Games

To Explore or Conquer: Colonialism in 'Expeditions Conquistador'

Somewhere, Expeditions Conquistador has a “right” path. There is a better way to act than the actual conquistadors did. But even the most restrained, responsible, and virtuous expedition is harmful, mired with challenges, and weighed down by the reminders that you are an outsider that poses a threat.

When characters in Expeditions Conquistador talk about savages and slaves, they aren’t talking about monsters, androids, aliens, elves, mages, demi-humans, mutants or zombies like other games that approach colonial themes. Expeditions Conquistador is talking about actual people that were actually dehumanized, kidnapped, and forced to work themselves to death. And the game is played from the perspective of the people that did the enslaving. The player is given a sense of power that remains uncomfortable throughout the whole game. However, the point is to be made uncomfortable by the amount of power you’re given. It’s meant to be played through the lens of a post-colonial, post-industrial, post-War ethos.

The game encourages you to give the protagonist your own first and last names. Statistically male and female characters are identical, and there are very few visual cues to distinguish them. The bonus collectibles that the player can earn are brief write-ups explaining the actual history behind the game, which the game also allows the player to deviate from. The developers are aware of what happened in early 16th century South America and the challenge seems to be to rewrite that history after the colonization of the New World is well underway. Because combat and exploration in the game is so difficult, stability and desperation are just one or two poor decisions away. When you’re running low on rations, and you’re given the option to pillage a nearby native settlement, the temptation is there. When you route a group of native scouts that tried to ambush you, there’s a feeling of triumph. The point is to tease out the sense of disconnection that comes with being forced to do harm when you’re trying to do good.

When you win a battle, the picture that greets you afterwards is one of bearded Spaniards clad in armor leisurely resting their muskets on their shoulders while they stand proudly over the bloodied corpses of natives. The primary enemy of the game is actually Spanish rebels, and you spend most of the time fighting other Spanish forces. But the victory picture is still white gunmen standing over native warriors. It doesn’t matter if you were fighting Spaniards or if there are natives on your team, the picture is the same. That picture is a reminder: you are causing harm.

The game bestows all this power on the player and frames the narrative around the opportunity to fix history, but it places the expedition a full generation after the Spanish first started settling the Caribbean. It’s too late to fix anything: your hero is still carrying traces of smallpox, she’s still trading valuables that will turn into weapons in a stranger’s war, and she’s still free to exploit slave labor or kill whomever she’s annoyed by. To say the least, it’s morally difficult.

Throughout the story, you’re asked several times by almost every major character about what brought you to the New World. However, the question isn’t meant for the player-character, but for the player. Why did you start playing Expeditions Conquistador? The answer, ultimately, is in the admittedly awkward title of the game. Did you come for exploration or for conquest? After all, the one fact that has been determined about the player-character is that that individual comes from a noble Spanish family, leaving them with no material need to find a new home.

The easiest answer to the problem of colonialism is to just agree that the colonial forces should never have been in the Americas in the first place. But Expeditions Conquistador doesn’t offer that option. The game takes place long after the Spanish first landed in Hispaniola. It’s far too late to just decide not to colonize, it’s already happening. The Spanish are already there, and by playing the game, so is the player. The issue that the game and that the player are forced to deal with is what to do next.

It must be remembered that the game is an alternate history. Cortez hasn’t carried out his genocide of the Aztecs. He won’t get the chance because the player-character is there. The player assembles an expeditionary force based primarily on the personalities of the people back home. The player can find nonviolent solutions to conflicts, they can recruit willing natives to speak on behalf of the expedition, they can play and explore with the sole intention of learning, and they can compose teams consisting of or entirely of women with no statistical (and barely any visual) difference. This is a version of history that the player, armed with half a millennium of retrospect, can change.

But it isn’t a change to be taken lightly. The game keeps three autosaves to allow for easy backtracking because everything about the game is so bloody hard. The player can choose to leave a group of Taíno natives to their worship only to have your most skilled doctor declare a mutiny over a perceived insult to God. The player can ask native members of their team to facilitate conversation with a fishing village, only to find out that the native on your team belongs to a warring tribe, which forces a fight. In short, there are countless things that can go wrong, and the game gives you multiple save states because something will go wrong and only starting from scratch can repair the damage.

The point of the game is to fix history, yet there are so many outcomes that result in the tragedy of South America’s actual history. It’s so easy for the player’s team to be whittled apart by sickness, injury, or starvation, and the game keeps a record of all the people that the player could not keep alive. It’s always tempting to stave off defeat by becoming a war criminal. Just having the option without any consequence contributes to the extreme discomfort that comes with being given so much undeserved power.

Somewhere, Expeditions Conquistador has a “right” path. There is a better way to act than the actual conquistadors did. But even the most restrained, responsible and virtuous expedition is harmful, mired with challenges, and weighed down by the reminders that you are an outsider that poses a threat. Unfortunately, all that is available from Logic Artists as of now is a press preview of Expeditions Conquistador, which only follows the first few quests in Hispaniola. So the main plot of the game is not even underway in the only available iteration of the game. That said, the purpose of the game is well established in the opening few hours. It just can’t yet be said whether or not it succeeds in it. In either case, it deserves a close eye for its ambition.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.