Of all the new features in Assassins Creed: Origins, perhaps the most interesting from an academic standpoint is the inclusion of an educational mode that highlights items of historical importance or interest and allows the player to explore them at their own pace. It’s an interesting move for a game that predicates itself on its historical setting, and a welcome one at that, though it does raise one important question. Should historical games be historically accurate?
Though the answer to this question might seem like a straightforward yes, it is far more complicated than that. The main obstacle is our actual knowledge of the past. Historical accounts are often incomplete or contradictory, or coloured by the biases of those writing them, or focus on the rich and powerful at the expense of people on the margins of society. Then there are the biases through which we ourselves view the past. This is particularly apparent in strategy games. Though games like Civilization and Age of Empires go to great lengths to portray themselves as historically representative, they, like many strategy games rely on very modern, realist oriented interpretations of statecraft and warfare. That being the idea that nation states are the primary actors in international politics, that conflict is inevitable and a zero sum game and that t’was ever thus, despite a plethora of historical evidence to the contrary.
So the main problem for devs who wish to convey historical accuracy isn’t so much in the setting but in mechanics and theme, and this can be incredibly tricky to pull off in a compelling way (remember Empire: Total War’s naval battles? I wish I didn’t). One example of this done brilliantly though is Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II, which beautifully emulates the feudal, dynastic politics of the medieval period. Though the control of territory remains crucial, it is often done indirectly through vassals (who can be utter shitpipes if you don’t keep them happy), whilst the primary focus of the game centres on building a lasting dynasty and the familial politics surrounding it. Though undoubtedly far from perfect, Crusader Kings II provides a fascinating mechanical and thematic exploration of medieval politics.
It is also worth examining the kinds of games being made and the historical periods being used. As Extra Credits highlighted, most historical games are strategy games and whilst I love them, it would be nice to see history explored in a more intimate genre such as an RPG. There are of course some exceptions such as the aforementioned Assassins Creed or 2013’s Expeditions: Conquistador, though as good as the latter game was I still felt I was making decisions from a very modern viewpoint.[pullquote]The main problem for devs who wish to convey historical accuracy isn’t so much in the setting but in mechanics and theme[/pullquote]
In terms of setting, there are plenty of underutilised periods to cover. Personally, I’d love to see an RPG set during the Mongol Invasions, or during the late Roman/Byzantine Empire. It’d also be nice to see more games exploring the French Revolution, though after Assassin’s Creed: Unity my hopes aren’t exactly high.
Of course the pursuit of historical accuracy shouldn’t be an ironclad rule developers must abide by at all times. Indeed there is a lot to be gained by exploring alternative histories or by playing around with historical settings as the latest Wolfenstein games have shown. But games have a unique power to explore the past by practically placing us within it. And whilst there might not be a straightforward way to convey the past accurately, there are so many fascinating ways developers could go about it.