A Simulated Retrospective, Part 1: Pirates

Welcome to a Higher Level Gamer Critical Retrospective! Retrospectives can take many forms: some focus on a single franchise while others take a more expansive approach. For these retrospectives, I’ll be taking the latter approach.

These retrospectives aren’t meant to be best-of lists. Rather, I’ll examine some of the tropes of particular game genres, their historical contexts, provide some examples, as well as explore why I think these genres are fun.

This first retrospective will consist of four parts, and will concentrate on simulations. For the next month, every week I’ll focus on a different simulation genre that is either underrepresented or marginalized in today’s gaming world – pirate sims, Old West sims, submarine sims, and space sims – in order to explore some of the history of video games.

I’ll also be using mainly games that I’ve actually played as examples. So let’s begin with this week’s critical retrospective: pirate sims!

I’ve been struggling for some time with the way I should open this retrospective. I mean, Assassin’s Creed 4 just came out, so it seemed natural that I begin with that. However, it doesn’t strike the right tone as far as far as I’m concerned.

Should I begin with representations of pirates in cinema and literature? Probably closer to the mark, but that still doesn’t feel right.

As strange as this may sound, I think that the best way to begin this critical retrospective is to talk about my grandmother.

My grandmother passed away in 2007 on New Year’s Eve, literally the last day of the year. I was traveling on that day, on my way back to Troy, and I remember my father calling me to tell me the news. But what I probably remember most was the time I spent gaming with my grandmother.

My grandmother was a gamer, you see. In fact, I can’t remember a time when games weren’t a part my experiences with her. When I visited her, board games were usually involved. We’d play cribbage or Milles Bornes for hours, and the victories I got were obtained with difficulty. I remember my mother telling me that my grandmother was also a pretty mean card player. She didn’t like losing, and she gamed with an intensity that would put the most hardcore Call of Duty or the most competitive Starcraft player to shame.

She was also a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan. Even in her early 80s she’d still cheer the Habs on while sipping her Molson Golden. Most of what I knew of hockey as a small kid, I learned from her.

There was a small box in her living room. It was black and brown, and sat beneath her television. I didn’t know what it was other than it said Atari on it. So I asked her, and she showed me.

She showed me how to play Galaxians (her favourite video game). She showed me how to play Joust. After that I started pouring through her game collection: Missile Command, Berzerk, Pac-Man, Millipede, Yar’s Revenge, and others.

It should come as no surprise to anyone reading this blog that I like old games. But now you know why. She taught me to appreciate those games not by talking about them, but by playing them with me. To this day, Joust and Sinistar remain amongst my favourite games.

As I got older, I brought along my Sega Genesis when I visited her. She still preferred her Atari so she didn’t really play on the Genesis. But I still brought it anyways  it when I visited, because there was one game I could only play there. It was only available as a rental at a place near where she lived. That game was Pirates! Gold.

I’ve long enjoyed pirate games, and that enjoyment really started with Pirates! Gold. Pirates! Gold was a remake of Sid Meier’s classic 1987 game Pirates!. It was the first game that I remember playing in which you could just do stuff. You didn’t have to follow a plot, or level up. You just had to be a pirate until you 1) retired or 2) died.

It’s also one of the few games where your character gets worse as the game progresses. Age is an important factor in the game, and an older pirate’s health starts declining as time goes by, making certain actions more difficult. Once a good fencer, my pirate often had difficulty winning duels by the end of his career.

So the game forces you to change tactics. Boarding and duels might be the easiest way to capture a ship early on, but as the game progresses gunnery skills become increasingly important. Where you previously were able to take on a ship’s crew that was greatly superior to your own, older pirates – perhaps wiser ones? – might want to thin down the crew with some well placed shots before boarding.

Pirates!‘s plot was fairly basic. You had to become the greatest pirate of all time by performing 10 piratical feats that ranged from capturing another pirate to discovering the lost Aztec treasure. There’s also a semblance of a story in the game. As you progress, you’ll be getting clues as to where the evil Baron Mendoza is holding your family members prisoner. Your task: rescuing them.

