As Attila Stomps in, I Bow out: Recognizing the Golden Age Fallacy

On February 17th, the Creative Assembly released the ninth installment in their long-running Total War series -- Total War: Attila. Like most of its brethren, Attila was generally well-reviewed, with IGN calling it “[one of] the best forays in the Total War series.” Considering my interest in history and strategy games and my previous affiliation with the Total War series, this sounds like a game right up my alley. Yet I have no plans to buy it.

The Total War series and release date
Shogun            2000
Medieval           2002
Rome                  2004
Medieval II        2006
 Empire               2009
Napoleon         2010
Shogun 2          2011
Rome II                2013
 Attila                 2015

I first fell in love with the series during the original Rome in 2004. The turn-based campaign map, the real-time battles where you could control thousands of soldiers…everything was amazing. The game certainly had its faults, but for a person  who fancied himself an armchair conqueror of the highest order, Rome was almost the perfect strategy game.

As time passed, however, I grew less involved in the series, despite Medieval II being of similar quality and my enjoyment for the newer entries. The new changes barely excited me, and the original flaws were still present. It culminated with Rome II, which sits in my Steam library, uninstalled, and with precisely 96 minutes of gameplay to its name.

My opinion of Total War’s gaming apex is nowhere near universal.  A good portion of the member base at Totalwar.org -- at one time the leading fan forum for the series -- considered the original Shogun and Medieval to be the very best entries, usually pointing to its crisper gameplay. Likewise, as I read different message boards and comments after Rome II’s release, many others yearned for the series’ “glory days” of Empire, which would be considered almost a curse word on Totalwar.org.

  Is there truly a best entry on the series? Or is it dependent on something else? Image from Sega.com

Is there truly a best entry on the series? Or is it dependent on something else? Image from Sega.com

The one thing every Total War fan seems to have in common is the individual belief that the series peaked whenever they first got into it, and has declined ever since. This makes it one of the greatest examples of the Golden Age Fallacy.

The Golden Age Fallacy: An Overview

The context in which I will use the term “Golden Age Fallacy” is not a precise translation; the original definition of the term remembers only the positive aspects of the past while either consciously or unconsciously leaving out the negatives. My definition is closer to the explanation laid out in this Midnight in Paris clip, where the main character realizes that one’s opinion of the “best” era of something is entirely subjective and based on the viewer’s perception of the present and the past. In essence, the Golden Age Fallacy for purposes of this article is the belief that whenever you first got into a series, that was its high point.

Total War is by no means the only franchise to fall prey. In the Super Smash Bros. community, the majority of tournaments held are Melee-focused, despite the game’s age. While this can be explained by Melee having more balanced mechanics than the others, the dedicated fanbase opinion strongly favors Melee. A Google search for “Melee is better than Brawl” yields about 441,000 results with hits from sites as varied as SmashBoards, /r/smashbros, and GameFAQS. One of Brawl’s most popular mods is Project M, an attempt to make gameplay closer to that of Melee. Even Smash 4, which had a gameplay style more reminiscent of Melee, received wide acclaim for such upon its release, in part because of this change.

The Paradox community is also split between fans who got into the games within the past three years and like the more intuitive but relatively simpler Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV better, and the older fans who prefer the harder-to-get-into but deeper predecessors such as Hearts of Iron II. The list of franchises affected by the Golden Age Fallacy goes on.

The Larger Implications of the Golden Age Fallacy

What makes the Golden Age Fallacy a fallacy is its replacement of facts with perception. If the Total War series had truly been on the decline since the original Rome, or Empire, or heaven forbid the first Shogun, Creative Assembly and Sega would have put the series to bed years ago. Instead, Attila has cracked the top-ten most played Steam games by player count since its release, just as Rome II, Shogun 2, and Empire did.

 Screenshot of top games by Zach Yost

Screenshot of top games by Zach Yost

Usually, game series simply move on. Sometimes the games actually change, similar to Paradox Interactive’s switch to easier gameplay. While this leaves behind gamers wanting more of the same, sometimes it is just the players' perceptions. That was the case with Total War, which has kept more or less the same mechanics, structure, and flaws ever since the original Rome. In that case, players may instead focus on in a different point of emphasis...or the minor bug overlooked four releases ago but the developers frustratingly still haven’t fixed.

The greatest effect this phenomenon has on gaming is how developers need to account for its existence. If they do not deviate from the original formula too much, portions of the fanbase will fall off over time without them ever being able to bring in new customers in. If they deviate too much from what made them initially successful, they risk alienating the hardcore fans who are usually the most vocal. It is a fine line that every long-running series needs to navigate.

As for the fandoms, let them have their arguments. I am long past the point of caring whether liking games earlier than others classifies me as a better gamer or a gaming hipster. At the end of the day, who am I to to tell the person enjoying Attila that the series used to be so much better? I have never even played Attila and barely played Rome II. Someone who just got into the series with Rome II might consider Attila a refinement of some of Rome II’s sketchier features, or a disappointing drop in scope from the original. They do not have the same frame of reference I do, and that is perfectly fine.

I will let the Attila gamer be. I have long since moved on from Total War to other series. I will always treasure my memories of the original Rome and Medieval II, but will not look at everything through that lens. Instead, I am now looking for a new golden age.