Why Aren’t There More Games With Historical Settings?
Perhaps we should stop looking at the future and start looking at the past
I’ve just finished Cyberpunk 2077 and can say I have enjoyed it quite a lot. Although the game isn’t without its flaws, it’s quite fun and the story is super-engaging. Having played it, though, I had a sudden realization: all the recent games that I’ve played are set either in the future (Cyberpunk, Horizon Zero Dawn, TLOU2), the present (Grand Theft Auto, Uncharted), an alternative reality (Hollow Knight, Skyrim) or, at best, the recent past (Call of Duty, Mafia, Red Dead Redemption 2). That left me wondering, why are there hardly any historical games?
Let’s take a look at three examples of games that are set in real historical times.
Assassins Creed: Solitary Island
The Assassin’s Creed franchise doesn’t have the best stories, characters, or gameplay out there. Then, how is it that so many people (myself included) want to play it? The answer is the world; the possibility of exploring a society that before was only available through books, films, and documentaries. The success of an Assassin’s Creed game is bonded to the ability they had to make the world feel alive. Honestly, they don’t really need much more than that, as it seems like Ubisoft has a monopoly on history.
Think about it; if you want to be a pirate in the Caribbean, explore the pyramids of Giza or meet a young Leonardo Da Vinci, what other choices do you have? Of course, we still have strategy games, but those don’t allow me to get lost in the streets of Constantinople. The immersive experience of travelling to the past is only available via Ubisoft’s franchise, and I cannot understand why that is.
Ghost of Tsushima: Not Quite My Tempo
Ghost of Tsushima is everything Assasin’s Creed wants to be and, yet, it fails when compared to Assassin’s Creed’s strongest point. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ghost of Tsushima, the gameplay is absurdly fun and the scenery is just breath-taking. However, from a historical point of view, the game is an absolute mess. It’s the historical analogue of The Great Wall film: it is a fantasy world vaguely inspired by real events. The game knows its core assets are gameplay and exploration, so everything else — story, characters, etc — is just there to support that. I would argue that Ghost of Tsushima is a very elaborate arcade game: yes, it’s fun to play, but it doesn’t offer much more than that. So, as it also happens with Sekiro or Nioh, Ghost of Tsushima is not the best game if you want to experience life in feudal Japan.
Kingdom Come Deliverance: Something to Work With
I have mixed feelings about Kingdom Come Deliverance (KCD). Setting all controversies aside, the game looks really unpolished. When I first heard of it, I fell in love with the concept and possibilities. After playing it I really think they succeeded in creating a world that feels real. You can see the effort that went into making the game as accurate as possible. You can actually go into Google Maps and instantly recognise the layout of the villages! However, for me, it failed on almost everything else: the story felt flat, the characters were mostly irritating and simple, and the gameplay was kind of uncomfortable. That doesn’t even count the level design flaws and optimization problems that made the overall gaming experience tedious at best, and absurdly frustrating at worst.
However, as I said, I really liked the concept, the setting, and the overall ambiance of the game. I loved that you had to walk with a torch at night, or that you had to bargain when buying something. I really enjoyed watching the monastery, and the castles on the inside and just contemplating how people lived at the time. All in all, it had potential, but it was still too rough for me.
So, why aren’t there any more historical games out there? Honestly, I don’t have an answer. My guess is that it just takes too many resources. Take a look at Ghost of Tsushima; why bother looking for a real story, with real characters, and research what the actual villages looked like when a completely made-up setting does the trick? Even Assassin’s Creed falls for that and makes characters or events up in order to fit the narrative.
At any rate, history is really complex. Of course, the main events are clear — we all know when Julius Ceasar or Genghis Khan lived — but figuring out how normal people lived is much trickier. Especially because what we know as history is just the lives of very few people when you think about it. What lives the majority of the population had will remain mainly unknown, so if you want to be accurate, you can only go that far without entering into speculation terrain.
However, I don’t think anyone expects something to be 100% accurate. There are thousands of historical novels out there that are very well documented and immersive at the same time. So, if books can get there, why not video games? Why are we giving up on the opportunity to explore ancient worlds, not only in passive voice but with the possibility of interacting with them? Videogames allow us not only to tell stories but to create living, breathing worlds to engage with. I believe historical settings have a lot of potential that isn’t being explored the way it deserves. Perhaps it is time to start doing just that.
What do you think? Do you have any opinions on why is it that there are so few historical games? I’m personally really interested in the subject so let me know in the comments!