Gamescom turned out to be a history game bonanza and I couldn’t be happier. The European version of E3 in Cologne kicked it off with a trailer of the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Origins, revealing to take place against the background of Julius Caesar’s invasion and the game of thrones (pun very much intended) he played with Cleopatra. Then there was the announcement of Age of Empires IV being in production, and if that wasn’t enough Ubisoft also gave us Anno 1800. A next episode in the famous city builder games, this time in the Victorian era. Electronic Arts could’ve put the cherry on the cake with the Russian Civil War in Battlefield 1 but they failed miserably by making it multiplayer only.
Me, the history nerd
I love history. Always did. As a child you couldn’t make me happier than to play castle with me, or pirate, or cowboys and Indians. I build Robin Hood’s hideout from LEGO and in the weekend I loved going to the old castle ruins in a nearby park from where we lived. I read books about it too. Ever had a six year old little fucker tell you that chain maille was replaced by plate armour because it was heavier but more reliable against heavy sword attacks? Well, you never met me as a kid then. As a teenager the only school subject I would invest time and energy in without the slightest reluctance, was history. I loved our class trip to the German town of Xanten to see the old Roman settlement Colonia Ulpia Trajana and I taped history documentaries on VHS and brought them to class to watch.
Around that time I also started to get invested in videogames in historical settings. I remember Caesar II and III, the Roman era city builders and Commandos, the Second World War tactical action game from Pyro Studios. There was also a series of pirate games for MS DOS, including one called Red Hook’s Revenge. A board game with little avatars of Anne Bonny, Blackbeard and a guy named Le Boucher. Oh, and Silent Hunter of course. I was too young to even understand the complexities of controlling a submarine in the Pacific ocean but I had a whale of a time roleplaying a badass navy captain.
But the true Golden Age of period piece games is today. With better graphics, more attention to detail and more investment in voice acting, accurate design and story telling. My favourites are LA Noire, GTA Vice City, more recently Mafia III and of course Assassin’s Creed. The Assassin game I hold most dear to my heart is Syndicate, simply because I love the Victorian era so much. Together with the times of Ancient Rome and the Cold War era, it’s my favourite historical era. Imagine how happy I was with the three games that were announced this week.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is going to take us to Egypt. To many it sounds like a specific enough indication, but when you look into it, it really is not. Egypt is old, very old. Most of us (and I’m not shaming anyone here, I often misinterpret it myself too) feel as if thge pyramids, Cleopatra, the hieroglyphs and all that, was roughly in the same era. It wasn’t, it really was not. The easiest way to get it across is the following fact: there is more time between the first pyramids and the reign of Cleopatra than there’s time between the reign of Cleopatra and the first Burger King. Let that sink in: when Cleopatra was around, the pyramids were already ancient history. Cleopatra might not have known where those things were from and how they were build.
A Brief History of Egypt
Anyway, that’s the period of time Assassin’s Creed is going to zoom in at: the time when Julius Caesar was trying to take control over Egypt by forging an alliance with the Macedonian noblewoman Cleopatra Philopator the 6th.
The newest trailer shows us that the Assassins – or actually the precursor of the Assassins, are siding with Cleopatra and Caesar. The proto-Templars, I haven’t figured out yet what they’re called in this pre-Christian society, are on the side of the old Pharaoh, Ptolemy. As we are used to from Ubisoft’s flagship franchise, the game spins an interesting tale based on historical events. At first sight, a notoriously autocratic figure like Julius Caesar seems a perfect fit for the antagonist. But if we study his role in Egypt, we see an interesting contrast. Caesar at that time was at war with his son in law Gnaeus Pompeius. Pompey fled to Egypt to seek sanctuary, only to be murdered by Ptolemy, a teenager still who wanted to impress Caesar. However, the Roman ruler wasn’t impressed at all and declared war. He sided with the exiled sister of Ptolemy, Cleopatra. She had been trying to force her younger brother out of power but was defeated by Roman forces who were stationed in Egypt at the time. Cleopatra was openly opposed against the tradition in the Egyptian ruling families that siblings would marry each other and rule the country together. In this system the man was always the superior leader and his sister a subordinate. Cleopatra actively broke with this tradition, as she also refused to uphold other customs of the Greek dynasties that had ruled the land of the Nile. Since Alexander the Great, no Greek ruler had learned the Egyptian language or bothered to adapt Egyptian customs. Cleopatra learned the language and identified herself with the polymeric religion of Egypt, portraying herself as a personification of the goddess Isis. Meanwhile, Caesar abandoned his original plan to annex Egypt and instead took on the role of arbiter in the Egyptian conflict, allowing Cleopatra to rule and maintain independent as an ally to Rome. Exemplary is the fact that after Caesar was assassinated and the armies of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony defeated by Augustus Caesar, Egypt was immediately made into a Roman province, instead of the autonomous region under Julius Caesar’s reign. We might be looking at a faction war between the forces that would later become the Knights Templar, since in the earlier games we’ve seen Julius Caesar and Cleopatra as assassination targets of Ezio Auditore’s ancestors, immortalised in the crypt beneath the villa in Monteriggioni. Is Ubisoft going to retcon this lore or are we going to see Bayek being betrayed by the rulers of Rome and Egypt?
