The Crusader colony in the Middle East collapsed, but not for any good reason. They’d converted all of Palestine and Syria to Christianity and held Jerusalem and Acre with thousands of knights. The problem was that whenever the Mongols attacked they came in huge numbers.
Don’t get me wrong, I could take them. Just my computer couldn’t. It would crash ten seconds into any of these gigantic battles. I would have to auto-resolve it rather than playing it myself, so the Artificial Intelligence would make a balls of it, I’d lose the battle, I’d lose huge numbers of soldiers, I’d lose Acre, I’d lose Jerusalem.
This is Medieval II: Total War, just one example of how history interacts with entertainment, technology, commerce and ideology in gaming. Videogames live at a strange and fascinating intersection between these factors. This places limit after limit on their ability to present the past. However, games also have their own unique angles to offer, if they can get over those obstacles.
In Part One I’ll be looking mostly at Call of Duty (2004) and history in First Person Shooters, then going over to Medieval II: Total War and other strategy games in Part Two.
The War Bias
When we talk about history in gaming we are mostly talking about war. There is little room in gaming for social, economic or political history, except as a backdrop to, and a factor in, war.
The Sims, a series concerned with managing households,strayed vaguely in the direction of interesting territory with The Sims: Medieval, but the game world was cartoonish, sanitized and fantastical rather than historical. Nothing more than The Sims with castles and wizards was to be expected, of course, but it raises the idea of a non-military historical game.
At this stage, however, it’s no more than an idea. A game about medieval peasants in hovels struggling to survive, or even about well-off medieval burghers or aristocrats managing their households in a way somewhat analogous to reality, however intriguing it might be, would not today see the light of commercial release. The only other examples which come to mind are period gangster games like Mafia and LA Vice.
So when we talk about history in mainstream gaming, we’re from the start talking about war, or at least violence. This is the first limitation of many. Games have little interest beyond the most violent corner of history because war, being competitive, is the most immediately game-like aspect of history.
The World War Two Bias
Within this violent corner we have, for fifteen or twenty years, seen frantic activity centered around a few points. The biggest point by far is the Second World War. Even within this war we have further spectacular concentrations of activity and enormous blank spaces: a huge focus on the Normandy campaign and on commando missions behind German lines, and so far a blind eye turned to many of the biggest campiagns.
A major breakthrough in the depiction of WWII in shooters came with 2015 Inc’s Medal of Honor: Allied Assault in 2002. Most of the game was in standard commando/espionage territory, but the game is remembered for its Omaha Beach mission, which gave players the impression of being just one soldier in a huge battle.As well as being thrilling and great fun to play, this level appeared to offer an authentic taste of what it might have been like on that morning; in other words, to give a real historical insight.
In 2004 Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty sought to stretch the experience of this level over the whole game. Apart from a lot of standard “behind enemy lines” missions, it succeeded in sending the player into something resembling infantry combat for most of the game. It also broke new ground by giving equal weight to American, British and Russian campaigns. Pretty much for the first time, a shooter acknowledged that there were Russians in WWII, and the Russian campaign provided what were unquestionably Call of Duty’s most brilliant and intense moments.
From well-trodden Normandy to the virgin ruins of Stalingrad and Berlin, Call of Duty had succeeded in bringing players (mostly) beyond the bounds of “Behind Enemy Lines” and into the real experience of the ordinary soldier.
Battles in Games- the Problems
The limits to the presentation of historical battles in games are obvious and many. The most spectacular moments in such huge battle sequences are usually tightly-scripted sections in which the player has little control. The game world must be constructed like a lock of which only the player has the key- the Russians will push back the Germans only when the player calls in an artillery strike, or finds a scoped rifle and kills the enemy officers, or blows up the enemy tank.
A single-player game world must at the end of the day be a totally egotistical one. Call of Duty and the Omaha Beach level in Medal of Honor succeeded because they managed to create such a world, while also managing to create an illusion of chaos and epic forces at work. The illusion of Stalingrad is shattered, however, in moments such as when, after two spectacular mass battles, we spend twenty minutes running alone through a suspiciously corridor-like progression of ruined buildings, coming upon Germans only in their ones and twos.
Of necessity, the player must have few, very tough allies and numerous, weak, stupid enemies. The tendency to portray invincible American übermenschen fighting disposable hordes of subhuman foreign scum, a much-lamented crime of Hollywood, is in fact something close to a necessity in a single-player shooter. Otherwise you die too often. It’s much easier to throw hordes of enemies at you and test your reflexes than it is to present you with real tactical challenges.
For years shooter players had “health bars” which were whittled down by bullets but could be recharged by the player stepping on little first aid kits- health packs or medi packs- that would be scattered around the game. Around the middle of the decade this gave way to a less obtrusive but no less ridiculous system. Now after being shot a few times you will hear heavy breathing, see red, walk slower, etc, which means that you will die unless you find some cover and sort of get your breath back.
Call of Duty was noted at the time for how well it gave the impression that, unlike in most shooters, the enemy actually seemed not to want to die; they kept their heads down when you fired at them. However, a quick attempt at a bodycount in any level of any historical shooter will put the player in Audie Murphy territory. There are some spectacular examples of what Cracked.com calls “Real Life Soldiers Who Make Rambo Look Like a Pussy,” such as the Finnish sniper Samo Haya, who killed 705 Russian soldiers, then survived a gunshot to the head. Maybe he found a medi pack or something.
One way or another, this is clearly a freakish and unrepresentative example. Too much killing in videogames is not so much unhealthy as just stupid. The real challenge is presenting the player with challenges that are exciting but don’t involve blowing people’s heads off- but mass killing is easy and safe and tried-and-tested so there you are.