However, it was the experience that drew me in. Pirates! let you be a pirate. Most of your game time will be spent plundering ships and cities, hiring crew, and dealing with crafty governors. The plot just happens around you, eventually, which really succeeds in recreating the traditional atmosphere of freedom-loving piracy.

My journey into piracy continued with Uncharted Waters: New Horizons. Published in 1994, first on consoles and then ported to PCs, the game’s structure differs drastically from Pirates!‘s. Where Pirates! allows you to free-roam, Uncharted Waters keeps you on track. Where Pirates! action is free-flowing, Uncharted Waters‘ is much more controlled. Where Pirates! invites you to ignore the plot, Uncharted Waters draws you in it.

Uncharted Waters‘ plot structure was like nothing I had experienced before. Most games will put you in the shoes of a protagonist whose story you play through. However, Uncharted Waters let you choose between six different protagonists, all with different storylines and game play styles.

Want to discover the lost city of Atlantis? Play as Joao. Want to avenge your fiance’s death? Play as Catalina. Want to defeat the Spanish Armada? Play as Otto. Want to map the entire world? Play as Ernst. Want to discover lost treasures to pay for your father’s debts? Play as Pietro. Want to find your long lost sister? Play as Ali.

These might seem like vastly different stories, but Uncharted Waters shines by ably tying them all together. As you play one character, you’ll occasionally encounter the others on their own quests, sometimes helping them, other times hindering them.

Most of the action in Uncharted Waters is turn-based. Ship battles play like a tactical RPG, and boarding actions are resolved using a card-game-like system. However, make no mistake: Uncharted Waters is hard. Until you’ve upgraded your equipment and ship, you’ll more than likely die or be severely damaged during your first few fights.

I had to wait six years after Uncharted Waters for another pirate game that caught my attention. I had long been waiting for a game that would reproduce the kind of atmosphere found in Pirates!, and in 2000 I thought I had found it in Sea Dogs.

Sea Dogs was the first time I had played a pirate game that provided me with such an amount of control over my ship. It moved away from 16-bit pixelated graphics and provided a full 3-D polygonal environment. It had a vast world that could be freely roamed.

However, it was disappointing. The game suffered from numerous bugs, and the actual mechanics only partially worked. All in all, the game didn’t make you feel like a pirate so much as like a someone trying to win a 1/4 mile drag race with a beat-up Pontiac Firefly.

The year 2004 changed things, though. That year, Firaxis released a remake of Pirates! entitled Sid Meier’s Pirates!. I was skeptical at first because, as well all know, remakes of games too often fall short of their goals. However, the Pirates! remake did not.

Playing Sid Meier’s Pirates! felt like playing Pirates!, only better. The same atmosphere was there, the same game design, the same narrative. However, it provided greater control over your ship’s design, and introduced a few mini-games that largely worked. Once again I was able to face overwhelming odds and win.

After Sid Meier’s Pirates!, I had more or less forgotten about pirate games until this year. I hadn’t really been following the game release schedules, so I didn’t know that Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag had come out last week until my girlfriend walked into our apartment with it.

I’ve been playing the Assassin’s Creed franchise ever since it came out in 2007. I’ve bought and played through every game, but after Assassin’s Creed 3, I thought I was done. I found the game dreary, and after five games, the action was entirely too repetitive. I had no intention of buying Assassin’s Creed 4.

However, it made its way into my hands on release day and I played it. And to my surprise, I had fun.

All of the old Assassin’s Creed mechanics are still there. I still climb, hide, and assassinate. However, for the first time, these actions are almost incidental to my game play. What Assassin’s Creed 4 did was take the one part of Assassin’s Creed 3 that I enjoyed – the immensely fun, but oh so terribly inconsequential naval missions – improved upon it, and made it central to Assassin’s Creed 4‘s experience.

In fact, after having now completed about 15% of the game, I couldn’t really tell you what Assassin’s Creed 4 is like as an Assassin’s Creed game. I’ve been too busy playing it like Pirates!, you see, and it’s been wonderfully fun.

