Dashing over the rooftops of Medici-era Florence. Slamming down rye in a border saloon. Cruising by Grauman's Chinese in a '46 Packard, Dizzy Gillespie on the radio. Games have taken us all back in time, usually somewhere both wondrous and dangerous - and more often than not, somewhere pretty. Let's be honest, one of the main reasons game developers like to slide down the timeline is so their artists can wow us with elegant architecture and clothing from the best-looking eras. But to dismiss historical periods as mere set dressing would be a severe error. History is the story of people and ideas, not buildings, and without fail the best historical games capture the zeitgeist of an era and use it as a powerful storytelling tool that reveals more about the environment and helps players identify with their character.
Take L.A. Noire, for instance. While Rockstar won acclaim for reconstructing the topography of 1947 Los Angeles and using revolutionary character animations, what truly impressed me was how well the game's mechanics and story linked with the overall themes of the period. Let's consider the facts (and just the facts, ma'am): L.A. Noire is a game about stripping away a facade and revealing the ugliness beneath. Mechanically, the player accomplishes this by reading people's facial expressions in order to call out their lies, break through their act, and get at their secrets. Every time Cole Phelps walks into a business or home - the two bastions of postwar America - the socially respectable front breaks down to reveal adultery, hate crimes, substance abuse, and domestic violence. Cole isn't what he appears either, since he privately suffers from intense flashbacks to the Battle of Okinawa. Given the recurring theme of social artifice, is it any surprise that Cole's first major gunfight takes place in an enormous pagan temple that's nothing but a Hollywood-set facade?
The discontent bubbling beneath the surface of postwar L.A. wasn't invented for L.A. Noire, it was a major narrative of the period. After World War II, the U.S. emerged from the depression with newfound economic strength. Demobilizing troops went to college on the GI Bill, got married, and started having kids. These new middle-class families could afford to move to the suburbs and put a new car in the garage. It was a flowering of prosperity and the renewal of the American dream if you believed the politicians - but you should never believe the politicians. Expanding cities led to higher crime, and the drug trade started to take hold. Racial injustice plagued most institutions, including the LAPD, which was supposed to serve as a model of police reform. Women who had gained a new level of freedom during the War found it difficult to return to the domestic containment of the past. Alcoholism and depression rates soared due to the large number of veterans returning with undiagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Amongst all this, Hollywood sold a manufactured representation of American prosperity through movies and eventually TV, and tabloid magazines kicked off celebrity culture, creating a new form of cultural voyeurism. In other words, L.A. Noire isn't a game that's set in postwar L.A., it's a game that's consciously about the social issues faced by the people who lived in that time and place.
L.A. Noire isn't alone in that success, either. Developers have become extremely savvy about playing into period themes. The Assassin's Creed games set during the Renaissance supported the humanist and Machiavellian narratives of that period as Ezio pursued hidden knowledge and learned power politics. Red Dead Redemption, too, is an interesting example, since the game dealt with historical themes despite the fact that the setting wasn't strictly historical. Red Dead ran revisionist by claiming that the "taming" of the frontier boiled down to federal authorities destroying the land and people for the sake of self-interest, ultimately creating more havoc than the "lawlessness" they tried to eliminate. Though it lacks historical events or characters, that's a theory some historians would buy into.
In fact, even out-and-out fantasy and science fiction games can have deep roots in a particular time, and may even create greater emphasis on historical ideas by doing so. BioShock famously dealt with Objectivist philosophy, but the audio diaries also established most of Rapture's upper class as ideologically shaped by the Second World War. Andrew Ryan came to Objectivism as a reaction to growing up under the Soviets and seeing the social programs of the New Deal, Brigid Tenenbaum survived Auschwitz by collaborating with Nazi scientific experiments, and BioShock 2's Sofia Lamb decided to abandon the United States after witnessing the Hiroshima bombing. The backgrounds all emphasize the alienating nature of 20th century politics and warfare, both explaining why these specific characters chose to leave the world behind, as well as reinforcing why people in general might be attracted to the cynical and pragmatic nature of Objectivism. It seems BioShock Infinite is following a similar path as well - set in 1912, Infinite takes on period issues like American Exceptionalism, eugenics, anti-immigrant xenophobia, and the evangelical fervor of the Third Great Awakening.