Video game development is no easy task – it can often take several years, be incredibly costly, and there’s no guarantee that your game will result in return investment. With so much competition, it can be incredibly hard for game developers to find success in their games in the modern market. Because of this, it’s important for game developers to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t in certain games. While it’s obviously still good to take risks and try new things, there are certain game design choices and directions that historically have been much more successful than others. When it comes to historical video games, past titles have illustrated that historically authentic games have become more successful than ones that wander too far from the facts.
What Works: Authenticity
Historical video games that are authentic to the source material (aka, the history they are based on) tend to do well. Games of these sorts include the Civilization series, the Age of Empires games, and much of the Total War games. All of these franchises are household names in the historical real-time strategy genre, as they all are incredibly rich when it comes to their histories, courtesy of a massive amount of research performed by the development team.
Other games that have gained popularity and success from their historical authenticity are both A Plague Tale: Innocence, which takes players to the era of the Bubonic Plague, and LA Noire, which beautifully recreates the 1940’s Los Angeles. Both of these games work incredibly well because they successfully engage players with their worlds and go the extra mile with world-building. They feel authentic because of their close attention to detail and authentically recreate their respective worlds in terms of geography, architecture, character attire, and more. While these games aren’t necessarily historically accurate (they both exaggerate history at times), they still manage to feel authentic to their respective periods and settings.
What Doesn’t Work: Inaccuracy
While this isn’t always the case, many historical video games that attempt to stray too far from history can fail epically, especially if the deviations are executed against historical authenticity. One example of this is how DICE worked women soldiers into the World War II setting of Battlefield 5. While on paper, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Gamers have been playing as women for years, so why should it ruffle feathers? Unfortunately, it was how DICE integrated women soldiers that seemed to draw criticism, with many drawing from historical references to explain how the role of women in World War II wasn’t as shown in what is largely known for being a “historically authentic” series.
Other games are guilty of being inaccurate in even more substantial ways, such as Dante’s Inferno, which is almost entirely a fan-fiction that shares nothing more than its source material’s name. Little more than a God of War clone, Dante’s Inferno offended many history buffs, Christians, and gamers alike when it gameified journeying through the nine circles of Hell and poorly portrayed many historical figures, including Marc Antony, Cleopatra, and Virgil. While the game plays decently, its complete disregard for the source material left a bad taste in many gamers’ mouths at the time of its release.
What Works: Unique Spins on History
Video games don’t have to be 100 percent accurate in order to still feel authentically grounded in history. Many games take place within alternate versions of world history, with the Wolfenstein series being a prime example. The franchise tells an interesting “what if” scenario of what the world may have been like had the Nazis won World War II. Other great examples of this are the Zombie Army games as well as the Nazi Zombies mode from the long-running Call of Duty franchise. While these games are by no means accurate, they are both incredibly fun and show off a cool post-apocalyptic version of World War II that is both interesting and incredibly engaging for players.
What Doesn’t Work: Mocking or Trivializing History
It should go without saying that games that mock history or trivialize it tend to not go over well with history fans. While it is possible to spoof or make fun of certain aspects of history in video games, game developers should never cross the line in games. Certain video games have successfully made fun of history, but many such as Stalin Vs. Martians and JFK Reloaded are just plain bad or tasteless games. The Oregon Trail, on the other hand, has received criticism for trivializing (and downright erasing) the Native American involvement in the infamous cross-country trail. Developers should strive to be creative, but it’s important to remember to keep one’s game tasteful and appealing to gamers.
If you’re planning on developing a video game, remember to not shy away from history – it may end up helping your game to make your title historically authentic and ultimately become a better and more successful product in the long run.
At Epoch XP, we specialize in creating compelling narratives and provide research to give your game the kind of details that engage your players and create a resonant world they want to spend time in. If you are interested in learning more about our gaming research services, you can browse Epoch XP’s service on our parent site, SJR Research.
(This article is credited to Ben Price. For as long as he can remember, Ben has always loved playing, discussing, and writing about video games. Since receiving his B.A. in English, he now writes about them for a living.)