I haven’t done a news search for medieval topics in quite a while, so, well, I did one the other day. And among other items was this fascinating article by Keith Stuart from the Guardian on the remarkable historical experience created by Assassin’s Creed. It’s a long, well-written article, perhaps the key paragraphs of which are, I think, the two that follow Stuart’s critique of most video games on the market today: “history as armoury.”
Meanwhile, a glance at TV and literature shows how different things are elsewhere in popular culture. The costume drama is a staple of family viewing, the combination of period detail and timeless narrative themes regularly combining to massive ratings success. And the historical novel is a reliable mainstay of the fiction charts, from the popularist tomes of Ken Follett and Dan Brown to the Booker winning works of Hilary Mantel and Barry Unsworth. History is a fertile literary sandbox because it tells us that humanity has changed so much without ever really changing at all: hey presto, instant profundity! Why can’t video games explore this too?
The galling thing is, games are the perfect medium for historical fiction – through their unique interactivity, they don’t have to tell us about life in previous ages, they can show us; and we can live it. Having just re-read Oliver Twist, I was desperate to visit the wretched labyrinthine streets where Bill Sikes and Fagin lived out their miserable lives. But they’re gone; the rotting buildings and stinking alleys of Victorian Bermondsey we’re ripped down in the slum clearances at the end of the century. Yet they could be brilliantly recreated in a game – as could the devilish thieves, usurers and drunkards of Dickens’ novels.
All true–but, you might say, most gamers aren’t overly concerned with historical accuracy (and many question the “immersion fallacy”, as it is called). Besides, folks who are interested in this sort of historical experience aren’t going to buy Assassin’s Creed in order to obtain it (which reminds me of something our own Professor Peck once said at an online virtual world demonstration). Stuart discusses this too–as well as the astronomical cost of developing a game with the environmental depth of Assassin’s Creed.
The game’s literal accuracy is, of course, not the point–if we refer to the first game (I haven’t played the second…yet), someone with only a passing knowledge of the crusades should know that the Templars were not searching for the magical Grail under the Temple Mount, said Grail being some primordial mystical power in several pieces (if memory serves). Utter hokum. But the costuming of the Templars and the environment in which they move is so well done that we are given the verisimilitude of reality, and, as Stuart says, our interest in the time is “piqued” in a way that it probably wasn’t even by Kingdom of Heaven. If that leads a small percentage to read up on the crusades, then from my perspective as a historian, that’s not at all bad. Of course, they’ll probably read that Templar conspiracy nonsense that has such a following, and miss the good, yet equally fascinating, historical narratives in Borders or Barnes and Noble.
In the mean time, we can live in anticipation, as Stuart does, of the time when Ubisoft turns its innovative historical gaming approach to other subjects–perhaps the world of Charles Dickens!