Comparing the Civilization Intro Videos

OK, let's do something for fun here. I was watching the introduction video to Civ4 recently, and it reminded me how much I loved the start of that game. Just like the opening to a book or a movie, a good introduction to a video game should set the tone and mood for the rest of the game to follow. I felt like writing something more on the Civ series, so I decided to take a look at the intros to all five of the Civilization games and see what sort of themes emerge. This isn't intended to be taken too seriously, so please don't come after me if you have a different take on some of these! With that said, let's look at how these different games introduce the audience to the Civilization franchise.

Civilization (1991)

I'm combining the title screen and the sequence that plays when you start a new game, as they're sort of two halves of the full setup. (Unfortunately, I could only find the latter video on YouTube in German, so apologies for those who can't read the language!) Let's look at how this sequence plays out. There's a slow pan over to a static picture of the young solar system, as the Earth forms out of a swirl of cosmic debris. The music rises to a crescendo as the title screen appears bearing the Civilization logo. Good start for what was a new franchise at the time (and the graphics weren't bad then either!)

When starting a new game, you would see the video on the right. The text that you probably can't read is a paraphrasing of the opening lines of Genesis from the Bible, talking about how "in the beginning" the Earth was initially without form and void. Over time, the planet formed, the land separated from the seas, the atmosphere formed, and life was born. Over time that life grew and evolved, forming higher and higher forms of beings, until the eventual arrival of humans. The people await only one thing: a great leader, to unite the quarreling tribes, to harness the power of the land, to build a legacy that would stand the test of time: a CIVILIZATION! (I still remember that ending, even after all these years. What can I say, it was memorable.) There was an Easter Egg in Civ4 of Leonard Nemoy reading this same text, which you can listen to right here if desired. Go ahead and listen, it's quite good.

So what themes emerge from this opening? Right from the beginning, it's clear that Civilization will be operating on a grand scope. We literally start with the formation of the world, at the very beginning of creation itself, and follow the development of the planet up to modern times. The constant use of the Earth throughout the introduction emphasizes the global theme of the game, that you will be the one charged with building a civilization to control the world itself. (This also fits well with Civilization's use of the Spaceship victory condition, which was completely novel at the time. Very fitting that the game would end with you leaving behind the same globe seen in the introduction and starting anew on another planet.)

If the use of the world/globe/earth is one of the main themes in the introduction, then the idea of progress would clearly be another. Throughout the introduction, events are always moving forward and "bettering" themselves in some way. First we have nothing but the galactic void. Then we have a planet, which slowly takes shape and form. We then progress from microscopic organisms, to early prehistoric creatures, through the dinosaurs, and the finishing with man itself. This mirrors the progression that takes place in the game itself, with every new technology adding something, civs getting bigger and stronger over time, etc. It's a very deterministic view of the universe, and certainly something that postmodern scholarship would have a few words with, but I think it works for the Civilization series. Once again, the introduction serves as a vehicle for getting across one of the key themes of the game.

Finally, the introduction makes it clear that Civilization is an open-ended game, with no predetermined narrative formula. There is no central character that we'll be experiencing the game through, no "Navi" accompanying helper to chatter on about where to go and what to do. In Civilization, *YOU* are the one in charge, and it is your story that the game will be weaving through the course of your own choices and decisions. This is the very reason why there are no characters whatsoever in the introduction, as it allows absolutely anyone to step into the "God" role that you get to play in Civilization and guide your people as you see fit. The intro doesn't presuppose anything about who the player might be: there is no normative race, gender, age, etc. to be seen here, which is a major reason why Civilization has always been so popular with people outside the teenage male demographic of most video games. Furthermore, the intro doesn't make any assumptions either about what kind of leader the player will choose to be. It leaves the door completely open for you to play a benevolent democracy or a brutal dictatorship, or anything in between. The introduction, like the game itself, lets the player make these decisions without forcing any particular choices in the gameplay. Civilization's introduction is therefore quite clever in reflecting the open-ended nature of the game's design.

