I am living a very quiet life lately; I can’t even take a walk because of the smoke from the wildfires. The thing is that the less novelty you experience, the more things become thrilling. Here is a list of things that I have found thrilling today:
- Eating an oven-fresh brownie while staring at my framed print of the Spolia Tarot Death card
- Took out the trash
- The five-minute period each day when I get direct sunlight in my alley-facing studio, and the rainbow maker makes a rainbow
- Bought a new cactus pot online!!
- Got to the gay part of Dostoevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova
- Rowing machine
- Gender euphoria upon realizing that as a man, I feel inappropriate replying on Twitter to female creators I don’t know, which means I’ll never be friends with Jenny Nicholson, which is fine because Nicholson is not on the list of Internet people I particularly want to meet, although her videos have gotten me through many workouts with their low-key “POV: very insightful friend drinking a Dr. Pepper and telling you why you’re wrong about The Last Jedi*” energy
- Literally just now I was thrilled to realize that I forgot to apply my acne medication after the shower, so I got to do that
*I have always been wrong about The Last Jedi, but this gives me no gender euphoria; it marks me, one feels, as the wrong kind of man
So you can imagine how I felt the other day about the release of Crusader Kings III, Sweden’s preeminent filicide simulator. CKIII is a sequel to the very similar CKII (mostly, they’ve reverse-engineered the game into something sort of stylistically unified, instead of spending years releasing contradictory and literally Byzantine DLC), so while it’s a new game, it’s already hard to explain without resorting to clichés I’ve heard for years: “filicide,” “medieval Sims grafted to a dusty management game,” “surprisingly few crusades.” It is a game in which you can pursue a “stewardship lifestyle,” giving rise, of course, to the self-answering question “How do you afford your stewardship lifestyle?”
(Did you know that the CAKE video I just linked is entirely made up of screenshots of me playing Crusader Kings?)
The joy of the Crusader Kings games, as I started to say, is that you don’t need to understand the rules, and in fact you shouldn’t. It is always tremendously unclear who inherits what, who can conquer what places without diplomatic penalties, who can murder whom, and above all, who will be your character’s successor (in these games, you play a whole dynasty of rulers, so that when the Duke of Friuli pushes off at age 68 from “severe stress,” you become his son, Virginio).
To my mind, it is the explicit purpose of these rules to be overcomplicated and incoherent. Succession alone will screw you eight times out of ten. Your heir never manages to inherit all your land. The game ostensibly warns you about this, but I’ve logged 700 fucking hours of CKII and I have never reliably succeeded, so to speak, at even this elementary mechanic.
Part of this is that I suck at this whole kind of game; I’m too much of an aesthete to think the right way. Another part is that CKII and CKIII — which model hundreds of people with thousands of traits, tics, and Stewardship Lifestyles — are thematically about luck, chance, emergent chaos, slipping along down the dark waterslide of history into God knows what stagnant pool. See Tolstoy’s iconic rant in War and Peace (if you’re not in the mood for a block quote, just listen to the number from Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 where Pierre hollers “It is Napoleon!/[…]He is not a great man! None of us are great men! We are just caught up in the wave of history!/Nothing matters! Everything matters! It’s all the same!”):
[…]The more we try to explain such events in history reasonably, the more unreasonable and incomprehensible do they become to us.
[…] There are two sides to the life of every man, his individual life, which is the more free the more abstract its interests, and his elemental hive life in which he inevitably obeys laws laid down for him.
Man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of the historic, universal, aims of humanity. […] The higher a man stands on the social ladder, the more people he is connected with and the more power he has over others, the more evident is the predestination and inevitability of his every action.
[…]A king is history’s slave.
History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes.
All of these grand strategy games are slightly monstrous. My other perennial favorite, Civilization, is different from Crusader Kings in that it can be understood and played well, which to my mind makes it much worse. To imagine yourself as a man who has a son he thinks is weak, and who hires assassins to kill him — that is bad. To imagine yourself as a person who understands and controls the course of history — that is monstrous.