Utopia [1981]

Utopia [1981] often gets cited as the first RTS, or as the first God Game. The Wargaming Scribe has completely and comprehensively dismantled the case for it as the first RTS in just the past few weeks, so I’ll take it on it as the first God Game. In short… The Sumerian Game [1964-1967] and Hamurabi [1968/1973] do essentially everything Utopia does, and I think championing it as the first of its kind belies a console-centric view of games history where the entire medium starts in the 80s that still hangs around decades later. Utopia just does a resource-management statecraft game with top-down graphics of a map, a timer, and an Eastern Front 1941 [1981]-style cursor you can use to place buildings, rather than with just text and numbers.

Mkwaju Ensemble – Wood Dance [1981]

That’s not a huge leap into a whole new shindig, but it’s not nothing either. For one thing, Hamurabi’s so legible that it’s radically transparent, exposing its skeleton for the player to pick over. The graphics in Utopia paradoxically mean you see less. Literally, because there’s less screenspace allocated for your stats, you can’t look at your money and your population and your score at the same time, and there’s also numbers that aren’t surfaced for the player to peruse. But also cause and effect are harder to read, so the manual has to pick up the slack, directly spelling out for you how much things cost and what kind of ROI you can expect out of them instead of just letting the player divine that, which would be hopeless. This is also, additionally, down to an increase in complexity and variety over Hamurabi’s bare-bones approach. Hamurabi only had farms, food/money, and population. Utopia has a much broader selection of things you can use your land and money for, not just farms but housing and hospitals and factories and such, and thus a much larger and vaguer possibility space to navigate. Also, there’s no existing infrastructure and the player builds up their society from scratch. This makes it a candidate for “first city-building game,” as opposed to one where you manage an existing city, but I haven’t actually researched into that, so maybe, maybe not.

The amount of land is also fixed and finite. In Utopia, space is a question of apportionment, that’s the trade-off the player has to face rather than population and money. Its map view serves to make this immediately legible and thus a priority for the player, though typical to the game’s very easy-going demeanor, it’s generous enough that you’ll likely never really feel pressured to pick between, say, schools and hospitals on the grounds of lack of space. Lack of money, maybe: schools are cheaper, hospitals are better. The manual is very direct on the point that, unlike Hamurabi, making money is not the point of the game but the intermediary. Money only facilitates things that are actually useful.

One interesting structure in terms of trade-offs is the fort. The fort protects surrounding tiles from rebels, making it one of the only two structures where it matters precisely where on your island you put it, but it of course takes up a tile itself. The trick is that if you’re playing decently at all, you will not have any rebels spawning who need to be taken care of. Rebels only spawn when you’re failing badly to provide the basic fundamentals to the people. It contrasts strongly against the city-manager minigame in The Prisoner [1980] and any entry of SimCity [1989] where policing is always needed to maintain peace and order against the implacable and irrational emergence of crime, and it also inverts the wargame logic of the likes of Empire [1977] where the state only exists to abet the growth and strength of the military. Violence is, here, a last desperate resort for when all else has failed and generally an expense to be avoided. It’s an optimistic, even police-abolitionist note to hit, befitting a game called Utopia. The fort is a cruel band-aid, soaking up money and space that would likely be more effectively allocated towards housing and food, which would serve to prevent rebels from spawning everywhere on the island, not just in a small radius.

Planting crops is real cheap, you can almost always scrounge up the dough for it if you got the space, but farming’s ROI is low in this game, even lower than in Hamurabi in terms of profit though one acre will reliably feed 500 people. The ROI of crops is not just low, but fickle and unreliable. Crops produce 1 gold a second per tile only when rained upon, and you can’t control the rain, so it literally pays to pay attention to the local climate conditions, where rain most commonly falls on your island. (For player 1, the southeast peninsula. This is, notably, one of only two land structures in Utopia whats actual location matters.) Contrast the factory, which is way more expensive, but produces a steady and reliable 4 gold minimum every single turn, easily outpacing crops in all but the best conditions. Factories run rain or shine, too, and therefore can be placed completely arbitrarily.

