February 13th – as well as being the day that forgetful guys and girls flock to the nearest Clinton Cards en masse in search of appropriately mawkish Valentine’s Day cards in an effort to placate/earn brownie points with their better halves – marks the release of Warhorse Studio’s unique action RPG Kingdom Come: Deliverance.
Having initially struggled to catch the eye of publishers in 2014, it became a runaway success on crowdfunding website Kickstarter, distinguishing itself from myriad other RPGs by virtue of its rigorous adherence to historical accuracy. Far from the fabled hero of legend whose arrival heralds the end of oppression and the beginning of a shining new age of prosperity for all, protagonist Henry is the son of a blacksmith. Rather than a magical world full of arcane wonders and supernatural beings, he inhabits plain old 15th century Bohemia; his adversaries, bandits and cat’s paws, not colossal fire-breathing dragons.
And, while the lack of traditional fantasy elements might have left some RPG enthusiasts and those early publishers concerned, for many, especially those whose passion for history is only surpassed by their love for video games, the chance to immerse themselves in an unapologetically realistic, digital representation of medieval Europe is nothing short of irresistible. Indeed, for me, the question isn’t whether Kingdom Come: Deliverance will be a success or not, but, once it has fuelled our enthusiasm for the past, which other historical settings should developers tackle next?
The Persian Wars
As the battle of Thermopylae (not the film 300, I hasten to add) formed the basis of my undergraduate dissertation, the Persian wars of the early 5th century BCE seems like a natural starting point for this list.
A war not just between the two great civilizations of Persia and the Hellenic peoples of modern day Greece, but between the individual city states themselves who struggled to agree on a combined strategy for repelling the invaders – the Spartan’s were actually quite hesitant to confront Xerxes’ forces directly outside of the Peloponnese, for instance, while some thought collusion rather than resistance was the way forward – this particular period has everything that makes medieval Europe such a desirable setting for a video game.
In terms of the story, the game could focus on a young soldier who, having come of age in around 481, desires nothing more than to follow in his father’s footsteps and defend his homeland from the invaders. However, the spanner in the works is the fact that the protagonist is only half-Spartan on his mother’s side, his father hailing from Athens. He’s been treated as something of a second-class citizen for his entire life, as a result; permitted to undertake the ‘agoge’ only grudgingly by the Spartan government, shunned by his messmates, and ultimately, after completing his education, denied his request to serve on the front-lines in the upcoming wars against Persia.
The game would therefore revolve around the player slowly earning the respect of the Spartan hierarchy (the Dyarchy, Ephors, Gerousia, and the protagonist’s fellow Spartiates in general) so as to win promotion to the legendary king Leonidas’ personal bodyguard, and thus participate in the famous Battle of Thermopylae. During the course of which, in an ode to Red Dead Redemption, the indomitable protagonist dies a hero’s death, with defiance in his eyes and a fearless smile on his lips, just as his Athenian father did at Marathon ten years earlier.
There would be more to it than big action set-pieces like this, of course. For someone who’s long been enthralled by classical Spartan society, the biggest attraction would be the opportunity to experience a realistic portrayal of this fascinating culture in a popular medium; one based on the evidence of contemporary and modern sources, rather than the various salacious myths and legends that have appeared over the intervening centuries.
Sulla’s First Civil War
There are countless games, films, novels, and television series based on Roman history, covering everything from the lives of the Gracchi and Julius Caesar’s rise to power, to Boudica’s revolt and the end of the traditional Roman Empire. For that reason alone, if I was designing a historically accurate game set in Rome, I’d go for something slightly less well known. In this case, the first of Sulla’s Civil Wars.
The story as I see it (that’s basically what this article is; me waffling on about ideas I had while I was in the shower this morning, trying desperately to make use of my classics degree) would be told from the perspective of a legionary, probably in service to Sulla during the political upheaval of the early first century BCE. A die-hard republican who, though certainly not wealthy, believes in the conservative ‘optimates’ and feels the democratic ‘populares’, led by Marius, threaten the very constitution of Rome, the majority of the game would take place in the city itself. The protagonist undertaking a variety of quests in the heart of the urban sprawl to assist the republic: protecting his ‘optimate’ superiors as they canvass support around the city, putting down unruly plebeian mobs, maybe even assassinating rival politicians who, like Marius, hope to use the poor as a tool for advancing their own political career.
At the climax of this long and bloody war, with Marius exiled and Sulla well on the path to the dictatorship that would, eventually, lead to the ascension of Julius Caesar thirty years later and, in turn, the death of the republic/birth of the monarchical Roman empire, the game itself would end with the protagonist on the steps of the Roman senate. Outwardly, celebrating the end of the war, but internally, troubled by Sulla’s growing influence and the corresponding decline in the power of the Senate.
Before this moment of maudlin introspection, however, players would be treated to a gorgeous 1:1 rendition of first century Rome, free to immerse themselves in the cosmopolitan concrete jungle of the late republic, gaining a deeper understanding of the political and social milieu of this seminal period in Roman history. Dressed in authentic legionary gear from start to finish, of course.
In the interests of presenting something that doesn’t completely rip-off Michael Hirst’s television series Vikings, the foundation for my ideal, historically accurate, Viking-era video game would be early Anglo-Saxon Britain, not Scandinavia. Specifically, at the time when the first permanent Viking settlements were being established around the early 9th century.
Or at least it would be after the first hour or so of the game, during which time a precocious Viking warrior eager for an invite to join the next summer raiding parties, finds himself facing execution after an altercation with a neighbouring Jarl’s son leaves the latter dead. Given the choice between death or exile to the newly settled British Isles, the protagonist chooses ostracism, and crosses the sea shortly thereafter to take up residence in a nascent yet vulnerable Norse settlement.
