I first played Sid Meier’s Pirates! on a Commodore 64 in 1987. I was kind of obsessed with it, and I remain kind of obsessed with it.
In an era when phrases like “open world game” and “sandbox play” weren’t familiar ones, Pirates! offered a more robust and unique gaming experience than anything that I had played before.
Pirates! gave its player no obvious central goal to guide the experience. It simply plopped you down in a sloop on the Spanish Main to do “pirate-y” things. You could attack and board ships, sack towns, dig for buried treasure, take down a Treasure Fleet, court the favor of one of four European navies, court Governors’ daughters, or, well, just about anything else you could think to do on a pirate ship—and all of this in a completely self directed fashion. There was no central narrative, no missions, no guidance (beyond the explanation of the game’s systems in the instruction manual). You were simply a pirate, out to build a ferocious crew of bloodthirsty brigands, but really out for yourself.
And that really was the central goal for me. What the game did provide me was an ability to self evaluate. Pirates! had no clear ending, simply the ability to retire your pirate captain at some point (when that was, was left up to you) and consider your achievements: how much booty you had acquired, what rankings you had achieved in various navies, how much land you had been granted by various European aristocrats, how many lost relatives you had located, what quality of woman you had managed to marry.
In essence, the concluding moments of a Pirates! game measured your success in terms of social status, in terms of economic stature, in terms of how beautiful a woman you had married, in terms of, well, overall accomplishment and how it can by materially evidenced. The game would tally all of these individual accomplishments that you had achieved, and then let you know your lot in life based on those successes on the high seas.
How accomplishment is valued in the game is very much a product of its time, the late 80s. Everything in Pirates! comes down to wealth building and how that elevates you both financially and in terms of how people come to view you. It, like the decade, was all about status, status, status.
Despite its Colonial setting, Pirates! feels very American with its emphasis on the self-made man, material evidence of accomplishment and future happiness, and, of course, the freedom to do what you want to do, no matter the morality of those activities. Admittedly, much of this falls in line with the ideals of piracy itself, an occupation seemingly very much about freedom, wealth building, and display. Pirates were often flashy self-made men, skirting both the law and social mores for the sake of bettering themselves and at the expense of others.
Returning to Pirates! once again as I have done off and on over the years, replaying the original as well as playing the 1994 and 2004 remakes, I am very much reminded of how much the game is about me, the pirate captain, and not anyone else, my crew, my wife, the countries that I sometimes pledge my temporary allegiance to. The game continues, for me, to be about me. It is about playing to improve those accomplishments that will define me in the end, defining my fortunes, both in terms of my finances and in the broader sense of that term, my fate.
The game has always encouraged me to look to myself above any of the men that I sail with. I have always gamed the system when it comes to hoarding wealth in Pirates!. Throughout the game, there is always the option to retire and see how you stand, but also there is always an option to cast off your current crew by dividing what plunder you currently have, socking away your cut to protect until the final scoring of your accomplishments, before returning to the high seas with a new crew. When I have acquired a heap of gold with one crew, I am always figuring out ways to reduce the numbers of that crew before that final division of labor in order to increase my own allotment at the end of any successful campaign.
I will get the crew into a mutinous mood, so that some members will jump ship at ports. I will get into skirmishes with other ships and draw out battles on deck, so that I take a lot of casualties on my own side, before striking down the captain of the vessel and winning with only a handful of my own men still alive. I will attempt to sack towns where my men, men that I have sailed with for years, are heavily outnumbered by garrisoned troops, lose a good chunk of my fellow cutthroats, before retreating, sailing to a friendly port, and dividing up the plunder with the few remaining living crew members. Gaming the division system may or may not have been the intended way to play Pirates!, but it is certainly in the spirit of piracy to do so. Sure, I have a crew, but when push comes to shove when I am playing Pirates!, I am a crew of one, the only one whose fortune matters to me in the end.
Likewise, the most recent iterations of the game have allowed the act of courting a beautiful wife to evolve. What was once a very minor subquest is an even more practical means of improving one’s future status overall. Now that my pirate captain can romance beauties across the Spanish Main, these women provide perks that become relevant to building my social stature on the whole. No longer mere trophy wives, the women of Pirates! will provide information as you successfully court them, like how to find a long lost relative or by providing information leading to the biggest payoff in the game, the most valuable treasure that you can find on land, a cache of Incan gold. These aren’t so much romances as they are practical and financial partnerships between two ambitious individuals. My wife is not only something beautiful to show off. She has additional use-value for acquiring wealth and establishing myself even higher in the social pecking order.
All of which probably sounds awful and amoral, but it is Pirates!.
It is cutthroat in the seventeenth century sense and in the Gordon Gecko “Greed is good!” sense. And just as Gecko is a villain whose charms are still difficult to escape, despite the fact that we know that he is a selfish creep, Pirates! remains, for me at least, a reminder of the satisfaction received from giving in to the allure of a life evaluated through the material emblems of status and the belief that you can make it all on your own, ever sailing as a crew of one.