HOW DO YOU APPROACH WRITING HISTORY IN GAMES?
Featuring Pete Stewart (Total War: Rome 2, Attila, Total War: Warhammer (1&2), Total War: Three Kingdoms), Victor Ojuel (1958: Dancing with Fear, Ariadne in Aeaea, Pharaonic), Kate Watson (Total War: Rome 2, Total War: Shogun 2, Napoleon: Total War and Empire: Total War), and Alain Mercieca (Assassin's Creed: Origins)
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Pete Stewart (Total War: Rome 2, Attila, Total War: Warhammer (1&2), Total War: Three Kingdoms)
I would say there are, chiefly, three considerations when working in history: tone, accuracy and sensitivity.
Firstly, tone: from a technical standpoint, you have to consider how you’re going to write; the style and tone. Writing in the ancient Roman period? Then you’re going to have to work on your pomp and ceremony; writing grand, almost arrogantly, to best capture the idea of the ancient world, in all its narcissism and overwrought majesty. Yet slide sideways to somewhere like ancient China, and the rules change – now we’re dealing with romance, we’re dealing with duty and ideals greater than any one person. This is about honour and personal integrity – the measure of a life, and the span of time beneath the heavens.
So, tone is important. It’s a fundamental requirement for writing, certainly, but doubly so when stepping so entirely out of not only your own understanding, but the understanding of your audience, too. You’re creating the atmosphere and tone of the historical era they’re inhabiting. It has to be convincing, and it has to be unique.
So, beyond tone? Accuracy. The civilisations of our history were all a little bit (a lot) vain, and so helpfully they mostly recorded their histories in vast detail, so obsessed as they were with their legacy. Whilst we don’t have a complete account in all cases (pour one out for the Library of Alexandria…), you have to nevertheless strive for historical accuracy as much as possible. Sure, gameplay considerations may require you to bend, or massage, the facts, but whenever you can you have to keep accurate. It’s not only your history you’re dealing with, it’s someone else’s. Which brings me to…
Sensitivity. Finally (but by no mean least importantly), the idea of being respectful and sensitive to the culture you’re writing about is too important to ignore. The examples from my first point paint in very broad strokes, but the reality is you’re dealing in cultures often not your own – cultures that, although in many cases long dead, still hold huge significance and importance to people. It is a fine line to walk between honouring the culture of a people’s forefathers and painting the time in as truthful a light as possible.
(The British Empire, for example, was generally awful, and the writers of Empire: Total War would be doing themselves a disservice if they had attempted to show it otherwise.)
It can be as simple as what words cultures don’t like, or inappropriate metaphor or symbolism, how certain leaders or deities must be styled, etc. It’s about respect, ultimately; showing respect to another culture that you would expect to receive for your own. In some cases, this means consulting with experts, academics or leaders of certain cultures, to ensure you’re being both as honest and respectful as possible.
And that’s it! History is fascinating and nuanced and complicated. We have to tread carefully when handling it because, beneath our feet, the bones of our forefathers are ultimately very brittle.
Victor Ojuel (1958: Dancing with Fear, Ariadne in Aeaea, Pharaonic)
As with any other game writing, how I approach historical settings varies wildly depending on the project. As a freelance writer/ND, the main factors are how much leeway do I have, and at what point in the development I jump onboard. Let me explain that with those different examples.
Arriving late, leaving early – the “Parachuted Writer” case
With fighting RPG Pharaonic, I was brought into the project post-alpha, just a few months before release. Scenarios and enemies were final. My brief was to provide lore and background the “Souls way”, by means of short NPC snippets and item descriptions.
So in this case the starting point was low-level (we had the actual game assets), but I insisted on starting with a high-level approach (back to the historical drawing room, as it were).
