Games

Games

The Fire Fades: Vulnerable Knights in Dark Souls

“YOU DIED.”

These are the words that any player of Dark Souls is intimately familiar with. They are an accusation. It flies in the face of more familiar video game end screens like: “Game Over” or “You are Dead”. The game isn’t over. You need to try again. You need to do something different.

Failure and death are the nearly synonymous with the Dark Souls series.  With episodes released in 2011, 2014, and 2016, they are a nightmarishly difficult series of action games. The Dark Souls series has made a profound impact on how video games incorporate difficulty into their mechanics. However, it is also worth considering how the Dark Souls series difficulty unsettles knighthood as a symbol of invulnerability.


The Death Screen in Dark Souls (Image Credit: Bandai Namco)

Fantasies, especially those in video games, are often empowering. They allow the reader or player to imagine themselves as a hero slaying a near-infinite landscape of vicious monsters by their skill and prowess alone. But. Dark Souls does not cast the player as an invincible warrior. Instead, the player-character is a much more precarious sort of knightly figure. This knight faces considerably more powerful adversaries, many of whom can—and do, very, very often—kill the character with a single blow. It can be maddening to play. It may sometimes seem unfair. But the game revels in its extreme difficulty. And in doing so, the game asks its players to confront their own vulnerability and fragility.

The game does not force you to play as a knight specifically. But the archetype of the quest is central to the game’s narrative—as are the concepts of responsibility and duty. Even the cover art for all three games places knighthood at the center of the game. The series highlights the frailty of the medieval knightly figure, rather than its invincibility. This has important consequences for our own perceptions of who, and what, knights really were. Knights are frequently, and odiously, deployed by white supremacists and the so-called “alt-right”; for them, knights are symbols of righteous invincibility. So that makes it even more important for us to examine how popular culture views the vulnerability of the knight.

Finding medieval influences in the Dark Souls series is not hard. The grim-dark fantasy game carries its medievalesque aesthetics on its sleeve. However, its focus on vulnerability resonates, perhaps unexpectedly, with the same sort of anxieties you can find in actual medieval romance adventure stories. This is what drew my attention to the series—how much it stands in stark contrast with more typical modern representations of knights and knighthood.

The City of Anor Londo from Dark Souls (Image Credit: Bandai Namco)

The Fire Fades

The Dark Souls series crafts worlds centered on vulnerability, fragility, and transience. The continued cycle of life in the world is linked to kindling and re-kindling a fire, a process that, by its very nature, is temporary.  Many characters throughout in the game world remind the player, over and over; “the fire fades”.

Even the divine offers no protection from entropy in these games’ world. There is a pantheon of creator gods in the world of Dark Souls. But they have all faded, died, or been consumed. In the first Dark Souls game, your final fight is against the leader of a dying pantheon, Gwyn the Lord of Light. Gwyn has gone mad in a doomed attempt to keep his age of fire going just a little longer. In Dark Souls III, you emerge into the game from the literal ash of the dead—the same dead who failed to kindle the fire of the world previously.

All this serves to instill a profound sense of loneliness and isolation. Whether it is the imposing monsters you confront, or the very architecture of worlds you navigate, you are tiny in comparison to the world around you. You are told that the ruins of castles and cities you walk through were crafted long ago. All that remains of these cultures survives through scraps of dialogue and the occasional description of an item you can use.

The Kiln of the First Flame from Dark Souls (Image Credit: Bandai Namco)

As I navigated each of these games, I noticed something interesting in myself. The overwhelming feeling of vulnerability instilled in me a desire to care for the few characters that I came across that weren’t monsters. Some of these characters ultimately betray you. Some, perhaps understandably, are nihilistic about their lot in life. But others maintain a stalwart sense of optimism in the midst of their crumbling world. I found myself utterly charmed by the reoccurring figure of Siegmeyer of Catarina, a relentlessly upbeat, and somewhat oblivious, chivalric knight archetype dressed in bulbous onion-shaped armor. YouTube creator VaatiVydia, a specialist in Dark Souls lore and storytelling, has created a video about Siegmeyer, part of an aptly named series of character studies called “Prepare to Cry”. In this video, VaatiVydia deftly observes that the more the player works to rescue Siegmeyer, the quicker he loses faith in his own bravery, eventually going mad.  Siegmeyer therefore presents us with an uncomfortable and compelling examination of knighthood, one that is precarious and ultimately undone by attempts to secure his body from harm. It manifests a psychology that struggles to see bravery outside of exposing the body to danger over and over again. Despite his tragic end, Siegmeyer’s optimism sets him apart from the other morose figures of the world. Siegmeyer’s upbeat demeanor even acts as a meme in his own right within the fans of the Dark Souls community where some have dubbed him the “Onionbro”.


