When characters in Expeditions Conquistador talk about savages and slaves, they aren’t talking about monsters, androids, aliens, elves, mages, demi-humans, mutants or zombies like other games that approach colonial themes. Expeditions Conquistador is talking about actual people that were actually dehumanized, kidnapped, and forced to work themselves to death. And the game is played from the perspective of the people that did the enslaving. The player is given a sense of power that remains uncomfortable throughout the whole game. However, the point is to be made uncomfortable by the amount of power you’re given. It’s meant to be played through the lens of a post-colonial, post-industrial, post-War ethos.
The game encourages you to give the protagonist your own first and last names. Statistically male and female characters are identical, and there are very few visual cues to distinguish them. The bonus collectibles that the player can earn are brief write-ups explaining the actual history behind the game, which the game also allows the player to deviate from. The developers are aware of what happened in early 16th century South America and the challenge seems to be to rewrite that history after the colonization of the New World is well underway. Because combat and exploration in the game is so difficult, stability and desperation are just one or two poor decisions away. When you’re running low on rations, and you’re given the option to pillage a nearby native settlement, the temptation is there. When you route a group of native scouts that tried to ambush you, there’s a feeling of triumph. The point is to tease out the sense of disconnection that comes with being forced to do harm when you’re trying to do good.
When you win a battle, the picture that greets you afterwards is one of bearded Spaniards clad in armor leisurely resting their muskets on their shoulders while they stand proudly over the bloodied corpses of natives. The primary enemy of the game is actually Spanish rebels, and you spend most of the time fighting other Spanish forces. But the victory picture is still white gunmen standing over native warriors. It doesn’t matter if you were fighting Spaniards or if there are natives on your team, the picture is the same. That picture is a reminder: you are causing harm.
The game bestows all this power on the player and frames the narrative around the opportunity to fix history, but it places the expedition a full generation after the Spanish first started settling the Caribbean. It’s too late to fix anything: your hero is still carrying traces of smallpox, she’s still trading valuables that will turn into weapons in a stranger’s war, and she’s still free to exploit slave labor or kill whomever she’s annoyed by. To say the least, it’s morally difficult.
Throughout the story, you’re asked several times by almost every major character about what brought you to the New World. However, the question isn’t meant for the player-character, but for the player. Why did you start playing Expeditions Conquistador? The answer, ultimately, is in the admittedly awkward title of the game. Did you come for exploration or for conquest? After all, the one fact that has been determined about the player-character is that that individual comes from a noble Spanish family, leaving them with no material need to find a new home.
The easiest answer to the problem of colonialism is to just agree that the colonial forces should never have been in the Americas in the first place. But Expeditions Conquistador doesn’t offer that option. The game takes place long after the Spanish first landed in Hispaniola. It’s far too late to just decide not to colonize, it’s already happening. The Spanish are already there, and by playing the game, so is the player. The issue that the game and that the player are forced to deal with is what to do next.
It must be remembered that the game is an alternate history. Cortez hasn’t carried out his genocide of the Aztecs. He won’t get the chance because the player-character is there. The player assembles an expeditionary force based primarily on the personalities of the people back home. The player can find nonviolent solutions to conflicts, they can recruit willing natives to speak on behalf of the expedition, they can play and explore with the sole intention of learning, and they can compose teams consisting of or entirely of women with no statistical (and barely any visual) difference. This is a version of history that the player, armed with half a millennium of retrospect, can change.
But it isn’t a change to be taken lightly. The game keeps three autosaves to allow for easy backtracking because everything about the game is so bloody hard. The player can choose to leave a group of Taíno natives to their worship only to have your most skilled doctor declare a mutiny over a perceived insult to God. The player can ask native members of their team to facilitate conversation with a fishing village, only to find out that the native on your team belongs to a warring tribe, which forces a fight. In short, there are countless things that can go wrong, and the game gives you multiple save states because something will go wrong and only starting from scratch can repair the damage.
The point of the game is to fix history, yet there are so many outcomes that result in the tragedy of South America’s actual history. It’s so easy for the player’s team to be whittled apart by sickness, injury, or starvation, and the game keeps a record of all the people that the player could not keep alive. It’s always tempting to stave off defeat by becoming a war criminal. Just having the option without any consequence contributes to the extreme discomfort that comes with being given so much undeserved power.
Somewhere, Expeditions Conquistador has a “right” path. There is a better way to act than the actual conquistadors did. But even the most restrained, responsible and virtuous expedition is harmful, mired with challenges, and weighed down by the reminders that you are an outsider that poses a threat. Unfortunately, all that is available from Logic Artists as of now is a press preview of Expeditions Conquistador, which only follows the first few quests in Hispaniola. So the main plot of the game is not even underway in the only available iteration of the game. That said, the purpose of the game is well established in the opening few hours. It just can’t yet be said whether or not it succeeds in it. In either case, it deserves a close eye for its ambition.