The more direct alternative to crop-planting, however, is the fishing boat. These also feed 500 just by existing, and likewise produce 1 gold a second when on the appropriate environmental conditions, except instead of under a rain cloud the boat must be over the schools of fish that wander around the ocean. The key difference is that you can’t control the rain, but you can control a boat, and hold it over the fish. This is the only form of income in the game that isn’t passive. As such, steering around a fishing boat is the main thing the player actually does in Utopia, while they wait around for other things to happen. It’s a fishing game with a citybuilder attached. Talk about a bait and switch!

To me, the fishing actually hits just the right spot of compelling and meditative. It gave me something to do with my restless hands and eyes, it gave me some uncommon peace and tranquility. It was engrossing and stimulating. My mind wandered, as it always does, but my attention didn’t drift. I’m one of those people who keeps 600-some-odd tabs open but can’t finish a book anymore, and as I type this I have a ten-minute timer going to keep reminding me that I should be writing and not getting sidetracked, and I stared at Utopia while listening to music for a full game that lasted over an hour without looking away. Real-life fishing is intolerably boring to me: as a kid I took it like a punishment and my parents bought me a portable DVD player to stare at to placate me. All you’re really doing in Utopia’s fishing is moving your cursor over a slowly and randomly moving object, something like a cat chasing after a laser pointer but way way slowed down, but that’s, frankly, enough gameplay. It’s an underrated treat to simply and pleasantly exist in digital spaces. Often, games apply considerable pressure on the player’s movement through threats and obstacles and timers, inducing stress. Not Utopia, which is safely among the very easiest games I’ve ever played (difficulty of emulating it aside.)

Utopia has a very-forgiving timer and vaguely menaces the fishing boat with pirate ships, but these enemies slowly meander and pose essentially no threat at all unless you’re not controlling the fishing boat at all. You move much faster than the pirate ships, and the pirates move completely aimlessly until they get very very close to a fishing boat, making them very easily ducked, just like the rebels. They’re kinda like the hurricanes, an external threat imposing on your set-up. Whereas the rebels are more like mold. The wandering fish are really the only randomly-moving things that are a boon to you. Randomness — chaotic entropy — is really your enemy in Utopia.

Utopia is not a god game because it is actually really important that you are specifically not playing a god. You are playing as some kind of embodiment of the state — maybe of control and order itself — which exists mostly opposed to the gods. You don’t really live in harmony with nature, you exist despite it. Your goal is to supercede nature, to profit from extraction of the useful and to sidestep all the rest with your factories that take no heed of their context.

To play Utopia in single-player mode, you simply do not pick up the second player’s controller. They have an island and a point total, too. Turns pass and you can watch this abandoned island get more and more overrun with rebels, year after year. Without the guiding hand of the player, the state, they are unable to organize nor provide for themselves. They rebel, despite the total absence of any higher power to rebel against. This wasteland serves as a living mirror image of failure that takes up fully half the screen. There’s nothing in the manual that tells you what a good score is. You just have to decide for yourself what it means to win.

5 thoughts on “Utopia [1981]

  1. One thing I noticed when you explained this game to me was that in both single- and multi-player modes, the game does seem to have an idea of what “utopia” actually is… In the multi-player, co-operating is encouraged as an option, and when players do it they end up with higher scores than they would if they were competing, spending resources to pay for rebels. They don’t have to waste resources building forts, which when playing cooperatively are just dead space.
    The message of multi-player as I interpret it is that sabotaging other countries is ultimately wasteful, whereas peaceful cooperation makes the world better for everyone.

    As to the single-player mode, you basically just play it by not picking up the second controller. It sets up this comparison between the two sides of the screen. One side has society, or a state, or a sort of ’embodiment of order’ and the other doesn’t. The two sides of the screen are positioned in contrast, goofus and gallant on a state level– a country striving for utopia, and a wasteland. Here, chaos and disorder are depicted as the natural state of the world. Order must be sought through conscious effort or the construction of a state.
    I don’t agree with this conclusion, but I’ve got to say that positioning your thriving state right next to a wasteland is no accident. If it’s unintentional, it’s /very/ persuasive.

