It didn’t take long for my first experience with Crusader Kings III to get dramatic. It was about an hour into my playthrough of the tutorial. My wife, from the court of Leon, had been distant lately. And she’d gotten pregnant in her home court while I was away in Ireland and at war. Suspecting that she was cheating on me, I sent a spy to her duchy, hoping to find evidence of her infidelity, and the answer was more than I bargained for. Not only had she been unfaithful, but she was also sleeping with her brother. Worse, he was the true father of our children. And even as I turned a blind eye, too afraid to disrupt my fledgling kingdom to expose their sin, the affair would be my undoing. Despite never forming a direct rivalry with her lover, he nonetheless murdered me at age 43. It was what you would call a whirlwind series of events.
In the weeks since it was released, Crusader Kings III has been impossible to ignore. It’s the kind of game whose wickedness, once experienced, just kind of has to be talked about. As a strategic expansion game, its war and conquest aspects are relatively straightforward; while the bureaucracy of who owns or holds claim to certain lands is tedious, for the most part, whoever is the strongest on paper wins. It’s the developments you don’t see coming, supported by the less predictable elements of the game’s design, that stick with you. There are many ways to scheme towards successful land acquisition, like historical claims fabricated by clergymen, or through inheritance or marriage. But for whatever element of control, there’s an equal and opposite force of chaos. The motley assortment of character attributes, from hereditary traits affecting their attractiveness to temperaments that influence their interactions with others, create such vast permutations of outcomes that, despite playing with all the same stock characters, each person’s experience and playthrough is unique. Not just unique—transparently conflicted. Every relationship is laid out by the numbers and easily viewed by hovering over a profile, making the ins and outs of every social connection clear. Almost anything can tip the scales in either direction, from health to gender to religion, and everyone is much too horny. Even the good instilled in children through guardianship and education can, if unchecked, go in an undesired direction. With so many ways for everything to go wrong, the game is built for pure scandal.
It’s this intoxicating mixture that makes Crusader Kings III all but useless without its intrigue. I can’t imagine playing this game without the drama. Strategy games that focus on expansion and land acquisition are rather dull if there isn’t a greater goal. And while Crusader Kings III doesn’t necessarily have any mandatory objectives, seeing through the narratives you’ve internally improvised gives the conquest purpose. For me, in my playthrough with Duchess Matilda, that meant carefully selecting an intelligent and kind husband, educating my children, and courting religious favor until I could turn my collection of duchies into an entire kingdom. For my heir in my tutorial playthrough, the Kingdom of Ireland, it was murdering the incestuous stepmother whose infidelity killed my father, as well as the half-siblings that threatened my claim to the throne. Without these personal goals, I’d have no interest in the game’s war mechanics. Without petty social suspense, they’d be just a set of numbers.
Of course, the game is also proof of the adage, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” For all my tedious family scheming, the heir to Queen Matilda’s new Kingdom of Romagna is a shy drunk who can’t father an heir because he’s too busy having sex with his sister. But this unpredictability factor, while disruptive to the player’s long term strategies, makes the procedural narrative structure an asset rather than a liability. You can build up your armies all you want and plan your dynasty lines carefully, but there are certain things you never can entirely control. The surprise of that plays as much into the player’s attachment to the emerging narrative as their self imposed goals—to the point that I barely mind when a love affair or an unexpected social faux pas derail years of military and marital planning.
Despite my preference for curated experiences, Crusader Kings III is better off for its lack of linearity. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and that the best stories are the ones you just can’t make up. With its emergent narrative structure, Crusader Kings III proves this can be true in the virtual storytelling world too.
Holly Green is the editor-at-large of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.