2 December 2002
Cruising down the streets at sunset to the strains of Mister Mister’s Take These Broken Wings, on my way to inflict seven types of ballistic mayhem in my mauve casual suit – it is clear that the decision to set Vice City in the mid-1980s was a stroke of genius. And one might begin to wonder why so many games are either set in some buffed-up sci-fi future or wrapped up in a claustrophic faux-medievalism, when the broad canvas of history offers so much that is unexplored in the way of mise-en-scène. Has the time come for the historical videogame to emerge as a viable sub-genre, to set alongside the historical novel and the historical drama?
Vice City’s historical fidelity is not, of course, faultless: for the purposes of useful communication, you are given a cellphone that seems to weigh down your character far less than a standard Motorola brick of the period would. And while I’m no Jeremy Clarkson-style automobile buff, I suspect that there would have been somewhat fewer SUVs on the road a decade and a half ago. But the game’s expertly judged soundtracks and costumes do work together to give it a distinct aesthetic character, which both cleverly plugs into the 1980s nostalgia of the core 20-to-35-year-old customer demographic, and distinguishes it from all the other games on the shelves.
The grand arena for historical reconstruction in videogames remains, of course, the second world war, and games such as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault trade on their limited “realism” (in terms of historically accurate weapons, uniforms and so on) as much on their gameplay qualities. At its best – for instance, in MoH:AA’s extraordinary Normandy landing sequence – this approach can surpass both historical prose-writing and film in its visceral immersion, in the sense it offers of witnessing historical events at first hand. It could well be true that those who play these games have a better sense of what it must have been like to fight in the war than anyone else save the veterans themselves. The charge, meanwhile, that such mass tragedy should not be reduced to the status of “entertainment” will not stick as long as we sanction the existence of thousands of other artworks in different media – from Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan (a shockingly brutal 20-minute special-effects sequence followed by two hours of increasingly bug-eyed sentimentality) to Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement (in which the war is merely a convenient device to frustrate the central romance). And, of course, entertainment does not preclude learning, or other more ambivalent responses to a work.
At the other end of the spectrum is the ahistorical attitude to history. A game might be set in the foggy streets of 19th-century London, only to feature dayglo demons that must be dispatched with heavy weaponry, thus ignoring the restrictions of place and action that might actually result in something interesting and original. In games that set their historical net over a wider span, meanwhile, a particular period is often used merely as window-dressing to differentiate one level from the next, as evidenced in TimeSplitters2. Sure, you have a tommy gun in 1920s Chicago, or an old-fashioned shotgun in Victor Hugo’s Paris, but quite apart from the ahistorical sci-fi elements that intrude, the consistently frenetic nature of the shoot-everything-that-moves gameplay tends to work against any real sense of period immersion.
And this example points up the major problem with any more sophisticated treatment of history in videogames, which is that our modes of interaction with gameworlds are, for the most part, still simplistically violent. If Conflict: Desert Storm were to be a truer account of the Gulf War, it would necessarily include hours of game-time huddled with your comrades against a tank, complaining about sandstorms and drinking endless cups of tea. And it is presumably the essentially static nature of much of the fighting in the first world war that has prevented game designers from recreating it: there is not much stereotypical digital action to be had sitting in a trench and listening to shells boom overhead. Literature and film can build themselves around the stories of characters trapped in such situations, with the fighting itself often becoming an interlude, a means of punctuating the emotional drama. While videogames cannot find a viable alternative dynamic for such “quiet” reconstruction, their choice of milieu will remain highly circumscribed. The most popular historical milieu in videogames after the second world war is probably feudal Japan – and we all know that feudal Japan was about little more than Samurai wandering around hacking each other to pieces with large swords, so that’s all right.
Even adventure games that are not primarily defined by a violent dynamic are still heavily dependent on technologies of object interaction – in other words, gadgets. Prisoner of War, with its array of low-tech, period gadgets such as boot-polish, mirrors and slingshots, was a brave attempt to extend the possibilities of action in the historical videogame, which failed only because of its mysterious insistence on a tedious “real-time” gimmick and frustratingly repetitive gameplay. But there are limits: it is clear that a game with such a huge and satisfying variety of gadgetry as Ocarina of Time could never be set in a naturalistic historical period. The further you go back in history, the fewer sorts of gadget are available of the kind that would plug easily into the interaction templates of a modern videogame.
The freedom to combine any kind of gadget with any kind of environment explains why so many games are set in a vague future, but we are becoming saturated in familiarity with the sci-fi stereotypes of games such as Red Faction II or the woeful final levels of Perfect Dark. Such milieux are comfortable and predictable, and familiarity breeds contempt. In many ways the past is more alien than a weakly imagined future. A videogame equivalent of Patrick O’Brian’s historical seafaring novels, or a game drenched in the religious paranoia of the Crusades, would surely be more rich and strange than yet another few miles of stainless-steel corridor and laser guns. It remains to be seen how such games might work, but it is surely an enticing prospect. For one sign of the maturity of an artform might be its ability to play not only with its own history (as Kojima’s work does so spectacularly), but with the history of humanity as a whole.