Treating it as an opportunity to test his mettle against the native Britons and rebuild his damaged reputation, the story quickly becomes one of internal conflict and belonging. After impressing his adversaries with his prodigious skill at arms during an attack on the isolated Viking settlement, the protagonist finds favour among the local nobility who are only too keen to shower him with honour, respect, and glory if he pledges fealty to the local king and helps the British fight back against the Vikings. But this begs the question; should he stay true to his people and use his newfound knowledge of the surrounding regions to curry favour with the Viking hierarchy, perhaps earning him a return to his homeland, or should he remain loyal to the British king who gave him the recognition he craved?
This particular setup would provide the perfect excuse for the usual kind of RPG questing we’ve come to expect, whether that’s repelling gangs of armed bandits (Viking reavers, in this case) or safely escorting the local king and his retinue across the country during his royal progress. More importantly, aside from letting us galivant around Anglo-Saxon Britain with an arsenal of authentic Viking axes, a faithful portrayal of Viking society might finally debunk the myth that their warriors wore horned helmets once and for all.
Spanish Colonization of South America
It’s only fair to say I’m departing from my comfort zone quite drastically with this entry. Aside from the fact my university course began in about 8th century BCE Greece and ended in 6th century CE Rome, my earlier school life barely ever touched on anything outside of Europe; not even Egypt, unfortunately.
Nevertheless, I’ve always found South American history rather fascinating and, though I’ve yet to get around to it, I fully intend to read some textbooks on the subject at some point in the not too distant future. Which I feel is reason enough to proffer my crude musings on a video game set during the Spanish invasion of the Aztec empire in the 16th century in this article.
The adventure would begin, not in the heart of the Aztec empire as might be presumed, but further south in modern day Peru, where a young Incan warrior, brought up on stories of the rapacious Spanish conquistadors and the brave individuals who resisted them, prepares anxiously for the day when they lay claim to his ancestral homeland too, searching tirelessly for a way his people can stem the tide of these entirely foreign invaders.
At this point, we skip ahead to the mid 1500’s and are introduced to an older, wiser version of the protagonist who realises the time to fight is almost upon them and a full-scale invasion is imminent. Though unable to come up with a solution to the Spanish problem, he nonetheless agrees to help his superiors in their efforts to convince the heads of neighbouring tribes that the only chance they have to defeat the invaders and preserve their ancient culture is to band together. Of course, as we know these efforts were ultimately doomed, the story could conclude with the death of the protagonist, symbolizing the impending demise of Incan and tribal South American culture in general, as well as providing a natural dénouement to the game.
Depressing as a story of the old inevitably giving way to the new might sound, there would still be plenty to enjoy from a gameplay perspective. For instance, given the technological disparity between the respective civilizations, the emphasis could be on stealth, rather than chivalric hand-to-hand combat; pitting the stone-tipped spears and bush craft of the Inca against the iron-clad, seafaring Spanish. While the lack of exposure South American history receives in popular media would certainly help the game stand out from the rest, teaching us the incredible story of a culture that, despite lacking the basic hallmarks of European civilization (wheeled vehicles, metal working, and even the written word), was responsible for one of, if not the biggest empire at the time, along with truly breath-taking examples of monumental architecture and highly advanced agricultural systems.
Edo Period Japan
My knowledge of Japanese history is not much deeper than my knowledge of South American history, to be perfectly honest. I’m aware of a few basic tenets of the Samurai, however, and find those little titbits rather interesting, so, as above, a Kingdom Come: Deliverance-style game set in Edo period Japan makes this list regardless.
Why the Edo period? I hear no one ask. Well, aside from not wanting to step on the toes of Sucker Punch’s forthcoming action-adventure Ghost of Tsushima, I think a story set at a time when the Samurai had lost much of their political authority and were thus forced to fundamentally adapt their way of life to suit the times – either following their daimyo’s to one of Japan’s bustling cities as paid retainers, or remaining in the countryside as rural peasants – would be absolutely perfect for a video game.
Choosing the former of those two options for the sake of argument, the hero of this tale would, as with the second entry on this list, spend most of his time in the city and its hinterlands, performing a variety of tasks for his liege lord. Protecting local farmers in order to safeguard food production, guarding his daimyo against exterior threats and rival lords, or perhaps participating in significant real-life events such as the Shimabara Rebellion; commissions he feels is beneath him and/or contradicts Bushi tradition. However, most of the game would concentrate on the protagonist’s efforts to find a place in this ever-changing world, eventually culminating in a single decisive choice: accept his new role in society and continue to serve his master, or return to the countryside and live a hard if contended life as a rural peasant?
There might not be an awful lot in the way of large-scale melees or pitched battles, but with combat mechanics akin to Dark Souls or Nioh, players could still enjoy the same kind of tense and rewarding skill-based combat that make the former especially so popular, and spend countless blissful hours customising their very own Samurai warrior, in a system that’s every bit as impressive as Kingdom Come: Deliverance’s absurdly comprehensive armour system.
Well, that just about does it for this list. Other people will undoubtedly have their own ideas as to which periods of antiquity would make for a satisfying, historically accurate video game. Something set at the height of the Anglo-French conflict in North America, perhaps, if gamers were at all interested in buying yet another title set in the US. Various eras of ancient Egypt would be similarly fascinating, but I think it’s safe to say Assassin’s Creed Origins is more than capable of scratching that particular itch for the moment.
Anyway, for now, I like so many others eagerly await the release of Kingdom Come: Deliverance, hoping it will usher in a new wave of popular, hyper-realistic games that are as informative as they are enjoyable.