Historical and biographical media is currently riding high in a big way.
Chernobyl, HBO’s newest mini-series, retelling the worst nuclear disaster in history, is the highest rated television show of all time on IMDb. Gentleman Jack, another HBO/BBC series following the true story of the first modern lesbian, Anne Lister, has just been greenlit for a second series.
I’ve been on a bit of non-fiction binge of my own, re-reading The Unwomanly Face Of War by Svetlana Alexievich. The book is an oral history of the women who fought in the Soviet Army in World War II.
It is a great polyphonic work filled with both mundane stories of waiting for hours in a ditch for a battle that never arrived, to the tense such as running into No Man’s Land to drag away the wounded whilst dodging gunfire.
While reading The Unwomanly Face Of War I got thinking about the recent Battlefield games 1 and V that both featured female warriors in Arabia and Norway respectively. While there was some…‘spirited’ discussion on the historical accuracy of the stories in Battlefield, it got me thinking about the stories highlighted by Alexievich, and how similar they were to the BF narratives. I started to think about stories in games and tried to think if there were any with biographical qualities.
The games industry has always had genres, but these are still mostly on how we experience the game; it is an adventure game, a point-and-click, a first-person shooter. But from there we can have genres of story; a war story, an adaptation of religious text, a comedy, sci-fi, the list goes on.
Even in the small grouping of “open-world crime story” we have satire (GTA), historical (Mafia III), drama (Yakuza), and techno-thriller (Watch_Dogs). There are so many genres to explore.
So would it be possible to make a biographical game, or do we have some already? I went for a look.
Life Without Theory – Biographical Accounts in Video Games
The first thing that comes to my head when I think of biographical features in games is the one I started with at the beginning of this post, war stories.
With Medal of Honor in 1998, the game was touted for its account of true events and scenarios that soldiers would have faced during WWII. The continued throughout the early 00s as WWII shooters became the norm for almost the entire FPS genre.
Even when Medal of Honor followed the market leader Call Of Duty into the modern day in 2010 and 2012, there was another attempt at bringing an authenticity to proceedings. Some levels in the 2012 release, Warfighter, were subtitled “Inspired By True Events”. This was in stark contrast to Call of Duty, which would often leave details vague on locations, time, and people.
One instance of ‘historical retelling’ in game that I remember from my childhood is Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 4. Of the fourteen pro skaters in the game, several of their ‘Pro Challenge’ missions were based off their previous exhibitions. While some changes were made, these missions were meant to be recreations of famous skating moments such as Tony Hawk’s Indy 900 gap, Bob Burnquist’s loop-da-loop or Jamie Thomas’ one-day photo shoot.
Another might be The Beatles Rockband. With the song progression being in release order and with stages set in the Cavern Club, on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the Apple Corps roof, it felt like a memorial and musical biography, like a video game adaptation of Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days A Week.
Another game that comes to mind when I think ‘biographical narratives’ is Assassin’s Creed. Ever since AC2 first included a database filled with locations, customs, and characters, detailed historical biographies (narrated excellently by Danny Wallace) have become a staple of the series. When I first played AC2 I spent an untold amount of time scrolling through the database, reading every last scrap of text. One entry that has stuck with me over the past ten years is Annetta.
Annetta is one of the first characters outside of the Auditore family that the player meets. She is one of the Auditore family’s servants and helps Ezio get his mother and sister out of Florence after the family are branded as traitors. Her database entry is only six lines long, ending quite sadly,
“Ultimately, little is known about Annetta’s life. She passed on without making a mark on history.”
I still think back on that entry even to this day, mainly for its almost achingly beautiful melancholic tone, but now I think how interesting it would have been to follow a servant girl during the tumultuous time of Renaissance Italy.
However, most of the games mentioned above are historical retellings. They are facts and dates, historical figures and public affairs.
Even in the historical offshoot of “heritage” media, which focuses on historical periods, but with fictional characters, I can name several games; the previously mentioned Assassin’s Creed, the Mafia series, Kingdom Come, Pillars Of The Earth (which is also a novel adaptation). Where are the personal tales that aren’t straight historical documentations?
A Different Perspective – The Personal Angle
There have been two games that I’ve been leaving off mentioning until now, as they are almost perfect examples of the autobiographical form, both from the indie market.
