In the year 20, the village of Tinsel had a famine. Robust supplies of onions, potatoes, and berries dwindled to nothing. Hunger spread and in just a season or two, dozens of villagers perished from starvation. The impact was immediate–overall health improved among survivors while happiness plummeted. Then a labor crisis emerged as the villagers could no longer sustain themselves. Tinsel was soon abandoned as everyone perished. Welcome to Banished.
Banished is a city simulation game that has taken the Steam gaming community by force. At $20 the game’s offers fans the kind of steep but rewarding challenge that recent a-list $60 titles such as SimCity failed to deliver upon. As NPR reporter Steve Mullis said, “Banished is like SimCity Without the City (but with Cholera).” Begin your village with a handful of people desperate for housing. Start a new game when your city has perished from fire, disease, labor crises, starvation, or simple mismanagement. In one game my blacksmith died and I failed to replace him quickly enough. Cue a tool shortage. Production plummeted; villagers died.
As a gamer, I must confess that Banished is both ridiculously enjoyable and terrifically frustrating. Even when your towns do succeed, there is a lack of end-game content to find new funny ways for them to fail. You can upgrade your houses from wood to stone, collect all the different produce seeds by trading, or push your population from 10 to over 1,000. These goals may take you dozens of hours, but at some point you’ll find yourself weary of your town and ready to begin again.
As a scholar, I also think that Banishes is ridiculously enjoyable and terrifically frustrating. Religion plays two roles in Banished. First, the presence of a church creates a congregation whose formation increases the happiness and therefore the efficiency of your workers. Assigning the church a priest directly equates religious observance with the kind of obedience whose purpose is social control. The church’s function is to manage sloppy, lazy peasants just enough so that they’re sloppy, productive peasants. It’s a minor but crucial shift for your game play, but it says little about the value of religion for the lives of Banished npcs.
The second way that religion operates in the game is by placing graveyards as a stop-gap for the happiness drop that can occur when village elders die of old age. A successful town has a mixture of younger and older villagers. Be successful enough and some of your town’s members may just live to be 80 or more and die of natural causes. (Oh to be so lucky as to avoid disease, falling trees, falling rocks, the dangers of childbirth, or any of a dozen other ways to perish!)
Graveyards provide comfort and solace to grieving villagers. This increases the stability of their happiness, which again helps preserve production and render your population more efficient. But are they necessary?
No. Both graveyards and churches are ultimately only equal to the effectiveness of the brew of the gods. A brewery–distilling fruit or wheat into alcohol–actually provides several functional advantages to both churches and graveyards. Game-play-wise graveyards are semi-permanent structures. They increase productivity and require no specific laborers to operate, but the land they sit upon has now become useless to increase your population, food supplies, or anything else. The AI mechanics of npc character does direct villagers to visit and congregation in graveyards, particularly upon the passing of an elder, but otherwise the land is pretty useless. Churches are similar. They boost production, do require a worker, and don’t offer much other benefit.
Brewers, on the other hand, are a way of consuming surplus food stocks and turning them into a tidy profit. The game’s trading mechanic over-values alcohol as a trade commodity. Not only will it make your own population happy (a happiness at least equal to churches or graveyards) but you can trade alcohol for warm coats, new crop seeds, tools, or even food. The graveyard is only a reasonable choice if you haven’t got extra convertible food, and there’s literally no reason to use a church.
Game designers–and Banished is made by just one really devoted guy–often use religion as a means to preserve order, maintain productivity, or otherwise offer stability to city simulators. As I noted about Civilization 5, religion often emerges as an abstraction to cover game mechanics. Even when it does appear, the religious content itself is often abstracted.
In Banished, religion is assumed to be Christianity–and with churches operated by priests that’s a safe bet–but there is also an underlying philosophy of death and dying that suggests the inextricable link between cultural memory of death and community health. Graveyards work because they offer relief for the grief that a villager’s passing causes. The vacuum of labor a death causes in a small community could become a morass, but Banished argues that the grief can be offset by giving dying structure. Graveyard are stabilizers just as churches are. And yet if one turns to drink they may escape this cycle entirely.
It’s always frustrating when video games get a hard wrap for being juvenile. After all, adults make them and adults play them. There’s obviously a set of rewards to their creation and operation that exceed their form (just as for comic books.) At a party recently my spouse joked that I sit around playing video games. She was sincerely frivolous in her comment, but the other person quickly agreed that video games were so much nonsense. I steered the conversation elsewhere. I do play games, but more often I work on one computer while listening to video game let’s plays in the background on another computer. Why? I simply don’t have the time, money, or expertise to play every game that hits the market. I do recognize, however, that nearly all gaming content engages the basic cultural values in which it was produced. Some do so explicitly (Assassin’s Creed, for instance), while others offer a commentary or critique on our own labor practices. Do you play Candy Crush all day? What kind of emotional rewards does that provide? Is there a way in which the addiction to gain another level might be analyzed religiously? Absolutely.
I think what really gets me about Banished is that the basic premise of the game–survive–is essential a religious premise. Like so many survival based city-simulators, the means to get from surviving to thriving inevitably relies upon some measure of culturally significant mechanics such as religion. For gamers these are often disguised as “happiness” or “order.” Games take the qualities that religion possesses and distill them into algorithmic components that can be operational in the gaming world. If that’s a shrine that restores health, that says something about the link the game makers see between religious structures and well-being. Otherwise, game players wouldn’t even think about visiting a shrine to heal. These associations are culturally induced by experience. The game designer of banished presumably knew several things about happiness. In looking for items that could be introduced into the game world, religion offered a concrete evocation of health and stability. Do churches increase happiness? There may be a study to say. Do game makers think churches increase happiness? Seems so. The evidence is right there in Banished that the game play works that way. (And it works similarly in a host of other city-simulator games.)
If you’re intrigued you can follow along with a Let’s Play or lay down $20 on Steam for a chance to find out what really happens when famine becomes a problem in your town. You don’t have to have a graveyard, but maybe it’ll make you and your villages feel better as you all starve to death because you expanded too quickly. Yup. It’s just that kind of world.