It could have happened like that…

Level-5's take on France's warrior maid is a thing of beauty

“History is more or less bunk.” It’s surprising how this famous statement by Henry Ford, meant as a celebration of the entrepreneurial spirit in a time when America was starting to make its own history, would come to, more or less, define actual historical discourse in the latter twentieth century. The postmodern view of history is a sceptical one and asserts that history is an unknowable thing, constructed from secondary sources, competing ideologies and the many biases of individual historians.

I recently picked up Valkyria Chronicles and Jeane D’Arc, a couple of games that made me realise my true affection for a thematic sub genre of games that approach history with a distinctively postmodern bent; bringing to it a playful dose of the fantastical and the anachronistic, whilst placing the telling of a good yarn over any attempt to relay factual events. Many of these games evoke the same atmosphere as magical realism in literature, where writers such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Mikhail Bulgakov and Haruki Murakami warp reality (and often by extension political and social structures) with a subversive use of the unexplained.

Set in Europa in 1935, Valkyria Chronicles relates an alternative WWII, sparked by the precious resource Ragnite. Beautiful water colour graphics created by the CANVAS engine and a storybook presentation underpins a deep and innovative fusion of turn based and realtime strategy. Meanwhile Jeanne D’Arc retells the legend of the famous French national hero through the cultural filter of Japanese anime, the beautiful cut scenes by Level-5 lending the game a massive amount of charm. Set in the latter part of the Hundred Years War, the plot speculates that the English boy king Henry has been possessed by a demon summoned by his uncle the duke of Bedford. After the peaceful French village of Domremy is set upon by demons led by the English, a magical armlet finds its way onto the arm of the young Jeanne, who is determined to punish the English for the destruction of her hometown. As fanciful as the story of a peasant girl hearing the voice of God and saving France was in the first place, even the most postmodern of historians might bat an eyebrow at this take on the story. But I think it is the job of historians to record history, and of artists to make use of it in interesting, even irreverent, ways. If those two roles have blurred somewhat in our postmodern age then that only makes things more interesting.

From a young age he dreamed of having his own tank

Games that fall in this genre, whether we call it magical realism or historical relativism, manipulate reality to varying degrees. Shadow Hearts is set very specifically in a real historical time and place, underpinning the political events of WWI with the fantastical narrative of a Chinese sorcerer attempting to summon God to Earth. Although Okami’s setting is much looser it is still clearly set in a version of Japan, and it builds its fiction out of Buddhist and Shinto myth. Meanwhile the flawed Dark Void is clearly the brainchild of someone who has read far too much of the controversial social critic David Icke, featuring a lizard race poised to invade the world from beyond the Bermuda Triangle. Whilst Dark Void boasts surprisingly fun gameplay its fiction is truly terrible, but this is more for the fact that it fails to follow its own internal logic than because of its loose take on history and conspiracy theory.

Few games come close to the level of detail in Assassin's Creed

But the king of them all, and what is fast becoming to my mind one of the greatest franchises in videogame history, is Assassin’s Creed, which has a much more subtle and sophisticated approach to history. Assassin’s Creed speculates that the whole of human history, right up to modern day capitalism, is a templar conspiracy to subjugate and control society. Fighting this conspiracy, and representing the enduring spirit of freedom, are the assassins. This narrative is cleverly interwoven into incredibly realised historical settings from the Crusades and the Italian Renaissance, to the height of the Ottoman Empire (in the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed Revelations). Ubisoft have set a high bar for the intricate architectural and social recreation of these immersive historical periods, even employing historians to ensure a constant level of verisimilitude. Historical figures such as the powerful Borgias, Leanardo DaVinci and even Niccolò Machiavelli make an appearance and are woven seamlessly into the fiction.

Whatever you want to call it, the motto of the assassin’s sums up this type of game perfectly: “nothing is true, everything is permitted.”


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