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  2. The fort is a cruel band-aid, soaking up money and space that would likely be more effectively allocated towards housing and food, which would serve to prevent rebels from spawning everywhere on the island, not just in a small radius.

    Huh? What a total misunderstanding of the game. Sigh…this is what happens when the gaming infrastructure decays to the point that people don’t even understand the game any more.

    Utopia is a TWO PLAYER GAME. The fact that today everyone plays one player and lets the other island sit vacant doesn’t change this. Nobody has friends any more, nobody has people come over to play games, but back in the day this was just an expectation. Kids had friends, and you’d go from house to house and play whatever system they had there.

    Your fort is the most important structure in the game. It’s the first structure you place (or you leave a hole for) and you build your “city” around it, i.e. your important structures. Without it you will be crippled.

    Rebels only spawn when you’re failing badly to provide the basic fundamentals to the people.

    Wrong.

    Rebels will never appear if you play correctly, you say? No. In one player, sure. However in a TWO PLAYER GAME, late in the game you will have a surplus of money and nothing to spend it on. Time for a rebel attack! Buy rebels until you’re out of money and wreck the other player’s island. Anything unprotected by a fort will be destroyed. Advanced players will build a second fort in a strategic location. Forts also protect fishing boats off the coast, which even if they don’t fish will still feed 500 population.

    Violence is, here, a last desperate resort for when all else has failed and generally an expense to be avoided.

    See, this is the lack of understanding that comes from failing to play the game properly. Sigh.

    You just have to decide for yourself what it means to win.

    No you don’t! To win you have to beat the other player’s score! It’s a TWO PLAYER GAME.

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    1. You make a fair point, actually. I shy away from multiplayer games as much as possible (with the likes of Spacewar [1962] and Pong [1972] being absolutely unavoidable) precisely because I live in a rural area and do not have friends to come over and play old video games with me, and networking these old games is a nightmare. There is indeed scant gaming infrastructure to support multiplayer Utopia and the accompanying word-of-mouth transmission of knowledge about it. Also, once you’re playing with another person, the experience of the game depends greatly on who you play it with and how I play, making it not so fixed an object to speak about. I’ll admit that I also am not particularly good at video games besides platformers and puzzleworlds (see: the post on Computer Bismarck [1981], essentially a document of my failure,) which means that if I tried my hand at say fighting games or Counter-Strike [2000], I’d just have a really unpleasant time getting my teeth kicked in over and over again and really not be able to even begin to grasp what’s going on. I’m currently going back and forth about whether I should write anything on MULE [1983]: on the one hand someone got in touch with me to specifically request it; on the other, though I believe it technically has AI to play against, I remember Danielle Bunten designed the game specifically to be a communal activity. Some would even say that by narrowing my focus on single-player video games, I’m missing the entire point of games. After all, most traditional games are extremely social activities.

      But the literal first page of the manual for Utopia says this can be played as a single- or two-player game, indicating that the game expects and allows both, and it doesn’t do anything to establish some kind of hierarchy where one is the proper game and the other an unworthy bastardization. It even spells out that the objective of the game indeed fundamentally changes between these two modes. In single-player, you do the best you can and try for an unspecified high score, and that’s the relaxing game I enjoyed and wrote about. I did consider talking about the two-player game — competition from afar seems from afar to be the classic “crabs in a bucket” dilemma, where you spend money to tear someone else down and in the process do not spend that money on getting points by improving your island’s well-being, leading to overall worse results all around, and the manual explicitly promulgates collaborative approaches like putting guard boats in all four corners of the screen to hinder pirates, which to me all slots right in with what Utopia “says” about the cost of violence in its single-player mode — but I ultimately decided against saying anything about the two-player game, because it was functionally impossible for me to experience it other than through reading the manual, which is never an ideal place to be making pronouncements about a game from. I could not have made the observations about how two-player actually plays that you laid out.

