Games for Your Inner Historian
These games aren’t just great fun; they scratch an historical itch too.
By Nathanael Peacock
I love history. I have historical books, movies and texts on every shelf at home and a big fat history degree on my wall that’s mostly useful for… well, articles like this. Being a history nerd also means that when a game takes inspiration from a particular historical epoch, it makes me all the more interested. I know that history isn’t for everyone, and not every game needs a solid historical basis, but I’ve always seen games as a way to explore thoughts and ideas in a way that no other medium can – and not everyone wants to sit through a three-hour lecture on the Russian revolution. “ Being a history nerd means that when a game takes inspiration from a particular historical epoch, it makes me all the more interested. So let’s take a look at a handful of games and game series that have built an incredible experience on top of a solid historical underpinning. To be clear, these aren’t experiences that will give you a totally realistic depiction of a time period, but they do give you some of the flavour of the age; whether that’s culture, politics, warfare or any number of other elements. And yes, because I can’t resist I’ll also point you in the direction of further information to complement – or build upon – what you might get out of each game. Assassin’s Creed Assassin’s Creed has always been a series about history. Sure it takes some liberties with the main character, making sure your protagonist is present at a collection of momentous historical occasions (I’m looking at you Declaration of Independence), but it also takes a great deal of care with the accuracy of the time periods you explore and the characters you engage with. I think Assassin’s Creed: Origins showcases this the best; the amount of focus and detail that clearly went into the creation of areas around the border of the Nile in Ancient Egypt is impressive. And the choice to place Assassin’s Creed: Origins in the tail end of the Ptolemaic period in Egypt is a bit of a sweet-spot for the Egyptologists in the audience, because it’s a time when many of the greatest constructions of the Egyptian period were already complete. So you can explore the pyramids, the sphinx, spend time in Alexandria and see how villagers on the banks of the Nile might have lived. It also comes after Alexander the Great took control of Ancient Egypt, meaning that as well as the more traditional Egyptian culture, you have the added intricacies of the Greek and Roman influence that flourished in major cities like Alexandria. If you went further back to the Old Kingdom and Middle Kingdom eras of Ancient Egypt when monuments like the pyramids were just being built, the Greco-Roman influence wouldn’t have come into the region yet, and you’d see a lot more of the local Egyptian culture that in the game is represented mostly in the towns and villages rather than major cities.
Sure, as with everything on this list the realisation of the time period has to be taken with a grain of salt, but I love this interpretation of Ancient Egypt, because it shows a bustling metropolis with vastly different social hierarchies and individuals with roles, responsibilities and goals in their daily lives. Where to next? If you’ve played Origins, and like me were intrigued by the world and its inhabitants, then check out the Discovery Tour mode. It’s a free addition to the game that’s entirely focused on teaching you about the history and highlights of the Ptolemaic period. You can wander around as Ptolemy himself and hear about the markets and temples of Alexandria, or the Greek Pharaohs. This mode is pointed squarely at history students and teachers, with a standalone version available for anyone who doesn’t own the game.
In a similar vein, you can also check out The Giza Project, it’s an online resource being developed by Harvard professors to provide an accurate 3D representation of the Giza area at the time of the Great Pyramids. Kingdom Come: Deliverance When I was younger, I had an idea for a truly accurate “knight simulator.” I wanted to serve a lord, keep the townsfolk safe, get into duels and fight for my honour. Funnily enough, the feature I wanted most of all was realistic helmets in first-person. Now I know that seems like a weird thing to want, but I love the idea of choosing a helmet based on how much you can realistically see out of it, and of course the idea that the most protective helmets are as much a hindrance as a blessing, since they block out all but the part of the world just in front of you. So when I saw that Kingdom Come: Deliverance was set to deliver on that dream, I was totally sold. Choosing a good helmet in Kingdom Come is exactly the agonising experience that I wanted it to be, and it makes you seriously consider your fighting style before you just go looking for the highest numbers. Outside of writing the odd article about games, I train as a competition swordsman. I’ve been doing it for three years and covered it in one of my previous articles. Anyway, our school focuses on a German sword fighting manual penned by Joachim Meyer in the 15th century that outlines the rules of historical swordplay as it would have been done between nobles at the time. So from this perspective I was incredibly pleased with the technical detail and attention given to the swordplay in Kingdom Come. Just like in a real bout, you need to read your opponent’s stance, their choice of guard, and carefully measure their striking distance to control the flow of combat. Not only that, but the attacks in Kingdom Come are correct to the time period, as much of the focus in texts from the period is on guard and striking positions, aiming to build logical flow into your movements so you can move from one strike and into a block or follow-up, because due to the weight of the weapons you could end up tiring yourself easily.
Where to next? TV shows like The Tudors and The Borgias take a similar historical inspiration and focus on the style and feel of the times. If you’re interested in the combat side of the era, you can look at historical texts like Joachim Meyer’s documentation on German sword fighting; the most common variant you’ll find today is The Art Of Sword Combat. An earlier text that is also used extensively in modern fencing was written by Johannes Lichtenauer, called The Zettel – you’ll find both of these used in modern Historical European Martial Arts schools. Company of Heroes When I was younger, my grandfather told me of his experience with the Australian armed forces in the second world war. He was deployed in Singapore in combat with the Japanese. His company fought and was eventually captured behind enemy lines and were forced to build the Burmese railway. The stories he told me, however, weren’t about combat or adventure, they were about the friends he made and how they supported each other while they were held prisoner; how they reminded each other of what was waiting for them back home and how they survived to make it back to their families. “ Company of Heroes focuses on the experience of a small group; it tells a series of personal stories… Similarly – and unlike a lot of other historical World War 2 titles – Company of Heroes focuses on the experience of a small group; it tells a series of personal stories and gives you their perspective on a much larger conflict. The campaign follows individual squads and the challenge of holding a position with limited troops, while keeping casualties to a minimum. It focuses on how smart tactics and positioning can win out over overwhelming numbers, and it puts a significant emphasis on the lives of individual soldiers, making each one valuable rather than expendable. In a vast sea of games based in and around World War 2, I keep coming back to Company of Heroes.
