Sid Meier has one of the most recognizable names in the video game industry. But who is he beyond a name on a box, anyway?
A recent thread on Reddit asking the community about the first game they ever played gathered over 45,000 comments, with classic names like Tetris, Super Mario Bros., and Spyro topping the list. It got me thinking about which video games had the biggest impact on me as a kid. These days they’re a major part of my life, but it hasn’t always been that way. I was born in the mid-’90s, so I missed out on the earliest consoles, and after the loss of our beloved Gameboy Color (stolen in the prime of its life), the technological heart of my house became the family’s desktop computer.
It was my dad’s domain, and I would squeeze in next to the dial-up modem to watch him play classic dad games like Football Manager and Airline Tycoon. Generally I was content to spectate, until one game managed to promote me to player: the 2004 release of Sid Meier’s Pirates!
Looking back on the game now, it’s easy to see why it appealed to me so much. You start out as a buccaneer, steering your ship across an open-world map of the Caribbean in search of fame, fortune, and your lost family. Encounters on the waves lead to real-time naval battles, where players use the number pad to fire their cannons at an enemy vessel while attempting to deftly maneuver through their cannonball onslaught. It’s surprisingly tactical: You can pick the type of cannonball that your ship fires, with different types dealing specific damage to the enemy ship or its crew. Reducing the number of crew makes it easier to win the ensuing sword fight, a tense battle against the enemy captain on the deck of his (hopefully) half-wrecked ship.
This could feel needlessly bellicose if it weren’t so damn fun—and profitable to boot. Taking an enemy vessel gets you crew, goods, and gold but could harm your reputation with whomever the ship was affiliated with. A good reputation will see you welcomed at the faction’s settlements to sell your goods and, most importantly, dance with the governor’s incredibly buxom daughter. The dancing mini-game plays out on the number pad and is essentially a rhythm game, requiring quick reflexes and an impeccable sense of timing. My dad had neither, and I clearly remember him calling me over to the computer to help him get the full combos he needed to impress the courtiers.
So far Sid Meier’s Pirates! has open-world exploration, naval battles, trading and reputation systems, and fighting and rhythm mini-games, but I haven’t even touched on the game’s turn-based strategy parts. This game absolutely refuses to be constrained by a single genre and offers players a veritable smorgasbord of game mechanics. For some, it was too much. But why were those choices made?
According to Sid Meier, the answer is simple: because it’s fun. In his new autobiography, Sid Meier’s Memoir! A Life in Computer Games, Meier expresses his frustration with video game hyperrealism:
Anyone who has ever played a game in the Civilization series is likely already familiar with this ethos, because it plays out there too. Sure, there are other empire-builders out there that are more detailed, more involved, more “realistic,” but Civilization (for me, at least) manages to strike the perfect balance between simulation and fun.
In recent years we’ve seen a lot of games that, while impressive in many respects, are a little light on pure entertainment and heavy on realism or grimdark world-building. Watch Dogs: Legion and Death Stranding are the first that spring to mind.
Perhaps Sid Meier’s games have such enduring appeal because they’re designed in a way that never loses sight of their primary goal: creating a fun and engaging play experience. Of course, video games have incredibly rich potential to explore gritty themes and showcase the latest technological advancements, but in my experience, when forced to choose between that and fun, players will pick fun every time, and the best games don’t force the player to choose.
It was Baudrillard who said “we live in a world where there is more and more information and less and less meaning,” and if we conveniently ignore the fact that Baudrillard might consider Sid Meier’s games an “order of sorcery,” this sums things up pretty nicely. Pirates! is heavy on the meaning: It focuses on delivering an engaging swashbuckling experience without being cast adrift by unnecessarily arduous game mechanics.
The rest of Sid Meier’s autobiography is enlightening, interesting, and an overall feel-good read. From his early efforts coding games on his home computer and selling them to local electronics stores to the massive success of Civilization, it is obvious that Meier has remained down-to-earth, in good humor, and above all, passionate about making video games. The book is brimful of nostalgic references, funny stories, and game design anecdotes, so there’s something for everyone. The release of this memoir might be interpreted as the winding down of a lengthy career, but Meier is quick to reject that.
“I’m definitely not done,” he writes in his memoir. “Most of my games I haven’t even played since the day they shipped because I’ve already moved on to the next exciting thing.” At this point, I’d be happy to see what that next exciting thing is, but I’d also love to return to (or play a reimagination of) Pirates!—not just because I have such fond memories of it, but because it’s probably about time that I did some father-daughter bonding. And what could be better than a return to terrorizing the high seas together?
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