01 Dec

Eschewing trodden paths for new grounds

A question I get asked a lot, and which is undoubtedly one of the most pressing for many creators of history-based games: How much accuracy does a game really need?

And usually my answer is this: it depends. Which may be due to the fact that I’m not dogmatic about historical accuracy, but most of all because no game is the same, even if it might be categorized in the same niche as other games.

Let’s look at two examples:

Not from Assassin’s creed, but still depicting an assassination. The victim is French General Kleber.

Assassin’s Creed: This is a pretty obvious choice, not least because it’s not only based on historical events, it actually turns the process of learning about the era into the game’s mission. You’re actively encouraged throughout the game to learn, and even though you can get through the whole thing without actually committing to memory what you’re shown or told, it definitely helps.

Now, how accurate is Assassin’s Creed? Well, it sure does make an effort: things like buildings, factions, socio-cultural backdrops and dress are obviously researched well. But then, of course, the game draws on rather mythical aspects, like the role the Knights Templar played. While they did exist, their sinister motives and the hundreds of myths surrounding them aren’t exactly historical.

And the thing is, that’s exactly the point at which you have to decide what to sacrifice, what to keep and why. There’s no use in creating a world that is as historically accurate as possible (that too always depends on whether you can actually create something that even resembles an accurate recreation – see this post I wrote a few weeks back), when that accuracy in turn doesn’t afford you the freedom of creating a riveting or at least interesting narrative. In the case of Assassisn’t Creed, the Knights Templar are good foes and as every good story needs a good foe, you might have to sacrifice some accuracy in favour of the story.

But there are other examples where your historical accuracy shouldn’t ever be sacrificed. Let’s look at this example:

Hearts of Iron (1 to 4): This grand strategy game simulates the events of World War II. You can choose your faction and, depending on where you start, you build up your economy, your military power, your diplomatic ties. It’s rather crucial to keep this as close to what the historical sources tell us in order to satisfy your audience. Which is another thing your need to be historically accurate depends on: your audience.

The United States Army in World War II: deployment of troops Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

The United States Army in World War II: deployment of troops
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

While there surely is an overlap between players of Assassin’s Creed and Hearts of Iron, you can expect the audience for a game like Hearts of Iron to be more interested in the historical accuracy of the game. The whole experience of spending tens of hours building up your side can only be as satisfying as it is when the underlying system is water-tight. That’s the appeal of simulators, which a game as complex as Hearts of Iron ultimately is.

And yes, that also means that you’ll have to sacrifice certain aspects to historical accuracy. Balancing, something which is hugely important to gameplay, might suffer, but hey, history just isn’t always fair and balanced.

So what now?

As we’ve seen above, the level of historical accuracy depends on the type of game you’re making and thereby the sort of audience you’re mainly targeting.

But yes, if there are no budgetary constraints (which, admittedly, is rarely the case), I’d definitely encourage everyone to pour as many resources as possible into getting the period right. Why? Because you’ll get two things for one:

You give those among your players who know their way around the period an opportunity to totally immerse themselves in it (and they’ll love you for it). And for those who aren’t as familiar with the period, you’re instilling in them appreciation for an era which will further their interest in history and ultimately your brand. It’s a win-win situation.

Finally, regarding the sacrifice of accuracy for the sake of a good story: those two are actually not mutually exclusive. There’s this writing exercise, where you deliberately write yourself in a corner. You remove as many options as possible, creating scenes or situations that force you to find unusual solutions. The outcome is often wildly creative, as you’re eschewing the trodden path for new grounds.

Consider the restraints of historical accuracy in a similar fashion: you might not have as many options as you had before, but that’s a chance to fire up your narrative in ways you’d probably not have imagined otherwise.

Still not sure about whether your game actually needs any historical accuracy at all? Then drop me a note and we’ll have a look together!



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