of the great appeals of videogames is its ability to role-play.
We are given the promise of visiting any land, any time, any place,
seeing any sights the artists and designers can conjure, and experiencing
any number of things we never can in real life. At the very least,
that's the promise. Most games, since the very beginning, has been
content to pound us with explosions and dumb violence.
I think of the great potential of the videogame, as a entertainment
and storytelling medium, I'm reminded of the sheer brilliance of
Seven Cities of Gold. It is a game full of action, excitement, and
suspense; but it can also inspire wonder and curiosity. It's imagination
and originality shames most contemporary games.
Cities of Gold allows you to recreate one of the most exciting periods
in history - the Age of Discovery. It's a concept that seems so
obvious, and yet it has been so rarely explored. Why is that, I
wonder? Videogames have always been the domain of blowing things
up - why not try to discover some uncharted territory?
promise of sailing to the New World, to "discover" the
Americas - what a great concept for a game! What a great way to
relive history! I don't think this is merely my own nostalgia talking;
show me a nine-year-old who wouldn't become hopelessly drawn in
after a few moments of play.
what do you get to do? Playing the role of a Spanish explorer in
1492, you are given men, supplies, and a fleet of four ships, and
set sail for the New World. After a short journey across the ocean,
you sight land, anchor your ships, and lead the expedition. You
have discovered a New World!
happens at this point is entirely up to you. For you see, this is
not a game about high scores, or mission objectives, or poorly-scripted
cut scenes. Seven Cities of Gold is a game about discovery, and
the player has complete freedom to proceed as he or she sees fit.
you wish to travel along the rivers, and see where they lead? Do
you wish to walk through vast mountain ranges and great plains?
Or would you prefer to sail along the coast to see if you discovered
an island or a continent? Build a fort or a mission? All of the
above? None of the above?
open-ended approach is one of Seven Cities' greatest strengths.
There really isn't a goal, or a finish line, to be found. You can
continue until you've discovered everything, and then begin again
with a newly-constructed world. If that doesn't appeal to you, then
check your imagination. Most people are sorely lacking.
course, you have another option, and this is where the game's real
tension comes from. You can be explorers, but you can also be conquistadors.
Bunten and Ozark Softscape created MULE with
a keen eye on simulating market economics. They clearly wanted to
teach their audience a few things while entertaining them. Seven
Cities clearly pushes this idea forward. What better way to learn
about history then to relive it? This is the insight that was imparted
on Sid Meier, who then pushed the envelope even further with the
the New World presented a very real problem, since humans had been
living there since the last Ice Age. How do these two very different
cultures interact? How do they communicate?
Cities of Gold addresses this dilemma masterfully. The character
interface for most of the game is an abstract symbol - a compass.
You are an alien in an alien world. But note how that changes when
you enter a village. Now your avatar becomes a human character who
walks among the Americans.
various American peoples - including hunters, farmers, Pueblos,
Aztecs, and the vast Incan Empire - are fearful, but also curious.
Crowds immediately surround you, and follow you around as you slowly
walk towards the village chief in the town's center. You share no
common language, but you can exchange goods and build a relationship.
A trust is slowly built up. On later visits, the people will carry
along in their normal routines, and the chief will immediately welcome
on geography and nation, the tribes will trade food, goods, and
gold. And this is where history's complications set in.
don't have to make peace with the Native Americans. You can kill
them, and steal their resources. You can even eradicate them if
you defeat them enough times. You have that freedom, and if you
are equipped with enough ships and men, you can be very successful.
throne in Spain will, of course, offer platitudes towards mercy,
and condemn "your harsh treatment of the natives." But
you will quickly learn the hypocricy of those words. Here, it's
gold that talks, gold that buys more ships, gold alone that wins
promotions from the King. Money talks.
the years, I become more aware of this terrible tragedy, of how
Bunten is using the game as a way of commenting upon world history.
Seven Cities of Gold does not endorse the Conquistadors, but it
does not impede them, either. It mourns their genocide, and by putting
us in their boots, we are invited to mourn, too.
always, how the Age of Discovery is unveiled depends entirey on
you. Perhaps this says something more about ourselves than we'd
care to admit. Not many games would even raise the issue, but what
do you expect from the game that inspired Civilazation? Seven Cities
of Gold is one of the smartest, most imaginative adventure games
now a few words about the creator, Dani Bunten. Bunten's story is
as interesting as the groundbreaking games she created, and is remembered
today as one of the true visionary pioneers of the medium. She was
also an extremely bright and thoughtful person, a caring soul.
was not a commercial success, mostly because it was the most-heavily
pirated game in history. Fortunately, this fanbase made Seven Cities
of Gold the biggest success of its day. Bunten offers some warm
are several things I'm proud of about that game. Unlike most strategy-adventure
games then (and now as well) which load the player with numerous
economic and logistical decisions, it only used four commodities
to model the constraints and opportunities facing the Conquistadors
(men, food, [trade] goods and gold).
also like the way I was able to reflect the unique interactions
between natives and Conquistadors when they shared neither a language
nor cultural values in common. I came up with a simple arcade element
which also included a number of subtle "secret" opportunities
that I was quite gratified to learn that folks found on their own.
the fact that our "New World" was randomly generated (and
so large it required disk caching and overlays) made exploring a
challenge fraught with peril and surprises. It sufficiently captured
the sense of panic that comes from being lost in the wilderness
and running out of supplies as well as the joy of rescue (which
was something I experienced once backpacking and wanted to make
a touchstone of this design)."
steadily avoided convention, always plowing ahead with innovative
games. With Modem Wars in 1988, she pioneered what would become
online gaming, and continued to push forward with 1990's Command
HQ and 1992's Global Conquest.
of Africa, the sequel to Seven Cities, appeared only on the Commodore
64 and sold only a fraction of the original. A version of MULE for
the Sega Genesis was famously scrapped when Sega insisted on "updating"
the classic with weapons. Bunten was working on an online version
of MULE when she succumbed to lung cancer in 1998, owing to a lifetime
of chain smoking.
Bunten was also transgender. I remember the original group photo
of the creators when Electronic Arts was founded, and you could
see that in Dan Bunten's face. Not only the femininity, but the
underlying sadness behind the eyes.
Bunten's connections with his family became strained when he changed
genders in 1992, and I suspect this gets to the heart of her career
as an artist. Nearly all of her games were designed for multiplayer,
at a time when multiplayer games didn't really exist (aside from
a few titles like Atari's Warlords).
all else, Dani Bunten Berry wanted people to connect with one another.
Videogames could be something more than quick thrills aimed at boys
and teenagers. Family members of all ages could come together and
play a great game, just as they would play Bridge or Charades.
grandfather is nearly 80 years old, but his favorite game continues
to be MULE. I've promised to give him a copy of the Atari 800 emulator,
so we all - grandparents to grandchildren - could play together.
It's a prospect that thrills him. For me, this is Dani Bunten's