Many games fall prey to the pervasiveness of colonial, or imperialist narratives. Simply put this style of game appeals to the masses on a basic level, for most gamers are likely not considering their own morals and values when playing. Yet for those who do care about such things games with imperialist narratives raise a ton of questions about historical veracity, believability, and the effect that these types of games can have on the consumer; whether intended or not. The Civilization series is a perfect example of such a game that has reached a wide audience, but really lacks in portraying anything outside of a colonial mindset and the values associated with it. The intention here, however, is not to bash the more than biased narrative in the Civilization series, but to analyze a game in a similar vein that has its flaws certainly, but also takes a more fluid approach, and that game is Rome Total War.
On the surface Rome Total War has much the same gameplay style as Civilization. It is played from an even more macro perspective than Civilization, with a map of Europe at the heart and the edges of Africa, and Asia on the perimeters; mimicking the actual span of roman territory. In building and managing an empire the player attempts to subdue the world around them through militancy. The player controls a number of units on the map including military generals and their armies, diplomats, spies, and conquered settlements, and they all have their own abilities and responsibilities. The player can choose to be an aggressor by conquering, killing, and destroying all in his or her path. Diplomacy is a limited option where one can pick and choose whom to be friendly with as well. Now it might be easy to say that Rome Total War has almost exactly the same kind of imperialist narrative as Civilization, but there are important differences between the two.
Ancient Rome historically was undeniably imperialist, so playing the game in a military way is somewhat accurate in this regard. There are no branches of discovery in the game that can lead any side to acquiring weapons of mass destruction, or anything that was not present in the ancient world. In this way Rome Total War scores huge points over its competition by at least attempting to stay within the realm of possibility, and not basing the power in the game upon what makes modern western nations powerful today. On top of this, the player can choose to be an enemy of Rome, and while there are some disadvantages to this option, world domination can still be had by the Gauls, Carthaginians, Greeks, or Egyptians. Different unit choices are offered to the races other than roman, and they are loosely programmed to represent the actual strengths and weaknesses that these ancient cultures have been recorded to have had. For example, the Greeks run an army of heavy infantry focused around the phalanx while the Carthaginians are more centered around experienced cavalry units, all of which adds to the authentic feel. The game is not stacked against these cultures in other words as even the romans have their own unit limitations. This all ultimately helping to make the game closer to an accurate representation of the past at least from the get go. The caveat here is that most of the races, such as the Gauls, are conglomerates of what would have been numerous tribes in ancient times. It does make it seem that the past was more monolithic, and that there were other quasi empires fighting back against the Romans which really was not the case. All the while the Roman faction themselves are split into three separate pieces, of which are all Roman, but act independently of one another. Here can be seen the biggest mirror of western colonial thought, as the mighty Romans are given much greater detail and thought than their adversaries. Here is where the most liberty with the historical record is taken, but most likely its intent is to make the game more palatable for the average gamer, and not the historian. Whatever path the player decides to go down obviously will alter the historical reality, but the framework of the game will always remain intact.
Though better than the Civilization series in a number of ways, Total War games still have some of the same western imperialist tropes embedded within. Conquest makes the game operate. Plainly and simply it is how the player acquires money, slaves, and territory. The moment that military campaigns are suspended is the moment that all the tax burdens of the empire come crashing down. It is more than incentivized to conquer, and even when a settlement is taken over the player is presented with three options on how to deal with the defeated. Of course though the best is to exterminate the settlement and take all the booty associated with. The biggest oversight by far is that while diplomacy is an option, it is severely limited in both practice and scope. Trading and resource management in this game is a footnote at best. Very limited dialogue is presented, and one can quickly determine how formulaic the responses from the artificial intelligence will be. When faced with imminent invasion and destruction adversaries in game will repeatedly reject any overture for parlay; essentially inviting war.
Even Rome Total War is couched in the idea of civilizing one’s barbarous adversaries. It could be argued, however, that this was the time period that colonialism was borne out of, and nurtured in the western mindset. Overall, Rome Total War is less motivated by a singular mentality, and the player is invited to take part in historical counterfactuals throughout if they so choose. Making it a more useful game from a historical perspective, even if it does have a number of weaknesses it its own right.