Everybody Wants to Own the World

Didn't video games used to be about saving the world or at least a princess or something?

Didn't video games used to be about saving the world or at least a princess or something?

I ask this question as I consider the sorts of games that I have been playing lately. Sure, Fable III, Fallout: New Vegas, and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood all contain elements that concern a civilization on the brink of disaster and the player's role in providing a solution to that threat to the world or region or city-state. However, I have been noticing a tendency on my part when playing these games (especially Fable III and Brotherhood) to get much more involved in the economics of these games and my own investment in them than in paying attention to the noble goal (the common good) of the main plot.

Let me explain what I mean. Sure, the goal of Fable III is to foment rebellion in Albion against your evil brother and the goal in Assassin's Creed is to thwart the plans of the Templars in Renaissance Italy, but in both cases, as soon as I began playing, I left the arc of the main story quests immediately and got much more involved in building an economic empire that I could control through possession of the landscape itself.

In the case of Albion, this means that as soon as I have a few bucks (unlike what I might do in a game in which I needed to save a princess in which I might begin collecting better weapons and armor for the eventual fight necessary to reclaim her), my first interest is in rental properties. Getting a few thousand gold to buy a house to rent out means that I will begin collecting a few hundred gold every few minutes. After that blossoms into another few thousand coins, I'm back buying more property. As soon as I begin collecting thousands rather than hundreds, I'm set on buying more expensive properties that yield higher returns, and, oh yeah, shops that will do likewise. The only reason for me to get “back on track” and work towards saving the kingdom from a despot is to make sure that I unlock the ability to buy shops at all and to open new areas, more towns and villages, to buy property in. Eventually, I am overflowing with cash, which now allows me to get into all of that expensive equipment relatively easily since I now have the cash to be the hero that I need to be. Forget grinding for experience, investment capitalism is the true route to heroism. Muscles and magic are for rubes.

Oddly enough, this idea of investment in heroism really plays out and pays off in the game's ending sequences. A lot of my colleagues here at PopMatters have been complaining about the endgame in Fable III because, in order to save the kingdom on your own terms, the player must manage funds in the royal treasury to allocate towards both managing the kingdom after the despot has been overthrown and to pay for defense spending (as an external threat to the kingdom is imminent). Doing both well is only really possible if you have spent time investing in the kingdom and your ownership of it. I didn't have the same problem that other players seem to have had in the end game with making hard choices about keeping up with defense spending in the long term without having to do so by maintaining problematic child labor practices and protecting industry from environmental regulation because, due to my own obsession with ownership of Albion and building an economic megalith, I had about 6,000,000 gold of my own to supplement the kingdom's own meager treasury (which was only one third that amount when I took control of it). I wasn't surprised that the government of Albion was piss poor by comparison to me. I owned the larger share of the kingdom before I took over the role of “queen”.

Brotherhood's economic components are really very similar in design to that of Albion's, and I am once again possessed by the mania to possess and control Rome more than I am in following up on storyline missions. Ezio and I have barely begun to uncover the machinations of the Templars in the city, but I own 94% of the central district in Rome and a goodly chunk of the suburbs and rural areas surrounding it. If I am supposed to think that the Templars wield a shadowy control over Rome and its politics, I clearly have more power. After all, I don't need a hidden blade to do battle with a conspiracy; I control the purse strings in the republic by owning nearly every local business, from legitimate smithies and banks to illegitimate businesses like brothels and stakes in the thieves' guilds. I imagine that I can push any politician just about any direction that I want to right now. I don't know if my gross economic power will matter in the endgame, but I at least know that I should be able to trick Ezio out with every fancy piece of equipment under the sun before all is said and done and still have more than enough money left over to spend on mercenaries and courtesans.

New Vegas, while containing an interesting economic system based on a model of scrounging as almost the sole source of income generation, lacks the investment model of wealth building that have become my own chief interest when playing out these other “heroic” narratives that I have been occupied with for the last month or two. However, possession and control are still very much central to the endgame in this title. Since New Vegas serves as the mecca of entertainment in the Mojave wasteland, the one place that the survivors of an apocalypse can go to have fun among the ruins of a formerly rich and vibrant America, determining who will control New Vegas in the foreseeable future is the most important decision that the game offers the player in resolving the storyline. The player can choose to give New Vegas into the hands of the man already running it, Mr. House, whose motives may seem grey and muddy at best, but at least he possesses an authority to do so based on his experience running the town. After all, he has been doing so for years and New Vegas is one of the few places that seems to be thriving economically in the whole of the American Wasteland that is Fallout's setting. Or, the right to control New Vegas can be claimed by the player-character.

Interestingly, as much as Fable III was billed as a game that would allow one to consider the consequences of taking the throne after “saving the day” and having to play politics afterward in order to make sure that the kingdom does have a chance at having a “happily ever after”, in practice Fallout: New Vegas is the real political simulator, as the way that you decide to play political factions against one another -- support this faction or decimate that one -- leads to actual control of the outcomes of political, social, and economic life in the Mojave Wasteland if you decide to “play king” yourself at the game's conclusion. Again, owning the purse strings is really where it is at in terms of power and authority in this game, and “saving the day” takes a backseat to the means to that end, the money and influence necessary to do so.

It isn't entirely surprising to me that many games are moving towards an emphasis on the act of possession (of land, of business, of money) and the idea that controlling a situation is largely defined by such possession. Part of the allure of the medium is that the narrative of a game is one in which watching events unfold take a backseat to getting involved in the outcome of the story. A player's complicity in authorship is a very real kind of authority not given to audience's of more passive media, and, frankly, we know where authority comes from -- that same ability to manipulate events and outcomes has to do with ownership. He who controls the setting controls the story.

Likewise, this is also a bit of a mirror on the perception of power that currently seems dominant in pragmatic and recession conscious America. Gone are the days when one might assume that politicians might affect political good because they are decent men and women who want to do what's right for the sake of the country. Instead, we know that it is the money men who guide the ship and the instinct to possess is the most proper estimation of someone's abilities in politics and acquiring power.

Maybe if I I'm feeling especially cynical, I should just reconsider whether possessing the princess was always just emblematic of a means of acquiring class and wealth, a stepping stone to assuming the mantle of authority anyhow. “Saving the princess” seems like such small (and quaintly noble) stakes by comparison to just owning the world.

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