Awaiting Adaptation - History

If I were to appear on TV’s Mastermind, and I couldn’t select video games or the NBA since 1996 as my specialist subject, I’d probably end up opting for something historical. I have been fascinated with history since I was a child, an interest that was nurtured throughout my school years and culminated in my studying modern history at university. These days I'm a little rusty with my dates and monarchs, but I still get a kick from reading a good history book, usually of the ancient variety, and greatly enjoy seeing historical periods adapted into works of fiction, particularly in video games.

My main attraction to the Assassin’s Creed series, and perhaps the reason why it has retained my interest despite slightly diminished returns, is its varied and beautifully realised historical settings. Across four entries we have been treated to the Holy land of the Crusades, Renaissance Venice, Florence and Rome, and most recently Constantinople. As far I am concerned, the cities have always been the star of Ubisoft’s premier franchise and serve as an excellent example for any developer looking for a historical foundation from which to build their game.

Following on from last week’s post, where I looked at the possibilities of a video game adaptation for Game of Thrones and Oz, I thought I’d have a look at some under-utilized historical periods that lend themselves to a video game. Where better to start than one of the more interesting characters of antiquity, Alexander the Great.

Contrary to what Oliver Stone may have led you to believe, Alexander was not from Ireland, and his Macedonian countrymen certainly didn't speak with Irish accents. Stone's epic dulled the exploits of Alexander the Great's short life, filling his thirty three years with uninteresting melodrama and too much Angelina Jolie. The sad fact is that the greatest general of antiquity is woefully underrepresented in modern fiction, outside of literature. Alexander was a prodigy, loved by his friends and feared by his enemies; he was capable of acts of kindness as well as atrocities of the most abhorrent kind. A legendary drinker and a gifted soldier, he suffered a god-complex in adulthood which, along with a propensity for adopting the ways of his Persian subjects, created a dangerous rift between him and his traditional, Macedonian supporters.

Alexander’s campaigns took him from the Hellespont, throughout the Middle East and as far as the Punjab. He would never return home from this journey, dying on the banks of the Euphrates under suspicious circumstances - malaria or poison is the general consensus among historians. By the time of his death, he ruled over most of the known world and was already planning how to bring the rest of it to heel. An excellent strategy game could be built around his Persian campaign, if such a thing doesn't already exist, or perhaps even an RPG that could also incorporate some of the more farfetched elements that have been added to his legend over the years, from his battles with monkey-like tribes to his tryst with an Amazonian queen.

Upon death, Alexander’s body, encased in a golden sarcophagus and transported upon a luxurious funerary cart, was hijacked by one of his generals, Ptolemy, on its way back to Macedonia.  Ptolemy had it interned in his new city of Alexandria, Egypt, which is where it remained until vanishing from the history books around the fourth century AD. The whereabouts of the body and treasure remain unknown, though there is no shortage of speculation as to where he may rest. It sounds perfect for Nathan Drake's (Uncharted) next adventure, doesn't it.

Sticking with the ancient world, though taking a more liberal approach to historical fact, I have no idea why there hasn't been a great game built around Homer's Odyssey. It would seem to have everything a great game would need, from a strong and sympathetic lead - Odysseus, survivor of Troy and struggling to complete his journey home - and all sorts of dastardly characters from deadly sirens to a vicious cyclops. Similarly, the Epic of Gilgamesh - a name Final Fantasy fans may be familiar with - would make a fine game. It is an epic poem from Mesopotamia and one of the earliest known works of literature. The oldest surviving written copy is a collection of clay tablets from the seventh century BC, but the legends featured within are thought to date back at least another thirteen-hundred years.

The tale revolves around Gilgamesh and his wild man companion, Urduk. Together they do their best to piss off the gods (God of War?) by killing everything they throw at them, and it culminates in Gilgamesh setting out on a quest for immortality. With vengeful gods, demons, giants and a journey to the bottom of the sea, it’s not short on action and being an incomplete story - significant parts of the narrative remain undiscovered - a developer would have the freedom to add new elements and strengthen the overall package.

Jumping forward a couple of millennia, the tale of the 47 Ronin would make for a rather interesting game. This true story comes from Japan at the turn of the eighteenth century, and recounts one of the most famous cases of Bushido - the samurai code of honour. A group of master-less samurai looked to take their revenge on a court official, Kira, for his role in the death of their feudal lord. The forty seven swore a secret oath to avenge their master, despite being denied this right by the Shogunate, and waited two years for Kira to lower his guard, at which time they finally stormed his well-defended residence within the walls of Tokyo (Edo). They left with Kira's severed head, which they placed on their master's grave before turning themselves in. Shogunate officials spared them the shame of a criminal's death, ordering them instead to take their own lives instead, which they did. Their story of loyalty and honour spread like wildfire and remains well-known to this day.

The 47 Ronin have been the subject of countless plays, poems, books and films, including an atrocious sounding movie starring Keanu Reeves (!) that is due out sometime in 2012, so why not a game? It could follow any of the ringleaders, including the events that led to their oath taking, the colourful stories of their two years in hiding, and of course the final assault and their ultimate demise. QTE-based seppuku, anyone?

How do you feel about games that make use of history for settings and themes, and are there any historical periods, stories or characters you’d like to see in a video game?


  1. Daydream Drooler1 December 2011 at 07:13

    I'm pretty sure you know this by now but I love history and how people can play on it in both movies and games such as Assassin's Creed. I love how, even with great leaders who's every move was written down still have those times where it is unknown what exactly happened which like you said will give a writer such freedom to connect the dots in his very own way.
    I hated the Alexander movie, thats Hollywood for you trying to make a quick buck. even Troy played on some elements that had me scratching my head as to why they would ruin such a legend with something so stupid, but i did enjoy the Troy.
    I'm sure both games and movies will get around to some of the better stories out there but I'm fine with them taking their time as long as they get it right. God of War 3 kinda ruined the Greek mythology a bit for me, they still get alot of the story right but at the same time they got alot wrong with that one and it wasnt like they did it so the game made more sense. not trying to rag on God of War though just saying how sometimes people lose sight of the story and take it in their own direction when they could keep the story that has already been written and fill in the blanks that either didnt make it into the histroy books or where just forgotten through the years.
    great blog too

  2. I actually preferred Alexander to Troy, which isn't really saying much. Rome (HBO TV series) was probably the best and most interesting big budget re-creation of the ancient world that I've seen. Great show.

    I'd imagine there is a generation of gamers who would struggle to separate Kratos from the actual gods that the ancient Greeks worshiped!

  3. History is something I'd love to delve into, but I never make the time. So why not combine it with games? Two birds with one stone, I say!

    But as good as Assassin's Creed and strategy games are, I'd be incredibly interested in a game that makes every effort to be as historically accurate as possible, placing you into past to see what it was like for yourself. Imagine if Skyrim didn't take place in a land inspired by Norse mythology, but during an actual time in Nordic history. I'd probably learn a whole lot.

    Also, you might want to take a look at Rome: Total War Alexander. That serves as a pretty good strategy game about Alexander the Great, I hear!

  4. Hey Stephen. Cheers for dropping-by.

    Would certainly be a lot more educational, but I'm not sure how much fun a more historical Skyrim would be. Lets replace dragons and magic with serfdom and weaving :)

    Thanks for the heads up. Will have to check out Total War Alexander, though I guess its a PC game, which unfortunately means I probably won't be playing it.


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