13 Dec

Creating fiction from history

In my last post on how much historical accuracy is actually needed for games, I very briefly touched upon the subject of creating something new by using an historical framework. I didn’t want the post to become unwieldy, so I decided to give a few of my favourite examples of what I mean in a separate post. Which is this one.

A prime example on how historicity can actually influence a piece of entertainment is a show like “Game of Thrones” (and of course the novels the show is based on). Very obviously set in a fantasy land where dragons roam and shadowy figures thrust shadowy swords in unsuspecting kings, it nevertheless draws upon a period in English history to create it’s basic framework of warring families. Earlier this year, this video was released, in which all the parallels of the historical events and the fantasy saga’s events were put side by side. It’s great and you should definitely watch it, so here it is:

And if you’re familiar with the show, you’ll surely have picked up that the Wall  is reminiscent of Hadrian’s Wall, ordered to be built by Roman emperor Hadrian in 122 to secure his Roman forces against what was then known simply as the barbarians.

So, even a fantasy story like Game of Thrones is deeply rooted in historical events. And while it’s definitely owed to George R. R. Martin’s finesse as a story-teller, I’m convinced that having the backdrop of the feuding families of medieval England helped in creating a world as riveting as Westeros.

Looking at video games, most fantasy games feed on the historical stories, architecture and armaments of medieval Europe. There’s the Elder Scrolls series, most notably Skyrim, which benefits from the architectural traits of a series of periods and of course armament and weaponry. Throw in a large portion of Norse mythology and you’ve got yourself a pretty solid fantasy game.

Just outside Whiterun in the mythical land of Skyrim. Note the references to medieval Scandinavian architecture.

But if you want to move away from this obvious kind of setting, there’s a genre sometimes referred to as speculative fiction. This is commonly found in literary works like Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, but also Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass (which got the film treatment but was somewhat panned by the critics). That genre, which in the case of the Golden Compass could be further specified as Steampunk, in the case of the Baroque Cycle as alternate history , feeds on historical aspects but adds its own twist to the setting, thereby creating its own fictional world.

One of my favourite video game examples is Bioshock Infinite, which takes elements, mostly from US history, and incorporates them into the game. The way these elements enrich the narrative, characters and not least aesthetics of the game show how using historical references can greatly enhance the experience. To read up on some of these historical elements, here’s an interesting short article on IGN about it.

A machine called “The Patriot”. Having a sense of irony helps, if you want to create a successful instance of alternate history. Screenshot courtesy of Take-Two Interactive Software.

Now, would Game of Thrones and Bioshock Infinite work without incorporating these elements? Maybe, even though it’s ultimately impossible to tell. What we do know is that whenever we see an historical reference, it adds another layer to the character or the story, helping us to instantly read more into it than we could have without it. The same goes for using historical events, conflicts of power or interconnections to build your story on. You could re-invent the wheel or just simply use existing ones and fashioning them to your needs. And that’s just too convenient to not make use of, don’t you think?

Need help finding your next project’s historical framework? Then drop me a note

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