The List: Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII Part 3 – Playing Nice With Others

The defining experience, at least from my personal view, comes from the multiplayer component.

Most Koei strategy games released in the West, as ports of personal computer games, inevitably come with a rather mediocre multiplayer component attached. Basically, you’ll pick the scenario, the ruler/person you wish to play, and then how many players will participate. Most people would completely ignore this last feature as a strange vestige of the product’s original roots, and they wouldn’t think wrongly. How exactly do you play a complicated strategy game with reams of numbers and statistics if the other players can look at your particular resources in whatever province/region you control? What do you do when your opponents sit beside you on the couch, watching your every move?

It’s a strange hurdle, granted, and assumes that everyone knows the common rules endemic to the genre. You certainly can’t tell someone to “look away”, for that will always inspire peeks and looks, perhaps even movements when you take a bathroom break (and trust me, the game will always take long enough to allow for bathroom breaks!). Instead, what happens is that you don’t speak much of your intentions or what exactly you’re doing. To make this clearer, imagine a bluff in poker. Your overall strategy isn’t revealed by individual movements (which your opponents can see). Instead, the grand plan remains in your mind.

Eventually, your plans will scrape and conflict with theirs, but that’s the fun part. Every turn becomes a game of figuring out what exactly they will do, whether they’re trying to deceive you with troop movements and resource management, or whether they plan something more underhanded and deviously. None of this comes into play with the original game (and I imagine it wasn’t designed that way for PC multiplayer, granted), but circumstance dictates the lay of the land. Knowing the information of every play means the information you don’t know turns into something vitally important. And scary, if you’re on the receiving end!

Could this apply to any game similar to this? Sure! But I imagine the density of information here, coupled with the fact that every person remains tied to a couch for the entirety of whatever sessions, means the game burns slowly. Strategies form outside of the game when, inevitably, you must stop playing. Unless you want to die from lack of sleep, you need to stop playing, and that introduces a time element to the whole experience.

The only time where this makes any rational sense comes from a bunch of free time, unemployment with friends, or a long summer vacation, so take that as you will. It’s doable, but getting multiple people to accept a time commitment like this requires a lot of free choice to submit yourselves to a game of this length and depth.

You also need to set limitations on what players can and cannot do as a set of unwritten dictums that determine what other human players can do during what I’d call the “development phase”. In any Koei game, the scenario nearly forces you to play with an AI of some shape or form. Yes, even within the Three Kingdoms period, barbarians (as we in the West would call them, per our long-held association with the Roman Empire) continue to plague the border regions and lack respect for their neighbors. They obtain massive forces that work excessively well in mountain terrain as well as elephants which crush infantry and cavalry, turning them into pancakes. One kingdom or another WILL border them, and the computer players may or may not attack you. I am unsure (even after years of playing) what is in their decision-making process, but it looks like a combination of examining your resources to theirs.

Or maybe they’ll just go for it and jump headlong into a suicidal mission. So it is that the human players, if they know what’s good for them, form a truce exterior to the game. All territory except for the human territories are up for grabs, and it’s a race to find/obtain the most resources, both in natural resources and human capital (i.e., officers for your army). Most of the time, choosing the scenario exterior to historical accuracy (as in “dream scenarios” where they pile generals and heroes from the whole of the period into one jumbled mess of a map) functions well for the sake of balance. History ain’t that fun when you have the weakest kingdom!

Of course, some players deign their state of fairness, instead deciding (COUGH *my brother* COUGH) that they need as many advantages as possible. If there’s one rule among the many multiplayer games of Romance of the Three Kingdoms that I played, it is this: you may not bribe generals from other player armies. For one thing, how unbelievably unfair is that?! Seriously! Imagine working your way through the map, conquering everything at will and finally capturing the most notorious warrior in the whole game: Lu Bu. For those not familiar with the source material on hand, Lu Bu’s cultural significance comes from his status as an exceptionally great warrior, if not THE greatest warrior in the entire Three Kingdoms period. That’s saying a lot!

Lu Bu Dynasty Warriors 8

This might be from Dynasty Warriors 8, but I assure you the funny hat is found in nearly every piece of media based on the Three Kingdoms period

However, he wasn’t the smartest guy in the classroom, by which I mean his erratic behavior and constantly shifting loyalties eventually led even Cao Cao, the founder of the kingdom of Wu, to execute him when he had the chance. The greatest fighter in the world isn’t an asset if you can’t depend on him. So it is in the game as well! Lu Bu’s attributes in Romance of the Three Kingdoms VIII present us with a strange mix. Although his charisma and political skills look merely average (on a scale of 1-100, think 50-60), but his military skill and intelligence present the greatest problem. He has a 108 in battle where the cap is mostly 100 (without training on the part of a general), and a 24 in intelligence (i.e., he is dumb). Lu Bu, true to his nature, doesn’t have a particular problem with shifting sides.

