The Falling Soldier by Robert Capa

Past, present, future. Of these three, the past is the one we have most affinity with. The present is just too volatile, it changes all the time. The future is endlessly interesting, a great source of speculation, but that speculation is inherently based on our current experiences. Experiences that come from – you’ve guessed it – the past.

History, which might be defined as the collected/collective knowledge of the past, is definitely a rich source to mine for inspiration and stories. And yet, it seems that history is often overlooked as a source of inspiration for games. Granted, there is an abundance of historical games like the Civilization series, and there are even plenty of adventure games that are set in the past. But what I will discuss in this series of three articles is how you can actually build a history for your own game, a rich framework that can serve to give a story some much-needed backbone. Instead of saying ‘let’s base this game in Victorian London’, you will say ‘let’s rebuild Victorian London and then set my game in that’.

Over the course of these three articles, you will hopefully gain some basic knowledge that will help you in that endeavour. At the very least, you’ll be aware of the interesting source of stories that history can provide. Even if you only make games that are based in the future, that insight will help you craft a fitting backstory. In this article, we will explore how a game (and by extension, any piece of fiction) can benefit from being grounded in history.

One of the main benefits of history is that it is one big, readily available backstory. You only have to think of one, albeit ubiquitous, example: the Second World War. There are of course a great many games that are set in this historical time period, but there is a reason for that: a great many people know about it. Any war speaks to the imagination, but perhaps the two World Wars do so the most. Pretty much everyone has read about it or seen a documentary, and that’s your advantage: you can set a game in such a period without further explanation. One word of warning though: don’t overdo it. Sometimes it’s better to pick a lesser known time period than to risk oversaturation.

The Imperial City is the historical centre of Oblivion's rich game world

Another benefit of grounding your game in history is that it will be provided with a rich world, giving your game depth. More than just a main story, your game will now have another story layer, that in turn influences your main story. In addition, having a history as a backstory will enrich your characters, who will feel as if they’ve been through a lot if you let their personal history coincide with the central history of your game.

Having a rich history will also make designing your game easier in the end. If you first create a solid history, you can use it as a good starting point to base story elements, such as side quests, on. A good example of a game with an intricate history is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Because it has such a rich history, the designers can draw from that when creating quests, dungeons, and non-player characters.

Examples of such rich histories can be found not just in games, however. Take, for example, The Lord of the Rings. J. R. R. Tolkien spent years crafting a mythology for his fictional universe, which resulted in many books, but most importantly, in a story that was grounded and therefore felt more real. Now I’m not saying you should spend most of your life making an artificial universe, but it can be beneficial if you spend a few days or weeks just thinking about your game’s history.

Another good example of such a comprehensive artificial history is Star Wars’ expanded universe. The interesting thing about it is that not only can Star Wars video games draw from it, they can also add to it. Now, if you plan on making a series of games, you can use a similar strategy. Not only can sequels draw from your central backstory and from previous games, no, events that come up during the designing of those sequels can also add to your central history, making it more intricate. That way, you are writing your own history while building your game!

Even if you are making just a single game based on that fictional universe, it can be a great thing to build such a rich historical world for yet another reason: fans. The more story elements, big or small, the more fans will become immersed in this universe you created, thinking of theories to tie it all together, creating wikis (if your game is really successful) to describe every little detail in the rich game world. Some examples of this are Monkey Island – which has its own wiki and plenty of theories about The Secret – and the fan debates about the elusive Legend of Zelda timeline. I’m sure that you can think of many other good examples where fans are drawn into a fictional universe. History can do that for you.

A sample of the huge Zorkian chronologue.

One word of warning though: don’t take it too far! If you get carried away and pile layer after layer on your backstory, things might become convoluted. There’s a fine line between having an intricate universe that’s fun to explore, and having a fictional universe that is so complicated that even its own maker doesn’t see the forest through the trees. Also, if you fail to keep track of your own story properly, the danger of discontinuities will be lurking around the corner. Be sure that you always know what you’re doing, because if the continuity in your game or series is shaky, it can make for a jarring experience for the gamer, who will, in the worst case scenario, lose interest.

Don’t let these warnings deter you though. Fans might be hard to please, but if you do things right, using history in the design of your game can be very rewarding, both for you and for the player. After this introduction to the subject, if you are serious about integrating history into your game, be sure to check out the next article, which is all about conducting historical research. You need to know this stuff if you are basing your game on an actual historical event, or if you are setting it in a particular time period that you don’t know much about.


About The Author

Jan Jacob Mekes (aka Haggis) is a Bachelor of Arts in History at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. He is also a big fan of adventure games – author and co-author of several game related blogs. You can find more of his work at Haggis Mag and here.