As with any other media, games face many challenges when approaching historical topics and periods. One such challenge is the game’s intent to entertain its audience by providing a satisfying play experience versus its intent to portray historical accuracy. This problem has been exemplified in the film industry by the 1995 film Braveheart, which swept audiences away with its emotional impact, but has often been remarked as doing so at the cost of any sort of historical integrity which is damaging for the subjects being portrayed in popular media as it can be treated as being true to history despite glaring holes (O’Farrell, 2007). In interactive media such as games, the player is assigned the role of a character controlling their actions and, either passively or actively, drives the story forward while digitally exploring the game world. They learn the scope of possibility within that game and by extension, the narrative being communicated through the game world. Game developers often need to moderate their inherent control over the audience’s actions to retain interactivity within the world and present players with meaningful choices through gameplay or story. As a result, it is essential to analyze the mechanical implications of game space to its greater narrative. There are several aspects to consider when it comes to environments in games. Here, I will be discussing environments from my own perspective as a game designer with specialties in level design, narrative and environmental design.
First, it is crucial to understand the role of an environment in a video game. The environment is a broad multi-discipline area that is vital to the success (or failure) of any project. In the context of game design, it is a space that collaborates game rules, objectives, subject, and theoretical pieces to achieve a full experience for the player (Ahmad, 2021) . A game’s environment is a culmination of effort from each department to facilitate the best expression of a game’s vision through its technical mechanics, its systemic dynamics and its artistic aesthetic. These areas are defined using the MDA framework, which is a formal approach to understanding games (Hunicke et al, 20). Games are as much an art as a science, and having a formal approach is vital. The collaboration between design and art makes the environment the bastion of the game’s mechanics, displaying them in a way that exemplifies their dynamism while also creating an illicit emotional response that has been framed by the art direction. We can see how important this is when we work our way back and begin removing individual environmental elements of the final product. For example, if the player’s goal is to storm the beach of Normandy in Call of Duty WW2 (Sledgehammer Games, 2017) and then the beach is removed - the player loses the context and narrative of why they are there. Similarly, if the Designer’s input is stripped away - all sense of flow, pacing and impact for the narrative is lost.
While a game’s mechanics are vital and often indicative of the experience a developer intends for their players, the overall narrative might not support this. This is referred to as ludonarrative dissonance, which is the conflict between a video game’s narrative told through the story and the narrative told through the gameplay (Seraphine, 2016). A common example of this is the Uncharted series (Naughty Dog, 2007). The protagonist of the series is the happy-go-lucky Nathan Drake, a loveable rogue who also happens to gun down hundreds of people in between cutscenes. Generally, as long as the disconnect between the game’s narrative and gameplay isn’t so egregious as to break a player’s suspension of disbelief, it is accepted by players.
So why is narrative and design intent important when discussing game environments through the lens of historical games? I’d like to look at two games and dive into the different approaches to history and how they represent their subjects.
Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games, 2013) is set in the United States at the start of the 20th century. While the floating cities and technological marvels seem like complete fantasy, the game grounds itself with American history. The game’s fictional location, Columbia, is a monument to idealistic and unchecked capitalism, an ideology which was so prevalent in early 1900s America. The player takes control of a character that represents America’s troubled past; an anti-hero who served at Wounded-Knee and later worked for the Pinkertons to violently shut down those trying to unionize. Bioshock’s delivery and commentary on America’s less-than-pleasant past can be subtle and interpreted in many different ways. I believe that this is in part due to how it is wrapped in its environment. The environment itself is a utopian paradise and as the game progresses, the facade slowly chips away to reveal the true and ugly nature. Whilst Columbia is pure science fiction masked with traditional American architecture, there is no denying that it remains a floating city in the clouds with technology that was well beyond its time and arguably still beyond our capabilities now. Mix in elements of the supernatural and it perhaps detracts from what is a surprisingly accurate history lesson and commentary of 1910s American society.
