Games as Mental Comfort Food: A Year with Europa Universalis 4
Author: @elmarcel, professional game developer in Sweden
This is a guest post and does not represent the views of CheckPoint.
I was working a job abroad that I had loved for years: interesting work, fun colleagues, and a great boss. I had a nice circle of friends, and after a lot of flathopping I had finally found a flatshare with agreeable people. Life was good. I was completely miserable. I had no energy, motivation, or ambition. Problems concentrating. As a software developer, it was quite detrimental to my work. I came to work late, every day. Mornings, I wanted to stay in bed indefinitely. Always tired, even after a long sleep. Dreading the fact that soon as I would get up, a new day would start, with all the difficulties that brings with it. Evenings were opposite: I didn’t go to bed until I nearly collapsed, afraid to admit that the day was a wash, and also delaying the sleep that would see me waking up anew. Life was gray and tasted like cotton.
In hindsight, I was suffering from a severe clinical depression that was pulling me to the edge of functionality.
I felt terrible, and couldn’t imagine myself feeling even slightly less terrible anywhere in the future. Following a correct intuition, I quit, packed my bags, and flew home. I was very lucky that I did that when I did. As soon as the structure of a regular day job was removed, I regressed into a lethargic existence. No appetite for food. No ambition to work on a hobby project. Even though I have decent amount savings, I don’t travel, not even to meet close friends. I also don’t practice any of my other hobbies: reading, writing, photography. I don’t even feel bored or sad; and if I do, it’s such a constant presence that I stopped noticing a long time ago.
How I occupy my day is straightforward. I live with my father, and this makes things a lot easier then they would be living alone. He wakes me at 10:00, and I force myself to take a shower every day. I skip breakfast, as I have since I hit puberty. Lunch at 12:00. Dinner at 18:00. Him being there is enough for me to make the effort to eat. That just leaves the rest of the day. Most people that have depression are incredibly ineffective. I definitely am. Taking a shower is not a ten-minute task. It can take a long time of mental preparation, and a long time of “organized retreat”/recuperation after the fact. I retreat in my own head, by which I mean occupying myself with some tasks with that had little or no feedback in the real world. There’s a lot of time I feel I need to spend away from day to day life, and that time need to be filled, somehow. I do some consulting, whenever I feel able to, even though I get nothing out of it. On bad days it’s so difficult and boring it makes me want to cry. I watch some shows, which was my main occupation the previous time I had a similar episode. I try to meet up with friends, even though I’m incredibly clumsy in social situations, and they are mostly unavailable.
But above all, and probably more than everything else combined, I play Europa Universalis 4, or EU4 for short.
EU4 is a grand strategy game, where a player takes charge of a country (in the form of “an” invisible guiding hand”) and tries to achieve goals which are largely left to the player to define. The game simulates the entire world between 1444, when the Ottomans won at Varna and started to expand into the Balkans, until 1821, the death of Napoleon. Close to three thousand individual provinces divided between more than a thousand nations. There is a strong focus on war, but diplomacy and economy are very complex and important mechanics as well. More than in most other games, alliances are important, wars are fought for specific reasons, and being stabbed in the back by the AI hurts. My main interest in the game is in its depth. If I’m being threatened by a stronger neighbor, I could try to marry my dynasty into another in the hope of securing another alliance. Or I could take out a lot of loans, hire another nation’s army as mercenaries, and figure out a way to deal with the resulting inflation later. Or I could ally his ally, forcing him to fight his own ally to get to me. Or finally, the military option, where being the weaker nation my only recourse is to salt my own lands and harry him for decades, hoping he’ll have to give up due to an internal conflict. Getting to know EU4 well enough to play a proper campaign takes longer than it takes to finish many AAA games, and it’s a funstrating process. Afterwards, a lot of the satisfaction of playing is applying a large understanding of the game in an effective way, while still brushing up on the more obscure rules and mechanics.
It’s not the only title I play. EU4 is made by a Paradox Interactive, which specialize in grand strategy games. I’ve played virtually all of their games. Crusader Kings 2, which is the most critically acclaimed one, where you play as a medieval lord or lady. It’s probably best described as “the sims” welded to a medieval inheritance law simulator with a dash of eugenics: a player can start and stop wars, marry and cheat, raise or “neutralize” their heir, and many, many more actions. It has been praised for its emergent storytelling, and it’s a true classic. There’s also Victoria 2, which lets you pick any country in the world, and guide it through Victorian times. Hearts of Iron 4, a straight up military strategy game set in WW2. And finally, Stellaris, a sci-fi 4x game with an emphasis on narrative. But it’s EU4 where I, and most other people who seriously get into Paradox games, choose to spend the bulk of our time.