Anno and Empires
Then there’s Anno 1800 and Age of Empires IV. This comes especially as a surprise, in age of videogames where the strategy and city building games are in decline. The market has shifted from PC games and niche target groups to the mass appeal of shooters, adventure games and sandbox mayhem games for consoles. But, it seems that’s about to change, or at least that’s what some us really hope for. The late nineties, early 2000s (I absolutely refuse to refer to that decade as the ‘noughties’, what the hell is that about?) were great time for titles like Children of the Nile, Port Royale, Europa Universalis. With the power of the new generation of consoles, we can bring these to their family too now and reach more people than before. Especially the return of Age of Empires, after more than a decade is creating some shockwaves through the gaming community. I’m happy to see many positive and hopeful reactions; even as we don’t have any details about the era it’s going to take place in, as of now. Although it’s still more than a year away, we know a bit more about Anno 1800, which with its very name already spoils the setting obviously. It’s almost frightening actually, that just a day or two ago I was imagining by myself that it would be cool to have a city builder taking place in the Victorian era. I was searching for PC games to play, since we just got ourselves a shiny new gaming laptop and I noticed how almost all games in a historic setting clod together in the same periods of history. Medieval times are popular, the occasional antiquity setting is there and the Age of Discovery. “How cool would it be to build a city like London in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate”, I thought to myself. And lo and behold it happened. Either I’m psychic or just on the same wavelength as many a game developer. I fancy both options to be honest.
I want to end on a positive note, so I’m going to complain a little bit about Battlefield 1 and then come back to the ecstatic mood I’m in because of all these amazing announcements. Electronic Arts showed off their new DLC package on stage during Gamescom and revealed that we now can play as the Red Army and the White Guard from the Russian Civil War Incorrectly referred to as the Russian Revolution by EA, by the way. The Russian Revolution had already taken place and the Civil War was a direct result of it. The White Guard consisted of a small group of loyalist and moderate counterrevolutionaries; backed up by foreign armies who wanted to prevent to Soviets from maintaining power. The ousting of the Tsar had already taken place by that time and it was merely a conflict between the provisional government, the Bolsheviks and a handful of fringe movements from both sides of the political spectrum. Maybe that’s the reason why DICE was skittish about putting the conflict in a single player campaign, and instead chose to make it multiplayer only. The Revolution of 1917 and the political turmoil that followed is one of the most important historical events in the history of modern humanity and it’s such a waste that we are not going to see it in proper historical context and backed up cinematic narrative. Games have become such an essential medium to tell stories and teach us about society, history and politics. The only thing I can hope for right now is that the next full blown installment of the Battlefield series is going to stay in this setting and tell more stories from that era.
Okay, so, to wrap it up. History in games is back, I didn’t even mention the new Call of Duty yet or Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. On top of that, strategy games and city builders also started the long journey back to the top. We need to encourage and support this tendency and keep on it by playing, enjoying but also analysing and criticising these games to make them better and demand constant improvement. History is not only a playground, as the Assassin’s Creed developers often say, history is also a responsibility and a gift every writer, designer and creator should cherish and use well.