      Of course, it’s even more impossible for me to go be a kid in the early 1980s. I’m a young adult in the early 2020s. Apologies, but that’s inescapable. I do try to get a handle on the historical context and consider different viewpoints, but when it comes to the personal experience, I would have to go off dicey speculation of what it would be like to play this game back in the day. I’d have to defer to the authority of a hypothetical imaginary 1980s game-player. That has led me to disaster before (see: Zork [1980], my least favorite post,) because then I’m speaking in potentially-inaccurate generalizations about a whole group of people I’m not a part of. It’s just not tenable.

      All together, this leaves me with a dilemma. Either I write about these old games as they exist now from my point of view, the only way I can experience them, or I don’t write anything at all and probably don’t play the games, knowing that I can never experience them in their original context which fundamentally invalidates my viewpoint. And actually, this is a dilemma for everybody. Implemented maximally, that latter approach would leave gaming history a haunted graveyard of tombstones that only mean anything to the people who were around when the corpses were alive. Nobody could ever really revisit the art of the past, and we could only ever recycle older observations. The prior approach, conversely, treats the games as still basically alive, extant at least: their context has changed, we’ve changed too, but the object is still there even if it may be in a different form, and maybe it’s valuable to see old things with new eyes, adult eyes.

      I know which one of those two philosophies I favor, and it’s the one this entire blog and every retro-inspired video game is founded upon. But I get the distinct sense that you would prefer if I stopped writing because my viewpoint is invalid or incorrect. If that’s the case, I’ve got good news, buddy: if you stop reading my blog, it’ll be just like I stopped writing! You clearly do not like my perspective — in other comments besides this one, you have bizarrely insinuated that I’m a sexually-repressed Stalinist! — and I’m sorry to say that there’s only so much I can do about that. I can’t help it, all us Millennial Aquariuses are sexually-repressed Stalinists. Correct me if I’m totally off-base, but I would even go so far as to say that you probably hate me.

      Now, I don’t hate you. I actually like reading strident and abrasive viewpoints, whether I agree or disagree, because my natural instincts are too conciliatory and wishy-washy. It’s clear to me that you don’t intend to like, change my mind or communicate with me, or even to get under my skin and troll me, because your rhetoric is obviously going to be ineffective at either of those goals. My best guess is that you’re here to counterbalance my point of view to any passing readers. I think that’s fine, those readers can make up their own minds about which of us makes the better, more well-reasoned points. You’re perfectly welcome to keep coming back and pontificating in the comments section. I’d like to ask you a favor, though: You can keep your anger, you can keep your notes about how you played the game differently (actually very nice to have,) but please, less weird mud-slinging and personal hatred. That’s not a good look.

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      1. I’m currently going back and forth about whether I should write anything on MULE

        While M.U.L.E. has computer players, they were meant to fill in when a human player was missing. Four humans is the only way to play M.U.L.E. One player vs. 3 computer players is a snoozefest and you won’t get the brutal cutthroat competition that makes the game so fun. The computer players will build themselves into a corner making it easy to crush them. About the only “fun” you can have from a single player game is becoming a slave of the NPCs and servicing their needs such that you try to get the highest colony score. About as fun as Principal Skinner’s idea of “Well, you could see how many envelopes you could lick in an hour, then try to break that record.”

        There is indeed scant gaming infrastructure to support multiplayer Utopia

        Two words: retrogaming conventions.

        Some would even say that by narrowing my focus on single-player video games, I’m missing the entire point of games.

        In this era, specifically on the Intellivision, yes. The Intellivision’s great strength and its Achilles heel was its two player games. They were spectacular games – but you needed a friend to play. No friend, no game. Playing a game like Utopia by yourself is, as you have found, pointless. Even if the manual said it was technically possible to play in a Principal Skinner style.

        where you spend money to tear someone else down and in the process do not spend that money on getting points by improving your island’s well-being, leading to overall worse results all around

        Near the end of the game, your island will be built out. There’s nothing else to spend on, and the gold bars are piling up.

        Moreover, what if you’re losing? How do you bring the other player down and catch up? The goal of the game is to WIN.

        I would even go so far as to say that you probably hate me.

        Classic psychological projection. Projecting one’s unacceptable emotions onto The Other so damaging cognitive dissonance can be relieved. There’s a reason humans use it: it works.

        Liked by 1 person

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