And who by avalanche, who by powder
Who for his greed, who for his hunger
And who shall I say is calling?
-Leonard Cohen, “Who By Fire”
It’s the summer of 2114. South America just collapsed into anarchy due to, I’m told, “cataclysmic heat stress”. It joins North America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Russia, Europe, and Oceania still stand, each shoved closer to chaos by this year’s heat stress. The world will probably end next year. It might hold out until 2116 if it’s lucky. There’s nothing I, or the board of directors, or our company, or the European government, or anyone else can do. Which is especially disappointing, since my new body would have lasted until 2120. Those are four years I’ll never see. I paid dearly for them. 200 million for the body, 400 million for the tank it grew in.
Did I mention that we just launched a new Autoposter into the Russian market? Just Russia. Europe and Oceania have banned Autoposters. To appeal to the Russian predilection for privacy, we called it Never Bare Again. “Do we really have to bare all on social media?” our messaging suggested to shy Russians. “Do we have to share our deepest secrets, confess our truest selves? No. With Autoposter, we’ll fill your feed with content that has zero personal info.” A $30 million launch that will only make $6.36 in its first year. Minus whatever losses are caused by next year’s cataclysms. It’s not easy to turn a profit as the world burns.
Most strategy games are about possibility. The breadth of things that can happen every time you play. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is my latest favorite in wide-open possibility engines, part of a long tradition that includes Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Galactic Civilizations, Master of Orion, Dominions, Imperialism. Even the recent Field of Glory: Empires, which focuses on a narrow slice of time and geography, is all about the range of possibilities in the ancient Mediterranian. These are thrilling “what if?” machines, sandboxes for their openness and toy boxes for their unfettered glee.
But some strategy games are about a premise. Chris Crawford’s Balance of Power presents the Cold War as a balancing act rather than a contest. Paradox’s Victoria is an essay about how the new explosion of wealth in the industrial revolution was offset by a new demand for social services. Every Single Soldier’s Vietnam ’65 is a candid conversation about the United States’ hard-learned lessons in asymmetrical warfare, pacification, and hearts and minds, further extended into how those lessons have been put into practice in Afghanistan ’11. Brian Reynolds’ Colonization explores the inevitable painful divorce between a colony and her mother country. Stardock’s Political Machine, built from a game about selling products to consumers, riffs breezily that Presidential elections are about a candidate’s flexibility to say different things in different places to different people at different times. Offworld Trading Company suggests the harshest survival environment isn’t the airless and irradiated Martian landscape, but the free market.
These games invite you to poke and prod the premise, to see how far you can stretch it in different directions, to explore its parameters. But like someone in a balloon, pushing from the inside, they retain their shape. Paradox’s Europa Universalis games will let you conquer the world as Luxembourg, but Paradox’s Victoria will not let you win by ignoring human welfare. Vietnam ’65 will not let you nuke the Viet Cong. Colonization’s colonies must fight their wars of independence. The Political Machine, like the system it models, doesn’t know what to make of Donald Trump. These premises are there for you to explore, not break.
Spinnortality belongs in this category. Its premise is that the fate of the world will be decided not by governments, but by the wealth and power of the companies that integrate technology with humanity. The flow of information, not products, is the new economy. Manufacturing bits has taken a back seat to managing bytes. And because information exists virtually instead of physically, nations hemmed in by borders are all but powerless. This is also a central premise of cyberpunk, which is why Spinnortality has a less ridiculous name, tucked behind a colon: the Cyberpunk Management Simulator. Actually, it’s behind a vertical bar, like so: Spinnortality | the Cyberpunk Management Simulator. If you’re going to commit to a name like that, might as well go all-in with the punctuation.
It’s speculative fiction. Science fiction, really. But, of course, it’s not without relevance. Activision curries favor with China because the United States’ is moving backwards on the “cares about human rights” slider. Trump throws a tantrum and yanks away a lucrative contract, so Amazon has to decide whether to let its Washington Post speak freely. Disney buys so many popular franchises that it now takes 40% of all the money made at the box office. The Fox Corporation supports a corrupt political party and uses a morning news show to shunt its messaging onto social media via the President’s Twitter account. Elon Musk decides to start his own space program because the superpowers have lost interest. It’s a sign of the times that Spinnortality’s most outrageous elements involve microchip implants and brain transplants. Give it time.
I should warn you that Spinnortality is a spreadsheet game. It’s got snippets of clever enough text, but it’s mainly numbers. It struggles mightily to give you the information it thinks you want, and sometimes it just gives up entirely. It can certainly get tedious. It relies on your imagination, and on you being invested enough in its premise to power through the tedium. But it encourages multiple playthroughs because it can play out in a few very different ways, based mostly on which of its four victory conditions you pursue.
