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RYSE: Son of Rome - a fable for systems thinking

RYSE cover poster by  Crytek

RYSE cover poster by Crytek

RYSE: Son of Rome is a gorgeous yet brutal hack-and-slash video game released in 2013. Built upon the groundbreaking CryEngine, the graphical fidelity still holds its own as I write this late review in 2019 - seriously, see for yourself. Upon its release, the game received lukewarm reviews with plusses on its looks and minuses on somewhat repetitive-feeling gameplay. My quick rebuttal to the latter is if you decide to play hopscotch, don't complain about all the repetitive hopping. In any case, this review will not be about the gameplay but the story of RYSE.

(As you may be able to guess, there will be spoilers in the following essay. Though it is a 6-year old game at this point, so I don't feel it should be an issue. Still, if you would prefer not to be spoiled, do not continue further.)

RYSE tells the story of a Roman centurion named Marius, whose family is brutally murdered by barbarians in the heart of Rome within minutes of the game's opening. This leads Marius on a quest of vengeance against the barbarian horde at the frontiers of modern-day England and Scotland. It is here that Marius realises that Nero, the emperor of Rome, and his sons Basilius and Commodore are in fact madmen drunk on power, and that it was their sadistic machinations in the provinces that provoked the sacking of Rome on that fateful day that his family died. Though left for dead, Marius returns to Rome with the help of the gods, and kills both of Nero's sons and finally Nero himself to restore sane rule in Rome. To put it even more simply then, RYSE is the story a Roman soldier hellbent on destroying enemies of Rome, realising all too soon that the real enemies of Rome are not the ones beyond its walls but within it.

What's interesting about this twist that it's extremely easy to miss it - especially as the gamer playing the game. Not only does the game overwhelm in its audio-visual presentation, there is also a tight gameplay loop of attack-parry-riposte-finisher to dispatch pixel villains in ultraviolent glory within astounding setpiece levels, accompanied the whole time by a heart-pounding orchestral score. It is almost too easy to forget about motives and strategy, simply content to move from target to target in a violent dance of death, thank goodness then for the unending number of targets awaiting their turn to meet my avatar's blade. (I will return to this point towards the end of the essay.)

And yet once you put the controller down, the quieter moments of the game were the ones that stood out to me, and almost without fail these moments of calm between the storm of gameplay foreshadowed the biggest reveal to come.

Some choice quotes include: "Not all your enemies will be found on the battlefield.” and "Don't waste time pulling off the petals. Cut off the head."

For me, this story is a great segway to starting to think about systems thinking. But first, what is systems thinking? Do take the time to watch this ~10 minute video introduction to systems thinking - I highly recommend it.

As described in the video, systems thinking involves "thinking about thinking" and specifically outlines four dimensions that we can observe in mental models - namely distinctions, systems, relationships and perspectives. The interesting thing here is that while we make mental models to collapse the world into cognitively simple patterns all the time, most of our mental models may not involve all four dimensions of systems thinking all the time. If you're making a decision about which color to paint a room, or how to assemble a new piece of furniture, that's probably okay. Intuitively we can sense these are simple problems for which there exist simple solutions, so we don’t need overly complex mental models.

There are however an entire class of harder problems - problems that are not merely tedious or expensive, but where we don't know how to act on them and can't agree on how to act on them. In the policy world, these are known as wicked problems where we do not possess full knowledge nor the consensus of values on how to proceed. How for example should we craft a policy on data privacy that doesn't also impede innovative products and services in the economy? Or how should we deal with the promise and perils of nuclear energy, especially given the non-negotiable timeline of climate change? These are examples of wicked problems among many others, where wrong decisions could impact thousands of lives in ways we cannot even foresee over long periods of time, and each person might have deep-seated expectations and beliefs on what the right thing to do is. It is for this class of problems that systems thinking becomes extremely relevant, even essential. If we were to try and solve wicked problems without the "big picture" in mind, firstly we might not even recognise the issue at hand as a wicked problem, and secondly, chances are extremely high that we will miss crucial information to design for the best possible outcomes.

With this notion of systems thinking, let's step back into our protagonist's shoes. Marius sees his family butchered by barbarians.

Perspective: Barbarians killed my family, so I hate barbarians.

Distinction: Barbarians are not Romans, and they hate Rome.

Thus the solution to the barbarian problem with this view would be to invade the barbarian homeland and weed them out. Which is exactly what happens in the story until the halfway point.

With new information and experience, Marius realises that his perspective of barbarians clouded his mind to the bigger picture. He is exposed to the political machinations that put his family and the barbarian tribes onto a collision course on that fateful day.

System: Rome is invading and colonising barbarian homelands, terrorising the local population. The barbarians who attacked his family were driven to desperation to fight back.

Relationship: Rome and its actions stem from top-down directives by the Emperor and his family. Whatever drove the barbarians to violence against Rome could be traced back to provocative actions by the ruling family.

With this new perspective, Marius sees that ending the threats to Rome might be best accomplished by weeding out troublemakers in the capital rather than at the battlefront.

Admittedly, even this is an extremely simplistic example of systems thinking but I have to say I was surprised to see this slipped into a mainstream triple-A title. With just a bit of unpacking, the rah-rah story becomes something else entirely, a introductory fable for systems thinking! How often do you see that?

If you were to only evaluate RYSE by its parts individually, it doesn't really stand out. Its story is fairly straightforward and its gameplay is fun but repetitive. But remember what I was mentioning earlier about the gameplay being so satisfying that the plot almost seems like a distraction between the fun-bits... what if that was the point?

We often miss the opportunity, let alone the necessity, to do systems thinking because we're always reacting to the stimuli around us. And we typically react in ways that we are habitually good at, comfortable with, and/or accustomed to, even when the situation at hand demands a different well-thought out approach. It’s just so much easier to act on instinct rather than take the time and effort to deliberate. Perhaps the gameplay loop, intentionally or not, captures this very human predilection in an uncanny reflection.

It is in this sense that I consider RYSE: Son of Rome extremely successful because it uses the capabilities of the interactive medium to make players actually experience this. Thus one could say the story works on two layers simultaneously, like any proud postmodern artefact, delivering a decent gaming experience to a passive gamer, and initiating an active reflexive loop of questioning for anyone who would like to think on its themes a bit longer.

So to conclude, here’s my review for RYSE in one sentence: come for the spectacle on the surface, stay a while to reveal the fable within. I've been saying for a couple of years now to anyone who will listen that video gaming is going through a renaissance period even as we speak. So if you liked the twist described in this review of RYSE: Son of Rome, I also recommend Spec Ops: The Line - which had a more overt satirical message on the nature of action video games and the agency of players within these worlds. Check them out if you like!

The Good Neighbour