Let’s Play With History

By Izaak Radecki

Recently, a few images of box art emerged which revealed details about the next instalment in the Call of Duty series, and it seems that the franchise is returning to its roots in simulating the Second World War. This latest title is being developed by Sledgehammer Games, the studio responsible for COD: Advanced Warfare in 2014, and the World War Two setting has reportedly been confirmed by Eurogamer sources. Before the recent collapse of integrity from the series, COD games have historically proven their worth through their ability to retell historical conflicts through the eyes of ordinary soldiers, particularly when set during World War II. From the beaches of Normandy in COD II to the siege of the Reichstag in World at War, every player was dealt a portion of history to experience for themselves. Admittedly, the blossoming of online gaming a few years ago quite rightly caused developers to place more emphasis on the multiplayer aspects of their games rather than the single-player story. Nevertheless, the most ground-breaking games in the series were rich in history throughout – even multiplayer maps were based on the story-modes of COD games. Therefore, if the next instalment is indeed returning to history for its primary content, then all I ask is that Sledgehammer Games executes it as well as it has been done in previous titles.

In order to make a successful game based on historical events, developers must do their research to create an authentic world that engrosses the player. This seems like a basic requirement for any producer of a video game, however, when it comes to using history, this target is easier to achieve because the game can be grounded in historical fact – the world and events already exist, so it is down to the developer to apply their artistic license and put their stamp on the release. This advantage can even be taken further by developers as they do not even need to rely on the player having a basic secondary-level knowledge of the events in their game, because it is possible to tap into the popular understandings of past events. I believe that Bethesda are the model company which take this approach to game development, and this is clear from two of their most successful series: Fallout and The Elder Scrolls, both of which are based entirely on popular understandings of history. For instance, throughout the Fallout series, my controversial favourite of the two, Bethesda somehow managed to successfully blend a mood of 1950s nostalgia into the year 2277, set 200 years after a nuclear apocalypse. I may be wrong, but I don’t think that anyone playing Fallout 3 onwards lived through the 1950s, which means that Bethesda constructed the Fallout universe out of popular understanding of nostalgia from that period, which has most likely been developed through film and television, rather than formal education. To achieve the degree of authenticity they did in Fallout, Bethesda had to create an entire culture for the Fallout world. Just like they did with the books they wrote for players to read in Skyrim, the in-game atmosphere is engineered using subtle features which gently feed the player history, and therefore authenticity. Players are plunged into the universe from the opening missions, as posters promoting war bonds, pre-war products like Nuka-Cola, and other paraphernalia are littered throughout the world, accumulating to create a beautifully authentic atmosphere. Bethesda inserted these prompts, alongside the laser-weapons and robots, but it is the player’s perception of what life was like during the Cold War in the 1950s that provides the basis of what ultimately convinces them.

As they did with the Fallout series, Wolfenstein: The New Order takes place in a historically-inspired alternate reality that Bethesda creatively modified to echo history. The New Order is based in an alternate reality where Nazi Germany has not only won the Second World War, but have managed to exceed the technology of the Allies and the period itself. Bethesda work on the presumption that their players will know at least a little bit about the Second World War, and therefore build on the player’s general understanding of Nazism that is has most likely informed them through cinema, television and education. By supplying a minimal history of Nazism to their players, Bethesda place them in the boots of B.J. Blazkowicz, an American marine (and the protagonist of the previous games) trapped in occupied Europe as part of the resistance movement during the 1960s. This setting brought with it an opportunity to utilise the player’s imagination and build on their presumed understanding of Nazism to engross them in the universe, which is vital to telling any story through the medium of video games. For instance, The New Order features nods to real resistance leaders, such as Hans and Sophie Scholl (in the Old Blood DLC), and detailing the specific evils of National Socialism, through depicting the arrival at a labour camp or the indiscriminate killing of other characters from around the world. Bethesda even ensured that in one mission set in Berlin, the player overhears a German mother expressing concern that her son may be a homosexual, and is therefore reporting him to a police officer. Even in the marketing campaign prior to the game’s release, Bethesda’s effort has to be praised. The world of The New Order was already being implanted into the minds of prospective gamers, as songs from the era, like ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, were re-recorded in German to play over trailers which offered a glimpse into a universe where Nazis rule. The subtleties perfected by the pre-release campaign were only reinforced throughout the game, but even by the time that I started playing I was ready to be shocked, scared, and entertained by what the story had to offer.

Yes, Bethesda created an entire world, but what makes The New Order such a convincing game is the alternative culture and real-life qualities of this world, which is something that they have proven elsewhere with the Fallout series and The Elder Scrolls games. The New Order builds on the player’s basic understanding of Nazism, so that they soon find themselves surrounded by a cocktail of obscure Nazi history, presented mainly by the dialogue and collectible newspaper clippings which show the surrender of the world since 1945. Players experience a blown-up idea of what it may have been like to live in a Nazi-occupied country as they are faced with tasks that require them to survive in these historically-inspired surroundings. I believe that the subtle genius of The New Order comes from the realisms and culture that Bethesda strategically inserted throughout the game and in its brilliant pre-release marketing campaign.

To me, this approach is the best way to use history to tell a story in a game, and if developers care about the story modes of their games, then they should pay close attention to the little things, as it is all too easy to carelessly let players drift away and become unconvinced by the world presented to them. For me, Assassin’s Creed: Unity provided the best example of this kind of callousness, mainly because I heard far too many Devonshire accents while sprinting through the streets of Revolutionary Paris. It was a real shame to see what was quite a fun game in a dying series being undermined by the very developers responsible for it. On the other end of the spectrum, the creation of an authentic alternative reality is executed well in other games like Bioshock’s warped presentation of the roaring 20s, and Red Dead Redemption’s portrayal of the brutality of the American West. In my opinion, both of these titles achieved the same degree of success as the Fallout series, however, Bethesda have definitely set the bar because of their consistency and style in bringing history to life for players around the world. Ultimately, I hope that Sledgehammer Games take more care using history in COD WWII than they did thinking up the title, because even using a pint-sized version of the Bethesda model would achieve what they seem to be setting out to do, which is to return to their creatively successful roots.

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