Critical IntelThe Less Obvious HistoriesCritical Intel - RSS 2.0
BioShock's use of history is so unique because the games take the intellectual and aesthetic trends of past eras and divorce them entirely from their normal setting. Transplanting historical ideas onto an unfamiliar location throws the philosophies of the period into stark relief and helps the player to see the strangeness, utility, or horror they might've missed had the ideas been presented in context. The Fallout series does something similar when it subversively contrasts 1950s optimism with the post-nuclear wasteland.
Inevitably, some games fall short. The most recent example is the Call of Duty: Black Ops franchise, which consistently misses the opportunity to do something great with its material. Black Ops showed us the Bay of Pigs Invasion, Russian missile tests, the CIA's MKUltra behavior modification experiments, and the U.S. attempt to recruit German scientists after World War II. Its sequel introduced the player to the Angolan Civil War, American aid to the Afghan Mujahideen, and the often-forgotten U.S. invasion of Panama. That's a lot of historical material, and all of it fascinating. I could fill an entire month of Critical Intel dissecting these elements, telling you what happened and why it mattered, and pointing out passing references that prove Treyarch did their research - the problem is that the games themselves do none of that. Important events like the Bay of Pigs get glossed over with a single line during the briefing, and what little information players get goes by so fast that it's difficult to absorb it.
To name one glaring example: For a sizable part of Black Ops II the player gets paired up with Manuel Noriega, but even though he's a looming figure in the game there's no attempt to explain who he is or why he goes from U.S. ally to U.S. target. Keep in mind, we're talking about a political figure that fell from power before half of the game's target demographic was even born. The net result is that Black Ops drops you into combat without telling you who you're fighting and why you're fighting them, removing all context from the events and making them nothing but exotic backgrounds. Panama and the Bay of Pigs might as well be The Water Level and The Sky Level. There's interesting historical material buried in the Black Ops series - and I'll be writing more about it soon - but you have to mine it like iron ore.
What really excites me about games' newfound interest in exploring the past is the possibilities for the future. Not only is there enormous educational potential in creating a world where you can interact with historical figures, buildings, and ideas, but there's also a wealth of stories stretching back several millennia. Even better than the potential for stories is how applicable they are - the same questions and anxieties crop up in multiple eras, meaning we can use those periods to shed light on our own time. Apocalyptic predictions were in vogue last year, for instance, if only for our own amusement. Imagine if a developer contrasted that interest with a game set in the "apocalyptic" year of 1666, when the plague swept through England and most of London burned to the ground. Picture a game set in the man-made ecological devastation of the Dust Bowl, when dust storms thousands of feet high barreled across the Midwest and people fell on their knees in prayer because they thought the world was ending. Alternately, consider the potential for a game taking place on the fringes of the Alexander's Empire, where Macedonian governors faced some of the same questions of political loyalty and cultural differences that confront U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. This correlation between the past and present is a crucial part of historical games, since by identifying with the questions and circumstances of the time we naturally identify more heavily with the character we're controlling. Empathy is the fastest route to immersion.
When you boil it down, history is less about famous characters and structures and more about what people thought and how they saw the world. Those intellectual and social forces drive every other aspect of culture and environment, from architecture to fashion, to the weapons of war. Developers, on the whole, seem to understand this fact and focus on the ideas that create the artifacts, rather than the artifacts themselves. Those that don't miss out on the most crucial aspect of the historical experience - making us care about, and identify with, the issues and ideas of the period, bringing us closer to the character we play and further immersing us in the world.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.