The starting situation is the identical every time.
England owns parts of France and looks hungrily towards Scotland. Norway and Sweden chafe t being vassals of Denmark. The Moors are barely hanging on in Andalucia, anticipating Castille’s coup de grace. The Holy Roman Empire is a colorful patchwork of small, wealthy states, shepherd over by an overbearing Austria. Russia is not on the map, as Muscovy and Novgorod still need to fight for supremacy. China seems to dominate the Far East, mainly due to his size. India is roughly divided and fought over by four contenders: Vijianagar, Jaipur, and Bengal. Several hordes divide Central Asia between them, pillaging from their more docile neighbors. South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are volatile, with hundreds of small kingdoms fighting to come out on top. The Americas are large swathes of uninhabited land only occasionally occupied by a migrating tribe, relatively peaceful while it’s still undiscovered by the Europeans.
Every game is memorable and unique. In EU4, countries have an opinion about each other. One country might like another because they have mutual enemies, marriage ties, or the other nation simply made a significant monetary gift. Or it may hate another due to an existing grudge, historical disputes over land, or simple rivalry. The initial opinions of countries towards each other does change every game. The fate of Europe is largely decided by who France decides to ally. If it allies Austria, everything on the continent will happen by their fiat. In any case, France is just waiting for an excuse to fight England, a fight which it can’t lose. Meanwhile, a nation that allies England or Denmark has effectively tied a millstone around their neck: Denmark sits on top of a volcano of powerful, disloyal vassals while England needs boats to fight anywhere, and tends to tie up its forces in its overseas ambitions. Muscovy will crush Novgorod and form Russia. Who it will ally is, just as Poland, anyone’s guess, but it’s guaranteed they will both hate the Ottomans. The Ottomans don’t need any allies, and the only thing that can stop them in the West is a unified bloc of Austria, Poland, and perhaps Hungary. The game keeps it fresh with the occasional curveball though: the pope allying the Ottomans, Sweden colonizing North America. Aztecs driving the Spanish into the ocean.
It took a year before I realized something was fundamentally wrong with me.
I haven’t mentioned it before, but half a decade ago I had a similar episode of depression. It lasted about 2 years, which would make it 3 years in total before I started to accept the idea that something might be terribly wrong. Luckily, I eventually had the correct reaction and looked for help. That doesn’t mean I was in front of a doctor or psychologist the next day. Or week. Between all the research, telephone calls, waiting lists, etc, it takes me over two months to finally meet with a psychologist. Not a psychiatrist yet, because that still sounded too scary in my head. When I meet my psychologist the first time, I tell her about my treacle-dunked life. It’s a surprisingly superficial conversation. At this point, I know I have a clinical depression, even if I’m not quite ready to admit it to myself. She doesn’t need to be told much before she realizes the same. The rest of the session she tries to reassure me by dispelling any myths and stereotypes about therapy. I don’t need to be told. I have quite a lot of experience with mental illness, due to a high prevalence in my family. We agree to start weekly sessions.
It’s frequent, but I am disappointed.
Now that I finally have an idea about what my problem is, I want to meet more often, I’m anxious to finally start working on my problems as soon as possible. I’m a programmer, it’s my natural reflex. But we meet once every week. The kind of therapy we do is never named, and I haven’t looked it up. I’ve had good luck finding my psychologist, we get along well. She’s very good at helping me understand what I am experiencing. She helps me admit to myself that, even though I know a better life is out there, to genuinely believe I can work towards getting there, right. She shows me why self-care is a crucial first step to take, as well as a valuable skill for the rest of my life. And I hesitantly start taking care of myself, one aspect of my life at a time. Cautiously, unwilling to have it overwhelm me. It all takes a lot of time, most of it spend recuperating after making any effort. That’s the time when I need to escape inside my head.
That’s what the game really helps me with.
From the very start of my self-care period, I settle down into a routine. I do the things I know I need to, but I take care not to push myself, afraid of regressing. Perhaps I’m too cautious. At the slightest feeling I might get overwhelmed, I again retreat in my own head. I wake up at 10:00, shower, take a coffee. Lunch at 12:00, coffee twice in the afternoon (freshly ground posh coffee, very comforting). Dinner at 18:00. Bed at 01:00 in the best case, 04:00 on a bad day. I promise myself to go out of the house at least once a day. The time in between, virtually guaranteed spent behind my pc, very likely on EU4. I almost start treating it as a job. Making plans for the game after the current one. Sanity checking my in-game schedule. Tutting when I get sloppy. I also get into the metagame. I lurk on the forums, I read the patch notes, and I always have a test game on hand to test out a theory. I’m far from being in the same league as the best players, but my knowledge of the game is extensive.