Here’s a very important qualification. To a huge extent, videogames take their cues not from history but from film. That groundbreaking Omaha Beach level in Allied Assault was a pretty open attempt to recreate the battle scene from Saving Private Ryan. Steven Spielberg, the film’s director, was in charge of the development of Allied Assault as well.
Call of Duty meanwhile owes a huge debt to Band of Brothers and to Enemy at the Gates, which it re-enacts almost word-for-word during one or two scenes. A host of classic behind-enemy-lines war movies provided raw material for most of the game’s more traditional commando missions.
When the Call of Duty franchise left WWII behind it did not lose these magpie-like tendencies. The Examined Life of Gaming, a video blog, notes how the “modern” warfare presented in most videogames in the 2000s is actually based on the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, which is in fact set in 1993. Following the release of the 2008 miniseries Generation Kill, blogger Roland notes, the Call of Duty franchise began to bristle with lingo such as “full copy” and “foot-mobiles.” The sucker is that Generation Kill is set in 2003, while the Modern Warfare games are set somewhere around 2016.
So the presentation of war in gaming is (to a large extent) not about history at all- it’s about TV and movies. Videogames are still at an extremely juvenile stage of development and are bottom-feeders when it comes to subject matter. The sheen of “authenticity” is often rubbed clumsily off other media. Commercial considerations mean there has never been a mainstream shooter set during, to give some perfectly reasonable examples, the Russian, Spanish or Chinese civil wars, the Korean War or the Iran-Iraq War. Why would you bother? Everyone knows about Omaha Beach- your promotional work is already done. Stalingrad is “out there”, but it’s nobody’s intellectual property. World War Two, for a lot of games publishers, is just Star Wars without copyright issues.
(It’s worth noting here that no siege towers, ladders or battering rams appeared in the Total War series until after Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers.)
So… History in Shooters
The issue of dependence on Hollywood and HBO is only a part of the story, obviously. On their own terms, shooters are quite capable of making a balls of history. 2002’s Conflict: Desert Storm (One reviewer remarked that the real-life sequel was probably under way by the time of going to print) features four elite US soldiers massacring scores of Iraqi troops per mission. This presents a totally wrong picture of the Gulf War, which the Americans won by bombing the Iraqis into submission. It was miles from a super-soldier affair- even some of the most elite US ground troops saw nothing in Kuwait but a trail of destruction and endless crowds of surrendering Iraqis.
So though it’s important to talk about the severe shortcomings of health packs and heavy scripting, these are far from the worst things a game developer can do. They might exacerbate rather than desperately try to curb the necessary egotistical superman tendencies of a videogame. And, returning to Call of Duty and its excellent expansion pack United Offensive, games can get it so totally right without going near Hollywood.
The story of the building in Stalingrad known as Pavlov’s House is not widely-known outside Russia. In basing what is perhaps Call of Duty’s finest moment on this story, Infinity Ward were definitely not piggybacking on Hollywood. Epic battles set during the relatively little-known Battle of Kharkov and in a tiny obscure village called Ponyri, called “little Stalingrad” by Russian and German commanders, stand on their own merits as honest attempts to marry history with those other factors that gaming brings into play.
These and other missions and other games like them are, far from being action-hero fantasies, visceral, terrifying, shell-shocking experiences which send the player crawling through the mud and clinging desperately to the smallest piece of cover in a world of flying bullets and shrapnel. Most gamers have been known to act on instinct and physically duck in front of their computer screens while playing.
However visceral and humbling the experience, of course, no enjoyable computer game could ever come close to the real horror of life-or-death struggle, or indeed of warfare, which comprises mostly of waiting around and tedious chores. A real-life general may send you on a suicide mission, but a game developer will not. Death comes at random, too quickly for you to react, and it is followed not by a thoughtful quotation about war then another chance to play, but by mud and worms.
But to focus on this distance from reality is to miss the point. We are at a far further distance when we read a history book. We understand when we pick up a videogame that first and foremost it’s got to be enjoyable. We seek not a “realistic” experience but an authentic one. The developers must be able to construct a world that is designed for us, but seems not to be. In short, like with all videogames, the recreation of historical wars demands exquisite craftsmanship. In this case, the aim of the design is to bring the player back in time in order to tell a story.
When I say that, I’m obviously not making any groundbreaking statement. But the point I’m making is that videogames can represent history- nowhere near perfectly, but in a gut-wrenching and personal way that is not remotely possible for the classroom, the book or even in film and TV. Shooters can leave necessarily narrow, but deep, impressions. The videogame has a unique angle that it can work. That angle is the conscript’s eye view, Red Square, Stalingrad, 1942.
But why did it take so long for us to reach that angle? Here we come to the commercial and ideological limits of gaming, which the best development company in the world can do little about. The Call of Duty series had no sooner scraped the Norman mud off its boot-soles than it became caked, absolutely caked, in the dust of Stalingrad. Its response was to return to Normandy for the entirety of Call of Duty 3 before abandoning history entirely for near-future battles with commie-nazi Russians and Arabs in headscarves. The super-soldier is back, and this time it is repeatedly made clear to players that while we sleep complacently he is guarding us in our beds. Our concern is history but we might write an article twice as long on the present in videogames 😦
It’s easy to forget that the success of the series was based on challenging us, not indulging us- on taking us off the beaten track to tell a story from history that had not been told in that way before. The market, however, is the sworn enemy of this kind of challenge. Commercial considerations dictate that very few games will ever try to tell a new story. The bottom line is money, and if you take a chance with a game set somewhere new, untried and untested, with no easy reference points, then you might make money, might even be onto a huge success. But then imagine a game with a tried-and-tested setting, which whips up US militarism, which references a host of films and so has 90% of its advertising in the bag already; this ticks all the boxes for an easy mediocre winner.