Imperial Hubris – 2

Here’s the thing, though. My imaginings don’t come out of nowhere. They are the product of my experiences, my culture, my opinions and my biases. When first developing my plantations I had a choice of going with cotton or tea. I ended up going with tea solely because I had a trade agreement with Great Britain and hey, the British like tea, right? I had made a major tactical decision not by examining the question in any detail, but by falling back on a harmless but very real stereotype. Hey, the British like tea, right? In the same way, the world of Empire: Total War doesn’t come from nowhere, either. Whatever concessions Creative Assembly had to make to historical accuracy in order to make the gameplay solid, we’re still dealing with real nations and real conflicts in which real people lost their lives.

In one way, Empire: Total War demonstrates exactly the kind of thing I’ve talked about before. The strength in gaming lies in the ability to create compelling and interesting worlds for gamers to explore. As a history nerd, I love the “what if” idea of taking control of a nation at a key moment and wrenching history around to a different course. By 1735, my Maratha Confederacy had the Mughals on the run to the point where it’s quite conceivable that I might have been able to expand into the New World, encroach on the Ottomans or possibly expand into Europe itself (I was already at war with Portugal, why not bring the conflict to their shores?). Storytelling in games can and should be done this way — not by pushing video on the player or dragging them along through cut-scenes, but by the developer placing guide rails that allow the illusion of freedom.


On the other hand, the value-neutral nature of the presentation does bring up the question of how much responsibility a developer has to historical truth. Bruce Shelley always said about the Age of Empires games that he was attempting to make games, not history lessons. If somebody learned from Age of Kings what a trebuchet was, that was merely a bonus. If I put up tea plantations because “the British like tea,” what other conscious or unconscious biases am I bringing to the table? Does Creative Assembly have a responsibility to historical truth to correct or guide me to any particular conclusion? If I command the Wermacht in a game of Company of Heroes, am I required to understand that I am fighting for the regime that perpetrated the Holocaust?

I’ve written about storytelling in videogames not because I believe every game must have a story, but because every game does — whether it’s put there by the developer or not. There are plenty of “games as games”(fighting games in particular spring to mind) where the game mechanics by themselves should be the point of the activity. Despite this, we tell stories about them anyway. Anyone who tries to make sense out of the storyline of the Street Fighter series is crazy, but the fact that they have a story at all tells you how deep the storytelling instinct runs. Fer Pete’s sake, this is the website that invented the personality of the L-shaped Tetris block and gave sidekick of the year to the Portal companion cube.

What I think other developers can learn from Empire: Total War (beyond the obvious, of course) is that the most compelling form of storytelling in games is the one that emerges from the world and the player’s own actions, not from a directed experience. Cut-scenes are fine, but ultimately they merely ape the movies. We as humans are naturally storytelling creatures, and when presented with an empty map we will find ways to fill it with the products of our imagination. The value-neutral nature of the presentation of the Maratha introduction created just such an empty map. It removed me from the reality of history and immersed me in a fantasy of history in which I had all the power to rewrite what really happened. Sometimes I wonder though, whether I or anyone should have that kind of power. The real Marathas, about whom I still know nothing, might agree.

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