Enthusiasts of the construction and craft of games perennially seem to be stuck between celebrating the successes of titles that are popular and powerful commercial mass-market experiences and the tension that really only the “indie” microcosm has any sort of interactive simulation that carries any actual meaning that is transferable to the lives of the player. As far as I can tell, this happens for two reasons. The first is media envy. Some game makers want their works to be seen as capital I important and the media that does that well: books, cinema, songwriting, etc., seem to do that by actually being about something and trying to better the consumer’s life in some minute way. The second reason that we crave titles with meaning is the same reason we crave meaning from those other aforementioned media: it makes our lives better, deeper, and more fulfilled.
Of course, the discussion of how and why we derive pleasure and meaning from media is complicated and beyond the scope of what I want to discuss here. My point in bringing it up is to frame that we seem to take a barbell approach to games: either our successful games are completely nihilistic (Halo, League of Legends, God of War) or they are highly directed to be about a message (Papers Please, Gone Home, Depression Quest). The middle ground provides difficult territory and seems to create dissonance such as the hamfisted shoehorning of charged imagery into Bioshock Infinite or the middle-school doodling of Metal Gear Solid 4. We seem to react strongly not to a message or the lack of one, but to the expectations of message. In the case of where the mechanics suggest a message while the narrative suggests a different message, Clint Hocking called this ludonarrative dissonance. I think there is something to be said about another type of dissonance, where the mechanics create a type of message that is dissonant with expectations. Sometimes messing with expectations can be good (see The Stanley Parable or to a lesser extent Train, or even the recent comedy movie The World’s End), but often the practice just feels incomplete or incorrect.
7 Grand Steps, Step One: What Ancients Begat is a little independent game with an insufferably long title (so I will henceforth call it 7GS) that I picked up recently on Steam. It was nominated for an award at a recent Indiecade, but I had not known it made the trip to Steam until it popped up on a flash sale. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a Euro-style board game. I’m quite fond of Euro-style board games. They tend to have a depth and thoughtfulness to systems that I find fulfilling to play. 7GS even has a passing resemblance to the Euro game T’Zolkin as they both feature large moving wheels.
In 7GS, you play a lineage of ancient individuals who are attempting to better themselves generation after generation. They do this by cultivating tokens that represent resources and spending them to move their pawns away from the ever encroaching crocodiles. Tokens are mainly cultivated by having sex (complete with inappropriate tribal rhythm sound effects) with either your married partner or other AI players that are represented by creepy silhouettes. Eventually, you will “begat” a child or half-dozen. The children then have to be “fed” tokens which will increase their understanding of the various resources so that when they come of age that they can, in turn, earn more tokens. Additionally, you must attempt to land on beads that are strewn about the game board in order to make discoveries that either change the resources on the board or upgrade your family to a higher social class on the wheel. At a high enough level, you will play an unrelated Lemonade Stand game that manages the resources of your people.
The dynamics that this system creates leave a lot of odd messages to be absorbed by the player. First, additional children beyond the eldest are at best unnecessary. Sometimes kids happen (because whoops), but there is no mechanical reason to ever feed them tokens. You will only carry one child into the next generation, so it makes sense to only use your resources on the eldest as they will have the most time to develop skills. There will be messages generated about so-and-so’s jealousy, but nothing ever seems to become of it. There is no penalty for having a massive family because you never have to actually spend resources on them. Spend resources on advancing yourself or preparing your eldest kid. So have a bunch of kids or not. Who cares? They don’t matter. Is that the intended message?
Second is the meaninglessness of the tiers. I spent a few hours and a few generations climbing up from digging in the muck to leading a civilization. Yet the only benefit I seemed to have gained from doing so is additional work in the form of the civilization management slider game. One can yield bonus tokens by being a corrupt leader, but the game’s messaging seems to suggest not doing so as yields lower with higher corruption levels. It’s the one actual tradeoff that was evident in the game, yet it carried no weight as the point of being an excellent civic leader was unclear. It suggested that the right path was to do whatever the hell you wanted as leader because you will outlive any repercussions. Is that the intended message?
Finally was the message of mechanical toil. After leveling up out of the Copper age, I entered the Bronze age which seemed to great me with different icons, yet the same grinding tasks. What is the benefit of spending all of your hero points to escape an age? I don’t know. There are hints to a problem of an age, yet I played for a few hours without seeing any payoff. It seems like all the work in the game is pointless. Is that the intended message?
This brings me back to my original comment on dissonance. What bugs me is that I think this game has a lot of potential. Choosing which tokens to spend to move your pawns into appropriate positions is a fun subgoal. It’s a “core loop” that works very well (to use the industry parlance) surrounded by systems that both fail to provide meaningful ludic consequence and simultaneously provide odd semiotic impact. The idea of crafting generations towards one overarching goal has loads of promise (see also Rogue Legacy, Hero Generations) as it hasn’t been popularized in this sort of odd board game/RPG hybrid.
Part of what is attractive about board games is the abstraction of decision-making into incredibly discrete moments and resources. By focusing on just the interactions of systems with decision makers, board games have the opportunity to craft very salient moments of meaningful decision-making whereas continuous simulations like many real-time video games hide their meaningful moments in loops of dominated or rote task completion. There is room for digital games that create the same density of meaning as the best board games. And often they look like board games. An example that comes to mind is Introversion’s Defcon. But when the decision making is trite, dominated, or is filled with odd connotation, it seems to this player like a wholly missed opportunity. If 7GS wants to be a Euro-style board game, it needs to have more interesting and impactful decision-making. If 7GS wants to be a game about life in ancient times, the mechanics need to have relevance to that theme.
7GS is interesting and worth playing, but the next six steps need to support more weight.