Why do I play video games? One word: escapism. By escapism, I do not mean the need to remove myself from my everyday doldrums, but more the feeling of transporting my self entirely into an environment that is otherworldly. And in that framework, is there any better medium for escapism than video games? They create a world and have you interact with objects within that world. There is a tactile nature to video games, an interactive element, that no book or film can give its end-user. Books or film, while awesomely enriching pieces of art entertainment, are removed experiences. While the audience can imagine what it is like to be within the environment they are witnessing/reading, they have no capacity for sensory exploration. They remain an omnipresent observer and that is all. The implementation of control in video games, however, takes the environment from something that is simply observed to something that is explored.
In that respect, I found myself playing Ryse: Son of Rome, an exclusive game to Microsoft’s Xbox One platform created by Crytek, a studio known more for its prowess as a maker of shooters than historical beat-em-ups. If one judged a game purely by its metacritic score, Ryse would be overlooked en masse due to its low score (currently hovering around a 60). And yet, here I was thoroughly enjoying myself. This had me wondering why this was? Why a game with rather mediocre review scores captured my attention with such zeal? And it all came down to escapism!
IMMERSED IN HISTORY
I am a huge history nerd. I have my Masters degree in history from McGill University in Montreal. I have a vast library of historic tomes. I go out of my way to collect primary documents (letters, newspaper clippings, etc.) all of which I have filed based on their respective time period and event of significance. I cannot pass a used book store without checking out their history section, seeking notable books from specific authors. In truth, I may take my love of history a little too far. It creates clutter that my fiance despises, and I am looking at moving into a new condo in the coming months and I have far too many books than is probably worth keeping and moving (lets face it, a box full of books is probably the 2nd worst thing to move next to a piano).
And it was this love of history that fueled my immersion in the world of Ryse. Coming back to my original statements on escapism, Ryse allowed me to interact with a world that until that time I had only experienced through books and film as an observer. In my many perusals of the shelves of used book stores, I have searched for the oldest copies of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published in 1776) I could afford. Currently I have a 5 volume set published in 1890 (first editions will run you a solid $25,000). This is the epic unfolding of one of histories most famous periods, and yet with these books I am left with illustrations and my imagination for any visual cognition. I have watched the films Ben Hur, Sparticus, and Gladiator, each at least ten times, and while their exposition is beautiful, I still remain at a distance. However, with Ryse: Son of Rome, the visceral experience remains ever-present, and I remain immersed. With Crytek’s game, I was empowered to walk through the streets of ancient Rome (narratively guided, I will give you) and feel the tactile nature of epic combat. I basked in the sunset overlooking the Colosseum, and clashed swords with other combatants within its arena. I was no longer a passive observer as I had been to the period traditionally. I was instead a fellow roman, fighting to maintain order at a tumultuous period. Yes, these were exaggerated fictional events, but it was Rome, one so beautifully articulated, and I was walking through its stone corridors.
WHERE IS THE LOVE (…of history)
Extending from these thoughts, I began to wonder why there is such a lack of historical narratives in video games. The majority of titles released fit safely within three rather large, all-encompassing groups: The modern era, fantasy, and science fiction. With the modern era you have your modern military shooters like Call of Duty and Battlefield. You also have takes on contemporary America such as Grand Theft Auto. With Fantasy you have your Elder Scrolls, your God of War, your Dragon Ages, and your Fables. And with Science fiction you run the gamut of stories taking place in the near future (Deus Ex) to all out space war (your Killzones, Halos, and Gears of Wars). Granted there are a million titles that fit in the more grey regions between these three groups, but it feels like a majority fit these marks rather well. In fact there seems very little room to exercise around true historical times and locations.
Now there are games that play with history with a more fantastical purpose. To this group I would include the Bioshock series, Thief, and Dishonored. These games take some historical element or frame of reference, and build a fantastical world from it. These games create environments that pay homage to historical locations, but they exaggerate the eccentricities of a society to capitalize on their fictional storytelling. Now don’t get me wrong, I love every game I have mentioned in this group. The neo-victorian America that Columbia and Dunwall represent were some of my favorite gaming environments of recent years. They were wonderful playgrounds and were finely crafted. But they remained fictional environments.
