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Ancient Bones and Virtual Playgrounds


The earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

Life on earth is about 4 billion years old.

And modern humans are about 40,000 years old.

It's an interesting thought I find, to muse on this age differential, especially when you consider that in terms of how old the cosmos is, it's probably even less consequential. I bring this up not to send you into a paroxysm of existential crisis, but merely to attempt to give an appreciation for the sheer amount of history and time that passed on earth and to attempt to quantify all of human history in the grand scheme of this planet. I find it interesting as someone in the field of science to muse on the first rudimentary cells that led to all life on earth now, and I also find the history of man fascinating in its own right. And of course, I tend to channel my passions into writing-so why not muse a bit on the history of humans in games? Regrettably, the more interesting parties in terms of life on earth tend not to get as many games as they deserve, but alas humanity is a species enamored with itself. 

History is a fascinating thing that we so often must examine via indirect means even when direct writings and sources are found because lying has never really gone out of style. Carbon dating, fossils, DNA sequences, clay tablets, scrolls, books, ancient clay vessels, paintings, pictures, videos-each of these things provides a window into the past that deepens our understanding of what came before be it man or microbe. We can learn about the triumphs and tragedies of our forebears, their civilizations rise and falls, the interplay of complex empires and the rediscovery or initial discovery of ideas across the world.

Yet even in the most well-documented societies or well-preserved tombs and homes, we still lack in some fundamental way. A lost book, a genetic mutation, a lone survivor among historical accounts dripping with that human bias, all of these realities of looking at the past ensure that what scraps we glean from history are always incomplete, imperfect and will most likely forever remain so. These are times behind and beyond us, times of alien yet familiar thoughts and cultural patterns that push and pull us in our feelings when we look back-yet undeniably we may never truly understand these times in their full scale and scope, even in recent history because we didn’t live during that time, in that different yet similar world. Yet even knowing the flaws of history and our understanding of it, it's a fascinating subject and attempting to reach into the mist to claw out some understanding of that wonderful thing-even if we also have to come to terms with a lack of 100% accuracy.

If that comes across as naval gazing, I apologize but I’m trying to express how I marvel and wonder at history and why it's so fascinating to me. I have a severe addiction to it-I’ve consumed scores of audiobooks in the past few months, I rip and tear into history podcasts and I even read paperback books in my spare time to learn more about the past. Its a topic near and dear to me and some of my closest friends hearts and it's also one that intertwines with much media. Movies and books are replete with retellings of ancient tales-with varying levels of accuracy-that even today still fuel our imaginations. In their own way, they provide far more digestible ways to understand the past, through description or visual means that help bring together ruins, archaeology and historical evidence via records to help us try to see through that mist or create an approximation.

And of course, this also applies to games for despite being the new kid on the block such tales fire our thoughts and are bound to be exploited in any medium. Games are in an interesting position to portray history-while concessions and changes are often made to make the game playable or more fun they still can allow players to see the past and interact with it in some small way. Like movies or TV shows they can be limited in scope to setpieces, small sections of the ancient world and so on, but they also can do something more by expanding on the land they’re exploring and showcase an entire city or civilization at a more granular level. That requires NPC’s, people living their lives in a recreation of a city, guards, buildings and city layouts and a world that is reactive to the player character as well as having to have enough put into its various facets to try to create a cohesive game world the player can explore.

In particular, I respect what Assassins Creed has tried to do-despite fundamental core issues and some worrisome censorship of ancient art in their most recent entry ala Origins I really do like the idea of creating an open world for you to explore and look at. From Jerusalem during the later crusades to the beauty of renaissance Italy, the games attempt a recreation of these ancient places that allows you to get a better feel for that world and that time in place. It's doubtful a lot of even the more modern settings are 1:1, concessions must always be made for both gameplay and the reality of not having enough information in some cases, but at the same time I respect the attempt to do a fair recreation that might encourage people to look more into that place and time, to learn more about the past and gain a better appreciation of it and the world we live in.

One of the most encouraging things I’ve seen is Ubisoft finally acknowledging how important this aspect is to some people's enjoyment by including a scholar mode that cuts out a lot of gameplay and lets a person explore while informing them about the historical period they’re exploring. And of course, Ubisoft has also seen some of its teams explore other historical settings with games like Far Cry Primal that attempt to imagine a more primitive world that came early on in the time of Homo Sapiens. One can argue about the execution and actual quality of each game, but at the least I have respect for attempting to explore different historical settings in game form. 

Then there are games like Kingdom Come: Deliverance that tries to realistically and accurately portray a medieval Bohemia, providing some history of the region and attempting to immerse the player in the times, while also relying on a historian to attempt to make sure they get as close as is reasonable. While some of its pretensions to realism seem to have not paid off for it, in the end, I find an attempt to do a somewhat accurate recreation of the times via gameplay systems and art direction very laudable. Bringing the past to life in such a visceral way and attempting to do it as realistically seems an interesting tact and I do think I’ll eventually see about getting to the game.

Games like these allow us to look back at the past and play with it, mold it like clay in our hands. Unlike more static books, movies or tv shows they allow us to input into the world and receive some form of output. They almost stand as scale models, things that give us some tangible feeling of what the life and times of that place where despite their flaws and in some cases, they ignite a hunger to know more that drives people to books and other media. I don’t mean to badmouth those other forms of media-I want to highlight one of the special aspects of games in comparison to those other forms of media, but they can do their own visions in stronger ways in some regards. Its just that games are a huge part of my life and seeing history through them is such a powerful experience that I felt like talking about it would be an entertaining thing to do. Hopefully, it was an entertaining thing to read.

Really there's so many games and series out there that look at history that one could write several blogs about the matter but I think these few examples will hopefully create an interesting topic for people to chew on. Feel free to share your own thoughts and games about history in the comments, I’d be interested to see what you have to say! Thanks for reading as always.

- “If you don't like bacteria, you're on the wrong planet.” ― Stewart Brand

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About Gamemaniac3434one of us since 11:25 PM on 02.01.2013

Who am I? I'm an avid gamer, beer snob, coffee snob and aspiring microbiologist. I love all sorts of different genres of games and different games from different years and as of recent years I've tried to get more into multiplayer games. I also really love microbiology and if you get me started on it, you will never get me to shut up about it.
-Gamemaniac3434 on everything, but Nintendo services