I started playing Crusader Kings II because it sounded, when I was told about it, like The Sims. I’m as easily wooed by empire-building games as the next person, but it was the personal quirks of the individual characters–our ability to see them and, albeit in a limited way, influence them–that drew me in. And because we’re in the Steam Summer Sale right now, I took advantage of at lot of the DLC at half-price, meaning I have everywhere from Iceland to Siberia, Sweden to Egypt available to play.
And the results are sad.
I feel now the same way I feel after hours of playing The Sims. There’s a shift in focus that occurs as soon as you have children, in both games, that I (childless) see in the people around me, when they have children. In Crusader Kings, it makes a certain amount of sense–however grim–because your children are your playing pieces on the board. They are the loins that ensure the continuation of your all-important dynasty, and the ovaries you sell to other men in return for the hope of their future loyalty. You want to shape them in ways either that appeal to others, for future mating (patience, kindness), or that will serve your kingdom well (stewardship, military prowess, a knack for intrigue). But in the Sims–and this, I know, is more tied to my subjective experience of the game than to “winning” tactics, there being little to win in Sims–all it means is that the person whose ambitions you’ve tried to realize, whose desires you’ve striven to fulfill, for the previous however many hours that amount to the entirety of their life, now takes backseat to the welfare of the new generation. That original character continues to have hopes, dreams and desires, but they tend to abandon them in their efforts to ensure a good life for their offspring.
And for what?
Twice now in Crusader Kings I’ve had characters 14 and 20 years after their marriages, respectively, fall into mutual love with their wives. That’s two decades, in the latter case, of sharing a bed, a castle, a family, a life with someone you only conjure affection for in the few remaining years before death. In the meantime you’ve produced rather a good deal of children, some of whom survived and some of whom didn’t, and by now many of them are off and married into strategic alliances, and producing little pawns of their own. And now, with your legacy assured–both conceptually and, in the game’s mechanics, in numeric terms expressed by the sum of your prestige and piety (more on that later) divided by half–you have time for pursuits other than mindless fucking. You have time for affection.
I tried to play for the heart instead of the legacy. I tried, as the young Duchess of Ulster (eight years old when the game drops you off in her shoes at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War), to keep my county and my personal dignity intact. By this point in history I was indeed allowed to hold the power I did, because the structure of inheritance for Ulster (agnatic-cognatic gavelkind, with a default to primogeniture) under King Edward III allowed for women in power if there were no other options. (It’s true that I did actually scour the map to try and find a female to play–I expected few if any, and the Duchess of Ulster was the first one I found.) My title would pass to a cousin upon my demise, not my offspring; but for the time being I was in charge and was still advised to start producing children because, after all, you never know. Plague, war or misadventure could carry off the other claimants before my demise, and with no valid heirs, where would Ulster then be?
So, in between placating my liege and assuring him that of course I backed his claim to the throne across the water, thankyouverymuchpleasedon’tkillme, I shopped for a husband. Not an easy find when you insist on matrilineal descent, so any children born would be of my own dynasty versus his. At last I found someone willing, a distant relative to the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire–Wilhelm. I sent word of my interest, the Kaiser wrote back that he approved, and in a year or so when Wilhelm was of age, he appeared at court. Now to sow the seeds of some good old-fashioned romance, right?
Well, no. Not for the Duchess. Because Wilhelm was gay. He had little interest in the Duchess and even less in producing children with her. He was somewhat grateful to her initially–his approval of her went up, and I attributed this to gratitude for her having removed him from a court doomed to relegate him to the back of the line of importance for eternity–but he came with a substantial negative modifier on his fertility, because, well. Not really interested.
So the Duchess sought love elsewhere. When an opportunity box popped up after a feast, indicating that her steward wished to express his…fondness…of course I approved it. This woman had a miserable life! So she fell into love with the steward, and he with her. He was in his forties and she had just turned 20. She did manage to wrangle her husband into bed on occasion, and gave birth to two of his children, which served as enough of a screen to conceal the two of the steward’s children she also bore. She seemed so happy! The county was prosperous and, except for granting passage to any armies that came her way through her lands, she was mostly left out of the mess over in England.
Except that her deception of her husband began to plague her with doubt and guilt. Abruptly she cut off all relations with the steward, who immediately took ill and died. Miserable, the Duchess took to chastity for a great many years, ignoring her husband and lands both. Money stockpiled; she waged no wars and helped few others with theirs, so far away was she from the lands where any of the crusades were being fought. At last, when she turned thirty, a box popped up indicating interest from, of all quarters, her heir–the legal heir, not her explicit relative, William the Tanist. I had paid attention to William the Elder, but not the Younger, so hadn’t known of his existence, or that he was her heir. I approved their interaction and boom, 100 percent fondness from both sides. Upon discovering his legal position I thought, wonderful! If I could just marry the Duchess off to this guy then she could have happiness and the continuation/legitimization of her line! Eagerly the Duchess sought and achieved the assassination of her husband Wilhelm. With such a good match in the making, I thought, why not take over neighboring County Tyrone as well? Seal the deal, give the children something to lord over.
