Empire Down

The player in Age of Empires II doesn’t take on the role of a monarch or a national spirit, but the feudal mode of production itself.

I was always an awkward child. My limbs were far too long and jointed at inconvenient intervals, and most of the time they were only nominally under my control. I had a loud voice, unusual politics, a wonky jaw, and an instinctual aversion to wearing bright colours.

It’s a miracle that I was never particularly into computer games.

I have my liberal-interventionist parents to thank for that: video games were awful and violent, and on no account was I to grow up to be some kind of thug. But Age of Empires II was an exception. Given its historical setting, I could make the case for the game being “educational” and therefore wholesome; as a result, I played it religiously from the age of nine until I was slightly too far into my teens. Even now, I have fond memories of it.

Clearly, I’m not alone. In November, Microsoft released Age of Empires II: The Forgotten, a new expansion that comes well over a decade after the original game — setting a record for the video game industry. Despite the clunky 2D graphics and the pompous overblown music, a lot of people still have a lot of time for the thing — including me. I decided to sit down and delve back into the game I had spent so much of my youth playing, and found something unexpected.

Age of Empires II isn’t really a game at all. It’s something far more interesting. Back in 1999, in the distant infancy of artificial intelligence, we managed to program a computer with Todestrieb, the will of all living things towards death that Freud was forced to confront in his theory after World War I. Not only that: the way in which this artificial death drive functions might just prefigure the end of our own society.

What Age of Empires II pretends to be is a kind of medieval warfare simulator. Playing as one of the many interchangeable empires, you start the game with a “town center” (a storehouse that seems to somehow ontologically precede the town itself), a mounted scout, and a couple of gawping peasant villagers. These peons can be sent off to chop trees and build fortifications; meanwhile, at the town center, you can sacrifice a little food and bid more of them to pop into existence. (This, incidentally, is one of the most immediately disturbing aspects of the game — are we to imagine that human beings are emerging spontaneously from piles of grain? Have the sufficiently advanced aliens that secretly run this world planted hidden cloning tanks around the map? Or do each of these buildings just hide a subterranean birthing harem?)

The same goes for your soldiers: you call them into being at their barracks, and with an obedient grunt, they appear. As the game goes on, you can advance in history, your town progressing from a cluster of miserable huts shivering in the wreckage of the Roman Empire to a teeming and highly militarized metropolis. At the same time, you share your patch of ground with a number of computer-controlled societies doing much the same thing. Your task, of course, is to wipe them out utterly: massacre their citizenry, burn their homes, salt their fields, and wipe their names from the annals of history. But what’s odd is the fact that while they put up a perfunctory fight, they don’t seem to be entirely opposed to the idea.

All this mucking about with soldiers and navies is just a sideshow. Your enemies will idly fling a few columns of troops at your town, but even on the hardest setting it’s easy enough to fight them off. What’s really going on has very little to do with combat, and everything to do with resources.

To build up an army you need food, wood, gold and stone. Food can come from farms, and gold from trade carts, but wood comes from trees — and once you chop them down, they don’t grow back. Let the game run on for long enough and you’ll see huge labor armies of your opponent’s villagers crisscrossing the map in search of any forests left unfelled that can fuel their war effort.

These great migrations are what really drive the game’s conflict. Computer-controlled players will often coexist quite peacefully, even if they’re supposed to be enemies, until one sends a group of desperate lumberjacks into another’s turf: inevitably they’re driven off with swords and arrows, reinforcements are brought in, and before long, fire and carnage flares up around every patch of woodland still standing.

That is, until the last tree on the map is felled. When that happens, there’s no more wood to rebuild the farms, meaning no more food to feed the soldiers. Obediently, the peasants return to their homes and stand about meekly, waiting to die.

It’s possible to read this as some kind of unsubtle ecological allegory: the over-exploitation of our natural resources will always result in social collapse, the world has limits that we shouldn’t push up against &mdash but this interpretation doesn’t quite add up. Instead of the orgy of bloodshed you’d expect after this catastrophe, a final all-out struggle to inherit the war-torn and defoliated hellscape we’ve created, there’s a perfect, deathly stillness. There are no more aggressive sorties; the military units remaining also head home to their silent necropolis; they barely put up a fight when your forces arrive.

This isn’t a catastrophe; it’s hard to escape the feeling that this is something willed. It’s notable that a market system exists in which players can exchange various resources for each other, but the computer never seems to actually do this. The artificial intelligence has very deliberately killed itself in the only way it can: by fighting doggedly to survive.

This isn’t as much a contradiction as it might seem: for Freud, the death-drive isn’t connected with suicidal melancholia, cases in which the ego’s narcissistic instinct for preservation is overpowered by the reproach of the superego as manifested in self-hatred. Instead, the death drive appears in aggression and recklessness. It’s one and the same thing as the individual subject’s constant and antagonistic fight to protect itself. Freud writes that Todestrieb is in part “an instinct of destruction directed against the external world.” Its metamorphosis into a desire for self-annihilation is just a change in direction.