These then are the key themes of the intro: use of the global or "Earth" motif, a deterministic belief in progress or positive change over time, and commitment to an open-form narrative structure with nothing predetermined about the player him or herself. They're a great fit for the game, and the creators clearly worked the introduction around these themes by design and not chance. Now let's look at how later games in the Civilization series adapted their own introductions to fit with these same themes of the series.

Civilization II (1996)

The introduction to Civ2 starts out in similar fashion to the first game. We see the Microprose logo set against a background of stars, indiciating that we're once again out in space, followed by an explosion suggesting the original "Big Bang" and creation of the universe. Next we see the camera zooming in on the Solar System (again reminiscient of the original game's opening), followed be a series of mechanical devices: a sundial, a compass, an early clock, a globe, and so on. All of these inventions are associated with telling time or determining direction, and indicate a steady sense of improvement over time, as we get more and more advanced objects. This sequence eventually concludes with an airplane propellor, an atomic nucleus, a human eyeball [OK this one is really random!], and finally the defining image of Civ2's introduction: the globe of the Earth reflected off an astronaut's visor while floating in space. It's a striking visual picture, which transitions into the game's title screen, again displaying the Civilization 2 marquee above the Earth suspended against the blackness of space. Throughout the video, the music plays a lighthearted variation of the first game's theme, using a "world music" instrumentation based around wooden flutes and percussion. This was done to establish an aural link back to the original Civilization, which comes across very clearly even to those without musical training.

How do the themes from the first game's introduction hold up? Quite well, I would say. The use of the space/earth/globe themes are rampant in the Civ2 intro, and the title screen looks nearly identical to the one used in the original. There's also a clear sense of progress over time, with more and more complicated techological devices appearing in succession. (With the one exception of the floating eyeball, which feels out of place and somewhat creepy. No idea what they were thinking with that one!) It could be said that Civ2's intro adds another theme of time/direction with all those navigational objects appearing on screen, although this was not something continued in future introductions for the series.

We also have a continuation of the open-ended narrative form in Civ2. There's no text or speech at all in this video, just a series of animated images which leaves things very much open to the player's imagination. The only human form that we see is an astronaut in a spacesuit, who could be absolutely anyone underneath that outfit. (It could be a man or woman, someone of any nationality or ethnicity, etc.) The game makes no attempt to assume who you are or tell you what to do. Everything is left entirely up to the player, which is exactly what one would expect for a game like Civilization.

Overall, the Civ2 video is not as tightly constructed as the opening to the first game, with the images that it employs being somewhat random. This has a lot to do with the environment in which the game was released: in 1996, CD-ROM drives were relatively new on PCs, and game designers were obsessed with using the new multimedia in everything. Civ2 famously had the cheezy human actors as advisors, and wonder videos that looked like they came straight out of public domain art taken from Compton's Encyclopedia or Encarta. (Do kids today even know what those were? Hard to imagine a time when Wikipedia didn't exist and we had to look up things on a CD-Rom encyclopedia... or even worse, consult a BOOK!) So Civ2's introduction is a product of the time in which it was created, when everyone was throwing everything multimedia into their projects, regardless of whether it fit together. Nevertheless, Civ2 still does hold true to the themes established in the first game, and represents a graphical advance over its predecessor. (I do think this is a weaker and less memorable introduction though. Your mileage may vary.)

