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Humankind interview: Crafting civilization’s narrative

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A couple of weeks ago, I played a few hours of Humankind, Amplitude Studios’ 4X strategy game about building a civilization, one culture at a time.

Published by Sega, Humankind takes the general formula of Civilization and tweaks it. You still explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate, but you’re also adding cultures as your civilization advances through eras. You start as a tribe of wanderers, then set roots. Your first culture may be the Phoencians, and when you move to the Classical era, you may then add the Maya. As you gain traits associated with each culture, you end up crafting your own civilization.

You’ll get a chance to play the closed beta, as Amplitude announced it today during the PC Gaming Show at the digital E3. Humankind releases August 17 for PC. Amplitude also showed off PC Gaming Show co-host Frankie Ward as a character avatar in the game, which you can get as a Twitch drop.

And as you grow, you want to earn fame (which comes from discoveries, victories, and more). So it doesn’t matter if your culture becomes the smarty pants of this simulated Earth — if you haven’t earned enough fame, you’ll still lose.

After playing, I had a bevy of questions for narrative director Jeff Spock and lead designer William Dyce of Amplitude Studios. We talked about the humor that comes from building a civilization, the narrative that emerges as you add cultures and advance through the ages, and how a strategy game studio approaches writing.

And eunuchs.

This is an edited transcript of our interview.

Approaching tone

GamesBeat: I was curious about the tone. The tone seems to be a little lighter than I expected. How did you decide on the tone for Humankind?

Jeff Spock: It took a fair amount of thought. Typically, if you do a 4X game or a game that has a lot of conquest in it, the tone can easily be very grim. A lot of games really enjoy getting into that, the relentless Darwinian struggle for mastery kind of thing. You can play the game that way, and that’s fine. The game is designed so it can be played that way.

But a little bit of the philosophy, or my philosophy, and I think the philosophy of the studio, and hopefully William, because he got stuck actually doing it — life is not a pitiless struggle where the winner takes all and everyone else gets ground into the dirt. We like to think that maybe we could have a more optimistic future. You’re trying to build something from all these cultures. You’re trying to reach — in a way the question the game asks, if you could redo this whole thing, how would you do it differently? What would you try to make better? Rather than, it’s a horrible slog and you have to sharpen your axes and chop your neighbor’s head off before he chops yours, it’s more of a — I wanted to put a more positive cast on that.

To get back and try to repeat in a more concise manner, the game deals with — you have questions, civics questions that come up about slavery, about women’s rights, about child labor. What about nuclear weapons? Religious minorities? Religious tensions? An awful lot of events and systems are in the game that force the player to deal with these things. We don’t think, on top of that, you need to emphasize the potential grimness of human existence.

The philosophy and the attitude of the studio is a bit more positive, toward humankind and its future and where we can go, where the planet can go, if we work together. The tone is more of a celebration of all these different cultures and what you can build with them, more than the idea of how I can maximize these cultures to weaponize my civilization. That’s not so much the attitude, and not so much the vision of the future we wanted to sell and project. Of course you can do that, but in a certain sense it’s giving the player the benefit of the doubt. We have dark paths you can go down, but you don’t necessarily have to. To win, you’re not required to use child labor and slavery.

William Dyce: That also ties into the fact that the game is amoral. You can be famous for good or bad things. Finally, I suppose also — there’s enough doom and gloom in the world, in your Twitter feed, in your news feed. It’s good to have a view of the world and a view of humanity that is, again, kind of giving the benefit of the doubt.

Spock: The idea that — see if you can go back and build a better world than the one we have. Live human history. Choose your cultures and create your civilization. See if you can do better. It’s one way to play the game, rather than just seeing if you can just get the biggest baseball bat to wield against your neighbors. That’s the philosophy.

Above: Humankind’s event can inject levity or lamentations (or more) into the narrative.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: How much is it also about surprise and delight for the player? The first thing I took note of was when my second city started making eunuchs. The event came up and said, “Do you just want to let them do this? Are you horrified by it? Are you going to embrace it?” I had a nice little laugh at that.