Where to next? For the Australian perspective, there’s a book called The Line by Arch and Martin Flanagan. The story is built from Arch’s first hand accounts of the war and being a prisoner of the Japanese, and much like my own grandfather worked on the Burmese railway. For films, you can’t go past Schindler’s List, or Saving Private Ryan, both classics that show vastly different sides of the war, but tell deeply personal stories. In more recent years, Fury and Dunkirk both told incredibly human tales across different sides of the war. Total War For the tacticians among you, the Total War series is the gold standard for historical accuracy amongst strategy games. Depending on your interest, you can grab a Total War title covering the Romans, the Age of Sail, Attila the Hun, the Viking invasions of Britain, or the end of the age of samurai in Japan. Each of these historical periods comes with its own challenges, tweaks, historical developments and unique components. Thrones of Britannia, for instance, puts more emphasis on the statecraft elements of managing your kingdom with factional alliances and nobles underneath you vying for control and looking to carve their own piece of the pie. “ Depending on your interest, you can grab a Total War title covering the Romans, the Age of Sail, Attila the Hun, the Viking invasions of Britain, or the end of the age of samurai in Japan. My favourite example of historically accurate units would be in Rome: Total War, where the Roman factions underwent the Marian Reforms as a part of the grand campaign. It’s a change that massively alters the way you lead your faction, what units you recruit and what tactics you’ll employ in battle. For context, the Marian reforms were the brainchild of a Roman statesman named Gaius Marius around 107BC. The reforms included the overhauling of the military system that allowed ordinary Roman citizens who didn’t own land to enter the military as professional soldiers. He arranged for the government to pay for weapons and armour, and standardised training regimes. The new soldiers were able to collect spoils from battle as well as gaining status after the war. The new standing army of the Roman empire was substantially more effective than the troops that came before, and it’s reflected in the Total War series as the evolution of the army and the addition of famous Roman formations like the Testudo that brought the army together and fighting as a unit.
Where to next? If you’re keen on the time periods depicted in Total War franchises, you have plenty of options for learning more. If you like historical arms and armour, try shows on the History Channel like Forged in Fire, where blacksmiths create historically accurate replicas of weapons and armour. You can also check out historical texts like Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which is one of the more widely known historical texts theorising on the end of the Roman Empire. Due to more recent historical evidence and archaeological advances, Gibbon’s text isn’t considered truly accurate, but it provides a solid introduction to the period and base that other historians reference and challenge. If you’re one for podcasts you can also look at Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, which did an epic six part series on the fall of the Roman Republic, and covered the big picture in Carlin’s typically entertaining style. Dynasty Warriors This one will probably rub some people the wrong way, since Dynasty Warriors is probably the loosest interpretation of history on this list. But as a gateway into the study of a historical time period, you can’t really get a much more simple introduction. The Dynasty Warriors franchise has been a guilty pleasure of mine since Dynasty Warriors 2 back in the late 90s. But what Western audiences often gloss over with this franchise is that it’s primarily based on one of the most widely read historical texts in the world. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 14th century novel that covers events from the third and fourth century in mainland China. The Three Kingdoms era was almost a century of civil unrest that saw the entire nation collapse into in-fighting after the fall of the Han dynasty, and as parts of the countryside fell to chaos, leaders, generals and idealistic warriors set out to unify the country and restore peace, while others sought control. Sure, Koei Tecmo takes more than a few liberties with the characters, making most of them into larger-than-life explosive versions of the heroes referenced in historical texts, but when you compare that to Western traditions of heroes like King Arthur, William Wallace or Robin Hood the embellishment makes a bit more sense.
The important elements from my perspective are the attention to detail in historical events in the series. So even though the weapons change and the characters become more bombastic with each edition, the key events are maintained as they happen in the historical text. Throughout the Dynasty Warriors series you’ll battle through the Yellow Turban rebellion, Cao Cao’s assassination attempt of Dong Zhuo, the battle of Hu Lao gate and the Chibi fire attack. Each game interprets these and more events in slightly different ways, and it’s always interesting to see the latest interpretation, particularly as each game puts the attention on a different hero and tells the story through their perspective. Where to next? If you’re after a more down-to-earth rendition of the Three Kingdoms era, check out the upcoming Total War: Three Kingdoms, which is set to offer a historical mode as well as romance mode, for those who want the historical or sensational versions of the story. If you want to go to the source here you can find copies of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms in most languages around the world. It’s arguably one of the most widely read historical texts, and its influence in the East is often compared to Shakespeare’s in the West.
So there you have just a few of my favourite historical video games. What are yours? Let me know in the comments. Nathanael Peacock is a freelance games journalist based in Sydney, Australia. Check out his thoughts on where God of War could go next. And why not say hey on Twitter?