Civilization III (2001)

Civ3 takes an entirely different approach to the introduction video. Gone are the various "space" themes, replaced with a video that takes place entirely on a terrestrial level. After displaying the Firaxis logo (Microprose having since disappeared), we see the camera panning over a barren landscape of dusky plains bereft of life. This goes on for a few seconds, followed by the reveal of a few strands of trees; then, a tiny stand of huts sitting next to a wide river. As the camera flies over the river, we see a series of river barges floating past, suggesting a higher level of social organization than the small huts from a moment earlier. This rapidly leads into the iconic image of Civ3's introduction: a massive tower that seems to stretch up into the sky endlessly. The bottom layer is rough stone little different from the rock on which it stands, lit by a pair of smoky torches at the foundation. We see many different architectural styles as the camera keeps moving higher and higher, starting with unformed stone and then proceeding through classical columns reminiscent of the Roman Colosseum, a medieval castle, a Baroque palace in the style of Versailles, and finally steel and metal girders used in industrial construction, complete with metal cranes. The top of the building is a contemporary skyscraper, and the entire structure is still left uncompleted. A jet plane roars past as the camera moves into the sky above the building, transitioning into the Civilization 3 marquee as the hazy clouds fade into a plain white background. The music is again similar to the past two intros, mostly composed of percussion with a woodwind instrument intermittently adding a melody, but the overall tone is considerably darker and edgier. There is an overall sense of murkiness to the introduction, between the music and the washed-out earthtone colors chosen for the visuals, nearly all shades of browns and yellows.

While it's a very different sort of opening for the franchise, I think that the Civ3 introduction is a striking success nonetheless. The space theme has been done away with entirely, but its "earthtone" replacement operates on a similar level, suggesting a universal global connection between different peoples by having so many different types of architecture present. (Fair disclaimer: this is what the designers were going for, but all of their choices in the video have a very pro-Western bias. Not too much from East Asia or Mesoamerica to be found!) Civ3 is even more blatant in its embrace of progress than its predecessors, animating human history as a tower continuously stretching upwards, with each next step in architectural design literally standing on top of the one that came before. You can't get much more deterministic than this! Still, I do think it works for a game like Civilization, where later technologies always add things and make your civ better, never crippling your civ with welfare state unfunded obligations or anything like that. The whole "building" theme is a nice way of encapsulating change over time in a 90 second video and symbolizing one of the main aspects of Civilization (the tech race) in the process.

Like the Civ2 introduction, there is no text or dialogue of any kind in the Civ3 intro. We never see people as anything but tiny figures at the bottom of the screen, once again making no assumptions at all about the identity of the person playing the game. My favorite thing about the video is the way in which it ends: when we finally get to the top, we see that the tower is UNFINISHED. This is a brilliant idea on the part of whoever designed the video, saying everything that needs to be said about the open-ended nature of the Civilization series without the use of a single word. That unfinished tower implies that the ending to this narrative hasn't been written yet, and it will be entirely up to you, the player, to determine how it will go. I can't say enough good things about this. For this very reason, the Civ3 intro has always been a huge favorite of mine, and I think it's possibly the best of the whole series, due to the way it conveys all of its themes without any need to resort to any dialogue or clumsy exposition.

Civilization IV (2005)

With Civ4's opening we return back to some of the themes of the original two videos. After holding on an initial musical chord (same as in the Civ3 intro), we start out in space with the Earth in the distance set against a field of stars. The moon swoops past as we zoom in closer and closer to the planet's surface. As the camera continues to move down towards Europe and Northern Africa, we see the darkness on the planet's surface dispelled by thousands of tiny lights, which are themselves hidden from view as a glorious sunrise emerges and casts its golden light over the surface of the Earth. The music swells to a crescendo as the camera breaks beneath the cloud cover somewhere over the Mediterranean and reveals a wide vista of blue sky above, blue water below, and the green hills of a rolling landscape. The effect is absolutely breathtaking, and it's one of the most memorable images I can recall from a video game. (The bright, vibrant colors are also a major stylistic change from the washed-out earthtones used in the Civ3 introduction.) The rest of the opening after the initial 60 seconds is much more mundane, depicting a battle sequence between two nameless adversaries, dozens of ships fighting against each other in a harbor, and finally a coronation sequence of a new king with a multitude of onlookers. While all of these scenes are animated very well, they're essentially generic images which have nothing to do with one another, and could slip into another franchise rather easily. There's nothing to tell us that this is a Civilization game until the video concludes by panning up to the sky once more and displaying the Civilization 4 title credit. Overall then, the Civ4 intro can be divided into two parts, an amazing first 60 seconds and a mediocre final 90 seconds.

