Medieval games. Part I

A few days ago, I realized that many of the topics I have been working with these past months triggered my memory of quite a few scenes from recent and not so recent popular media. The soon to be published issue MW IV-1 focuses on Alexander Nevsky, also the protagonist of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film. MW III-6 had stories of popular topics like king Arthur and Robin Hood, and the upcoming issue MW IV-3 is devoted to the First War of Scottish Independence, immortalized in the movie Braveheart.

Murray Dahm has already discussed the issue of movies and historical accuracy in an earlier article on our website. Soon, a web article written by David Balfour will focus on Sergei Eistenstein’s movie, and in a few months, Murray Dahm will again take a closer look at the many errors in Braveheart. It seems that, for some reason, people have a tendency to want to believe whatever is shown in popular films to be correct, and we at Medieval Warfare secretly take great pleasure in divulging the amount of nonsense Hollywood can add to historical movies.

Strangely enough, the same cannot be said of videogames, at least not completely. There will always be those hardcore gamers less familiar with history who claim that something must be true because he/she (usually he, let’s be honest) has seen it appear in a game, but those instances are much more sparse than with movies. Of course, the cinema is still much more popular overall than videogames, but with the game industry slowly outpacing Hollywood in terms of money spent and profit gained, one would expect a change in how important people deem historical accuracy in games. 

And there is. Better and faster computers and consoles enable more details and more natural movements. Where 15-20 years ago we were happy to accept a big block as being a Panzerkampfwagen V Panther tank, nowadays game designers can almost show individual screws on the tank. This brings with it the problem of historical detail; after all, one couldn’t really go wrong with that big blob of a tank (it was the imagination of the gamer which made the blob into the fearsome weapon it was). Today, things are different and the necessary details are becoming more numerous every game; indeed, game designers now have to recruit historians and other sorts of experts  to help with their research, while professional screenplay writers take care of the thrilling story which should entice the gamer to play the game. 

For the medieval period, a testcase is the not yet published RPG – Role Playing Game, in which the gamer usually takes control of a character which can be upgraded with experience points gained by completing tasks in the game – Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which is currently under development by the Czech developer Warhorse Studios and which has received considerable publicity within the community of gamers and medieval enthusiasts alike these past week or so, due to the game receiving a lot of financial support in only a few days. The developers still have much ground to cover, with the release scheduled in 2015, but the main features have already been made public: the game is set in central Europe at the start of the 15th century, and one of the main features seems to be the historical accuracy of equipment, area, architecture and, where possible, the events themselves. They have used motion-picture techniques to accurately display how one would actually wield a sword in close combat (with, according to their own video, real movements, and not the impossibly-fast slashes and strokes of many other melee games). The armour and weapons shown in the preview do look quite accurate (give or take a few years, except, perhaps, for the saber, depending what they mean with the term), and it seems that the starting point of the game coincides to a certain degree with a certain area and period in history.  

Of course, it would be nearly impossible for game developers to make a game accurate in terms of events. After all, the player should be able to have a considerable and ‘meaningful’ impact on what happens around him. If a game were to follow the events to the letter of the history books (let us assume – falsely of course, but just this once, for the sake of argument – that there is only one version of history) the end of the game would be fixed and the impact of the player’s character would be minimal, and that would probably make it a rather boring game for many. A player needs spectacular events, daring raids, narrow escapes, damsels in distress and a fun and/or emotional storyline containing at least 4 groundbreaking twists and turns which would make screenplay writers jealous, all within a relatively short period of time so as not to slow the pace of the story. That, at least, is what Hollywood seems to think, and I’m afraid to say that they very well might be right, at least for a large part of the general public. Thus, if a game developer wanted to make his work worth his while, he’d need high sales, therefore a large audience, and thus an appealing story. That’d would almost impossible to match with the slow pace of history in which the events which matter usually cover at least one (more often several) generations.

That said, even if the storyline doesn’t coincide with the actual events at the time, there should still be plenty of things for us medieval military history nerds to like. Most importantly, it might enable the medieval-minded gamer to – sort of/like/in a way – move around in an actual medieval environment, where you can take up the role of badass warrior you’ve read so much about in Medieval Warfare magazine, and fight with other (not so badass!) warriors in a relatively historically realistic way – in as much as sitting behind a console can be called realistic. For the real deal, you’d still have to join a duelling club – and for actual bloody combat, you still have to break the law quite severely and in a rather weird way (please don’t, by the way) or build a time machine (and still break the law, unless you find yourself in the middle of a skirmish or battle).

Still, a game which allows a gamer to walk around in a mostly historically accurate medieval environment (and to fight as fighting actually looked like at the time, not whirling around on huge elephants like Legolas in Lord of the Rings) is much better than most of what we have encountered in the gaming world these past decades. Now, for those of you who are thinking: ‘tell us, what sort of games are you talking about? And what’s wrong with them?’, rest assured! In the next couple of weeks I will use my blog to take a closer look at certain games which are closely related to medieval military history. More will follow, starting next week with (arguably) the most popular genre within the field of medieval videogaming: strategy games.

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