The plot marker is still there on my mini-map, but that convoy is so much closer… and is it carrying metal? Why yes it is… and I need metal to upgrade my ship’s guns, don’t I? It’s a big ship thought, so I’ll have to be sneaky and hit hard before I can board it. What’s that Assassin’s Creed 4? I could use my hidden wrist blades to stealthily sneak my way through the ship? Screw that, I’m a pirate! I’ll swing from this rope and pull out a pair of cutlasses. Arrrrgh!

So what do these games have in common? What can they teach us?

Well first, it’s a very specific representation of pirates that we usually have to deal with. When we say pirates, we really mean the Hollywoodesque Caribbean pirate. In fact, I’ve yet to play a pirate game whose atmosphere wasn’t heavily influenced by Hollywood representations of piracy where pirates are, essentially, the Robin Hoods of the seven seas whose terrible actions solely are focused on ensuring the existence of a Hobbesian (1994) state of nature within which he can thrive.

In the world of Hollywood, the pirate is a charming rogue who fights for freedom against a tyrannical government. This particular narrative is also very present in video game pirate simulations. For example, Pirates! and Assassin’s Creed 4 both rely on a narrative of freedom from official constraints in order to further their plots. Similarly, Uncharted Waters wants you to free the world from Atlantis’ tyrannical rule.

Hollywood and video games also teach us that pirates are almost universally male. A quick look at a top-10 list of pirate movies reveals that every single major pirate protagonist is male. Is this do to the old and still someone present Hollywood position that women are best in “feminine” roles? Or is this resulting from the fact that, historically, the pirates we choose to remember are male? We all remember Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Stede Bonnett, and William Kidd, but who remembers Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Jeanne de Clisson, Elizabeth Killigrew or all the other women pirates that have sprung out in history?

Of the five games that I previously mentioned, only Uncharted Waters lets you play as a female character, Catalina. In fact, in most pirate sims, women are notoriously absent. By absent I don’t mean that they aren’t visually represented. If anything, women are too visually represented in video games. In many games they are there for the sole purpose of being visually represented.

They are what Edward Saïd (1978) would call orientalised. Their entire subjectivities are constructed in such a way that they appear non-threatening, immobile, devoid of any historical context. In pirate sims, men don’t need women to be defined, but women need men. For example, Pirates! possesses four female representations: the governor’s daughter, the barmaid, the sister, and the mother. Their respective roles? Be married, be there, be rescued. None of them have a role of their own to play. They’re things, MacGuffins to enhance the player’s adventures.

Representations of piratical practices in video games also follow the Hollywood model. What do Hollywood pirates do? More often than not, they’re undertaking some high-flying actions and roguish intrigues, perhaps best exemplified by the Errol Flynn era of pirate action movies, and video game pirates have largely followed this mold.

Take, for example, the boarding action, the prototypical piratical practice. Hollywood would have us believe that this involved swinging from ropes, sliding down sails, and one-on-one combat. However, if the goal is to take over the enemy ship, the likely outcome will be bloody, the tools used dreadful, and the fate of the boarded crew horrible.

Traditionally, pirate sims have handled the messiness of the boarding action by simply ignoring it. By this I don’t mean that it’s impossible to board ships in pirate sims. Rather, the messiness of boarding is black boxed (Latour 1987) so that it happens without us seeing it happen.

Pirates!, Sea Dogs, and Uncharted Waters all follow this representational strategy. In each of these games, boarding is initiated by ramming the enemy ship. This action is quickly followed by a black screen that leads to a duel scene between yourself and the enemy captain. Boarding is clean and honorable.

I was surprised when Assassin’s Creed 4 departed from this quasi-universal model. In Assassin’s Creed 4, boarding isn’t initiated by crashing into the enemy ship. Rather, you first need to disable it, which means shooting it enough until it’s set on fire. Only after this is done can the boarding action be initiated, and in Assassin’s Creed 4, this doesn’t involve a cut scene.

While it still retains some of Hollywood’s flair (for example, you can cross to the enemy ship by leaping across the rail or swinging from a rope), boarding in Assassin’s Creed 4 is messy. As your crew throws its grapnels to bring the two ships closer, the action doesn’t stop. Rather, gunfire can be heard and people are dying on both sides. It’s possible to cross over once the ships are close enough (or if you’re eager, by diving into the sea and swimming to the other ship), and you’re faced with more chaos.

Gone is the honorable duel. Rather, you’re met with sailors who will actively try to skewer you to prevent you from setting foot onboard. You’re faced with a free-for-all on the deck where, more often than not, you’ll be dodging back and forth as you clear the ship of enemies. Sure you might face the enemy captain, but in a melee brawl, amongst your crew who are dying around you.

A common option found in pirate sims is the pardon. Here I don’t mean your character playing nice with the crew he just captured. Rather, I mean your pirate being pardoned by the governor for his actions. You have offended us, says the Crown, but a gift of 2000 gold pieces will put you back into our good graces! All of the games that I have mentioned possess this mechanic, whether it be a direct payment to the Crown’s representative or a bribe of a government official.

Assassin’s Creed 4, however, offers a second option. While it’s possible to pay someone 200 reales to get rid of your GTA-esque wanted level, a far more effective method is to… attack more ships. That’s right, Assassin’s Creed 4 lets you get rid of the wanted level you obtained when attacking ships by attacking more ships.

After you’ve successfully captured a ship, the game offers you three choices. You can either 1) scuttle it and salvage the parts to repair your own ship, 2) add it to your own fleet, or 3) lower your wanted level.

However, even more curious is the cut scene that accompanies each choice. Choice #1 presents you with a scene where your crew is polishing and test-firing your cannons. What happened to the enemy crew, you ask? I don’t know, and it’s probably best not to ask.

Choice #2 rewards you with a scene where the enemy captain is given his own pirate hat and is warmly welcomed within the fraternity.

Choice #3 shows your crew helping the enemy captain up to his feet followed by a warm hug, the subtext here being that, while the cargo was stolen, the remaining enemy crew was released out of the goodness of our heart in the hopes that they’ll spread our deeds goodness far and wide… thereby decreasing our wanted level?

It always appears a bit off-beat to me that Assassin’s Creed 4 follows the grittiness of the boarding action with some utter… banality? Perhaps the whole morality implied by the way boarding actions are handled in the other games isn’t completely gone after all.

In the 1990s, the word pirate came to mean something else. Rather than a dashing swashbuckler, a pirate was a technologically-literal computer hacker. However, much of the representations of Hollywood pirates could nonetheless be applied. Anyone reading The Hacker Manifesto will find shades of the pre-libertarian ideology that embodies much of our representations of piracy.

The 2000s saw piracy go back to the high seas. In fact, Captain Phillips is now playing in most theaters to remind us that modern pirates are emphatically not the European rogues of our childhoods that plowed the Caribbean sea. If anything, pirates are now the Other who must be feared and fought at all cost.

I was going to close this post by asking what a modern pirate sim would look like. However, I think we all know the answer to that question. My guess is that we wouldn’t be playing the pirates. Rather, we’d be asked to play as the liberators in a quasi-remake of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. Or has this already been done? I’m not sure I want to know the answer to that.

I’d rather stay hopeful and say that the next pirate sim will be something that feels like EVE Online, but plays like Assassin’s Creed 4, because if anything, a modern pirate sim would be a great way to teach about global geopolitical economy.

That’s it for now. Tune in next week for part 2 of this critical retrospective, when I’ll go over the pirate sims land-loving counterpart: the Old West simulation!

About Erik Bigras

Erik Bigras is an independent scholar. He studied as a PhD Candidate in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a BA in Anthropology (2009) from the University of Prince Edward Island (Canada) where he focused on the creation of subjectivities through digital media. He's been playing video games since the mid-1980s, but expanded his gaming interest to table-top RPGs in the early 2010s.
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