One of my lecturers once said:

People in the past were all dumb, crazy, and weird‘.

This is actually a blunt way of saying that the past is a foreign country. In other words, the past is fundamentally different from the present, and this is an important thing to keep in mind when studying it. If you’re incorporating history into your game, you need to get into your time machine, and when you’ve arrived in the past, sever all connections with the present. Well, maybe not all of them, but we’ll get back to that.

You may think ‘well, duh, of course the past is different, anyone knows that’, but it’s not so natural as it seems. The idea that the past is fundamentally different from the present actually didn’t take hold until about 1800. The French and industrial revolutions of that period worked as a shock: things wouldn’t always stay the same, and people were suddenly aware of this. This gave an impulse to historical research as well, with the study of history turning into a genuine academic discipline in the 19th century.

But enough about that. You want to know how you can use stuff like this in your game. Well, I’ll tell you. If you’re setting your game in a historical period, you need to make sure that there are no anachronisms. Remember, the past is fundamentally different. An example: suppose your main character has to send an important message, and it needs to reach its intended recipient quickly. In the present age, he or she might use e-mail. But go back a hundred years or so, and sending a telegram makes much more sense than sending a letter. And if you go even further back, sending a message quickly might not even be possible at all. If the recipient is not too far away, sending a messenger on horseback might work. But if he or she is on another continent, it could take weeks for a letter to arrive by boat. Little things like this need to be kept in mind, so that the game is consistent. If you make even the slightest of errors, players will notice, possibly influencing their enjoyment of the game.

Vive la révolution!

The concept of revolutions is also one you can use in your game. You could have a revolution in your game world like the industrial revolution, that totally shakes things up. And on the subject of revolutions: have you noticed how revolutions in most video games tend to be negative? An evil character does something that envelops the game world in darkness, then the hero comes along and restores everything to how it was, making everybody happy again. But what if you turned this around? Perhaps your protagonist is actually trying to change the world instead of returning it to its former state. Using the concept of revolution like this can really make things interesting, and very lifelike to boot.

You can also apply this concept of the past being different to characters in the game, particularly to the main character. He or she probably wasn’t born like the character they are when the player meets them (unless it’s a Superman type of character, of course). Show that they had a life before, that they didn’t just come falling out of the sky. You don’t need to tell their entire life story, but little things like photographs, anecdotes, or memories can establish that your character has had a past, a past that was different from the present.

Showing that the past was different isn’t just limited to your protagonist, however. You can also show this in other little things. To take a real world example, think how writing has evolved. We weren’t always writing on a PC. Typewriters, fountain pens, feather pens, even chisels have all been used to write in the past, and some still are. Perhaps you can show this in your game world as well. Some little artifacts from the past can do wonders in giving your world more character.

Those are some examples of practical ways in which you can use the difference of the past in your game, but let’s look at it on a more theoretical level now. To be precise, we’re going to compare two historical theory concepts and apply them to (adventure) game design: hermeneutics and postmodernism.

To put it simply: hermeneutics is about understanding a text. A text, by the way, can be any expression of human communication (including art, architecture, etc.), but let’s keep it simple and limit ourselves to historical sources for now. In order to understand the past, you will have to consult both historical sources and your own experience. Your experience will increase from reading those sources, enabling you to understand those sources better. At the same time, the more sources you read, the better you will understand other, related historical sources, because you put them into the context of those historical sources you’ve been reading. It’s like a (vicious?) circle: the more you learn, the more you know.

Postmodernists throw this concept out of the window (I exaggerate, but only slightly). When you study a source, you look at that source and that source only. So you cannot consult other sources while studying one source, and you cannot use your own experience in order to try and interpret it. In practice, studying sources like this is virtually impossible, but applying both postmodernism and hermeneutics to a game is not only possible, it can produce some great results.

Most adventure games make use of hermeneutics in some way, that is, they refer to concepts known to the player from experience. Consider the following example: suppose the player character needs to fasten something, and you provide the player with some nails. From experience, the player knows that he or she will need to search for a hammer or a similar tool to drive in the nails.

A more unconventional and adventurous option would be to go postmodern with your game. In that case, your game would be an object on its own, with its own system of meaning that is not connected to the outside world. Going completely postmodern is virtually impossible, because you need a user interface that the player can relate to, but you can play with the player’s mind in other ways.

For instance, you may want to have the characters in your game speak in a language of their own, and leave the player figuring out what they’re saying. Or you could apply the concept of postmodernism to the example of the nails. You can decide what those nails mean in your game. Maybe nails are used as writing instruments, scratching letters into suitable surfaces. Since they’re not used for hammering down things, the player’s experience suddenly doesn’t matter anymore, and (s)he must figure out the use of things solely through the context of your game.

A rather unfortunate puzzle, which assumes just a bit too much about the player's experience

This could be advantageous to the inexperienced player, because it levels the playing field. A puzzle like the infamous ‘monkey wrench’ puzzle in Monkey Island 2, which relied heavily upon the player’s cultural knowledge and experience, couldn’t exist in a postmodernist game. Instead, you’d have to establish that monkeys would regularly be used as spanners. Of course, there’s a risk of going overboard with this: if your game doesn’t make any sense at all, the player might just throw their hands into the air and give up.

So, you will probably want to find a balance between using hermeneutics and postmodernism. Unless you think you can make a really good purely postmodernist game, in which case I’d love to play it… if it’s at all playable. Also, keep using your time machines, and repeat after me: the past is fundamentally different from the present. I hope you’ve learnt something from reading this article; even if it’s just a tiny little thing, I’m happy. As always, if something is not clear, if you disagree with something, or if you feel I am completely in error, let me know!