I started by skim-reading through some three thousand years of Egyptian History to see what general period was better suited. Wikipedia is actually a pretty good resource at this initial level, since it provides a quick overview. The Hykso invasion grabbed my attention, so I focused on it and drilled down before settling on the reign of Pharaoh Ahmosis I, credited with repelling the Hyksos and restoring Egyptian rule around 1565 BC. Three centuries later, the enigmatic “Sea Peoples” tore through Egypt and most of the eastern Mediterranean – a time of strife and societal breakdown always makes for good drama. I based my lore on the idea that Ahmosis had sealed an unholy pact in order to perpetuate himself in the throne, a rule disturbed by the arrival of new gods. At this point I knew I was going for the Egyptian New Kingdom, circa 1200 BC, framing the Sea Peoples’ invasion as a religion war. Then it was time for more in-depth research, mostly two-pronged – mythological material to pad my religious conflict and some microhistory to create plausible NPCs. I found plenty of sources for the former at the British Museum, and for the latter in the Set Maat texts.
This is the point in the process in which general concepts should start to trickle down into specifics – the unnamed Egyptian city overrun with sea-creatures became the Hykso capital Avaris, teeming with the spawn of Oannes, a deity related to Dagon (a god I wanted to avoid because of its trite Lovecraftian associations). A desert village became Set Maat, its villagers and their mundane problems inspired by the real legal cases of the Deir el-Medina texts. The “Black Pharaoh” (another Lovecraftian remnant) became the Red Pharaoh – because the colour black was associated with the fertile, life-giving Nile mud, as opposed to the red of the desert, the realm of death and demons, more fitting for a cruel, undead king.
At this step, each element of game lore needs to click in with the others, forming a little microcosmos of internal coherence, if not always complete historical accuracy. It is more important for the player to identify a khopesh as a standard issue in the Egyptian army (“yeah, that’s what a soldier would wield”) than to ensure this particular model was used in this particular war. My main regret, however, is not having had the time to learn more than just basics about hieroglyphs – I would have loved to customise inscriptions to particular objects and locations.
First in, last out – the “One Man Army” case
1958:Dancing with Fear is an interactive fiction set in a Caribbean republic on the night before revolution. It ranked among the top ten at the prestigious Interactive Fiction Competition 2017 and was praised for its sense of place and historical credibility.
In terms of creative freedom it is a diametrically opposed example, since I could choose my setting, protagonist and plot (a faded showgirl trying to navigate a deadly political plot). That means I did start with a pretty good idea of why I was using that moment in History, and what I wanted to do with it.
The process was somewhat similar, in that I started with high-level historical concepts and narrowed them down to a particular date, region and scene, but the crucial differences lay in the greater leeway when writing it, and the special issues of choosing a recent past, which cuts both ways.
On the one hand, the player just knows more about this time, so mistakes and inaccuracies are easier to catch. Hence, expectations are implicitly higher, so it requires more in-depth research – unlike that khopesh, if we have a gun it needs to be the right model – no Walther PPKs before 1935. If we are going to mention the Vietnam War, we need more than a passing knowledge of its causes and social repercussion, beyond mere dates – what it meant within the broader political and ideological conflict, and the stakes for each NPC. Language and characterisation can also be more demanding – we do have a wealth of films and music from the 50s, which means you have plenty of sources to catch slang, manners and turns of phrase, but also players will come with more definite expectations of “how people talked back then”.
On the other hand, two positives. Chances are any moderately educated writer already knows a lot about the recent past, though often it is a case of sorting what previous assumptions are applicable and which ones are not (yes, they had TVs, but only for the affluent, especially in the Caribbean). The second positive is, the player is usually much more receptive to things they are at least passingly familiar with. Put it another way, if your audience hasn’t heard about the Cold War *at all*, chances are they are not going to be interested in a game about it. The recent past has much in common with our present, so it can be easier to create characters and situations with which the player can empathise.
Ultimately, it comes down to how you use historical research to inform characters and situations. While with Pharaonic those were a given that I had to justify with an historical veneer, in 1958 the setting came first, with characters and scenes flowing from it. Two completely different jobs, using the same tool in different manners.
Kate Watson (Total War: Rome 2, Total War: Shogun 2, Napoleon: Total War and Empire: Total War)
My answer is a rather unsurprising and slightly obvious one; research, research, RESEARCH. If you only read, watch or listen to the bare minimum, it will be obvious in your work.
