Developer Red Redemption’s Fate of the World: Tipping Point (henceforth “Fate”) seems rather like Frankenstein’s monster, with individually appealing elements grafted together in an ill-fitted fashion. The premise of the game so loudly shrieks both “homework” and “propaganda” that it’s difficult to imagine people giving it a chance if they had much choice (I played the Mac version, so that may not be so serious a problem). The dominant metaphors that define user interaction with Fate are misleading. Getting the most out of the game virtually requires use of the user-created wiki. But Fate does some valuable things I’ve experienced in no other game, and saving the world is far more rewarding because of it. It elevates educational gaming.
Fate abstracts away the complications of governments, and simply puts you in charge of a one-world government with a manageable number of options in each of the world’s twelve regions. In different scenarios, you’ll have widely varied tasks, from the tutorial’s relatively modest job of trying to improve African development to keeping humanity intact for a couple hundred years to destroying the world. You’re in charge of not only directing environmental efforts, but also human welfare work, energy policy, technological research and deployment and certain long-term projects which overlap the other categories.
Interestingly, the variety of scenarios and the particular options available help defuse one of the potential concerns about the game, that it’s effectively Green Party propaganda. A superficial Green is as likely to learn from the game the importance of maintaining productive modern economies, discovering and using technological fixes and exploring for polluting energy sources as a pro-business player is to learn about the crushing impact of climate change on economies and human welfare. Fox News has already mentioned some discomfort with a video game with a worldwide government with broad powers to force intrusive policies on everyone. That concern misses the point that the government is purely a device to allow players to explore the consequences of different policies, but there are certainly some conservatives who would reasonably feel as though the model bakes in some assumptions that they regard as ill-founded and supportive of policies they oppose. Any game that pushes users to take an unfamiliar view will tend to make some policies seem more appealing than others, and the costs of those choices will at best be represented in broad strokes.
Gameplay involves recruiting agents (effectively slots for actions) to regions, then playing cards to them once every five in-game years. The results are then plugged into a model developed by an Oxford professor, and the plethora of statistics tracked suggests it’s quite a detailed one. The cards are illustrated in a painterly style, and presented in a lavish interface, which sacrifices a good deal of usability for attractiveness. As a result, it requires more clicks to check relevant statistics, read news and take actions than necessary. Even simply enabling use of the scroll wheel and standard key commands would demonstrate a markedly improved commitment to ease of use–just quitting the game requires five clicks. Two things exacerbate this problem: the muddled central metaphor of the game and its difficulty.
Fate presents itself as a card-based system, with various decks from which players may select cards to play. In the physical world, cards occur in easily-shuffled order, usually a subset are available to play from your hand, and they can easily hold a small amount of information–just a few lines of text. In Fate, some cards are simple while others are more complicated than could easily be described on a card (though this complication is often hidden from the player, only discoverable through the wiki), but their order is pre-set and never randomized. One never draws cards, though cards can be added to one’s hand on later turns by playing gatekeeper cards in earlier ones. Also, there’s a separate hand for each of the five decks of possible cards.
A better metaphor would be “worker placement”, recently popularized in the boardgaming world by games like Agricola and Dungeon Lords. Rather than recruiting agents as slots for cards, one could accomplish the same thing by recruiting them in a thematically more appropriate role of workers to be assigned to various tasks. The tasks could then appear in a tree, much like a tech tree, with the relationships between cards more clearly laid out. Even this would not be perfect, since there is a partially independent tech tree, but it would more effectively recruit players’ intuitions than the existing model, which brings all the wrong concepts to the forefront of the player’s mind.
A game about ruling the world in challenging times should be difficult–very difficult, even. Fate would be a less effective educational tool if this were not the case. However, when a game requires a great deal of trial and error to succeed, its ability to succeed as entertainment depends vitally on keeping the cost of trials low, and so failed attempts ought to be as quick as possible. Because the game hides much of the relevant information about the effects of one’s actions, and the interface emphasizes visual impact over speed, each failed attempt represents the investment of more time than necessary, with less return in clear feedback upon which to improve than would have been possible.
My familiarity with edutainment in my own life pretty much ends with Oregon Trail and Car Builder, so I’m unqualified to compare Fate to recent competition, but it’s on Steam for a reason–it’s quite a playable game, for all my complaints. The soundtrack gives it just the sort of serious-but-not-hopeless gravity the premise demands, and I frequently found myself comparing it to the Civilization series. That’s a staggeringly high standard, but you get much the same experience of being in control of a genuinely massive responsibility. The approach to education is also reminiscent of Civ’s, with much of the dynamic information baked in, but a quite informative supplemental encyclopedia. Indeed, I found some of the information in Fate sufficiently interesting that I was disappointed there were no external links built in to send the player to read up on Hadley cells or Prosperity without Growth (that last also seemed like an example in which some attribution to Tim Jackson would have been appropriate; as someone who’s struggled to get students to attribute credit generously, this seemed like a missed opportunity). The ephemeral nature of web-based content makes the lack of such links understandable, if disappointing.
Perhaps the most important educational achievement of Fate of the World: Tipping Point is to make players actively consider the next 200 years, rather than just the next election cycle, and show that we’re already setting down paths which will channel our options for as long as we can foresee. It requires an unusual drive to succeed and attention to detail to get a good grip on the game, and the political model is so coarse-grained that it’s hard to expect it to be genuinely informative, but the interrelationship among the features it models is clearly important. Most players will find strategy options that will serve their needs with more verve and less frustration, but those looking to learn something from their time spent gaming have few better options.
Review copy provided by publisher.