A test of character
Humankind makes several blunders in its push to conquer Civilization, but perhaps its biggest mistake is targeting the wrong opponent. Amplitude is so focused on fighting Firaxis that the studio fails to notice Paradox Interactive slipping into the tent, dagger glinting in the candlelight.
Amplitude’s game deals in broad abstractions at a time when strategy gaming is pushing toward the exact opposite, all thanks to Paradox’s Crusader Kings series. These medieval grand strategies see you don the role not of a state or nation, but the head of a dynasty: an individual character in a world populated with other characters. You could be anyone from the Duke Of Lancaster to the Pope, but the point is that you’re someone, a person with their own quirks and flaws and secrets, and nearly all of your interactions in the world happen at a personal level.
The revelation Paradox stumbled upon is that no matter what type of game you’re making, the stories that emerge from it are always more relatable when they’re about specific people (even if said people are waxylooking portraits with a bunch of stats attached to them). It’s the same reason most novels and films tell stories about individuals rather than broader communes such as the British Empire or an entire planet.
Crusader Kings’ emphasis on characters rather than countries is one of the notable evolutions of the genre during the past decade. Its influence can be seen in lots of games, including major strategy rivals such as Total War: Three Kingdoms. The ideas have even spread to historical 4X. Only a couple of months ago, Civilization veteran Soren Johnson released Old World, his own take on Firaxis’s formula. Focusing on the age of antiquity, Old World lets you pick a classical faction (Greeks, Romans, etc) but has you play as a dynasty of rulers who evolve, change and die, rather than the abstract concept of that faction.
This personal focus helps makes history feel all the more tangible. Learning about abstract historical phenomena, such as the feudal system or the Industrial Revolution, can be tedious. Learning that Roman Emperor Valentinian I died because he got so angry during a diplomatic meeting that he suffered a stroke, or that William The Conqueror’s corpse exploded at his funeral, is fascinating.
Once you humanise grand strategy, put a face and a name to the people who affect and are affected by the forces of history, it’s hard to go back to boring old countries and ideologies. The absence of such specificity in Humankind is noticeable, affecting your sense of proximity to the game. For example, random story events crop up frequently in Humankind, but they’re broad-stroke asides that don’t relate to anyone specific.
One notable instance riffs on Jack The Ripper, wherein a serial killer stalks the alleys of your industrial-era city. You can choose to ignore the murders or spend some gold to illuminate the dark alleys. But that solution still neglects the complex human reasons why the Ripper was able to kill, one of which was the erasure of the humanity of the victims in favour of the general notoriety of the killer.
The point here is not that Humankind should be a Jack The Ripper detective sim, but that having your strategy game treat humanity as a faceless mass won’t cut it in a post
Crusader Kings world. Amplitude’s game even lacks Civilization’s faction leaders, with no cultural figureheads to provide some central mass of character for your empire to orbit.
Combined with the constant cultural changeup, Humankind discourages you from becoming attached to your empire. Outside of major events such as wars, you feel distanced from what’s happening within it and around it. Ironically, by focusing on historical events rather than the people behind them,
Humankind allows itself to be surpassed by more personable strategy games.