Thursday, September 10, 2020
September 10, 2020: History through Games: Video Game Action and Inaction
[One of the most consistent through-lines in my life as an AmericanStudier, from my own childhood through my experiences with my sons, has been games, both board/card and video. So this week I’ll analyze a handful of games that offer complex lessons about our past, leading up to a Guest Post on the wonderful Reacting to the Past pedagogical games!]
On how two action-packed narrative games portray the past, and how a decidedly less active one has more to offer.
I started my October 2018 Video Game Studying blog series with a post on Grand Theft Auto, the narrative game/series with action that remains, when it comes to its social and cultural significance at least, among the most controversial to this day. The same game company that produced GTA, Rockstar Games, would go on to release a second hugely popular narrative action series with even more overtly AmericanStudies content: the Red Dead games, set in the late 19th and early 20th century “Wild West” (they’ve also released L.A. Noire, a 20th-century-set detective action game about which I know a lot less, but which can’t possibly measure up to the greatness of Mean Streets in any case). Indeed, in the world of 21st century video games, I think the only ones that rival Red Dead for overtly historical content would be Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series: most of the games in that series are set in various historical eras around the world, and Assassin’s Creed III was set specifically during the lead up to and era of the American Revolution (the game takes place between 1753 and 1783).
I’ve only played and watched bits and pieces of the RD series (which includes Revolver, Redemption, and Redemption II) and ACIII, and as always will welcome further thoughts, different opinions, and any and all other responses in comments (or by email). But from what I can tell, while both series/games focus first and foremost on the combination of storytelling and action that defines this narrative action genre, both likewise work hard to create immersive representations of their historical periods, open worlds that players can explore beyond the strictures of the specific stories/quests. While Red Dead Revolver’s world was less open, Redemption in particular creates a powerfully multi-faceted early 20th century world, one that includes precisely the Mexican and Native American communities whose absence I lamented in Oregon Trail. And Assassin’s Creed III, while featuring both alternative history and supernatural elements, goes even further in creating an open world representation of 18th century America, as its protagonist is half-Mohawk and the game delves into the world of his Mohawk village, community, and heritage. Without being the slightest bit pedantic, both these games and worlds offer compelling glimpses into their historical subjects.
And speaking of immersive open worlds, there’s Walden, a Game. Set during the first year of Henry David Thoreau’s two-year sojourn at his cabin near Walden Pond, this unique video game does present players with various challenges related to surviving and thriving in nature throughout the seasons. But to say that Walden does not feature much action is to understate the case and miss the point: from what I can tell (and I’ve played significant portions of Walden on a couple different occasions), the ultimate goal of the game is to require a degree of inaction, of waiting patiently (or impatiently, but you’re waiting either way) for various events to take place. That element certainly reflects core aspects of Thoreau’s text and philosophy, but I would argue that it also captures an essential aspect of history that is generally missing from historical video games. After all, while it’s fun to imagine that we’d be a gun-toting outlaw or badass assassin in those respective time periods, it’s far more likely that our lives would be more mundane, and that our version of action would look more like catching a fish or taking a hike or making it through a heavy rainstorm. I don’t know any video games that do a better job portraying that sense of truly living in a historical moment and setting than does Walden, a Game.
Last game tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historical games you’d highlight?