become more aware of this terrible tragedy, of how Bunten is using the game as a way of commenting upon world history. Seven Cities of Gold does not endorse the Conquistadors, but it does not impede them, either. It mourns their genocide, and by putting us in their boots, we are invited to mourn, too.
As always, how the Age of Discovery is unveiled depends entirey on you. Perhaps this says something more about ourselves than we'd care to admit. Not many games would even raise the issue, but what do you expect from the game that inspired Civilazation? Seven Cities of Gold is one of the smartest, most imaginative adventure games ever devised.
And now a few words about the creator, Dani Bunten. Bunten's story is as interesting as the groundbreaking games she created, and is remembered today as one of the true visionary pioneers of the medium. She was also an extremely bright and thoughtful person, a caring soul.
MULE was not a commercial success, mostly because it was the most-heavily pirated game in history. Fortunately, this fanbase made Seven Cities of Gold the biggest success of its day. Bunten offers some warm memories:
"There are several things I'm proud of about that game. Unlike most strategy-adventure games then (and now as well) which load the player with numerous economic and logistical decisions, it only used four commodities to model the constraints and opportunities facing the Conquistadors (men, food, [trade] goods and gold).
"I also like the way I was able to reflect the unique interactions between natives and Conquistadors when they shared neither a language nor cultural values in common. I came up with a simple arcade element which also included a number of subtle "secret" opportunities that I was quite gratified to learn that folks found on their own.
"Finally, the fact that our "New World" was randomly generated (and so large it required disk caching and overlays) made exploring a challenge fraught with peril and surprises. It sufficiently captured the sense of panic that comes from being lost in the wilderness and running out of supplies as well as the joy of rescue (which was something I experienced once backpacking and wanted to make a touchstone of this design)."
Bunten steadily avoided convention, always plowing ahead with innovative games. With Modem Wars in 1988, she pioneered what would become online gaming, and continued to push forward with 1990's Command HQ and 1992's Global Conquest.
Heart of Africa, the sequel to Seven Cities, appeared only on the Commodore 64 and sold only a fraction of the original. A version of MULE for the Sega Genesis was famously scrapped when Sega insisted on "updating" the classic with weapons. Bunten was working on an online version of MULE when she succumbed to lung cancer in 1998, owing to a lifetime of chain smoking.
Dani Bunten was also transgender. I remember the original group photo of the creators when Electronic Arts was founded, and you could see that in Dan Bunten's face. Not only the femininity, but the underlying sadness behind the eyes.
Dan Bunten's connections with his family became strained when he changed genders in 1992, and I suspect this gets to the heart of her career as an artist. Nearly all of her games were designed for multiplayer, at a time when multiplayer games didn't really exist (aside from a few titles like Atari's Warlords).
Above all else, Dani Bunten Berry wanted people to connect with one another. Videogames could be something more than quick thrills aimed at boys and teenagers. Family members of all ages could come together and play a great game, just as they would play Bridge or Charades. For me, this is Dani Bunten's legacy.