We all know that games get a lot of shtick for…well…game-ifying the past. Assassin’s Creed’s plethora of historical settings appear to only use historical accuracy so far as the setting for concealed blade-toting acrobats and boring – sorry – larger than life characters. Similarly, Sid Meier’s titles use history as a base from which to distort, exaggerate and challenge history whilst in Skyrim…I guess people used to…um…ride horses alot…?
Anyway, I believe that games should totally stick to being games, and being fun, hyperbolic and ultimately, a way to find sanctuary in a pretty dire world. Yet when games can achieve all of the above, AND provide a little teaching, well, sign me up.
Here are, in my opinion, four instances of historical accuracy in gaming!
THE BORGIAS (Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood)
So, let us, for a moment, disregard the Apple of Eden…and Assassins scaling the Castillo…and wolf cults in the sewers below the Vatican…and maybe the hay bales…maybe.
Right, I get it; so the game isn’t a champion of being entirely accurate. But, hear me out, because leave in the corrupt Catholic church, the incestuous Borgia siblings and the tyrannical political dominance over Italy and actually, Ubisoft are onto something here.
Emigrating from Valencia (Spain, pronounced with a gratuitous lisp, too) in 1445, Alfons Borgia began a half-century death grip on Rome, and ultimately Italy. Of course, the game focuses primarily on the latter end of this reign, with Cesare and Lucrezia losing their long-established control, through the various campaigns and scandals that would eventually bring about Cesare’s death in battle in 1507 (and not by a kite flown by our suave, Italian protagonist in-game) and subsequently, b-bye Borgia.
It says a lot that George RR Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire) cited the Borgia siblings as being the primary influences on Jaime and Cersei Lannister. Perhaps the most morbid aspect to their tyrannical reign on Rome was the incestuous relationship between the two, which is shown in the game (props, Ubisoft, because that what we all wanted to see.) and which, at the time, was often discussed as a piece of gossip. Though God forbid anybody caught slandering the siblings – this was punishable by death.
Moreover, their Uncle, Rodrigo, was a little-known person called…err…the Pope, who is mostly known for beginning the height of corruption in the Church. Money was stolen or attained from rather unscrupulous sources, the Church had its copiously-ringed fingers in almost every pie in Italy and the wider continent, and crimes could often be glanced over under the grace of God.
What I’m trying to say is that the Borgia family were almost written, by history, to be the perfect antagonists for what I believe to be the jewel in the AC crown.
POLICE CORRUPTION AND OTHER NON-NICETIES (Mafia II, LA Noire)
As I mentioned earlier, history is often used as a base from which to build a game, and then becomes vastly exaggerated as it’s made into a fun, exciting experience. Yet surprisingly, the gritty, macabre settings of Mafia II and the sublime LA Noire were uncomfortably close to real conditions of the time.
The racial tensions portrayed in Mafia II were incredibly prevalent, with Black street gangs often clashing with the Italian-American or Irish-American factions. The police force would also often be corrupted, with many lieutenants belonging to a payroll from various organisations to turn a blind eye or change the course of their beat – think Sergeant McCluskey from The Godfather Part I and you’re on the right track.
The grip of the Italian Mafioso on New York was also strong, notably in the sectors of trade unions and of course, ‘fronts’ (unscrupulous businesses disguised by perfectly pedestrian industries like butcher shops or tailors.) Sure enough, these were in the game, too, as were the realistic portrayals of the ghettos which separated the different ethnicities that congregated on New York, and became the foundation to bloody, often interminable turf-wars and battles for influence.
Whilst LA Noire also infused itself with these dodgy-dealings and shady business owners, it perhaps was darker in comparison to the characatured world of Mafia II. During the 1940s, there was indeed a problem with exploitation in Hollywood, notably with sex and child trafficking. Furthermore, the grisly murders in the game were often inspired by the events of the real life Black Dahlia murders in Los Angeles throughout 1947. Along with the anti-semitic and anti-Germans sentiments expressed, both games managed to create microcosms of the societies in which they were based upon.
THE BARBARIC WORLD OF MOUNT AND BLADE (Mount and Blade: Warband)
In the weeks of yore… – sorry.
The past few weeks, I’ve sunk a not inconsiderable amount of time into TaleWorlds’ medieval RPG, Mount and Blade: Warband. Whilst it’s perhaps too late to do a review on it, if you’re a fan of D&D, Skyrim, The Witcher, or games in which your character has free reign to do almost anything in a dynamic, open world, then you need to at least try this game.
Firstly, your character’s backstory affects heavily how you are treated by the plethora of NPCs. If your father was a Lord, then the existing nobles will view you more as an equal than if you were a street urchin as a child, for example. Moreover, your character’s gender affects your play through in much the same way. I don’t think a game has ever placed such emphasis on your reputation, nor the feudal, archaic system that governed Medieval Europe.
The combat, too, is bloody and barbaric, and no matter what ‘level’ your character is, a stray arrow or pole arm to the face will see you quickly carted away from the battlefield, potentially in a tense retreat or strapped over a horse as a prisoner of war.
It’s like going to a Renaissance Fayre, just with more pillaging…and vikings…but the bloodbath to the mead-tent is justly portrayed.
MUD, BLOOD, AND TRENCHES (Verdun)
You may remember my review of Verdun from a couple weeks back. I highly praised the game, and now that I’ve found some regular team mates, I’ve had a blast (pun potentially intended) crusading around the Western Front. I said in the review that a major selling point for a history-buff like me is the realism of the game; this isn’t directed by Michael Bay, this is a low-budget film shot from people that were there.
The trenches are claustrophobic and the battlefields chaotic, often resulting in pathetic stalemate as you throw endless sprites towards the invisible enemy guns. Shell craters can swallow you up, matching the descriptions of the soldiers at Paschandaele in 1917, your character can take two hits at most and the gas clouds that yawn towards you are intimidating and disorientating, as it must have been for the first time Canadian infantry encountered this terror weapon in 1915. The added effects of shell shock (yes, Generals of 1916, it was a real condition), which cause the noise to distort and the screen to blur is a clever touch, and is an all-too in-your-face reminder that this horror happened only a century ago.
This is the closest I would ever want to go to the horrors of the Great War, and in all honesty, its enough, with all of the battlefields staying true to the mud, the blood and the gore of their real-life locations, many of which I have visited. Though deceptively beautiful, the terrain is fraught with danger, and your first few games will undoubtedly make you feel like a new recruit, thrown in at the deep-end, and entirely at risk of any stray bullet.
So there we have it! Four times gaming got the history right. Can you think of any more? Let us know in the comments!