The opinions of this piece are the expression of the author and do not necessarily represent those of BagoGames as a whole. Enjoy!
Former French leader Napoleon Bonaparte once asserted, “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” His comment has remained at the forefront of debate amongst certain scholars — I would beg to differ, considering history is molded by the evidence we examine and how specific incidents are perceived by an individual — but how significant of an impact has history had on video games? Well, history remains more important than ever in current affairs, with its influence always creeping in the background of different mediums — this includes video games, even more than it once did.
I’ve found that certain video game franchises immediately have my attention because of their use of history — it would make sense, considering I studied history during the course of my time in education. History is fascinating and most people don’t enjoy it because they think it’s ‘all about remembering dates.’ This is far from the actual truth, with video game narratives demonstrating a lure that history can have when it’s applied correctly.
How many times has the Assassin’s Creed series, for example, told you to remember a specific date? I’ll tell you now: none. A developer takes you to a different time period — it may feel strange at first, as I’ve found specific areas of history I’m not completely engrossed by — and you learn from people’s culture, way of life and how stunning some of the cities were at the time. Of course, this can’t all be taken at face value, considering AC’s narrative manipulates history to centre on its fictional premise, but doesn’t being in a specific period make you want to learn more about it? Assassin’s Creed II could significantly impact someone in becoming interested in Niccolò Machiavelli, for example, and this could eventually lead to them reading one of the Italian philosopher’s most famous works, The Prince — which is literature I’d highly recommend anyone to read.
Assassin’s Creed became one of my favorite series specifically for how well it can make me delve deep into a time period which I wasn’t initially interested in. Furthermore, Assassin’s Creed had a significant impact on me for how well Ubisoft can spice the story up, with Michael Hampden, senior game designer on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, putting it perfectly: “History is our playground.” His comment is simple but effective for what it’s allowed the developers to do, and it makes me even more enticed by what location they’ll choose in each follow-up installment.
The Tyranny of King Washington is a clear example of how Hampden’s remark can execute for an attention-grabbing scenario — even though Assassin’s Creed III and the DLC were disappointing, the latter demonstrated how an excellent concept can be crafted. Some people might find ‘what if’ circumstances a bit tedious, but it’s always fascinating to see how someone else would perceive a situation where Washington became king instead of president. Additionally, I find it compelling when I find this in literature, with a prime example of this is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which went deep into the idea of how fascism impacted life inside the United States after the Allies lost the Second World War.
Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid franchise holds a special place in my heart and for a number of good reasons: its narrative is sophisticated and engaging in each and every installment; Kojima’s fascination with history and how it’s incorporated in the framework of his narrative is outstanding; and it’s one of the reasons why I became so interested in video games in the first place. The Cold War lays the foundations for the Metal Gear Solid narrative to manipulate important issues — military development, diplomatic relations and, of course, nuclear weapons — and continues to demonstrate their impact in current affairs. From Naked Snake’s James Bond-esque missions during the ‘warmest’ moments of the Cold War to Sold Snake fighting an endless battle to stop all-out nuclear war, MGS has one of the best narratives I’ve ever come across.
Just as Big Boss declares in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, “Politics are fickle, they change with the times,” Kojima has certainly done the same with his illustrious franchise. In an interview with The Guardian, Hideo Kojima addressed the issue of the United States’ world dominance and how he incorporated certain elements of this within Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes:
“[Guantanamo] was definitely something that I made decision to address in the game. Hollywood continues to present the US army as being the good guys, always defeating the aliens or foreigners. I am trying to shift that focus. These movies might not be the only way to view current affairs. I am trying to present an alternate view in these games.”
It’s always pleasing to see when a video game tackles real-world issues, and Kojima’s use of an American black site in Ground Zeroes had me interested by the direction he was taking the series towards. Five years have passed since President Barack Obama declared Guantanamo Bay would be closed — and, in my opinion, I still find it sickening that the facility is operational, which is similar to the mood I had when Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 — and Kojima’s use of a black site mimicked the atrocities which are still occurring to the detainees held there. There was certainly enough controversy created from the title (which included the length of Ground Zeroes and an audio recording that featured torture and rape), but it was interesting to see a game approach and tackle these issues.
Developers can add subtle additions of history within a video game narrative, and it’s amazing to find some of the ones that are overlooked. One of the latest revelations came in BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 2, which paid homage to Édouard Manet’s “In the Conservatory.” It was a shock when I saw Irrational Games using this painting and recreated it between two characters in Columbia, with it serving as one of the many hidden features in the DLC. Irrational Games’ incorporation of historical events (such as the Battle of Wounded Knee) has only reinforced the imaginative history that the franchise already has. Manet’s addition to the DLC is a feature I’d love to see woven into other titles, as finding them severs like a history lesson for most people.
History varies in how its influence can significantly impact the story of a video game, with it catering towards a specific audience on most occasions. It’s normally our hobbies and interests that help us find something which we can enjoy in different mediums — I’ve found this to be the case when I find a history-related film, television show, video game or documentary.
Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once declared, “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” He was right in this lifetime about his legacy, but video game narratives don’t necessarily have to agree with him. History is a potent tool for laying down the foundations for a narrative to be built upon, and when it’s executed to its utmost potential, we can truly understand the impact it has within a medium.