Throughout history, empires have risen and fell on waves of political, social, economical, and technological revolutions. Some were but mere flashes, a paragraph or two in a schoolchild’s history book while others endured, worthy of countless dissertations and volumes of text. Regardless, the empires of the world have been the cornerstones for the world’s civilizations, providing the stability necessary for societies to thrive and the human race to advance to the zenith we enjoy today. Yes, many were oppressive and selfish, but without the likes of the Romans, Alexander the Great, or China’s many dynasties, there is no telling where the world would be today.
Within the realm of video games, and most other media as well, empires are portrayed quite differently. Utter the word “empire” and the first two things to come to most people’s mind will be “Rome” and “Star Wars.” While the former was primarily a military state, it also experimented with popular politics, set standards for international trade, and allowed arts and philosophy to flourish. The latter was strictly oppressive, genocidal, paranoid, and intent on nothing more than maintaining the power of its infinitely powerful and evil Emperor. Somehow this later concept is what dominates in video games.
Gaming empires are never good news. Boot up pretty much any game in any genre and wait for the word “empire” to pop up, because you just identified the bad guys. Incredibly tenacious, mercilessly evil, and surprisingly resourceful, these empires have popped up in just about every game imaginable to give your beloved hero a foe to defeat.
Speaking of tenacity, consider one of gaming’s greatest emperors, King Koopa. While Bowser’s domain has never explicitly been deemed an empire, just think about its scope for a moment. Bowser and his armies have conquered numerous kingdoms, traveled beyond the limits of time and dimensions, reached into the greatest depths of space, and even made headway in dominating just about every sport on the planet. All things considered, one could argue that Bowser has established one of the most far reaching empires the world has ever seen; or at least he would have if he could hold onto it.
For you see, there is another problem with video game empires; they are much more fragile than their real world counterparts. Rome took hundreds of years to disintegrate due to growing internal corruption and increasingly more powerful external threats while China only weakened after an extended period of isolation left it ill equipped to deal with the pressures of modernity. Bowser has never had to deal with invading Visigoths or swelling sympathy for the communist cause; all his problems can be blamed on a surprisingly nimble Italian plumber. No matter how far Bowser stretches his borders or how entrenched he makes himself, he has always been susceptible to being thrown into bombs or plunging into lava. However, no matter how many times Bowser’s kingdom comes tumbling down, it is only a matter of time before he is once again on the warpath. Perhaps if he spent more time planning and securing his empire, Bowser would be able to put together something that lasts much longer.
Occasionally games give us a glimpse at a somewhat better established example of empire. Final Fantasy VI, which happens to contain more than a few significant nods to Star Wars, presents a rebel force battling an incredibly powerful and oppressive empire led by an evil emperor with a universally feared, magically empowered foe at his right hand. Emperor Gestahl ruled his domain with an iron fist, creating a massive, industrialized military force with clear machinations for conquest and domination. This is empire done right! A stable political structure with a large, technologically and strategically advanced military force well above and beyond anything the competition could muster. In another nice nod to the strength of actual empires, Gestahl’s empire proves much more robust than either Bowser’s or even the Galactic Empire. While Bowser is constantly thwarted by Mario and Palpatine loses everything to a ragtag group of smugglers, moisture farmers, and Ewoks, Gestahl is only toppled when Kefka, the aforementioned right hand, attains god-like powers and decides to use them to express his nihilistic world-view in a way words could never quite match. In other words, he pretty much blew everything up.
So we have seen the weak and fleeting as well as the strong and brutal when it comes it empires, but it always seems like there is one facet that video games leave out– the good one. None of the great empires of the world could have truly lasted if they were always in evil overdrive mode 24/7 like the ones that show up in games. Empires were built through force but maintained by the immense advantages they provided; including security from outside forces, internal stability, more economic opportunities, better education, and cultural growth. Games love to give these traits to noble kingdoms, (such as the Hyrule and Mushroom varieties) but whenever an empire shows up it is all doom and gloom.
Thus, I suggest Bowser, Gestahl, Andross, Ganon, Gygas, and Tom Nook take note– instead of always trying to conquer and oppress everybody, why not try to be nice? You won’t catch many flies with bitterness, so why not be a little sweeter? Ganon, instead of chasing everybody out of town with ReDeads, try investing in Hyrule’s infrastructure to promote trade and hold public executions of annoying fairies to entertain the masses. And Gestahl, the technology being used to create massive war machines could probably also be used to make substantial advances in medicine and other socially beneficial inventions.
Empires shouldn’t always be portrayed with such obvious contempt. Despite all the great things empires have done for humanity over the past few thousand years, the word still retains an obvious and undeserved level of contempt within modern society. And video game empires, while we admire your tenacity and fighting spirit, your numerous crimes against humanity and megalomaniacal, ego-driven political structures aren’t doing you guys any favors. Taking note of a few of my points would do wonders for your PR and probably make your existence all that much easier and longer!