Still, it’s not entirely clear why the will towards death should show up like this: not in an advanced attempt to mimic human psychology, but seemingly by accident in a medieval strategy game. What exactly is it that wants to extinguish itself here? When you play Age of Empires II, what is it that you’re pretending to be?

At first, the player’s position seems to be a little like that of the medieval monarchy: you dispense orders to your troops and subjects and you are ruler of all you survey, but only that which you survey. This is complicated a little by the fact that in some gameplay modes kings themselves appear as units on the screen, but they do your bidding as obsequiously as any peasant laborer. Some of the promotional materials describe the player’s position as the “spirit of the nation,” something like the Hegelian Volksgeist — but the different civilizations are differentiated by changes in architectural style, not an organic spirit rising from the people, and their movement isn’t towards self-realization but extinction.

It might be more productive to consider the game more in terms of its horizons than its opportunities. Nothing novel is allowed here. History runs along a single track. You can arrange your town in any formation you like, but you have to use the building types provided; you can send a detachment of knights in any direction, but you can’t make them dismount or get your archers to use their arrows as spears; you can advance from the dark ages to the dawn of imperialism, but you can’t produce any social form that isn’t essentially feudalistic.

The really notable thing about Age of Empires II is the total lack of any class struggle. All the contradictions of the feudal mode of production are in place: your villagers plough the fields and cut the wood, keeping none of the fruits of their labor for themselves. There are castles that presumably house various lords, yeoman soldiers, armored knights, and a gold-rich priestly caste. Despite all this (and in contrast to a lot of other strategy games), there’s no hint of resistance from the toiling masses; everyone marches towards their own extinction with placid stoicism.

This is particularly strange given the tumult of the actual Middle Ages, a period in history that saw countless peasants’ wars and religious furies flare up again and again across the fields of Europe. In the game, meanwhile, the medieval social contract of the three estates — in which peasants labor for the health of all, clergy pray for the salvation of all, and nobles fight for the protection of all — is presented not as the idealized halo of a stratified class society, but class society as it actually functions.

In other words, Age of Empires II does the same thing for feudalism that Marx does for industrialism with Capital. While in The Condition of the Working Class In England Engels uncovers the discrepancies between how capitalism claims to function and how it actually operates, Marx in Capital takes the bourgeois economists at their word, exhaustively showing how, even if capitalism worked exactly as its advocates say it should, its overthrow would still be inevitable.

In the closed system of Age of Empires feudalism works perfectly — and, like every system that works perfectly and has exhausted any capacity to direct its destructiveness outwards, it has nowhere else to go except towards its own death.

The player in Age of Empires II doesn’t take on the role of a monarch or a national spirit; you become the feudal mode of production itself. This is why the game isn’t, strictly speaking, a game — you’re not competing with the other players, but instead form part of a single system reaching towards a collaborative annihilation.

In fact, it’s not entirely true that the endgame is a total stillness. Even as the soldiers and citizens stand motionless, trade carts and merchant vessels continue to ferry gold from one market to another. (Notably, this stands in contrast to the computer’s refusal to use the market to procure more wood: exchange between players is fine, but the idea that all commodities are universally fungible and can be subsumed within a universal money-form is resisted by a very medieval particularism.) It’s not exactly a bourgeois revolution, but it does dramatize the rise of a mercantile class out of a society that’s perfected itself into oblivion, and it does so in the only way it can.

Marx famously avoided making any concrete prescriptions about what communism would actually look like: from within the closed environment of one mode of production the one that comes to succeed it is visible only as the vaguest of outlines, a spark of movement in an otherwise dead world.

Of course, the collapse of feudalism is now long passed, and contemporary crises in the current mode of production appear not as stillness but as frenzied shifting of capital. Even so, the situations aren’t incomparable. Age of Empires II might depict a social form that died long ago, but it is itself very much a product of our contemporary world.

In the end, what it shows us isn’t the fall of feudalism — its presentation is historically inaccurate to say the least — but the inevitable end of any alienated mode of production that becomes perfected and unchallenged. We live in a time in which financialized late capitalism is simultaneously functioning entirely as it should and in a state of utter paralysis. Just like the feudalism of Age of Empires, it’s become a globe-spanning totality.

At the same time, when it’s in trouble — and it’s definitely in trouble right now — the only way it can proceed is by intensification. The ongoing financial crisis has been used by the ruling classes to perpetrate a massive and self-endangering upward seizure of wealth because this is the only way they can possibly operate under a system characterized by unopposed seizure.

In other words, what presents itself as the accumulation of capital and resources and commodities is, in fact, the will towards extinction. The lesson of Age of Empires II is this: the moment when capitalism and its lurching and crisis-ridden but constant progression appears to be entirely unobstructed is precisely the moment of its greatest vulnerability. It’s stumbling into a void. All we need to do is help it along.