It's impossible to discuss the Civ4 intro without mentioning the music composed by Christopher Tin. While this is not the famous "Baba Yetu" piece, which was the first song ever composed for a video game to win a Grammy award, it's a variation off of that theme called "Coronation" which uses similar vocals and instrumentation, once again having a "world music" feel to the overall production. Civ4 was the first game in the series to use a professional orchestra and chorus to produce the music for the introduction, and the difference is immediately noticeable from the MIDI used in the previous games. Without this accompanying music, Civ4's introduction would be far weaker and less memorable. Like a good movie, having the right audio and sound direction makes an enormous difference.

How then does Civ4's introduction fit with the past themes we've established for the series? It's clear right away that the global/earth/space theme is back once more after its disappearance in Civ3. The opening to Civ4 begins in space, ends with the title logo in space, and spends the first minute showing off beautiful visuals of the planet. The moment that the sun rises over the surface of the Earth is the enduring image from this intro. However, Civ4 doesn't pay very much attention to the other themes we've established, as there is nothing at all about progress or change over time to be seen here. Civ4 is also a bit of a mixed bag on the subject of establishing an open-ended narrative with the player left free of constraints or predetermined assumptions. The game's introduction once again has no text or dialogue, telling its message entirely through visuals and music, which is a point in its favor. The first half of the video also does a good job of fitting with this theme: we see the whole planet, and the player could be anyone holding the reigns of any civ across its surface. The second half of the video, however, introduces much more of a sense of narrative in the form of the coronation ceremony. We very clearly see a WHITE MAN (have fun with that, scholars of racial and gender politics!) being crowned as the ruler of this group of people, who also all happen to look very distinctly European. In defense of the video's creators, we barely see the face of the ruler at all; most of the time we see the ruler in a shot from behind, with the lack of a face intended to suggest that you, the player, are the one being placed in charge of these people. However, for players who don't happen to be white and male, that's a bit of a tough association to make (and says all sorts of bad stuff about establishing one culture as "normative", but I won't get into more discussion on that). This is why I think the second half of the Civ4 introduction is an error, as it creates new problems which didn't exist with the more minimalist productions in the previous games. That coronation scene is implying that it's not just anyone who gets to be the God-like Civilization leader, but a very specific type of person who has certain physical characteristics (European, male, middle-aged, etc.) The previous games were not so specific, and therefore were more open-ended. Hopefully that makes sense.

Overall then, Civ4's intro is very memorable and well-produced, but has some flaws in the latter half of its run. This is still possibly my favorite along with the Civ3 intro, but only due to the incredible music and the first 60 seconds with the flyover of Earth. The rest of the video doesn't do a great job of sticking with the themes of the series.

Civilization V (2010)

And then we have Civilization 5. I've often said in the past that the designers of Civ5 didn't seem to understand what it was that gave the series its enduring appeal over the years, resulting in all sorts of odd design choices that made the game not very fun to play. Without getting into that subject any further, let's compare how the introduction video for Civ5 embodies the themes established by previous games in the series.

The Civ5 intro video begins by showing the viewer the interior of a tent, slowly panning downwards to reveal an old man sitting next to a fire. The camera zooms in to show his weathered and lined facial features, suggesting the wisdom which is supposed to accompany great age. A younger man enters the tent, and the old man invites his son to come and sit next to the fire, as they discuss how the surrounding land appears to be a fertile place to settle down and raise their people. The old man then tells of a dream he had about the future of their people, as the video transitions to somewhat random clips of Vikings sailing across the sea, Egyptians building the Pyramids, a gigantic city with Islamic-style architecture, and finally Japanese samurai fighting one another in battle. The old man finishes by telling the younger man that it was his future shown in the dream, and the fate of their people now rests in his hands. The video concludes with the young man stepping outside the tent, after a last glance back at the old man, and walking over to a rocky clifface where he can look down on a green river valley, where their people have built a rudimentary series of huts. After holding on this image for a full fifteen seconds, the video finally displays the Civilization 5 logo, although it too goes through four different background animations before finishing. This contributes to the length of the intro video, which is a full minute longer than Civ4's introduction (which itself was a full minute longer than the first three games). The ending seems a bit padded, and the whole thing probably could have been 30 seconds shorter.