Spock: One of the things we particularly — well, we have a full-time historian on staff, and a bunch of freelance historians. Everything in the game happened. These are all actual historical events. But again, they don’t all have to be floods and famines and earthquakes and tragedy and mass murder and whatever. The truth is that Earth history is full of things like this that make you smile, that make you think, that make you question assumptions. If you hit one of those and it made you happy, my heart is filled with warmth right now, because that’s exactly what we wanted, the kind of game we wanted to have our players play.

Dyce: Talking about narrative, a lot of different events happen, and you necessarily, in order to tell a story, you’re drawing a thread through and being selective about what you show, what you shine the spotlight on. The truth is that when you start to read into history, you realize that it kind of defies easy summary. It’s weird. So many weird things have happened. So much that’s stranger than fiction. The truth of human history isn’t grim and gloomy, and it isn’t shiny and beautiful. It’s a mixture of all kinds of different things that have happened. The most accurate way of portraying history is to show these things —

Spock: To show both sides of the balance. I’m happy that you ran across that event. That’s pleasing.

GamesBeat: In the process of starting to write the narrative, did Humankind’s lighter tone happen very early, or did it happen later, after you started playing with prototypes and realized, let’s lighten it up?

Spock: The tone question is very interesting, and in fact you’re the first person who’s come back with such a stark feeling of, wow, this felt very lighthearted, very positive, very funny. I think maybe I, we, intentionally put some of that in there for that very reason. But I think other people might play through it and say — they’d get a darker echo from it.

Dyce: I’d say one thing we do at Amplitude when we start preproduction of a new title is we do a comic book, which is the player experience as a comic, a graphic novel, with illustrations. We make this fake graphic novel of, imagine the after-action report of a really talented player who was able to draw their playthrough as a graphic novel. In a way, the tone, rather than being something that is defined in advance, it sort of bounces back and forth around the creative team based on that fake graphic novel.

I remember at one point I pitched something that was really dark. There was this idea of, how do we couch this civilization transition here? How do we explain that notion? I was thinking, oh, yes, we could explain it as the previous ruler is assassinated. I was really into the whole Game of Thrones, people die on the toilet-type of thing. I wouldn’t say that we had this explicit — we found a balance gradually, iteratively, between everyone, by riffing on this thing.

Deciding narrative

Humankind interview: Crafting civilization's narrative 2

Above: Amplitude gets how games can be about more than fun.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: When it comes to the narrative bits that are in the cutscenes, from one era to another, is that the same per era, or is there a number of them that can pop up based on the decisions the player makes from one era to another?

Spock: The content of the cutscene is static. No matter what culture you choose, you’ll see — essentially it’s saying, OK, this era comes to an end, a new era is starting, without making particular reference to your actions or the cultures you chose. It really is just to signify the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. You see a lot of references to community, society, technology, that sort of thing. Those are constant. What happens is the before and the after, the culture cards and that sort of thing.

GamesBeat: When it comes to the events that happen with the narrative bits on them, is it tailored to certain cultures? Do some events only come up for certain cultures or combinations of cultures? Or are they all just a bunch of different events that happen as the game goes on?

Dyce: There are, I believe, some culture-specific events in the game. But most of them can be triggered for any culture. The idea is, you want to avoid this dissonance between the story that you are experiencing as a player, of your playthrough, and the — I want to call it a static narrative. The pieces of narrative content that are being pre-written by our talented writers. You want them to be consistent. Every piece of narrative content you’re receiving will be triggered only if you are in a given set of circumstances in your playthrough where that makes sense.

Spock: As you make gameplay decisions, as you make decision tree decisions, as you make decisions in narrative events, you’ll move from authoritarian to liberal, or you’ll move from collectivist to individualist. As you move on these sliders, some events will not happen, and some events will become available. What happens is, even though the events have all been pre-written, you’re not going to see them unless you’re taking a certain path, making certain choices. Maybe you have a certain culture or you’re in a certain era. The idea is to reflect the player decision, the player choice, the game state in the events that come up. You really do feel like they’re matching your playthrough. They’re responding to your actions. The game world is reacting to where you are.

GamesBeat: How much of the writing did you have to do during COVID? Or did you have a lot of that buttoned down already?

Spock: It’s game writing. We did the first 80 percent before COVID, and the second 80 percent during COVID. [Laughs] It’s one of those kinds of things. We had a pretty good idea of where we were going, how many we wanted to do, what the scope was. A lot of them get fleshed out. You do initial versions and things get added, things get changed. The path was pretty clear before COVID.