“Quite honestly, I have run up flat against a wall. Or, a gate, I should say. The thing just won’t budge, no matter how long I wait. And, oh, have I waited! So here I sit, in quite a pickle.” -Siegmeyer of Catarina (Image Credit: Bandai Namco)

This pervasive sense of vulnerability can even evoke genuine sympathy with the enemies that you fight. This is perhaps best embodied in the Dark Souls III boss fight with the twin Princes Lorian and Lothric. Prince Lorian, the elder brother, fights on his knees. He is unable to use his legs after being cursed in a previous attempt to protect his younger brother Lothric. Lothric himself clings to his brother’s back during the fight; he is unable to stand on his own. These are bodies that have suffered in the world that you navigate. It is impossible to ignore how you both confront each other, even in combat, as exposed and fragile.

“Lorian, raised as a knight, is said to have been left mute and crippled by his younger brother’s curse. It is also said that Lorian, in fact, wished it so.” – A fragment of lore within a description of Lorian’s Armor
(Image Credit: Bandai Namco)

Prepare to Die

From a mechanical perspective, the player’s vulnerability is revealed through the game’s difficulty. The Dark Souls series, and indeed most games by the developer From Software, are punishing. They are known for it. The games require extreme patience and care. Mistakes can cause quick death—and, in some cases, can cost quite a lot of progress.

The violence of the game, therefore, instills a visceral sense of risk. The combat, simply put, has stakes. This is seen more often in the survival-horror genre of video games than the fantasy-action genre. Typically, fantasy video games attempt to instill in the player a sense of empowerment. There is progression within every Dark Souls game—the player’s character levels up and gets more powerful by acquiring new equipment and spells along the way. But it is always tempered by how precarious you remain—no matter how much you increase your stats. Every enemy, no matter how mundane looking, can pose a deadly threat to the character. No amount of armor can fully inure the player from damage. Often the protection afforded by equipment is minimal: enough to make a difference from time to time, but never enough to completely rely on for protection.

Appropriately enough, the tagline for first game in the series is “Prepare to Die”. The tagline has been taken up by many players as a clarion call to other, less-experienced players to toughen up and ‘git gud’ (a meme-ified way of simply saying “get good”) at the game. But it can also be read from another angle—one that asks you to be open to fragility and ready to learn from failure. The game will never let you stop being vulnerable. If you are to be successful as a player, you need to learn to embrace that vulnerability.

Shed Your Armor

These feelings of vulnerability resonate surprisingly well how the characters in medieval romances behave. Many familiar with the genre of medieval romance assume that the knights in these texts are paragons of martial prowess, nigh invincible in their skill with sword and lance. And this is often true. For example, in the Song of Roland, the companions Roland, Oliver, and Archbishop Turpin fight against impossible odds as the rearguard for Charlemagne’s army, slaying a truly bewildering number of enemy soldiers before eventually being overwhelmed. It really is the stuff of video games. Similarly, in many of the Arthurian romances, Galahad is considered the pinnacle of Arthurian knights: he is unconquerable in combat, unshakable in his piety, and incorruptible. However, knights like Roland and Galahad sometimes overshadow the nuanced ways in which the ideal of knighthood is expressed in many other medieval romance stories.

For example, in the Middle English romance Havelok the Dane the young protagonist Havelok spends his life acutely aware of the vulnerability of his body. He is imprisoned at an early age. He bears witness to the brutal murder of his sisters. He is threatened with drowning in the sea, raised as a scullion in exile, and eventually, and rather reluctantly, returns as a conquering warrior reclaiming his inheritance. While Havelok does indeed eventually win the day, but his path is underscored with how open his body is to harm from others.

Havelok only succeeds based on those who surround him and support him, despite how vulnerable the text makes him out to be. For instance, when Havelok returns to his native Denmark in order to gain support for his claim to the throne he is awakened at night by the court kissing his feet as a pledge of loyalty to him.

They fell quickly at his feet
They all greeted him
They were all overcome with joy
As if he had arisen from the grave.
They kissed his feet a hundred times
The toes, the nails, and the tips
So that be began to wake up
And became pale before them
For he thought they wished to kill him,
Or else imprison him and hurt him.

He fellen sone at hise fet.
Was non of hem that he ne gret –
Of joye he weren alle so fawen
So he him haveden of erthe drawen.
Hise fet he kisten an hundred sythes –
The tos, the nayles, and the lithes –
So that he bigan to wakne
And wit hem ful sore to blakne,
For he wende he wolden him slo,
Or elles binde him and do wo.

(Havelok the Dane, verses 2158-2167).

Instead of his community binding itself to him after some daring feat of arms, they do so—albeit in a pretty bizarre way—when he is at his most vulnerable.

Bevis of Hampton, another Middle English romance, also explores the vulnerability of its protagonist as a fundamental part of his knighthood. Bevis is at his most fragile when he is alone, absent of those who support him. Far from the invincible lone knight, Bevis draws strength from a community. After being imprisoned for seven years, Bevis is weak from hunger. Falling from his horse, Bevis claims he would give up his title and horse for a bare scrap of food:

‘Alas’ said Bevis when he fell down,
‘I who had an earldom
And a good swift horse
That men called Arundel
Now I would give it all up
For a sliver of bread!’

‘Allas!’ queth Beves, whan he doun cam,
‘Whilom ichadde an erldam
And an hors gode and snel,
That men clepede Arondel;
Now ich wolde yeve hit kof
For a schiver of a lof!’

(Bevis of Hampton 1821-1826).

Shortly after this embarrassing pratfall, Bevis fights a giant. Bevis is wounded—understandable given his weakened state:

And then he threw a spear at him,
He hit Bevis on the shoulder shedding
blood that ran down to Bevis’s feet,
When Bevis saw his own blood,
He went out of his mind
And he quickly ran at the giant
And proved he was a doughty man,    
He smote him down to the neck bone:
And the giant fell to the ground.


Anon he drough to him a dart,
Thourgh Beves scholder he hit schet,
The blod ran doun to Beves fet,
Tho Beves segh is owene blod,
Out of is wit he wex negh wod,
Unto the geaunt ful swithe he ran
And kedde that he was doughti man,
And smot ato his nekke bon:
The geaunt fel to grounde anon.

(Bevis of Hampton 1912-1920).

However, even in this victory, Bevis deviates from what we imagine a knightly paragon would do. He is enraged at the sight of his own blood, overwhelmed with emotion when his body is shown to be weaker than he expects. Anger and fragility consume Bevis—a far cry from the expectations of the knight and shining armor. Where he should be restrained and calm, Bevis is rash and furious.

Within these romances, these imperfect and fragile knights are just as important as their more well-known flawless and mighty counterparts. They provide more relatable characters to their readers and a more-varied array of stories and literary tropes. For every Roland or Galahad, there is a Havelok or Bevis; these vulnerable knights form a great and largely untapped source of material for games and other media.

Kindle the Flame

I read the Dark Souls series as an inheritor of the medieval conception of how knighthood and vulnerability intersect. To me, these games underscore the value of connection and community within imaginative spaces and ask the player to confront how bodies share fragility to one another rather than imagine their invulnerability. Knights are far from invincible conquerors. Knights are fragile.

Looking at the fragility of knights runs counter to contemporary misappropriation of knighthood by white supremacists and the fascist so-called alt-right. For them, knights represent a symbolic, and sometimes literal, force that shores up perceived vulnerabilities, rather than acknowledging them. The moniker “white knights” has frequently appeared as a within cadet branches of organizations like the Klu Klux Klan and other hate groups. For instance, the “Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights”, founded as the paramilitary arm of the “Proud Boys”, dress in armor looking to go into battle against Antifa activists during protests. The “Alt-Knight” crest reimagines them as modern-day crusaders, emblazoned with the battle-cry “Deus Vult” (God wills it). The symbolic knight for these groups is a part of a fantasy that ‘white identity’ and European culture is being overrun and besieged, and that the only defense of these ideas is by deploying knights to shore up that weakness. It’s a ridiculous, toxic appropriation of a medieval practice.

Expansive interpretations of knighthood, as seen in the Dark Souls series, help challenge the idea that knights draw their symbolic strength from wrapping themselves in armor and insulating themselves from others. It is maybe unsurprising that this toxic idea of knighthood is also the fantasy used by those who believe that communities gain strength when they are isolated from other cultures, races, and perspectives.

Small bonfires in the Dark Souls series act as symbol of progress for the player, a small bastion of safety amidst the challenges of the game world. They replenish your ability to heal yourself and resting at a one gives you a checkpoint if you die, returning you to the last one you rested at. Thematically, these small fires tie into the series larger questions of renewing the flames that keep the light of the world intact. While the role of the fire in the Dark Souls series is ambiguous at best, the bonfires might give us a chance to consider what is worth preserving and maintaining. We have opportunities to kindle our awareness to the vulnerabilities we share with others around us, to renew it, and preserve it.  And this task is made all the more rewarding, perhaps, because it is so difficult.

A Bonfire from Dark Souls (Image Credit: Bandai Namco)
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Games

Why are Objectives Important in Historical Video Games?

The Public Medievalist  and Extra Credits  have previously highlighted the distinction between factual accuracy (dates, names, places etc.) and mechanical accuracy (how the world actually works, how NPCs behave, what the rules are) in historical computer games. They both rightly underlined how mechanical accuracy is generally more important than factual accuracy in this interactive medium. However, neither of these pieces really talk about game objectives, and this is where they drop the ball. Objectives (how the game is won or lost, what the player is told to do in game, and what the player is required to do to earn optional Achievements) can be the most important element of a game.

Objectives don’t quite fit into either factual or mechanical accuracy. The objectives of a game are closely tied to its mechanics, but are, nevertheless, distinct. While mechanics allow a game to be interactive, objectives form a different element of play. They tell the player what they should be trying to achieve. They encourage or outright coerce the player into a certain pattern of behaviour. Even sandbox games with no formal objectives are affected by this – players come into these games with certain expectations of their purpose drawn from the game’s genre and the community around it: in Minecraft, you build and survive; in Crusader Kings II, you expand your kingdom.

This allows objectives to bridge the gap between narrative and gameplay, steering the use of the mechanics towards historically accurate or authentic outcomes (or not). As a result, objectives can exert a much more overt and extreme influence than game mechanics on how we play a game and, as a consequence, how we think about history.

I propose that objectives in historical computer games can be divided into four rough categories: Victory Objectives; Progression Objectives; Beneficial Objectives; and Challenge Objectives. I’m going to define these categories and then talk about how they influence how we play and how this in turn can alter our perceptions of history.

How to Win Games and Influence People

Victory Objectives are the most basic and fundamental goals of the game. They’re what the player is ultimately trying to achieve—what they need to do to win. The king-sim Medieval: Total War (and its sequel Medieval: Total War II) casts the player in the role of a ruler of a medieval kingdom and charges them with the conquest of the known world (or a sizeable chunk of it at any rate). The original Assassin’s Creed is a third-person stealth-based fighting game which tasks the player, cast in the role of a disgraced member of the Assassins, with regaining his position within the organisation by murdering a series of targets.

However, not all Victory Objectives are mandatory. In some games there is just one overarching objective to complete. But, in many cases the player can win through diverse paths to victory. The Civilization franchise, which places the player in control of a major civilization across the ages, is a good example of this. In the most recent iteration of the long-running series (Civilization VI) the game can be won by progressing your civilization to military, cultural, religious, or scientific heights.

Your Princess is in Another Castle

Progression Objectives are smaller in scope than Victory Objectives, but must be completed to move forward with the game. Assassin’s Creed divides its overarching narrative into a series of missions (typically, as you might expect, centred around assassinations) each of which must be completed to progress. These missions in turn are divided into smaller objectives (reporting to the local Assassins’ bureau, locating the target, gathering information) some of which must be fulfilled before the main objective (killing the target and escaping) may be attempted.

Roleplaying games such as The Elder Scrolls series typically set the player a string of goals which must be completed sequentially to move forward. In Oblivion (the fourth game of the series) the player must collect a series of items and defeat a series of foes in order to defeat a demonic invasion of the world. These are all Progression Objectives, and for the narrative to proceed, these Progression Objectives must be completed.

Some Progression Objectives allow multiple solutions. In Assassin’s Creed, prior to launching an assassination bid, the player must complete some of a number of reconnaissance tasks. They have to gather information on the target, collect relevant items, or gain the support of other characters. However, the player is only required to complete a small proportion of the available tasks before making their attempt. Similarly, the Dragon Age and The Witcher roleplaying game series allow the player numerous solutions to obstacles to their progression, many of which have consequences later in the game.

PhatLoot and XP

Beneficial Objectives do not move the main narrative forward, but provide some mechanical benefit to the player. In Medieval Total War II,these objectives are represented by the missions set by the nobles, Church and merchants of your kingdom. These typically task the player with capturing a province or constructing a building. In exchange, the player receives funds or military units.

In roleplaying games, these objectives are often represented by sub-quests: optional missions which do not progress the main story arc, but can provide valuable loot and/or experience, or ensure the loyalty of allies. Oblivion (and the other Elder Scrolls games) allows the player to complete missions for various guilds, gaining material rewards for their efforts and access to a greater range of services. Numerous other sub-quests are set by other NPCs which have no immediate bearing on the overall plot. None of these objectives are strictly necessary in order to complete the game. However, fulfilling them can make winning the game much easier.

I’ve Got Street Credibility

Challenge Objectives provide no tangible mechanical benefit in exchange for their completion. The player may receive some reward for completing them, such as additional cut scenes, acknowledgement in game or through a game platform like Steam or Origin, or cosmetic rewards such as new outfits for a character. But, there is no in-game mechanical reason to undertake them. They provide bragging rights and little else. While completing a pacifist or stealth run is impressive, and collecting all of the hidden items demonstrates a huge time commitment to the game, there is usually no in-game benefit for doing so.

There are hundreds of these banners hidden around the game. If you collect them all you receive… *checks notes*… nothing…

Conquering Moscow as Harold Godwinson with a troupe of Elephants in Crusader Kings II may be entertaining, but there is no benefit to doing so—in fact, outlandish strategies like this can make winning the game much harder. And therein lies the rub; like JFK said of going to the moon, you choose do these things “not because they are easy but because they are hard.”

Gaming the Player

All of these objectives can influence the way we play. Victory Objectives typically have the most obvious impact. Medieval Total War demands that you conquer a massive portion of medieval Europe to win the game. Hence, play focuses on warfare and the socio-economic activity necessary to support your growing war-machine.

Attempting a given victory condition in Civilization, particularly on the higher difficulty levels of the game, requires an early strategic commitment to a particular path to victory. Resources must be managed, technological advances chosen, and civic development focused in order to best achieve the ultimate goal. In some cases, this can extend to which faction you select to play at the beginning of the game. In Civilization V Theodora and Byzantium are better suited to cultural supremacy, while Atilla and the Huns or Genghis Khan and the Mongols will do better with conquest.

Progression Objectives can be even more influential. If a game demands the player complete actions in a particular order, the player (sequence breaking aside) has little choice but to comply. The sub-objectives in Assassins’ Creed steer the player towards a careful and methodical approach to killing their target. The player can’t start randomly stabbing people in the hope of dispatching the victim. Instead they have to undertake a series of preparations to locate the target and the weak points in their defences. This greater granularity of objectives restricts the player’s actions and free will and in doing so enforces a style of play in a way that general, overarching objectives cannot.

Beneficial Objectives are generally less influential than Progression Objectives, but can still be important in guiding a player’s actions. The rewards granted for completing missions in Medieval Total War II often make them worthwhile. The extra high-level units or substantial injection of funds can help to turn the tide of a conflict, particularly in the early game.

Optional quests in RPGs are often the source of the best equipment. Oblivion’s Umbra sword and Baldur’s Gate II’s Carsomyr sword are arguably the most powerful weapons in their respective games; they are acquired while completing side quests. Players with even the slightest inclination towards power gaming can easily be attracted to the completion of these objectives.

Beneficial Objectives with less-spectacular rewards are often completed simply because they provide structure to play. In a sandbox environment, an objective, even if it is an optional one, gives the player a focus for activity. This is especially true of games with massive free roaming scope such as the Elder Scrolls series. Being allowed to explore anywhere across a huge and varied map, almost from the beginning of the game, can easily be overwhelming. But the ready availability of optional, but beneficial, objectives can give the player direction if they want it.

Even Challenge Objectives can affect how a player interacts with the game. A range of the achievements for Assassin’s Creed oblige the player to collect banners from hidden or hard-to-reach locations around the game world. This encourages a degree of exploration which is completely unnecessary to finish the game. Nevertheless, the number of players who have completed these achievements and the plethora of guides produced detailing how best to fulfil them demonstrate that these challenges do influence play for a certain subset of its players.

Good Objectives, Bad Objectives

None of this is necessarily a problem. Well-ordered Victory and Progression Objectives can help maintain a narrative framework, making games more accessible. This is visible in Assassin’s Creed where in the early game the player is shepherded through a fairly restricted and linear series of objectives. This allows steady plot development and a well-moderated difficulty curve. Beneficial Objectives can provide boosts to a player’s abilities or resources allowing struggling players to complete the Progression Objectives without breaking immersion. Challenge Objectives can give extra life to a game for experienced players. More generally, a variety of objectives can greatly increase the replayability of games.

However, within historical games, objectives, and their power over play, have the potential to influence perceptions of the past. In particular, they can influence how we regard the motivations and mindset of people of earlier periods. ‘Winning’ in the middle ages was often very different from ‘winning’ in a game set in the middle ages.

For example, Medieval: Total War, with its focus on military expansion, gives the impression that this was the principal goal of medieval monarchs. While warfare was certainly an important aspect of a king’s role in the Middle Ages, this was always accompanied by responsibilities as an administrator, law maker, religious paragon, and peace keeper. These roles are side-lined or ignored by the game objectives. A winning strategy in Medieval: Total War would produce a largely ineffectual king in the Middle Ages.

Only sixty percent of Europe?

Furthermore, warfare was only rarely conducted in order to conquer territory from another kingdom. More typically, it was smaller in scale and revolved around expanding or maintaining authority within one’s own kingdom. The massive conquests required to win Medieval: Total War were simply impossible in the period and were well beyond the desires of medieval kings. Winning the game represents the unfeasible dream of a true megalomaniac.

This dissonance is underlined by the fact that all of the various factions within Medieval Total War II have fundamentally the same objectives: to conquer territory. The tools available to them (units, resources, starting territory) vary, but ultimately, the player is sent out to make war whether he plays as the King of England, the Doge of Venice, or the Sultan of Egypt. There is no indication that these figures were different, or had fundamentally different priorities. They are all presented as solely concerned with military expansion.

Medieval: Total War is far from an isolated example; grand strategy games in general have trained us to crush all opposition as the path to victory. The route to power almost invariably lies through the conquest of your neighbours, and frequently this is taken to the logical extreme of global domination. To be a ‘winner’ you have to entertain the imperial ambitions of the most extreme twentieth-century despots.

Even when other options are available to secure victory, these are usually overlooked or secondary to military conquest in games set in the Middle Ages. As indicated above, the most recent iterations of the Civilization franchise offer a cornucopia of paths to victory through science, culture and religion in addition to military conquest. The creators have managed a decent balance here; in their playtesting, they have observed that roughly the same proportion of players achieve each victory type. However, of these objectives, only military or religious domination can be achieved in the Middle Ages—and winning a religious victory this quickly all but requires extensive conquest in addition to religious domination. While players whose civilizations win in the modern era can cultivate culturally or scientifically enlightened societies, in order to win as a medieval king you must be a megalomaniac – possibly with a side of zealotry for good measure.

Moving beyond the grand strategy genre, the objectives of other types of game can also provide a rather distorted image of the mindset of the player’s character. Assassin’s Creed, like many if not most games, includes the survival of the player’s character as an implicit objective throughout the game. This diverges from the more-typical methods of the Assassins where the survival of the agent was secondary to the death of the target.

For example, Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jerusalem, was murdered in the streets of Tyre in 1192 by two members of this sect. But neither of his assailants lived to undertake another mission. One was killed on the scene by Conrad’s bodyguards; the other was captured and died under subsequent torture. But these Assassins certainly succeeded in their objective, despite their demise.

Furthermore, the main objective of many of the assassinations conducted by this group was to create a public spectacle. This was certainly the case with the assassination of Conrad. Escaping alive was certainly desirable but this was not always practical.

In the case of Assassin’s Creed, the divergence of game objectives from the priorities of the group in question can be explained primarily through narrative needs. It is easier to create a compelling story through interaction with a single player character than with a string of individuals. It’s much easier to allow the player to act as a superhuman hero, to the extent that this is the expected norm for action games like this. Further, while a heroic sacrifice in order to further a righteous cause can work extremely well as a defining moment for the nobility of a character, the repeated appearance of this trope could easily raise negative connotations associated with suicide attacks in the modern world. This would undermine the portrayal of the Assassins as the ‘good guys’ in this game and could easily lead to sanctions against the game.

Objective History

So: how can developers get players to think and act more like roles they take on? Careful use of narrative and mechanics can certainly play a role. Fleshing a story out to better resemble key historical issues can help the player engage with the role given to them. Numerous roleplaying games such as Baldur’s Gate or any of The Elder Scrolls series go out of their way to create a vast and immersive game world for the player through varied and detailed lore and stories. This can go a long way towards embedding a player within the world of the game and there is great potential to use the same techniques in games set more firmly in the medieval world.

Incorporating game mechanics that provide authentic options and encourage the player to use them would also be beneficial. Grand strategy games could place greater emphasis on non-military aspects of medieval rulership, for example. Crusader Kings II goes some way towards this through the provision of complex non-violent possibilities allowing players to focus on social and political manoeuvrings within the royal court or the development of business interests. There’s more that could be done here, but this is certainly a step towards encouraging authentic play.

I mean, they might be a benevolent dictator

But there’s something missing with the Crusader Kings approach. Players have the option to act more like medieval rulers, but they don’t really have the incentive. Beyond a vague score mechanic and the need to continue your dynasty to continue the game there are no objectives in Crusader Kings II and this shows in the behaviour of players. With no clear instruction, most players fall back on ingrained behaviour and set out to conquer the world. There is no incentive to behave like a good medieval king—no reason to be a pious, benevolent, and just ruler taking care of the kingdom and its people. Medieval kings had an ideological responsibility for the well-being of their subjects’ bodies and souls. Even if they had no real concern for the suffering of the peasantry, political expediency demanded they at least go through the motions.

This gap between game mechanics and objectives is a huge missed opportunity. To really get to grips with the period, Crusader Kings II and other king-sims need to do more to focus on what it meant to be successful medieval monarch: how to win in the Middle Ages.

This means the introduction of more relevant and authentic objectives. Non-conquest victory conditions which are just as entertaining and fulfilling as taking control of the world would be a good start. A sanctity victory through pious acts, or a social victory through feasting, hunting and grand balls would provide substantial and relevant diversity to games set in this period. These could be supported through beneficial objectives to steer players towards roleplay appropriate to the period through mechanical rewards. Did your king just build a new church? Have a boost in relations with the clergy and a chance to receive a stat boosting relic! Hold a rowdy and well received great feast? Here’s a valuable new social ally and a new quest chain! Even challenge objectives which taunt players into particular behaviours could be useful here. Crusader Kings II flirts with some of these ideas, but ultimately backs away from objectives to give the player a sandbox experience.

At the end of the day, authentic narrative and mechanics can only go so far. Objectives must be set to drive the player to perform in a certain manner, or the carefully crafted mechanics will go unnoticed or misinterpreted. Good narrative and mechanics are vitally important: they create an interactive and vibrant world for the player to explore and allow the consideration of the medieval period in a way that simply cannot be matched by traditional, passive media. But without authentic objectives, what’s the point?

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Games

Medievalism in Games: An Introduction

If you first got interested in the Middle Ages by playing video games, raise your hand.

Almost every time I give a talk on games and medievalism, I ask this question. The number of raised hands—amongst not just students but professors as well—might surprise you, and it’s increasing year by year. Some of the more nostalgic responses often include titles like Age of Empires II, Medieval: Total War, and even World of Warcraft. Younger fans might cite Crusader Kings II, Skyrim, or Dragon Age as the games that inspired them to take classes in medieval studies (or whole degrees!).

A medievalesque vista from Dragon Age: Origins.

It’s not just within the halls of academia that people are thinking critically about games and history. Online forums, magazines, and social media platforms overflow with players critiquing games’ historical accuracy, playing with counter-histories, asking insightful questions, and mapping medieval history onto modern problems. The enormous communities of modders and their fans show a wealth of creativity and playfulness as they begin to take the portrayal of the medieval world into their own hands.

The video games industry is serious business. It generates billions in revenue every year across the world, well surpassing the film industry. There are literally millions of people playing worldwide right now; in many countries with larger game markets, more than half the population plays regularly. And medieval history and fantasy is a perennial location for many of them.

Country Players (M) Revenue ($Bn)
China 619.5 37.9
USA 178.7 30.4
Japan 67.6 19.2
South Korea 28.9 5.6
Germany 44.3 4.7
UK 37.3 4.5

That data is from https://newzoo.com, circa 2018.

A session of the award-winning 2016 board game A Feast for Odin.

Historical board games, too, are growing in popularity—some have said we are living through “the golden age of board games”—with thriving communities across the world. And let’s not forget the huge number of roleplaying groups, whether with paper and dice like the venerable Dungeons and Dragons or with live action play.

Whether or not we study history through our formal educations, huge numbers of people are learning, interpreting, imagining, inventing, and playing with history through these games all the time.

The Middle Ages are present, whether through the setting or style, in a huge number of titles across all these media. Understanding the ways we represent and interact with these medieval worlds can help us understand our values, indulge our fantasies, and imagine our futures. Furthermore, playing with the past helps us to construct images of ourselves and others, both at the individual and community levels. In short, examining how we play with the past can tell us a lot about the present.

By delving into this deeply we can uncover more about the shared palette of ideas and interpretations that help us create medieval worlds which feel both old and new. Italian scholar and novelist Umberto Eco called this reuse of the Middle Ages ‘an immense work of bricolage.’ Eco was referring to all the ideas, artefacts, images, beliefs, and depictions that make up the rich, messy patchwork of medievalism. The way that we think about (and create) the Middle Ages in modern media is affected by much more than just the events of the historical period: it includes all the ways that the period has been understood, imagined, and depicted during the Middle Ages and in all the centuries afterwards. The concept of ‘the medieval’ as constructed in the contemporary Western mind is likely as influenced by history classes, museum experiences and research as it is by Tolkien, Disney, and Monty Python. The Middle Ages in the popular imagination isn’t any one of these things alone; it’s constructed by all of these things to varying degrees.

We can think of medievalism as a potential combination of every interpretation of the Middle Ages that has been offered since the beginning of that period: every time someone created an image of the past—whether popular or academic—they added to the medievalist palette of ideas. Each new portrayal draws from and contributes to the patchwork of medievalism so that we are in a constant process of reinterpreting, reimagining and rewriting the Middle Ages.

The element of interactivity, which is a key element in what makes games unique, adds a new layer to this patchwork—one that isn’t found in traditional film and literature.

Games, by their nature, invite us to be playful and bestow upon us conditional power. Usually, a player agency manifests as the power to effect change within that game’s system of rules – sometimes with unexpected results. Player agency, for example, choosing your character’s appearance, your actions in the game world, or your choice of how the story ends is part of the co-authoring process of games. Designers and developers make the game, but we can only understand and create meaning from it by playing. Sometimes players participate in this creation process more directly by literally changing or rewriting the game’s systems. The increasing accessibility of mods and modding tools has the potential to further increase player agency as more and more of us participate in bending, breaking, and playing with the systems of rules set in place by the original authors.

For me, the way that we as players generate meaning and understanding from games is the most exciting part of thinking about the relationship between games and history. See, for example, the work that comes from exploring connections between public memory and history, games that deal with complex historical moments, and the joys of alternate history and storytelling.

A New Column for The Public Medievalist

In light of all this, we at The Public Medievalist are launching a new column on the Middle Ages in modern games. The idea is to pick apart the patchwork and take a closer look at gaming medievalisms. We’re looking to explore representations and interpretations of the Middle Ages in games across a variety of genres and styles, and to think about their relationships with the modern world.

Over the coming months, we will publish editorials and essays that explore how history is represented in games, and that explore the impact and significance of portraying the Middle Ages in popular culture. Importantly, these pieces will think about why game medievalisms matter, why they’re interesting, what they achieve, and how they are made.

We are always looking for more contributors. If you are interested in writing, see our editorial guidelines for more details and information on how to contribute. We look forward to new and productive discussions on history in games over the coming months.

I hope you’ll join us.

One Last Thing…

From the Column Editors: While our introductory piece takes a positive view towards the productive potential of games for learning, researching, and changing society, games and gaming culture have also provided fertile ground for those with hateful agendas. This includes white nationalism and white supremacy, and harmful interpretations and reformulations of history; in fact, the “Gamergate” controversy and harassment campaign has metastasized into a significant breeding ground for the self-described “alt-right”. These are critical issues within the field of games studies. They are important to players, developers, and scholars alike. As well as addressing the vast positive potential of interactive media, our forthcoming articles will examine the deep entanglements between games, history, and social injustice. If you or any of your friends or colleagues have expertise in these topics, we would love to hear from you. Feel free to pitch us your articles at submissions@publicmedievalist.com.

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