Graphically speaking, the introduction for Civ5 is gorgeous, completely rendered in HD and far surpassing any of its predecessors in pure pixel count. But obviously there's much more to crafting a good intro video than making it look pretty, and in all other respects Civ5 fails the test of good design. I'll start by pointing to the music. You probably just watched the video yourself a moment ago, so tell me this: can you recall anything about the music used in that intro? Anything at all? I played this game a lot when it first came out, and I don't remember the music in the intro video one bit. I would argue that Civ4 was far more memorable, and even the first two Civilization games had a more catchy, compelling musical background despite the more primitive technology available. The music in Civ5's introduction is completely bland; it serves its purpose, and that's all. While there's nothing wrong with it per se, it doesn't bring anything to the table either.

How about the themes established previously in the Civilization series? There's no use of the space/globe/earth theme at all in Civ5's introduction, but of course Civ3 didn't use that theme either. Maybe you could use the different civs shown in the "dream" sequence as evidence of some kind of global connection between cultures... but wait, that doesn't make sense because this is supposed to be the future of the same one tribe. So if we're just seeing one people here, then there's nothing global or universal about the intro at all. I also can't find any real evidence of progress or change over time in this video either. The closest would be the contrast between the primitive huts of the tribe in the ending shot with the huge city shown in the dream sequence. However, there are some problems with this as well. For once thing, we see the huge city before we see the primitive village, which is confusing if we're working with a theme of progress. Sure, it's supposed to be a dream sequence and therefore the narrative is being told "in medias res" format like the Odyssey, but I still contend its rather clumsy. More problematic is the dream sequence itself, which has no historical coherence whatsoever. We start with Vikings on ships (circa 800AD), then its Egyptians building the Pyramids (2500BC), then a huge medieval city with what looks like the Hagia Sophia in it (so Constantinople circa 1400AD?), then finally samurai fighting each other in feudal Japan (1600AD). These are all over the place in terms of continuity. They don't demonstrate progress over time, they demonstrate the OPPOSITE of that, with seemingly random historical interludes thrown about willy-nilly with no rhyme or reason. How different peoples from differing parts of the world in very different centuries are all supposed to be the future history of one tribe is another puzzling issue. To me, it looks like the designers just threw together some random stuff that would look cool so they could show it off in their E3 2010 trailer without worrying about whether it made sense. ("Whoa! Vikings and samurai in HD, awesome!") However, that means that the older theme of progress over time, which was very much engrained in the introductions to the first three Civ games, had to be dumped by the wayside.

Still, these are forgiveable changes. I mentioned before how Civ3 dropped the "Earth" motif, while Civ4 didn't pay any attention to the idea of progress. Those intros were redeemed through other aspects of their visual presentation and use of different themes inherent to the Civilization franchise. And if Civ5's introduction did the same, it would still serve as a worthy part of the series. However, the biggest problem with Civ5's intro video is how it approaches our last theme, the concept of the open-ended narrative. Unlike all of the other previous intro videos, this is virtually nonexistent in Civ5. For starters, there is dialogue in Civ5 between the characters, and that is a very big change indeed. Civ2, Civ3, and Civ4 all had no text or dialogue whatsoever, and the text in the original Civilization was more or less necessary to explain what was going on with the very basic graphical presentation. Civ5 has constant dialogue from the beginning to the end of the video; that old man never shuts up! There's an old saying that relates both to movie-making and the construction of literature: "show, don't tell." For example, instead of having a character say that he or she is unhappy, you have a scene of them tearing up on camera. Not being stupid, the audience will be able to make the connection themselves, and it creates a superior form of storytelling. Getting back to our case study, the previous Civilization intros used a more minimalistic presentation, showing the audience visual images and letting the unstated themes convey themselves. In contrast, Civ5 feels that it's necessary to tell the viewer what is going on at all points in time, talking over every image except the very last one of the river valley. While I hate to use such a loaded term, the intro video really is "dumbed down" compared to its predecessors. Try watching again how Civ3 uses the image of "the tower" and compare it to the clunky "dream sequence" of Civ5's intro. The former is a better, more complex way of conveying a message.

