Go into a library and head to the history section. Rows and rows of books, on all sorts of subjects, and every day books are added to the already immense pile. Finding your way through that can be pretty intimidating, and that’s not even counting all the historical sources that are kept in archives or published online. But fear not, you can actually get through that seemingly insurmountable stack of information with just a little bit of effort.

The first thing you need to do in order to get through all that information, is narrow it down. What do you really need to know? Try not to go off on a tangent. Suppose you are making a game that is set in an insane asylum during the Victorian era. Your focus should be on the asylum, not on what kind of bowler hats people wore back then (unless it plays a huge role in one of your puzzles perhaps). One thing that can help you make things more manageable, is to think up keywords.

In the above example, some keywords you could use in your research are insanity, insane asylum, asylum, Victorian insanity, 19th century, madness history. Take some time coming up with appropriate keywords for your story. Some of them will prove very useful during your research, others may turn out worthless, but that’s okay. Just come up with as many you can think of. During your research, you may find other interesting information that you can turn into keywords; to take the above example, you may come across the name of an asylum (like Bedlam, for instance) that you want to investigate further.

Now we need something to put those keywords into. As with most topics, the internet is actually a very useful starting point for your research. At a very basic level, you can use Wikipedia to read up on a subject. If you plan on using it as a source, be sure to note the references in a Wikipedia article. You wouldn’t want your game to have a blatant historical error in it because crowd wisdom turned out to be wrong.

There’s more to the internet than Wikipedia, however. Google also provides some interesting research channels, and I’m not just talking about their search engine here. You can use Google Books to find books that might help you in your research, but you can also be a freeloader and use the free previews to gather information without buying a book. Another great tool is Google Scholar, which you can use to find academic articles on a wide variety of subjects. You have to pay to be able to access some of them, but there are a number of freely accessible articles available from there as well. And if you’re enrolled in a university, chances are you can get free access to many online magazines.

Apart from Google Books, you can also use Amazon to find books relating to your subject. Many of the books on Amazon also have limited previews, so you can quickly see if something suits your needs or not. Sites like Amazon are also particularly handy because you can click through to similar books, discovering new research material as you go. If you come across a particularly interesting book, write down its title – you may want to borrow it from your local library, or even buy it.

Battle of Cambrai (1917)

But history is not just made in books. If you’re serious about history, you need to go back to the sources, just like the Renaissance humanists. And what better place to do that than an archive? Contrary to popular belief, archives are not scary places. They are quiet, yes, and the average age of the visitors tends to be on the high side, but archives are actually pretty fun, and educational to boot. The best thing is that it probably won’t cost you a penny – most archival institutions don’t charge an admission fee.

A visit to an archive can be very enlightening – you get to read the old sources, which can really bring history to life. Reading about asylum patients online is quite a different experience from reading doctors’ reports on their insane patients that were written in the 19th century. But what if you can’t read those old letters? If they all look like a plate of spaghetti to you, just ask one of the people working at the archive if they can help you. They’ll be glad to.

You probably won’t believe me, but doing research in an archive can give you an epiphany. In fact, I’d recommend any creative individual to spend some time in an archive just looking through old documents, even if you’re not creating a game (or book, or film, or whatever) about history. It will most likely spark your creativity.

Now, it’s time to dive a bit deeper into the actual process of designing history. In the next article, we’ll look into that and explore some basic concepts of the philosophy of history.


Go there! No grues will eat you, I promise...

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.