History. Its vast, its varied, its pretty well documented, and its those qualities that make it such an easy target for story-tellers looking for inspiration or setting. Its also too cumbersome to examine in its entirety which is why we’ll focus on the land of the free and home of the brave, America, and how its history has been used in video games.
*Just a note, I like to think of video games as some sort of exclusive Eyes Wide Shut-style sex fiesta where you can’t get in unless you’re young enough (let’s say post-WWI). Something about automatic weapons and cannons on treads really gets these guys going and, frankly, its disgusting so lets stick to pre-WWII history. For shame, video games, for shame.
The early period of video games was a simple time, a time when the medium had its dignity and innocence still intact and there is one game in particular that captured the pioneering spirit and air of adventure that characterizes the American west circa the 1800s. The game was…Custer’s Revenge? You know, the Atari 2600 game where you play General George Armstrong Custer on his quest to fulfill his bizarre bondage fantasies. If we’re going to start somewhere, it might as well be the bottom.
As strange as it may be, it seems like the roguelike, the now exceedingly popular genre known for permadeath, radomized environments, and a high level of difficulty, may have had its roots in the 1970’s release of The Oregon Trail. The mechanics are more entwined with the narrative of this game than most modern entries as death and difficulty were the harsh realities of westward travel in the 19th century. Its also worth noting that early games weren’t completely full of morally reprehensible material as the worst thing you can do in The Oregon Trail is shoot a rabbit after you’ve already collected your maximum amount of meat because “it wouldn’t dress that way if it didn’t want to get shot.”
Leave it to Rockstar, the developer I credit as the first to allow me to wield a dildo as a weapon, to deliver new levels of narrative complexity. 2010's Red Dead Redemption also took place in the American west, but during the early 1900s. This period is unique among western stories as it is essentially the end of that era. It was strange to see telegraph poles and cars mixed in with the horses and dusty wooden towns that are more typical of the setting. The taming of the wild west and America’s movement into the new century make for a great backdrop for a story about one of the last western outlaws trying to put his past behind him and start an honest life.
Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed trades in neck stabs and historical settings. For number three they inserted their neck blades deep into America’s Revolutionary War. It would have been easy to just give another white guy a flintlock and have him cap a few redcoats, but the developer went for something a bit more challenging. The protagonist was a half white, half Native-American named Connor whose mission was to find and kill those responsible for an attack on his tribe and the death of his mother. This mission would put him at odds with members of both sides of the revolution, including George Washington. The game did a surprisingly good job of showing both nations in an equal light which is rare for this hemisphere.
These certainly aren’t the only examples of American History in video games. Gun, Call of Juarez, and Sunset Riders are just a few, but these are certainly some of the brightest…or at least most notable examples (I’m lookin’ at you Custer). What does the future of games about the past hold? Lantana Games is set to release their first game, Children of Liberty, soon with an early access build already on Steam. This game, like Assassin’s Creed III, takes place in revolutionary war America, and features children in a stealth platformer as they take on the occupying British. So, there is hope for the storied history of the good ol’ US of A in video games, that is as long as we can keep our minds open and our pants on.