Hence, when Zachery Oliver makes Lu Bu into a loyal servant, it’s impossible. It only takes a gift of shiny gold or trinkets to woo Lu Bu to a different side, and then your opening gambit (to use Lu Bu in most subsequent conflicts) is shot. Someone broke the rules of the meta-game for their own advantage, and that’s never fun. Not to say I’m particularly good at strategy games; as you’ll notice by the dearth of them on this site, I am rather terrible at them! When I do play, however, I expect some modicum of respect and fairness. Not so when playing with family, it seems!

So do these 60-100 hour multiplayer games drag on and on until someone quits, or that the decisive conflict/battle happens and there’s nothing left but twenty hours of cleaning up the rest in a string of horrible losing battles you cannot hope to win. I suppose that’s part of the appeal from the victor’s perspective and from the side of history. A slow, agonizing defeat remains much more satisfying than a simple single victory. The war of attrition, like in real life, carries on as your supplies and resource dwindle until nothing remains.

In that sense, the player feels every reason why they should develop an excellent strategy to defeat their opponents, all under the mask of deception. Actually, to use an analogy derived from conversations by Eric Anderson of Nerd Chapel, it’s akin to playing Risk with pogs and different rules; sure, you see what you’re opponent does, but not the grand plan. Having the opponent in the same room, and actually knowing that person, truly ups the stakes and the claims quite a bit!

This is why games like Goldeneye and Smash Bros. remain in the hearts of so many: although they were inferior to the “real thing” (in our case, Unreal Tournament/Quake III Arena and picking most any main franchise Capcom/SNK/Namco created), the demand of placing four people in the same room gave a different vibe to the whole event. As is common knowledge, the Internet dominates us all with the low common denominator, random death/rape threats from strangers, and young children shouting racial slurs at high volumes (somehow within ear shot of their mothers!). Rather, we played with real people in a real room. To add insult to injury, or companionship to solitude, we would see them again at some point in time.

Chalk it up to relative complexity, but Romance of the Three Kingdoms wasn’t even designed for balance or multi-player in mind. It appears clear that the game surely wasn’t trying to become the next competitive extravaganza, but a slow and plodding historical simulation with elements of roleplaying. Still, in my house, it ended up as a community experience. You get to talk about things that would sound hilariously violent out of context (conquest of Chinese cities never ceases to sound funny at the dinner table). Yes, I suppose it involves mock deception within the context of the game, but what good family and friends conflict doesn’t (just kidding!)?

Not that the Internet prevents such relationships from forming. Thing is, I like talking about video games. A lot. I like revealing new games to people who’ve never heard of them before, and like playing games people recommend to me. We’ve all got diverse tastes. Although it may appear we’re materialists at heart when we talk of Steam Sales or backlogs, we’re really just showing our interests; we want to share what we like with other people. Otherwise, try explaining the explosion of video game criticism, writing, and culture that emerged around the Internet. Heck, apply it to any burgeoning subculture.

Video games not only unite disparate people, but bridge generations. They bridge gaps in communications and allow us to talk about anything, and everything, under the banner of a common interest. It’s very cool to see the people I’ve met on Theology Gaming. We all live rather different lives, but we all share a love of video games that became a conduit for actual, real relationships. I suppose that’s why Hebrews 10 says thus:

19 Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; 24 and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds,25 not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.

You can’t encourage someone without actually knowing them! And you certainly can’t develop relationships without having something to talk about. We must be all things to all people, and that starts right with your hobbies! Romance of the Three Kingdoms, in effect, widened my horizons, made me rather competitive, and gave me a life-long love of history that will probably never leave me. How else would I have known about it, and be able to share it with you right now about a story thousands of years old condensed into video game form? The good memories with friends and family surely won’t either, nor the new times I will make. Here’s hoping for another one so that I may crush my enemies! I’ll leave you with Wild Man Ted Loring’s wise words on the subject.

I’ve had a little bit of time to reflect on a recent video game extravaganza weekend that I had with both my son and my nephew, Jackson.  It’s often funny how events work out the way that they do.   I remember how I found out that Jackson had become a bit of a Zelda fanatic – it was during a visit at my Dad’s house.   I can still see him with his Nintendo 3DS handheld sitting on the sofa.  He was playing Ocarina of Time and he wasn’t merely interested in the game, he was obsessed with it.  He was talking about Hyrule and Gerudo to anyone who would listen.  Nathan and I were probably the only two people in the entire group who understood what he was talking about!  It is a testament to a well-designed game when it can cross several generations.

This summer I learned that Jackson have been given a classic NES console with several games.  He became interested in playing many retro games.  I think it is extraordinary when an eleven year old can find an interest like this.  It would seem to me that there are so many other, newer systems out there that would be far more interesting to a young mind…

…For me, video games were just the medium for establishing and building a relationship.  Some people may think that video game players are reclusive and lonely, but I have found in my experience that game players are some of the most social people you could ever come across.  After all, I think relationship is what life is really all about.  Jackson, Nathan, Squiggly, myself, and many others have this common love of games both old and new.  It was great just hanging out together!

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.