Furthermore, Civ5 more or less ditches the idea of the open-ended narrative entirely. Recall how the first three Civilization games never show any kind of human figure in their introductions, implying that absolutely anyone could become the destined leader of the people. Civ4 was guilty of breaking this habit, but at least the whole coronation ceremony only took up less than a third of the video's length, and Civ4 deliberately tried to shoot the leader from behind so that the face was obscured most of the time (allowing imagination to put the viewer in that position). Civ5 does none of these things. From the start, it is very clear that this video is the story of the old man and his son. We could drop out the whole Civilization thing entirely, and it would be easy to imagine ourselves watching some kind of unrelated movie. The player is no longer necessary. Now I understand that the player is supposed to be represented by the young man in the video, but what if you don't find yourself identifying with him? Not everyone happens to share the same sex or race or ethnicity or whatever (leaving aside all of the bad things that come from once again making a white, middle-aged man the default "normative" image of the person watching). Let me give you a small example of this: the young man in the video has a visible tattoo on his left arm. I'm sure that the art designer on this video just thought it looked cool or whatever, but that's the whole problem with forcing the audience to have to stand in the shoes of a character like this. I would never personally get a tattoo, so that trivial little detail is immersion-breaking for me. How can this guy stand in for me? He's *NOT* me, he's already made decisions I wouldn't make - he's just some random guy in a tent! And my father doesn't look anything like the old man! Now perhaps I'm nitpicking about this, but the overall point should be clear: previous Civ intros made the story about me, the player, and what I decided to do. Civ5's introduction is about the story of the old man and his son. It's no longer about me. And that, right there, is why this video fails as an introduction to a Civ game.

I also have to point out something else about the Civ5 intro video. Due to the slow loading times associated with Civ5, this introduction is unskippable for a long period of time while the background menu is loading. When starting up Civ5, you would have to watch the beginning of this video over and over again, clicking away on the mouse and achieving nothing, until the video FINALLY stopped playing. (Eventually I learned to disable the intro entirely in the INI file, although that was after seeing the start of the intro several dozen times.) Therefore I've seen the start of this video, the old man by the fire, way too many times to count. While it's probably not fair to Civ5, these are therefore the enduring images of each game's introduction to me:

Civilization: Earth forming out of the cosmic void.
Civilization 2: The Earth reflects off an astronaut's visor.
Civilization 3: A tower that extends endlessly up into the clouds.
Civilization 4: The sun rises above the surface of the Earth below.
Civilization 5: An old man sits in a tent next to a fire.

Not a very compelling image, to say the least...


I've argued in this piece that the intros to the Civ games demonstrate a clear series of themes, which were continued throughout the first four Civilization games and then largely ignored in the most recent one. I believe that this serves as a fitting metaphor for Civ5 in general, a game where the designers didn't really understand what they were doing or realize what had made the series so beloved in the past. Civ5 has just released its latest patch, which has done a complete rework to the game once again (is this the third reworking of the game? the fourth?) by changing around many of the game's basic mechanics. Does the fact that the game is still getting major overhauls some ten months after release indicate that Firaxis is a dedicated company, or that they have no clue what they are doing and are throwing things at the wall in the hopes that something sticks? You be the judge!