The war went disastrously, bankrupting the county. Ulster lost heavily, even after bringing in mercenaries to fight for it. In desperation the Duchess took 300 gold from the churches to try and pay her debts–only to be excommunicated, first from the church by the pope and next from the heart of her lover. He condemned her for her blasphemous ways and would hear no more of her. She died shortly thereafter, of slow fever, as did two of her children. William the Tanist became Duke William, and 20 years later he fell in love with his wife Blanche de Burgh–whom the Duchess had plotted to kill, in order to be with her dear William, right up until the war that ended her broke out.
Because I am concomitantly reading Vanity Fair, I kept thinking about how this game would work if it centered on the Napoleonic Wars instead of the Crusades. It would certainly be much more within the realm of the familiar to me, but the forces that push and pull the world would be different. There would still be dynastic concerns, of course, but religion? Points for piety? These anointed third parties able to rip the rug out from under you at a moment’s notice, by excommunicating you and turning you suddenly, perplexingly into a figure of anathema?
And as I switched from Bretons to Khazars to Byzantines to Celts, I began too to wonder about those “dynastic concerns.” The lives of these people are full. If they did not have their religion around their necks like yokes, or their neighbors (or their own children) trying to kill them at every turn, they might find the time to wonder why they keep going to bed with people they don’t even care for. Well, the men might–the women, as the Duchess was too quick to teach me, don’t get much of a chance at pleasure, since they minute they try to act upon it they are thrust into a turmoil of trying to make sure everyone believes the baby came from the right bed. (I had hoped there might be the opportunity to pursue lesbian relationships, since I’d seen Wilhelm and learned that the game at least acknowledges gay people existing, but it seems that except for that negative fertility modifier, that part of their lives is closed to you.) In short, if they weren’t constantly struggling for survival they might wonder at the utility of their life’s work. So your child will inherit, and his child after him. What then?
It seems that unless you have a strict set of views you intend to impose upon your offspring, and through them upon the world of the future, there is little point to toiling away for your family line like this. I tried playing it as though affection was worth it–heaping my children with money so that their opinions of me would go up–but it didn’t matter. When their wives plotted to have me killed and I threw them in jail (hey, at least I didn’t behead them! I was being generous!), the sons forgot everything I’d ever done for them, and stalked off to form a rebel faction to further my downfall. Such actions would suggest a fondness on their parts for their wives, but in the one instance where I followed this revolt through to its conclusion, there was in fact little love lost between them. The son in question was in fact sleeping with another courtier; the imprisonment of his wife had just lent moral justification to actions he’d conceivably wanted to take for years.
I know, I know, childhood is a relatively recent invention. The idea that there is something to your life between infancy and the harsh realities of adulthood is a tender, fragile thing, even younger than the United States. But I guess what the heartless finagling of Crusader Kings highlights is the complete abyss that remains outside of obligation–the abyss that has dominated human history, since for most of human history, we’ve had no time for it. We’re too busy trying to cement our family lines in seats of power, or chasing brigands off our lands or dying in city-consuming fires, or continent-consuming plagues, or rebellions lit by the obligation-charged infernos of religious fervor.
When I was little my mother told me that the reason my sister and I showed up so late was that she had already resigned herself to not having kids. She had wanted them, and liked them, and played with them all throughout her life, but she never met the right man to have kids with and she was okay with that. And then my dad had appeared and instead of finishing her law school degree while working in a hospital full-time, she created a family instead. It was the thing that made her happiest, she said. She’d travelled the world and worked exactly the jobs she wanted, and was studying for exactly the job she wanted when she got bored of those, and this completely different route made her happiest.
I find it so difficult to mesh that kind of affection with either the micromanagement of marriages and filial responsibilities you see in depictions of the past, or in the self-absorbed parenting I see going on around me today. From the woman who really only ever wanted a son and smears Instagram photos of the boy all over Facebook while ignoring her girl, to the group of moms I encountered gathered together, gossiping raucously about their friend’s “little 16-year-old ho” who “was just throwing it out there” and “deserved to get pregnant”…it seems that you’re either buried under so many obligations your personal desires are quashed, or you have the time and money to spend on them and treat your offspring (and others in general) terribly, selfishly unequally. Every time I think I see middle ground it gets swallowed up. Even the people who dote on their children and dispense wisdom and affection equally–their spouse turns around and divorces them, or at least sleeps around and then brags about it, out of revenge for having taken backseat to the kids in the hearts of others.
In sum, perhaps the Duchess was no worse off than people living on my street. At least she had two people love her in her life–even if she never got to marry either of them. And hey, her granddaughter lived on to become the queen of Aquitaine. Makes all that hardship totally worth it, right?