Ghosts of Tsushima (Sucker Punch Productions, 2020) on the other hand is set in a real-world place, during a time of war. Its environment does an excellent job of reflecting a world going through strife as it highlights the huge contrast between the island’s natural beauty and the reality of war. White lilacs are stained with blood, villages burned to the ground, and the wondrous landscapes end with the destructive force of the invasion. The environment helps ground the story’s sullen tone, showing violence is a necessary evil rather than glorifying it. However, how historically accurate is the Game? Sucker Punch co-founder Chris Zimmerman noted in the 2018 GameSpot interview (reference), that the game itself leans into cinematic samurai tropes to entertain the audience at the expense of historical accuracy. In reality, the Mongol invasion was thwarted by a massive Typhoon well after Tsushima had already been conquered (Pletcher, 2009). The game has many nods to this, with specific items, quests and areas of the game referencing the storm of 1274. In the same Gamespot interview, Zimmerman said, “We’re going to deviate from historical truth, we just want to do it intentionally,“. He also added that the team had hired cultural consultants to help represent Japanese culture from that period, while accurately representing wildlife and statues, along with linguistic nuances. Stating that “The challenge for us, making a game in an original story but taking place in a real historical time, is making sure we’re telling a story that people can relate to.”
Finally, I’d like to briefly mention affordances and semiotics when it comes to environments in games. Affordance is the theory of objects having both actual properties and perceived properties (Norman, 1988). Semiotics, on the other hand, is the study of meaning and more specifically what signs represent and how their context shapes interpretation (Lindley, 2005; Salen & Zimmerman, 2003). When it comes to game development, these two theories can be used to shape a player’s experience but come with expectations attached. Developers suggest a possible usage of objects in the context of the game world and the player will often play along. This means that the context of any game needs to be taken into consideration when designing an environment as players will expect and perceive objects to have meaning. Applying this to our previous examples, Ghosts of Tsushima borrows heavily from a pop culture understanding of Samurai and cinematic tropes to set expectations on what is possible within the game space. They present the game through a baseline knowledge of the culture, purposefully deviating from history to communicate a more impactful story and a more relatable world. Bioshock Infinite is draped in traditional American aesthetics and ideals, immediately reinforcing its message by adding many historical aspects and giving credibility to its, otherwise, sci-fi world. The context of the game affords its world’s interaction.
Mainstream games can be incredible doorways into the historical world, but that is often all they are, a starting point. For example, Google Trends shows a correlation between the increased number of searches for Norse Mythology and the initial release of God of War (Santa Monica Studios, 2018). They can teach us about the lesser-known side of American history, and bring important moments of Japanese history to western audiences through carefully crafted spaces of possibility that put the player in the shoes of someone living in that world. For the average player, without further exploring the topic, how are they to separate fact from fiction?
Gibson, M (1995), Braveheart, Paramount Pictures
O’Farrell. J, (2007) An Utterly Impartial History of Britain: Or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge, Random House
Ahmad, M (2021), Educational Games as Software Through the Lens of Designing Process. Deakin University, Australia
Hunicke. R, Leblanc. M, & Zubek. R, (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. AAAI Workshop - Technical Report. 1.
Sledgehammer Games, (2017) Call of Duty: WW2, Activision Blizzard
Seraphine, F. (2016). Ludonarrative Dissonance: Is Storytelling About Reaching Harmony?.
Naughty Dog (2007) Uncharted, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Irrational Games (2013) Bioshock Infinite, 2k Games
Sucker Punch Productions (2020), Ghost of Tsushima, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Brown. P, (2018) How Ghost Of Tsuhima Balances Fact Versus Fiction https://www.gamespot.com/articles/how-ghost-of-tsuhima-balances-fact-versus-fiction/1100-6460128/
Pletcher. K (2008) kamikaze of 1274 and 1281, Britannica
Norman, D. (1988). The psychology of everyday things. Basic books.
Lindley, C. (2005). The semiotics of time structure in ludic space as a foundation for analysis and design. Game Studies, 5(1).
Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2003). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. MIT Press.
Santa Monica Studio (2018), God of War, Sony Interactive Entertainment