But there are a lot of twists and turns during game dev. It changed. We knew what we were doing would involved the inevitable tweaks and changes of a game dev project, but we didn’t redevelop the system or come up with a lot of new things during that period, which is great, because quite honestly, creatively, it’s been a challenge. You’re used to working with, hey, I’m gonna drag William into a conference room, a couple other people walk by, you brainstorm for half-an-hour and come up with some great ideas. Try to do that on Zoom. It’s hard. Happily, we got a lot of that done beforehand.

GamesBeat: Would you just leave a Zoom window or some other video chat window open for when you’re working on the writing during the day? Like, hey, let’s all talk about this right now, let’s unmute and hash this out? Or, hey, I just wrote this line, what do you think?

Spock: No, we didn’t do that. We discussed the idea of a camera always running at my desk, or the other main writer Steve’s disk, and just saying, hey! We haven’t done that. But that’s kind of appealing to me. That would be an interesting way to try to do this. But you still miss the whiteboards and all that sort of thing. That’s a neat idea, a very appealing idea. We didn’t do it.

Adopting cultures

Humankind interview: Crafting civilization's narrative 3

Above: As you advance in Humankind, you pick new cultures, and these expand your choices (and narrative).

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: There are a lot of cultures in the game. Did you encounter any that you’d never learned about before?

Spock: Oh, yeah. And this can vary from person to person.

Dyce: I’m trying to think.

Spock: OK, the Harappens. Other people knew about them. I didn’t.

Dyce: You’re putting me on the spot. If I go back through the whole list, I’m sure I’ll think of one. I know there are various ones that we chose not to include, like when we were looking at the middle east during the ancient era. We chose Babylon, for instance. We didn’t choose the great city of Ur. Things like that. That whole bunch of interesting city states that we could have picked during that period. An awful lot of them that we bumped into.

Spock: I’d heard the word “Olmec” before, I’d heard the word “Hittite” before. I studied history in university. But A), it was a while ago, and B), it was more Asia than the West. So yeah, a lot of things — it’s not just coming across new civilizations, but what was the real challenge and fascination was coming up with a military unit, coming up with an emblematic building, coming up with a description, an encyclopedia entry. We had these hardcore historians coming in and saying, this is who the Mughals were, where they came from, what they did, and why they’re amazing. It’s only three or four paragraphs, but we’d be like, whoa, really? This is so cool! I learned a lot more about stuff I’d heard of. So it was maybe more that than learning about completely new cultures.

Dyce: As well, if you look at the Chinese, the Joseon — I think a lot of people know the Ming and the Han, but the Joseon maybe not so much, despite the fact that there’s a lot of really cool stuff there. It’s been an opportunity — again, you can say Japan, but which period of Japan? Or the Persian empire, but which Persian empire?

Spock: Oh, yeah, Persia, wow. What a subject.

Dyce: Or the Islamic caliphate in the aftermath of the death of Mohammed. There were several caliphates. Which one do you pick? We went with the Umayyads, but for me, in my mind, it was just the caliphate and there was this expansion and blah blah blah. I think I knew a couple of other ones, but not that specific one. It wasn’t fresh in my mind. It’s been a great excuse, again, to study history.

GamesBeat: What cultural tidbit that you hadn’t known, about any of the game’s cultures, that keeps bubbling up in your mind? 

Spock: This one is embarrassing, but the trading sea power of the Dutch was partially due to the “fluyt,” a reliable three-master perfected in the city of Hoorn. I always laugh at Dutch.

Dyce: I remember struggling a bit with the Austro-Hungarian emblematic unit. It was tempting to give them a Tegetthoff class battleship, but since these ships were a very poor investment, as they spent most of the war rusting in the Adriatic Sea, celebrating them seemed a bit off. We were very happy to discover the Evidenzbureau though: it turns out the Austro-Hungary had the first military intelligence service in the world.

Humankind interview: Crafting civilization's narrative 4

Above: Era Stars don’t just mark your civilization’s achievements in Humankind — they pave the way to victory.

Image Credit: GamesBeat

GamesBeat: As you were picking cultures and ditching other cultures, were you tempted to go with those that you don’t see as much in other games?

