Note: At the time of writing this editorial, I complained of the buggy experience in Catacomb Snatch. However, the availability of the source code has crowdsourced the problem and squashed the bugs in a release called Uber Catacomb Snatch released by UberSoft Technologies. It is worth a download, and requires no purchase.
I decided to (rather stingily) support the recent Humble Bundle Mojam, which was an interesting push for charity. The jam was to be centered around audience polls, and they chose an RTS game themed with Ancient Egypt and Steampunk.
Sixty hours and $460K later, the only release worth playing (or available) was Mojang’s Catacomb Snatch. My initial playthrough did not go very well. I guided my British adventurer Lord Lard through the titular catacombs, shot at mystical enemies, and didn’t do much else before eventually quitting.
Then I read Twitter, and learned that shooting mythical monsters was not the most important part of the game (as fun as it is). Now enlightened, I found myself exploring a game-based model that simulated the development of European Imperialism during the 16th to 19th Centuries.
To know how Mojang has created such a weirdly effective look at imperialism, we need to look at how empires have operated throughout history.These are the things, generally speaking, that an empire needs:
- Resources: As easy as it is to point back to European racial motivations, it’s important to know that Empires were Empires so that they could attain raw resources or the cash equivalent.
- Infrastructure: A system of communication and transportation needs to be created for the movement of resources. These usually involve a system of trading routes, which traditionally included sea lanes, land roads, and railroads.
- Power Projection: In order to keep the infrastructure secure, military force (as well as the threat of it) would be used to keep other parties (rivals, locals, or both) from interfering with trade.
- Capital: Resources and their cash equivalent would be invested into maintaining these previous systems, allowing for trade to grow, be re-invested, and eventually form a healthy profit.
The gameplay of Catacomb Snatch reflects this model in the following ways:
- Resources: The main objective is to extract a raw material which Lord Lard, for some reason, desires. When an enemy is killed, they forfeit their monetary possessions in true RPG fashion, which Lord Lard can obtain and use to purchase items.
- Infrastructure: In order to take the material back to Lord Lard’s base, he needs to construct a set of tracks for a cute robot. The robot extracts the material and brings it back to the base until the task is completed. This, in a sense, becomes a “railroad.”
- Power Projection: In order to defend your “railroad” from attack, you need to place as many sentry turrets as you can around it. Interestingly enough, the turrets also deter the amount of NPC’s spawning in a given area once placed. Turrets can be destroyed, but enough will force enemies into the crossfire before your defenses are weakened.
- Capital: The money taken from your enemies is used to construct the “railroad,” purchase turrets that provide protection, and acquire bombs that clear obstacles for your railroad. However, once a successful system is established, little upkeep is needed, and your capital will steadily grow as you continue fighting.
The parallels are quite clear, and it isn’t anything new to the veteran RTS player (which I am not). But the open and unguided experience allows for the players to ultimately make their own decisions from the get-go, and create their own take on imperial occupation.
Robert Yang recently wished that action-combat games dealt with the non-combat/infrastucture building aspects of war. Catacomb Snatch allows for an interesting look at the themes Yang wanted to express. The action-shmupy gameplay isn’t sacrificed, and the larger infrastructure of war is another primary aspect of gameplay.
But this begs the question only the fellas at Mojang can answer: was this done on purpose?
There’s enough in the game to answer both “yes” and “no.” Your starting base has a Union Jack proudly displayed, Lord Lard sports a pith helmet/handlebar mustache, and your efforts in multiplayer are in direct contrast to a German rival named Herr von Speck (referencing the Anglo-German rivalry right before World War I).
However, there’s no commentary or judgement here; it’s all set-dressing meant to meet the random criteria of the polls. Working to shove the game within two days does not leave much time to dwell on meaning. Without the imagery, the mechanics would be the same. Even with the imagery, the visuals of the game resemble turn of the century adventure fiction more than overt imperialism.
This is why I believe that Catacomb Snatch is what is known as “art by accident.” Whether or not Mojang had all of this in mind, they did not create a game which shoved that meaning down your throat. All of this occurred to me, based off of my understanding of the game and my historical studies. This is the accident where the art creeps in.
Mojang could not account for this accident. They could only make a game.
All in all, Mojang created quite the interesting, if buggy, experience. Once I found out the true goal of Catacomb Snatch, I enjoyed it better than my recent plays of Minecraft. If it is art, the “message” and gameplay are mutually dependent, and meld in a way that you may not have noticed their separation.
And if the game isn’t art, maybe that’s the better path.