My Dark Side Surprised Me When Playing Crusader Kings 2
I like to think that I am a moral person who cares about the wellbeing of other people. Even in my escapism, I find myself hewing closely to a strong moral center. I’m the guy who plays video games with dichotomous “good/evil” choices straight down the boy scout line.
Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Infamous: I’ve missed half of each of those games by adhering strictly to ethical and moral standards. So I was as surprised as anyone that a game about medieval succession of all things made me into a complete bastard.
Braving the Learning Curve of Evil
If you are unfamiliar with it, Crusader Kings II is a game where you play an entire noble dynasty, navigating treachery by your underlings while simultaneously attempting to subvert the rule of your betters to cement your own rise in power. It is astonishingly detailed in its depiction of the minutiae of the feudal hierarchy and the way that titles are transferred.
It’s a game that I must assume is incomprehensibly boring to most people, but laced with metaphoric crack cocaine for a certain breed of history nerd or fan of genealogy. The tutorial necessary to even really play the game can last for up to an hour, and even after sacrificing 659 hours of my life (thanks, Steam, for highlighting what can only be called an obsession into stark focus), I am still learning new tricks.
Seriously, the learning curve for Crusader Kings II has to be one of the steepest of any game I’ve ever played. But the biggest trick I learned was how to be a heartless tyrant who crushes the weak under his boot and treats his offspring as political bargaining chips.
Children are Expendable Assets
In real life, I pride myself on being an attentive father, but in Crusader Kings I have children whose names I don’t even know. I’ve sent my children to be raised by my political rivals in much the same way that Theon Greyjoy was raised by the Starks in Game of Thrones.
I’ve married off daughters to geriatric foreign nobles and then promptly forgotten where they were sent to live until I needed to call a son-in-law into a war against one of my neighbors. I’ve forced my sons to take religious vows and become bishops rather than risk having my kingdom fractured among my offspring. I’ve imprisoned, banished, and executed my own children who have threatened my reign through intrigue or armed revolt.
I’ve even done it without noticing that they were related to me. What kind of father doesn’t notice he’s signed the death warrant for his own son?
Me. I’m that kind of father, apparently.
I’m the Bully on the Crusader Kings Playground
My fellow rulers don’t fare much better. In every game of Crusader Kings II that I have played, I have gradually amassed power by beating up on weaker nations.
Unlike many games like it, you can’t just declare war on your neighbor in Crusader Kings; you must have casus belli (something to justify declaring war) before sending your forces to invade. I’ve sent my advisors to fabricate claims on other nations out of whole cloth, I’ve called on the Pope to excommunicate other rulers and I’ve married my own children into their royal family in the hopes of having a valid (but tenuous) claim to the throne after a generation or two.
I’ve declared war on allies and peaceful neighbors, promptly raised an army, and sent my superior forced spilling over the border like a scourge, annihilating the pathetic resistance that barely has a chance to muster before joining battle with my horde.
I’ve starved out castles, abbeys and cities, as well as lost patience and just told my troops to lay siege to them, regardless of the bloody cost.
Giving Henry VIII a Run for his Money
In real life, I’m a family man who works to help disadvantaged people get their high school equivalency, but in Crusader Kings II I’m the kind of psychotic asshole who would murder his wife for reaching menopause without giving birth to any male heirs so that I can marry some young princess to have a second chance of perpetuating my dynasty.
At one point, I married the only daughter of a nearby kingdom and proceeded to assassinate each of her brothers one by one (some of them while they were still children) so that she was the only one left to inherit the crown and our son would be heir to both kingdoms.
This is what 19th century author Ludwig von Rochau called realpolitik: the pragmatic pursuit of political possibilities without concern for ideology, morals, or ethics. I did what had to be done to amass power and continue my dynasty, regardless of how evil the behavior.
When I play Crusader Kings II, I simply have no regard for anything other than the perpetuation of my hereditary divine right, which I guess puts me squarely with the historical feudal governments this game attempts to simulate.
Digital Depravity of History
Here’s the worst part: Crusader Kings II has no victory conditions. It is a game where the enjoyment comes from playing the game, not attempting to beat it. So every cruel act, every atrocity I committed, I did without impetus or direction.
I decided that Great Britain (or Italy or the Middle East, or Scandinavia… I’ve played a lot of this game) needed to be united under my rule, but that was a self-imposed victory. When I decided that I needed my dynasty to survive from 769 until the birth of the Renaissance and that I’d engage in complete depravity to make that happen, it wasn’t a solution to a problem posed by the game, but my own dark, power-hungry side calling the shots.
The game didn’t make me a bastard, it gave me an excuse to be one.