The main one is That Dragon, Cancer, a 2016 release created by Ryan and Amy Green, Josh Larson, and the studio Numinous Games. The game is based around the Green family and their son Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at twelve months old. The game follows the five years of Joel’s life and how the family coped with his illness. It is a raw personal story, with Ryan Green stating in an interview with The Telegraph,
“ can do something no other medium can, you can create this world and ask the player to live in it and love what you have created.” (Robertson, A. 2013).
The game was praised widely for its story and heartbreaking exploration that could only be achieved in a game, whereas others believed that its lack of gameplay disqualified it from being a game.
The other game that came to mind when thinking of biographical games was Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler. While Quinn and Depression Quest are more likely known from the ‘GamerGate’ hashtag, the game was created as a form of self-expression. Quoted in The New Yorker,
“Quinn…has suffered from depression since she was a teen-ager…game-making provided Quinn with a community and introduced her to Lindsey, who also suffers from depression. Lindsey suggested that the pair attempt to communicate their experience through a computer game.” (Parkin, S, 2014).
While not a direct autobiographical tale, the game was informed by the duo’s experiences and the game was praised for its depiction of depression with gaming. However, some claimed it was too simplistic a representation, which Quinn admits to in the interview with The New Yorker. Just like That Dragon, Cancer, the game was also criticised for its lack of entertaining quality or gameplay, being mainly a text adventure.
In research for this piece I found an article by Kawika Guillermo on Medium that also discussed the autobiographical nature of some games. Alongside That Dragon, Cancer, Guillermo gave a host of other examples such as Cibele and How Do You Do It by Nina Freeman.
Guillermo talks about the ‘death of the author’, a term coined by Roland Barthes, which posits there can be no singular reading of a work because we all have our own prejudices and views. Guillermo quotes game designer Robert Yang who said, “No-one makes personal games,” mentioning that due to the international market, what he terms ‘identity stories’ would lose meaning to non-Americans.
However, people do write their own tales into their work, be it in literature, film, or even games. Recently there was a thread on Twitter by Osama Dorias where developers described when they had put personal stories into games. I gave my personal experiences that informed my work on Story Beats. While these games may not have been fully autobiographical, there is a sense that this could be a new, mostly unmapped avenue for the industry to explore in the future.
We also have to think about what biographical stories that can be explored. The top selling biographies have included former presidents, businessmen, and musicians and have ranged in topics from road trips, traumatic childhoods and the final days of living with cancer. We would have to think on how to represent those in gameplay form. With a resurgent of point-and-click style games as well as the gameplay stylings of David Cage, there is more outside of the general action/adventure mould for games.
However, in the FPS/action genre there was Six Days in Fallujah, which was an attempt to document the Second Battle of Fallujah of the 2003 Iraq War. The game, by Atomic Games, was made alongside veterans of the battle and was made to highlight, in the words of Creative Director Juan Benito,
“…the importance of the stories of the marines that we worked with and were inspired by…to make people understand what those individuals faced…What we had set on was the first war documentary that was a video game…” (Paprocki, M, 2018).
The game was said to feature interviews with veterans between missions, bringing the story to life (GVMERS, 2017, 5:05). The game was cancelled after backlash from several anti-war groups and parents of soldiers that died during the conflict. A similar viewpoint came from Captain Dale Dye back in 1998 when he was asked to consult on the first Medal of Honor. When first told about the game, he was said to have called it, “…an exploitative, tone-deaf, irresponsible thing.” (Edge Staff, 2015).
To quote Linda Hutchinson, “Whether it be in the form of a videogame or a musical, an adaptation is likely to be greeted as minor and subsidiary…” (2006, p.xii).
These are things that would have to be addressed in making a biographical game. What would be removed, what would be added? Can we only make stories about events far in the past? Are no living people to be represented in games? Or would most of these games be too inherently political, grappling with the social and cultural context of the time?
Maybe biographical games are to stay in the independent or experimental market. But then there are stories that are almost stand-ins for AAA games already. For example, Paris by Julian Green is a semi-biographical book where the narrator takes a stroll through the French capital and describes the locations he visits. Could that not be similar to a Ubisoft game, describing the city as we travel it? But again, that is just a history lesson.
Where is the story of the man or woman in the street, of the personal tales that enthral audiences across the world? Where is Annetta’s story? Those are possibly harder to capture, but can offer a story rarely seen in games and bring a new facet to the medium.
Photo Banner Source: oculus.com.