When working in ancient time periods I find it really helpful to immerse myself in myths and legends. They tell us a lot about a cultures ideals, fears and desires and are often an inexhaustible source of ideas. They are particularly useful in helping to banish your own prejudices so you can get into the mindset of someone from the time. Something we would find repulsive or shocking could have been a day to day occurrence for a barbarian or a samurai. Equally, an outcome that is desirable to us may not have been to them. Shedding your own cultural bias can be tough but it is entirely necessary if you're going to create a believable world.
Any book that you read for research, post-it note the hell out of it! If a snippet of information catches your attention when you're reading, chances are it's going to interest a player. The same goes for web pages, I always create a folder of useful sites in my bookmarks when I'm working on a project.
If it's possible, I like to go to museums with relevant exhibitions or displays. When I started work on Total War: Rome 2 I actually went for a long weekend in Rome, but that's not something I'd advocate! Getting to see items from the period in real life will, if nothing else, fire your enthusiasm for the setting. You may also find a little snippet of information that you later use in your work.
Once the project is well underway I like to listen to music of the period, if that's impossible or in some cases painful, I look to movie soundtracks. I find that music really helps fix my mind in a place or time.
Alain Mercieca (Assassin's Creed: Origins)
Writing for a specific time period is an impossible task, but like many impossible tasks, you feel helplessly obsessed by completing it despite the futility of its completion. The obvious fears enter the writers' hearts: is this boring and stale? Does it feel like I'm force-feeding the gamer documentary-style history? Is this no longer a video game and an act of pedagogy? And worst of all: AM I BETRAYING HISTORY? It is hard to disappoint fans or history buffs and it happens more than you'd like. This often has an irreconcilable tension -- if you please gamers and fans you often disappoint history buffs; or vice versa. It can feel like an unwinnable war. The more you focus on one, the more the other suffers.
I love them both so very much, so in the end, well hell: my advice is just leave your blood, sweat and imagination in the history books, read until your eyes bleed, but at the end of the day make sure the game is fun, and if the history has swallowed you whole you'll be decent. That's it: try to make the history swallow you whole first. Because regardless you will stress out that someone will notice an error in a side quest's flavour text but then you head to the bar.... After 5 beers a designer pats you on the back: "We are making a game..." Yet the game is an art form. And the fans expect perfection. As they should.
Another debate is whether you let history do the writing or do you impose contemporary human emotions upon the research? Which one comes first: the history or the contemporary human relevance? There is no magic bullet. You search desperately for original anecdotes that contain the universal human condition and then you tear your soul asunder trying to seamlessly massage it into the research you have cobbled up. As Martin Amis said "avoid cliché". Though the flip side is that we do have expectations. And some clichés have been formed based on true, historical fact. Yet which stories did the annals and the historians leave out? How to imagine history that is true but undocumented? Make inferences, jump to conclusions, imagine untold history.
Considering how many stories are oppressed and hidden in our contemporary age with all of its mediums of communication that are available and permanent, imagine how many stories are buried in those great deserts when there is no internet hyper-eternity?
When have you read enough pages on a subject to be considered an authority?
I remember many years ago before Origins reading about ancient Egypt and learning that they invented the streets, the sewers and pornographic derogatory graffiti and thinking: What I wouldn't give to be able to spend a day with these fine people? They were just like us, but yet not at all like us. Threads unite us.
Authentic immersion would involve many impossibilities and the player essentially not understanding anything at all because ancient egyptian is spoken by very few people.
History should be written by losers, give the prisoners in all the jails the authority to write our histories.
When do you stretch history to fit? As we did with Bayek being the Last Medjay. We posited that because he is so far away (in Siwa), that he maintained a tradition that had stopped for 300 years (but who is to say it stopped fully?). This helped clarify his role but did we stretch it too far? Liberties need to be taken in order to create an entertaining game. You have to love history and the time period you are writing about, you have to also to love video games and yet, you will not please everyone.
When an Egyptian gamer tweeted that they cried when they were playing Bayek and his buddy Hepzefa I also cried. We're all humans, history is a social construct. With Origins I always felt we shouldn't have had the pyramids. They aren't historically accurate. They were created by aliens. I fact-checked this on a couple sites.
Let's just put it this way: I have regrets. But history moves on and those regrets are ancient history now.
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