PLAYING WITH HISTORY
This is all not to say that historical narratives do not exist in games. Not that many years ago, there was actually a deluge of World War 2 games. With all of their most recent entries, it is sometimes hard to remember that the Call of Duty series made its name as a World War 2 FPS. Simultaneously you had titles from the Medal of Honor series and Brothers at Arms. They were great for their time as they allowed that same sense of immersion I described in Ryse only for the beaches of Normandy and the fields of France. Many of us playing had seen Saving Private Ryan and wondered aloud what it would be like to storm the beaches under a barrage of gunfire. These games allowed us to interact with the environments we had so recently seen on screen. If anything there was a gross overpopulation of WW2 games at the time, so much so that when Infinity Ward gave us Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the game felt fresh. How funny it is to look back at a moment when a modern military shooter felt original.
The obvious elephant in the room is the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Through Ubisoft’s annualized blockbuster, we have been transported to ancient Persia in the time of the Crusades, to Italy during the Rennaisance, to the American Revolution. The recreations of these times and places have always been impressive, but one thing has constantly interrupted my immersion in the franchise, and that is its larger meta-narrative. While taking place in actual historical locations during relevant times of conflict, the gaminess of the franchise, those items that make an Assassin’s Creed game feel like an Assassin’s Creed game do more to pull you out of their historical pretext than immerse you in it. The randomized troop movements, the guards on random rooftops, the lookouts that you have to climb in order to unveil your environment, all of it feels so spurious. And then there are the actual moments. You were there during Paul Revere’s ride, yet the awkward implementation of the of the event, Paul Revere’s directions and the necessity to avoid the randomly placed red coats, not to mention the horribly awkward cut scenes whenever you reached a highlighted door on your mini-map, were all so Assassin’s Creed-y… there was just a lack of authenticity to the entire moment. That said, Assassin’s Creed’s open world nature has allowed for some very unguided wanderings through some interesting moments in modern civilization. Other great open world games tackling historical settings include L.A. Noire from Rockstar and the late Pandemic Studios The Saboteur.
Now obviously one genre has been actively facilitating historical interaction for some time. I am talking about the strategy game, both real time and turn-based. This includes the Total War series and the Sid Meier’s Civilization series. However, one could be forgiven if they have never played either of these franchises as their PC-centred design often leaves console players wanting. Also, the god like omnipresence one is afforded when playing these games has always felt less immersive to me than the close quarters perspective that comes with first and third person games. Tacticians would now doubt argue with me on this point, for what better military general simulator is there than the RTS game. However, for myself, I have always felt the single grunt to be more relatable than the mightiest of generals.
HERE’S TO A FUTURE WITH MORE FROM THE PAST
So it is in this regard that Ryse truly is a niche game. It is a third person historical action game, and one that truly loves and appreciates its scenery. It is a rather tight narrative experience which helps move the story forward better than many games before it, and its strict narrative confines allow the developers to push the beautiful aesthetic of the game. And man is this game truly a looker. It is without a doubt the Xbox One’s best looking game to date pushing visuals any game developer would be rightly jealous over. Yes, there are the issues with the game play and its repetitive nature and quasi-quick time events, but I was more than willing to overlook those issues for a tight 7 hour experience where I was able to feel, for the first time, like I was walking the streets of ancient Rome in my centurion garb. I was no longer a passive observer. I had escaped from the confines of my everyday and was transported into an experience where I got to live that which I had studied and obsesses over for so long.
I can only hope that as technology improves and our capacity for great visuals expands, new and interesting periods in history unveil themselves in gaming. I can only imagine what a feudal Kyoto could look like, or an exploration of ancient Babylon. But I am a history geek and my interests by that very nature are niche in and of themselves. But what say you? What periods in history would you like to see explored by the video game medium?
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar