Religion as gameplay: Crusader Kings 2 and tackling difficult religious history
Not many games approach subjects as prickly as religion. One false step and you can end up alienating or offending a massive portion of your player base, but Crusader Kings 2 never shied away from portraying religion.
In fact, it dives head first into the stickiest, most off-putting aspect of religion: Its role in political history and its use as a justification for war.
“It's supposed to be religions as seen by politicians, or the political aspects of religion,” said Henrik Fåhraeus, lead designer of Crusader Kings 2 and it's upcoming expansion Sons of Abraham.
“We don't shy away from assigning different modifyers to different religions, and they have different 'powers' so-to-speak, or at least characteristics, and we try to make them as realistic as we can while still staying respectful of course.”
Religion as a gameplay mechanic has been significantly deepened in the Sons of Abraham expansion. Judaism is now a playable faith, and they've also added ideas to the Christian faith.
“We added the concept of the College of Cardinals,” said Fåhraeus. “They're the guys who elect the new pope, and so what you try to do is to make sure that one of your bishops in your realm is elected Cardinal by the current pope. Then if the pope should die then loyal Cardinals will perhaps ensure that the new pope will be one of your guys. And, of course, he'll owe you some favors.”
It's a side of religion that can occasionally make people uncomfortable. We don't always like to think about the ways in which our personal faiths have been co-opted and abused for personal and political gain.
“Arguably, religion has been used as a tool by politicians for wordly goals. For example, the 30 Years War which devastated Germany over a period of 30 years, was fought between Protestants and Catholics, but at a deeper level it was a struggle between the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the northern princess and other powers in Europe. It was a political game more than anything. And that's usually the case, I would say.”
One of the ways in which players can justify a war in Crusader Kings 2 is to simply declare a holy war. Cast the enemy as heathens and you can buy yourself a lot of political freedom.
It can be harsh to get such a factual, hard-nosed approach to the historical religions, but Fåhraeus said that this approach is actually more sensitive in some ways.
“It can also be viewed as LESS controversial in a way, because we're not trying to compare the religions themselves or the theology,” he said. “We stay away from such subjects usually. But yes, I suppose it is also controversial in a sense that some people would argue that religion is above politics and secular society.”
The Paradox Heresy
Crusader Kings 2 definitely does not portray religion as a spiritual construct that is beyond the will and whimsy of mankind. Throughout the game, so-called “heresies” can threaten to uproot the old ways of thinking.
“That's one of the things that we've expanded upon in Sons of Abraham, because we always had the 'heresies,'” he said. “So we made these heresies more different from each other.”
He gave the example of a branch of Christianity that could arise that would allow for female priests. In Sons of Abraham, these heresies can become the new orthodoxy, or main branch of the religion. In essence, it simulates the way religions can change over time due to power struggles and changes in ideology.
They manage to strike a neutral ground though by not taking a stance on any single religion or sect. Crusader Kings 2 is something of a sandbox game in which many, many different things can happen. If a religious ideology takes over in your game, it's not because it's better. It's just because that's how things played out in that version of history. That said, there are rare times when they feel it's appropriate to take a stance.
“The expressions of some religions have been somewhat more brutal,” he said. “For example, last year we did kind of a joke expansion called Sunset Invasion in which the Aztecs actually invade Europe in the 13th century. It's kind of a crazy premise, but we wanted to do something a bit wacky. And their religion is, without a doubt, fairly savage, or at least it is in the game. So sometimes we do take some kind of stance on the content of the religion itself, but usually we shy away from that.”
Whatever your stance on religious history, it has had a huge impact on the history of mankind, and it's something I wish we saw debated and represented in gaming more often.
Crusader Kings 2 was released on PC in 2012 by Paradox Development Studio, and became one of their best-reviewed games. The upcoming expansion, Sons of Abraham, will be releasing on November 18, 2013.