My approach to a lot of strategy games, especially poorly documented ones like Spinnortality, is to play on the lower difficulty levels to learn the systems. It’s easier to learn from my mistakes if the game is more forgiving. I only have so many restarts in me before I go play something I better understand. Once I’ve wrapped my head around what the game is doing, I know whether it’s worth trying with a bit more pushback. My first full playthrough of Spinnortality convinced me it’s worth another try.
For the first game, I figured I would attempt the humane victory condition. It’s like doing the lawful good playthrough in an RPG because you don’t want to miss out on the inevitable rewards you get for petting dogs, finding lost jewelry, and refusing payment for quests. Winning requires victory points, which you earn by buying agendas, each giving you points towards one of the four victory conditions. One of the agendas is democratic reform. You can’t win a humane victory without democratic reform (remember, this is a game with a premise). There are a few paths to reach the necessary victory points, and you could wait to implement democratic reform last, but you’re going to have to do it sooner or later. It’s more expensive if you wait until later, but you might want to delay these reforms because they completely upend politics, which is one of Spinnortality’s main systems.
In a game without democratic reform — namely, any game where you’re not pursuing the humane victory — one of the victory conditions is to accumulate 75% influence in each nation’s ruling party. You earn that influence by pumping money into a political party. But democratic reform means you can no longer buy influence. You can spend money to keep a party in power. But the money is always and only anonymous, so you earn no influence. That’s just the way Spinnortality works after a democratic reform. No more lobbyists. (Another reason to delay democratic reform is that it applies upward pressure to every nation’s corporate tax rate. There’s that premise poking its head into my cyberpunk!)
So there I was, playing the goodie-two-shoes company. I named it World Justice so I wouldn’t forget. I unlocked democratic reform, which meant I was paying more in taxes, but I was also saving the money I would have spent on politics. I wasn’t even spending money on media manipulation. I was just doing the humane thing of putting my agenda points into foreign aid, education, and reform, stabilizing the democracies of the world, giving a little push to the others so I could eventually install democracies with my military assets. This is the neoconservative idea behind the invasion of Iraq, writ large. The difference is that here, it seemed to be working.
Every turn, Spinnortality offers an event with multiple options. As with a Paradox game, each option pops up a tool-tip that tells you exactly what ingame effects it will have. Usually. There are some branching storylines and events that span multiple turns, so you just have to find out for yourself where they lead. One of them is climate change. If you ignore it like I did — I intended to hit a humane victory before it mattered — you might trigger one of Spinnortality’s crises. When the climate change crisis kicks in, everything shifts dramatically. It’s an apocalypse, global and catastrophic, dragging every nation from prosperity toward chaos. To hold out, every nation can build climate change defenses, and they can eventually switch to 100% green power. Once all nations have gone green, the climate change apocalypse stops and you can go back to whatever you were doing.
But the funny thing about climate change defenses is that governments have to be persuaded to build them. Since I had introduced democratic reforms, I was no longer able to buy the influence necessary to convince governments to build climate change defenses, much less to convert their economies to 100% green energy. I was doomed. The world was doomed. For any other victory condition, I would have been accumulating influence, and I would have used it to withstand and eventually stave off this apocalypse. But democratic reform cut me out of the equation. I could only watch helplessly as every nation did absolutely nothing, as cyclones, famines, wildfires, and rising sea levels pushed each nation toward chaos, one slider notch at a time.
Was this a cheap shot by Spinnortality? A gameplay gotcha? Not really. I had continually chosen “ignore climate change” every time the issue came up, partly because I had other ways I wanted to spend my resources, but mainly because I was curious what Spinnortality was going to do about it. It called my bluff.
So the world is in its death spiral and there’s nothing I can do. If I hadn’t been all-in for the humane victory, if I hadn’t implemented democratic reform, I might have been able to transition to a consumerism, imperial, or New World victory. As my profits dwindled and my net gain segued into a net loss, I didn’t dare spend money. I launched fewer products. Research and development slowed and eventually came to a standstill. Workers were sent home. Costly AIs were switched off. The board of directors was upset that I didn’t provide a spare body for a 104-year-old board member. So when she died, she died for real. I sat and watched my game tumble down the failed branch I had chosen. Russia fell to a hyperstorm. Food prices destabilized Europe. The coup de grace was a massive tropical cyclone finishing off Oceania.
The credits go by and I’m treated to a cavalcade of newspaper headlines about World Justice’s milestones. Remember the time I did this thing, and that thing, and the other thing? And it all came to this:
It’s a pretty basic point, but I’ll take it. This is what happens when corporations choose short-term gain over long-term risk. This is how governments are helpless to do anything until private enterprise is willing or compelled to choose an option other than “ignore climate change”. It’s a little weird that everything was left in my hands, rendered utterly ineffectual by democratic reform. What point did that make? To be fair, I’m the one that got the world there by choosing “ignore climate change” at literally every opportunity. I guess it wasn’t such a lawful good playthrough, after all.
Okay, no more Mr. Nice Guy. It’s time to roll up my sleeves, get my hands dirty, and throw a few token dollars at climate change long enough to attain an imperial victory: