Assassin’s Creed

The Past in the Present: Why Games Set Long, Long Ago Matter


The beauty of video games is that they can take you to any point in space and time you can possibly dream up. Want to run a cobalt trading operation between two regions of the Milky Way? Elite: Dangerous has you covered. Want to play as a mutant monster hunter caught in the middle of an empire-wide war? Look no further than The Witcher franchise.

But if you’re a game designer, there’s a strong case to be made for setting the action in a real-world, historical setting. To illustrate, we’ll delve into the example of World War I as a setting for games.

“Where Are All the Good World War I Games?”

It’s an interesting question.

The number of games set in a post-apocalyptic future is gigantic. Game developers have also seen a lot of success using World War II as the backdrop — in fact, the list of WWII games is longer than you could shake a bayonet at.

Darkest Days - 2

On the other hand, the list of World War I games that have ever been created since the infancy of video gaming is surprisingly stark (and of those, the majority are flight sims).

There are some very valid arguments to be made as to why The War to End All Wars isn’t an ideal setting for a video game (or, at least, less ideal than WWII), and they’re perhaps deserving of their own separate article. But suffice it to say, nobody thought a game about processing paperwork in a grey, pseudo-Soviet setting was a thrilling idea until “Papers, Please” came along.


If the idea of turning one of the darkest, bloodiest and most senseless wars in recent history into fodder for a video game sounds like it would be in bad taste … well, it doesn’t need to be that way.

Preserving a Fading Time

While the principle purpose of video games is entertainment, it’s not the only benefit that can come from playing them: they’re also a medium for education.

Continuing with our WWI example, very few — if any — among us can truly appreciate the realities of WWI. An interactive medium like gaming, perhaps even more so than extensive reading about the war, has the capacity to help us empathize with the situation in which millions of soldiers found themselves.


The reason this is both poignant (when handled right) and important is that this is a monumental world event that is quickly fading from living memory — the last surviving veteran of World War I, Florence Green, passed away in 2012.

Two reasons game developers shy away from this period? Firstly, it’s a war from which there are comparatively fewer records, first-person accounts or artifacts from which to draw inspiration. Secondly, it was a very complicated war from a political standpoint, set it a world markedly different from our own (the political climate behind the second World War are more readily understandable, and it’s easier to differentiate between the heroes and evil parties).

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

But these are also precisely the reasons why video gaming should step up to the mantle and represent this time for the benefit of modern players (and it’s not as if there isn’t a market for gamers who want to see historical accuracy in games).


If done well, any historical games — not just those set around WWI — can be a big win all around: profitable for developers, entertaining for players, genre-pushing for the industry and preserving a little slice of history to boot.

Identifying Trends for Art and Profit

It may well be that non-RTS games set around WWI are fundamentally difficult, but that era does serve as a good case study and opens up a wider discussion on how public interest in certain historical periods influences the game industry.

It’s little surprise that COD and Battlefield games set in the Middle East dominated the charts during the 2000s, given the real-world events of that decade. Outside of modern warfare, we’re seeing a lot of Viking-inspired games coming out on Steam this year — it could be the case that this trend is being fueled by the spectacular HBO show “Vikings” and the success of the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise.


Or, alternatively, the slew of archeological findings from that period may have spawned a resurgence in public interest, which in turn has shaped gaming and movie trends.

Whichever way around it may be, it’s our job as game designers to identify such trends and deliver a quality gaming experience around them, ideally before everyone hops on the trend and it becomes oversaturated. After all, it would be somewhat foolhardy to make a COD-esque FPS in the current market.


But if you can be the first to identify a nonfiction story or era that has yet to receive an amazing game treatment?

That’s the holy grail right there.

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Looking At The Relationship Between Video Games And Movies

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Recently, the upcoming Assassin’s Creed film, based on Ubisoft’s annual game series, finished filming. While those who remember 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time might not have their hopes up, many are excited to see if a movie can capture what has made the Assassin’s Creed series so popular. The fact that the Ubisoft is planning six more movies based off their key franchises shows how much interest there is in game-based movies today.

The Early Days – 80s and early 90s

Games and movies have a long and interesting relationship. Thanks to improvements in graphics and processor speed, today’s generation doesn’t see much difference between games and movies aside from the fact that games are “interactive.” However, a few decades ago, people would have a hard time picturing that games would one day be as immersive and visually impressive as a Hollywood blockbuster.

Chrono Trigger

This didn’t stop developers of the 80s and early 90s from trying to tell a good story. Instead of relying on realism and special effects, those designers used captivating characters, plots, and worlds to keep players hooked. Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, and Final Fantasy VI are all titles that, despite being outdated visually by today’s standards, still hold a special place in people’s hearts due to their amazing storytelling.

The Cutscene Era – mid 90s to 2010

When 3D games started hitting the market in the mid 90s, the video game industry experienced a massive increase in cultural relevance. Players world-wide remember the first time they explored Peach’s castle in Super Mario 64, Midgar’s slums in Final Fantasy VII, and Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time. As the virtual environments and characters started looking more and more realistic, developers began borrowing ideas from the film industry.

Metal Gear Solid

This led to much more prominent use of animated cutscenes—a storytelling device using the full range of cinematic techniques. Final Fantasy VII’s cutscenes were breathtaking at the time and one of the most beloved aspects of the legendary JRPG. Gamers would progress through the game hoping they’d encounter the next gorgeous cutscene. Many other titles including Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil also made heavy use of non-interactive scenes to further the story, show important events, and wow gamers with beautiful graphics.

These days gamers still love cutscenes, but not if they detract from gameplay. Despite having best-in-class visuals, titles like The Order: 1887 and Final Fantasy XIII were criticized for stripping players of control of their experience far too often. Thus, developers have learned to strike a balance between gameplay and cutscenes.

The Rise Of Cross-Media – 2010 to present

Nowadays, movies and games influence each other more than ever before. Developers still utilize storytelling and filmic techniques from our favorite movies and books). If you don’t believe us, play the first 15 minutes of Last of Us or a few missions from any Grand Theft Auto game and see how many of them you notice are inspired by popular movies. A lot of games—such as King’s Quest, Tales from the Borderlands, Game of Thrones – A Telltale Games Series, and others—are also taking an episodic approach to keep players engaged over long periods of time, much like a television series or film trilogy.

Star Wars Battlefront

Given the extreme popularity of video games it make sense that more Hollywood studios are releasing movies based on games. A few examples are the Warcraft movie scheduled for release in Summer 2016, the Assassin’s Creed movie mentioned earlier, and even movies based on Asteroids and The Sims in the works, This trend is only growing, which means we can also more films based off video games as the years go by.

The Near Future

It has taken a long time but video games have finally earned respect for the stories they tell, even from those who don’t play games. With new innovations coming our way, such as the arrival of virtual reality, it’s possible that games will even surpass movies as the go-to entertainment for getting lost in enticing characters, stories, and worlds.

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