EU4 is freeform. You can pick any country, you make your own goals, and try to accomplish them. There are no formal victory conditions. World conquest is possible, but also very challenging, and extremely tedious. The closest EU4 comes to a guided challenge are the achievements. There lot of them, at the time of writing about 235, and they all require playing on ironman (no saving, all mistakes are painfully permanent). Many of the achievements are trivial and will be earned by just playing the game. Marry your dynasty into a foreign one. Win a war. Others are historically plausible scenarios, such as forming Germany early. Some are quite tricky, like conquering England as Scotland. And the remainder is patently absurd: as Switzerland, own 99 provinces while remaining landlocked. It goes without saying that I turned into a fanatical achievement hunter.
Months pass by.
I conquer Iberia with Albania. I learn how to groom myself properly, and get some non-store brand products. I unite all Muslims by converting them to Ibadi. I pick up jogging, Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays. I dismantle the Holy Roman Empire. I go on a clothes shopping spree with a fashionable friend of mine. As the Aztecs, I invade and subjugate Western Europe. I start to watch my eating habits and practice portion control. I win the Thirty Years’ War as a protestant Sweden. I start taking antidepressant medication. I restore the Roman borders at their height with Byzantium. I slowly start accepting that what I have, is not a thing that will get better. As Norway, I conquer every pitch producing province in the world. I have to start taking a different antidepressant due to side-effects. I reconquer Iberia as Muslim Granada. I quit smoking. I get elected emperor of the Holy Roman Empire as Spain. I try to improve the relationship with my close friends.
A year passes.
A long time, as every step forwards takes a long time to integrate into my life. And sometimes is accompanied by a step or two backward. Every change in medication takes more than a month to properly evaluate, without any other changes in lifestyle. Every change in my life has to be done in isolation as if crawling over thin ice. More then anything, this period of my life was a balance between moving forwards and moderating that to a degree that it would be sustainable. EU4 was my comfort food. A familiar place to retreat to. Challenges to overcome, without any consequences for failure. Achievements that give satisfaction, without the need to go outside or interact with other people. And I definitely overdid it. My room is on the ground floor, facing the street. One of my neighbors tells me his daughter is a geographer too. He must have glimpsed my staring at a map too many times. Additionally, in the period leading up to my return home, excessively playing video games was a very negative presence in my life. I was playing games from right after work, until way past my bedtime. It kept me from socializing, cooking, cleaning, sleep, or even just getting out of the house. However, I’m convinced playing EU4 helped me get through this specific period in my life without any major crises or setbacks.
I wish I could wrap this up cleanly by saying I gradually improved until I reached the point where I could function at an acceptable level.
My problems turned out to be more complicated than only depression. But that isn’t relevant here, or even something that I want to talk about right now. I did stop playing EU4 and substituted that time with sculpting (and occasionally some other games, Life is Strange being a particularly memorable one). I probably could have benefitted a lot from art therapy, and I might incorporate that into my life. I’m also very happy to tell you that I’m sustainably functional again. Not cured, but able to actively cope with the effects of what I have, and accepting that that will be necessary for the rest of my life. I’ve accepted a new job, as a gameplay programmer. I moved abroad, to Sweden, coincidentally the home of Paradox Interactive. It’s a quite risky moving away from friends and family, and I’m terrified of winters here. But it’s a clean slate, which is incredibly liberating.
I planned to reinstall the game so I could have a nice epilogue to this article. I booted it up, but the amount the game has changed since I last played is daunting. China has received a ton of polish. Rulers and generals now have traits, such as craven, or strict. Islamic nations can designate a particular school as preferred. The Japanese shogunate now passes on to whoever controls Kyoto. Knowing myself, I would have to know exactly how these things work before I can enjoy myself. I’m also quite worried about the connotations I have for the game. I might be strongly reminded of how I felt when I was playing it, and I’m not keen on that at all. Maybe just not yet. I’m satisfied with watching Let’s Play’s for now, watching one as I am typing this. Maybe I can check the new achievements later. I’ve tried keeping my completion rate over 50% and it seems I’m at 43%. Maybe that’s unacceptable……