Dyce: I have this slide, I remember, essentially a PowerPoint presentation where we were pitching the cultures. Like the graphic novel, there were 15 or 20 iterations of this that we pitched, and then we discussed it. We came back and pitched it again. And essentially the first slide was, here are the criteria upon which we’re trying to make these decisions. There were about 15 lines in there. We want a certain amount of name recognition, but at the same time, we want to have some that surprise people, that people haven’t seen so often, that aren’t boring. We want to have a variety of different cultures throughout the world. We want to have visual difference, distinction in terms of how they look. Gameplay difference as well. We don’t want to have all militaristic cultures. You end up with this crazy Rubik’s cube puzzle that you’re trying to figure out.

Spock: Far too many dimensions.

Dyce: Exactly. NSAT, for the computer science geeks. An NP-complete problem.

Spock: It gives us tons of either possible content for modders to do, or for us to do with future DLC. The wealth of Earth history is just — we can mine — well, “mine” is an unpleasant word. Harvest? That’s not good either.

GamesBeat: How much did you prioritize bringing in more African/South Asian cultures than we’ve seen in previous 4X games? 

Spock: Global representation is extremely important to us, and you will see more of that in upcoming DLCs. The design and writing teams made a concerted effort to include less known and less powerful cultures in the interest of getting a wider representation.

Modern culture

GamesBeat: When it comes to doing modern cultures, did you have to do any extrapolation, and maybe go a bit advanced from where these cultures are now, or is it all just grounded in the 21st century as we know it now?

Spock: To a certain extent, in the modern era, we looked a little more to the Cold War, the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, maybe 80s, more so than the 2000s, 2010s.

Dyce: The modern era for us I believe begins at the end of World War I. Which means you kind of want to have a set of cultures available that were around at that time. Obviously, we wanted those cultures to make sense until the modern era. As with all the other periods. But at the same time, it’s a bit more, “In the past, and yet …” For instance, there are some military units where we’ve taken inspiration from research and development projects that are ongoing. It’s an interesting one.

Spock: As the most politically touchy one as well, it’s one that’s taken a lot of time. Countries are not, in 2010, what they were in 1960. It took a lot of time and a lot of effort. But I think a lot of it, to me, has more of a Cold War era feel, the ’80s and ’90s and before, than really super-modern.

GamesBeat: Did you choose post-WWI/Cold War for the modern era because the conflicts of those times, the philosophies being bandied about, were easier to capture in a game than those in the 2000s/2010s, such as the rise of nationalism in Europe/South Asia/U.S. post-2010? 

Spock: Personally, I think it allowed us to give some players a greater place on the world stage than they have today, where their role has somewhat slipped, e.g., Egypt. There is a balance between wanting to be modern, and then deciding just how modern: COVID? China paving islands in the South China Sea? The economic decline of South Africa? January 6 in the U.S. Capitol?. Rather than a current event simulator, Humankind is a game about cultures and interactions. We wanted to find a balance that would promote learning more about lesser known regions versus wanting a realistic representation of international power and importance.

Dyce: We do have a number of contemporary or even future technologies like drone-assisted fertilization and fusion power. The set of culture though necessarily need to work for the beginning rather than the end of the era, as player will take on the mantle of these cultures slightly before being to research the first technologies available in the new era, which in the case of the modern era includes things like aircraft carriers, mainframes, and suburbs.

GamesBeat: In other 4X era-based games, once you get into the Industrial/Colonial Era, it’s easy to get stuck into European history and innovations. What, if anything, did this team do to bring in other innovations from other regions during the colonial era? 

Spock: This was an exceptionally difficult topic, online with selecting the cultures themselves. Do you put gunpowder when the Chinese first started playing with it, or when it was applied to military equipment? What about armored ships — Medieval Korea or Industrial West? We did try to make a point of emphasizing lesser-known achievements, like the sophisticated hydraulic systems of Angkor Wat.

Dyce: This is one situation where, to make choices that are intuitive to most of our player-base, we’re guilty of some degree of Eurocentrism. I would say though that whenever you’re dividing history into periods you’re obliged to pick someone’s point of view on when one period ended and the next begun. We’ve tried though not to put specific dates on the beginnings and ends of our eras.

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