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  • Excerpt: What Makes A Game 'Epic' Or Even 'Great'?

    [08.28.12]
    - Lewis Pulsipher

  • Discussion:

    1) Scope

    Geographically and chronologically broad setting without feeling abstract:

    "Sweep of history" games that involve many centuries and countries or the world, such as Britannia, History of the World, and 7 Ages, are generally regarded as epic. So, too, is Civilization, both the original board game that preceded the computer games and the computer games. Yet other games with big scopes are not epic, for example Vinci and Risk, because they feel so abstract that the Areal world@ no longer feels present. Real-time strategy computer games are generally too short to feel epic. A short game with the same subject as a long epic might not feel epic: for example, I've designed a 90-minute version of Britannia (admittedly leaving out the Roman conquest) that is unlikely to feel epic to most players.

    Represents a titanic struggle important to very large numbers of people and possibly many generations:

    Age of Empires, the Total War series, and Civilization meet this criterion. Some Napoleonic games might qualify here, perhaps even some American Civil War games, certainly a vast World War II game like Axis & Allies. War of the Ring, Master of Orion, Sins of a Solar Empire, and Twilight Imperium qualify, even though the struggle is not "real"; it can be fictional, as long as players suspend their disbelief and adopt the fiction. In all cases these are great "slugfests."


    Medieval II: Total War

    Non-mundane theme:

    You're not likely to regard a game about selling real estate as epic (Monopoly!). Nor a game about building a house. Nor a game about eating fish. Many people expect "epic story elements" from an epic game, such as becoming king or saving the world. Many video games and action movies involve saving the world, to the point that anything less seems mundane to some.

    Story "arc" reflecting great changes:

    A great story isn't necessary to an epic game, and certainly many games with great stories are not epic. Yet in some epic games, the game "story," what it represents, reflects major changes over time. It is a saga with beginning, middle, and end, so that the situation at the end of the game is very different from the beginning, almost like it's a different world.

    2) Player commitment

    Depth of gameplay including high replayability:

    This is clearly open to differing opinions about depth of gameplay. The video games we've been citing have deeper gameplay than most other video games. This is another case where Vinci and Risk fail my definition, as there is little depth to their gameplay. But you could argue the same thing about History of the World.

    Sheer length or complexity (or both):

    Civilization is one of the most widely acknowledged epic games. Can you have a two hour Civ game and retain the epic feel? Many would say "no." Can you drastically simplify what the players do without losing the epic feel? Hard to say. It seems that length, rather than complexity, is part of the mystique of the epic game.

    An epic game need not be both very long and very complex. I cite Britannia-like games here, as Britannia is lengthy but not complex. But an epic game will very likely be at least one or the other, very long or very complex.

    Oddly enough, often this means no role assumption is involved!

    In role-assumption games, you can conceive yourself as taking on the specific role of an individual person. For example, you might be a squad leader, or a castle builder. It's too much like something you might do in the real world, and we rarely think of the real world as epic! In many epic games you cannot name a specific individual that you play, at best you might take on the roles of a series of individuals (kings, presidents, generals). Perhaps a game (as opposed to a D&D adventure) feels more epic for the very reason that you cannot identify with one (mortal) person.

    In the many video games where you have an avatar, what you're doing is so personal and immediate that the "epic feel" often isn't there. In many epic games you don't even play just one nation, but several. You have an "omnipresent" (though not omnipotent or omniscient) point of view.

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