…continued from Volume II

History. It’s that thing with the old books and films that are kept in stuffy old archives. Pretty straightforward really, and at least you don’t have all the different perspectives and theories like in real sciences such as biology and physics.

Or do you? Unfortunately, yes. History is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance. The philosophy of history is a genuine discipline, with many different ways to look at and research history. The good news is that you can actually use the notions devised by some of these thinkers about history in your game – even if they don’t always hold true in the real world.

The first perspective we’ll discuss here is a teleological one – in other words, a history that steadily progresses towards a certain goal. An example is the Whig interpretation of history, which sees the past as moving to increasing liberty and enlightenment, eventually arriving at its goal: modern, liberal democracy. A way in which you could incorporate this in your game is by focusing on a certain people that are progressing towards freedom, or a kind of paradise. Focus on their journey towards this ultimate goal, and have the player influence it. An example of this in a game is The Settlers II, where some shipwrecked Romans work their way towards a final goal: returning home.

The backstory in The Settlers II adds an extra dimension to the game; it’s not just some random guys walking around; they’re stranded, and you’re helping them get back home.

Another way of looking at history has been devised by Hegel, a German philosopher. One of his beliefs was that history, being almost (but not quite!) a sort of supreme being, trotted along merrily, its ultimate goal being that all people have absolute Reason. Sometimes things were going slightly in the wrong direction however, but fortunately, the Spirit of history had a solution: great people to alter the course of history in its favour. Examples of such great men are Napoleon and Julius Caesar – people who left their mark on history. Now, whether you believe history works like that or not, you can use this idea to your advantage. Why not create a game about a powerful protagonist who leaves his mark on the world, like the messiah figure in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind? Or you could give this concept an interesting twist: have a blundering protagonist who is trying to carry out the will of History but failing all the time. The possibilities are endless – give it some thought, and you might just come up with an original character that impacts their virtual world.

If that speculative stuff isn’t your cup of tea, you could of course go for an entirely realistic portrayal of history. Take a moment to think how history really works. Is it a chain of events that necessarily follow each other? Sometimes it seems that way, but most of history consists of pretty minor events that hardly have a bearing on the world at large. Be sure to include such events in your game, it will feel very natural. If you only include events that contribute to the main story, it may seem forced and even unreal. A good example of historical events that have no bearing on the game itself, comes in The Curse of Monkey Island. The three pirate barbers at The Barbery Coast all have pirate stories to tell – stories that serve no other purpose than to colour the game world.

Add some unrelated histories to your game to let the world come to life

So, now you know a bit about the theory, let’s move on to practice. The fun thing about history is that it’s so immense: you have a huge eclectic toolbox at your disposal. One element you can use when devising a history for your game world, is the great event. Think of wars, earthquakes, floods, and what have you, that stay in the collective mind forever. Be sure to sprinkle your game with references to those events, without necessarily depicting them. In-game books, such as the ones in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, are a good way of doing that. Those books don’t need to be very long – think of the many books in the Monkey Island series, which often aren’t longer than a few lines.

If politics plays a role in your game, you may want to think a bit about the political history of the empire, kingdom, anarchy or whatever world it is you’re basing your game in. One interesting premise might be to have your protagonist succeed an evil emperor, trying to repair what damage his predecessor has done, slowly winning the trust (or not) of his subjects. Again, there are many possibilities here.

Another element that plays a big part in our own history is the supernatural. Superstition, mythology, religion have all impacted human thinking, right up to this day. You can incorporate those elements to enrich your game world, and it doesn’t need to be a god game to work. You could focus on a religious organization and all the intricacies that come with it. And even if the focus in your game is not on religion, it would be a good idea to think of some ancient mythology, however basic. Pretty much every human culture has some myths and legends, and if you plan on inventing a culture for your game, mythology is an indispensible ingredient.

Now, you have thought up some ideas, and it’s time to put it all together. That can be tricky, but fortunately, there is a tool that can help you: the timeline. It’s as simple as that, just draw up a timeline (either on paper or in your favourite drawing or spreadsheet program). On it, put all the events you want to refer to and depict in your game. Be sure to also put your characters on your timeline, so you can see at a glance if they might have fought in a certain war, or if they had not even been born then. This can save you from some embarrassing inconsistencies, and especially if you plan on making a series, keeping a timeline will help you keep organized.

So, that concludes our look at the fascinating world of history. I hope I have managed to get you excited about what history can do for your game. If things went too fast for you, or if you just want to know more about history and historical research, please do contact me with your questions. I’d be more than willing to help.


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.