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Armchair Scholar – a brief look at History in Computer Games

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Blair Martin

I recently watched the film ‘Hannibal’. It’s a fairly good film, but I remember it for something other than the clever plot, strong characters and guts on the pavement. One scene in particular stood out, a scene that produced in me the smug satisfaction that comes from knowing something that not many people know. In the scene, Dr Lector is conversing with Renaldo Pazzi. As the Doctor is very clever indeed, when he reveals he knows the history behind the Pazzi family name it comes as little surprise. Renaldo’s ancestor, Francesco de Pazzi, was hung from a third floor balcony after a massive conspiracy in 15th Century Florence; the Doctor asks if Renaldo has ever had any stigma attached to his name. ‘It’s never come up.’ the corrupt cop laughs. Because it happened more than 500 years ago – it’s ancient history.

What got me was this: I knew the story. I have never been to Florence, I have never chanced across the story in any history books, I was never taught about it in school. I know the story because in a fashion, I have been in the middle of it. I have walked the streets, met the people, seen the sights and was at the very heart of the conspiracy that led to the hanging of Francesco. Neither do I claim to be reincarnated. I’m just a gamer, and the reason I am familiar with this little slice of Renaissance Italy is because I have played Assassins Creed 2.

The modern back catalogue is awash with games set during historical periods. The Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Wars, the Wild West, both World Wars, the Cold War and even the beginning of civilisation have all been used as backdrops over the years. History provides rich pickings for any plot, as they define moments in time and no matter how far back you go its ramifications are still felt today. It’s an exciting prospect to go back in time and play a hand in how some of these times unfolded.

There is a catch however. When I say familiar, I mean it loosely. While AC2 is cracking good fun to play through, the plot is far from accurate, and anyone tempted to compose an essay on their findings deserve an ‘F’, a dunce cap and the far corner of the class. So why bother basing games in a certain period in time only to change the facts? And where is the line between concrete fact and artistic license?

Nearly every game set in the past is inaccurate. The Cold War did not have the ‘super soldiers’ that appear in Metal Gear Solid 3. Zombies played no part in the WW2, neither did bullet proof Nazi’s. Mosquito fighter planes did not have lasers. But we know all this. We know that we need to suspend our belief in what is happening, and that’s fine by most people. After all, while the vistas and cityscapes in AC2 are exquisitely presented, what you don’t see is the filth, poverty and rancid smells of the back alleys. Ezio’s life expectancy would have been 40 years old. And you can forget about medi-packs. After being bloodied up in a fight, his open wounds would probably have become infected and gangrenous. But where exactly is the fun in that?

Going back a bit, both Medal of Honour: Rising Sun and Medal of Honour: Frontline have wonderful opening sequences. Before you’re even familiar with the controls, you’re dropped right in the thick of the action. The ensuing few minutes are wrought with determination and slight panic, and only when you get to the end of the level do you breathe a sigh of relief.

What you don’t feel is the sheer terror, the acrid smoke choking you as you watch your comrades die. Again, why would you want to? I don’t want to be firing with a rifle that has poor aim, and that if it gets damp it doesn’t fire at all. I’d rather not have the game finish too soon due to contracting the Black Death. I’d get enraged if a single headshot or stab wound was all it took to kill me off.

And there is the crux. History wasn’t fun. Rampant diseases, poor knowledge of science, fear of God and widespread death are not compelling things to play through. Games need to be engaging, and so historical accuracy is elbowed aside by artistic license. It’s a necessary device, and most of the time is entirely intentional.

Mafia 2 is a prime example, and quite an amusing one. Thanks to the painstaking research of Mike Nelson (aka Pretty Tony on 1up.com), a glaring inaccuracy was unearthed in what is otherwise an accurate game. 2K Czech focused on representing a period in time (1944 to 1951), using the cars, clothes, music and consumer goods of the era. The fact that the game is set in a fictional city is entirely forgivable. Collectables also feature in the form of Playboy magazines, and it is these that Mike researched. What he found is this: they’re from the future. The magazines used in the game are genuine Playboy front covers, but the earliest cover wasn’t published until 1954 – three years after the game finishes. The developers would clearly have known this, so they either did it to sell copies, or to provoke a laugh from anyone committed enough to find the truth. Either way, it shows artistic license in full motion.

The movie industry has been doing it for years. Many people still believe the myth as portrayed in the film Braveheart, despite the film having some 18 howlers within the first two minutes. The bus in Speed would never have made it over that gap in real life; if it was meant to be realistic, it should have been called ‘Crash’. It is merely art imitating life, not reproducing it. And in order for games to be accepted as a form of modern art, this is something everyone should bear in mind.

As long as the studios can keep the balance between fun, absurdity and knowledge, then I’m all for these inaccuracies. Games such as AC2 serve as portals, shedding light on a small piece of the puzzle that makes up the past. For as long as you are familiar with something, you know where to look for the rest of the information. Google ‘Pazzi’ and within a minute you’ll know the story. My Mother probably already knows it, but she has a fully loaded, wall-sized bookshelf that any historian would be proud of. Assassins Creed 2 served as an introduction to Renaissance Italy, the same way that Red Dead Redemption could serve as an introduction to the Wild West to those who have never have, or never will, watch a western film. To me, that speaks volumes about the modern age of computer games.

The medium needs to be intense, entertaining, eye opening and worth using. For me, gaining nuggets of information and knowledge adds to the experience, and opens intriguing prospects for the future – consoles in the classroom? Maybe not, but who knows what the future holds…

Copywrite Blair Martin 2010

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