God of War: Who’s the Bad Guy here?

Content notice: This article includes spoilers for the 2018 game God of War, includes discussions of some pretty grisly video-game violence, and a spoiler for the end of the world.

The first three God of War games were a series of action adventure blood-fests set across the mythological landscape of ancient Greece. They focus on a Spartan warrior named Kratos. Kratos was deceived by the god Ares into murdering his wife and daughter, and the games detail his hyper-violent, trilogy-spanning rampage of revenge. In it, he slays Ares, taking on the mantle of ‘The God of War’ (God of War, 2005). Kratos then betrays and manipulates his way through Greek mythology. He literally takes the will of the Fates into his own hands in an effort to change his past and reconcile his future (God of War II, 2007). Unsuccessful in his attempt to restore his former life, Kratos resorts to killing Zeus (God of War III, 2010). In the end, after murdering nearly the entire Greek pantheon, Kratos escapes to the North. Alone.

It seems tailor-made for a student who was very annoyed at being made to read the Odyssey in literature class.

These games were among the biggest success stories on the PlayStation. They were widely acclaimed, with particular praise for their groundbreaking graphics and the size and majesty of Kratos’ opponents. The core series also spawned a series of spin-off games, as well as a growing number of clones. Kratos has also appeared in a range of fighting games including Soulcalibur: Broken Destiny and Mortal Kombat as well as some more unexpected appearances such as in Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds; among many console gamers, Kratos is a recognizable character alongside the likes of Lara Croft, Snake, Master Chief, or even Mario. At the same time, the games have attracted criticism for their explosive violence, portrayal of women, and Kratos’ lack of morality.

The new God of War (2018), is the fourth game in the series, but could stand on its own as the start of a new trilogy. This God of War gives the player a vast new mythological world to explore, by dramatically shifting the setting from Ancient Greece to Early Medieval Scandinavia.

There is much to be gained from seeing Kratos’ Viking Odyssey as a continuation of his earlier exploits. The themes of relic-objects, mythological weapons, magical abilities, and Godly Possessions so vital to the first games are continued, albeit with a specifically Norse flair. In this game, Kratos is still physically identifiable as the Greek Kratos, due to his red tattoos over his face and left shoulder. The improved graphics makes the game look more real, and Kratos more human. He was supernaturally exaggerated in the original trilogy, though Kratos does still look out of place in this new world.

The game plays on this tension between the old Kratos and his new environment to create a very different storyline. In the North, Kratos falls in love with a Scandinavian woman, Fey (or Laufey), with whom he has a son, Atreus. Kratos continues to wrestle with his colossal “anger issues” while adjusting to his new life. But he is no longer the vengeful antihero of the earlier games of the series. He’s a father. He has a child in tow. His mission is now to honor his lover’s final wishes.

Kratos may not be a ‘good guy’. But we see that he seeks to be a different man throughout the game. This struggle to become something other than his past feeds into the game’s structure and is tied to the Norse mythology that the game intersects with.

Like Father Like Son?

The game opens with Kratos and Atreus mourning the death of Fey (Laufey). The game’s plot is a simple one; you are tasked with spreading Fey’s ashes atop the peak of the highest mountain in all the nine realms: the lands of Norse mythology where the game takes place.

While Kratos and Atreus both clearly love Fey, they treat the mission, and the world around them, very differently. At first, Kratos sees little use in the knowledge of the runes or the stories about the Scandinavian world that Atreus tells him. Kratos is wary of possible threats and would rather consider everyone and everything an enemy, while Atreus is eager to learn anything and everything from anyone. The tension between them along their journey fuels much of their character development.

Kratos and Atreus – Image from gameplay

This journey requires various interactions with characters and themes of Scandinavian mythology: the nine realms, the tree called Yggdrasil, the various types of beings like Elves and Dwarves, and the magic of runes. Fey created a series of protection runes, or staves, on trees around the home she shared with Kratos and Atreus. These staves are clearly inspired by Nordic runes.

Unlike Kratos’ murderous vengeance in the earlier games, his goals in God of War are not inherently violent. Kratos is simply wants to mourn and honour his dead lover. His desire to remain unknown seems to have fueled his calmer nature in this northern climate.

Nevertheless, the significant majority of beings encountered are enemies that you must fight to progress the story. In fact at face value, God of War seems like a series of basic hack-and-slash challenges with some puzzle-solving mixed in for good measure. This is very similar to the first three games.

Draugr Sketch – In game bestiary

This gameplay seems also to feed into a traditional “good vs evil” story. For many stories from the European folklore traditions there are clearly defined “heroes” and “villains”. God of War follows a basic progression where the hero battles a series of increasingly powerful villainous opponents. In this case, the evil characters are often monsters connected with the idea of death. The dragur are half-dead warriors; Nightmares or Revenants also reference dying. Even to players unfamiliar with Scandinavian mythology, these creatures immediately scream “bad guy.”

But beyond this superficial layer of black-and-white morality, the game’s dialogue and narrative point to a more complicated moral structure. Over the course of the game, “good” becomes murky indeed. To really get to grips with the ethics of God of War, we need to look at the game’s source material: Norse mythology. And the two key sources for our understanding of Norse myths are the medieval Prose Edda and Poetic Edda.

Talking to Strangers

Immediately after Fey’s death, Kratos encounters a man identified only as “The Stranger.” The Stranger, covered in tattoos, hair tied up with beads, and wearing a pair of baggy trousers, looks like he could have been pulled straight from one of the characters from the popular TV series Vikings. His maniacal and condescending tone pushes Kratos’ buttons, and they clash, resulting in the first “boss battle” of the game.

This is the first time that you, as the player, interact with someone. This particular stranger’s physical appearance is full of clues about his identity and the nature of the world. The Stranger comes looking for information from Kratos and “whoever he is hiding” (Atreus) in his house. It is clear The Stranger has an idea about who Kratos is and wants a battle to determine his power.                                               

The Stranger – Screenshot from gameplay

But who is The Stranger? There are a couple of clues, at least for a medievalist such as myself. Firstly: his tattoos. The band of runes across his left chest plate is particularly important. They read as “ek er daudi“: roughly: “I am dead.”

Secondly, throughout the battle The Stranger alludes to his inability to feel anything. He heals himself mid-way through the battle, and you can’t kill him with brute strength. He is, effectively, impervious. The fight ends in a grotesque style that has become the hallmark of the series: Kratos snaps The Stranger’s neck and throws him off the side of a cliff, assuming him to be dead.

However, this isn’t the last time we see The Stranger; he’ll be back to “killed” by Kratos repeatedly throughout the game. The Stranger is, effectively, invulnerable and immortal, but also somehow already dead.

The only god in Norse mythology that fits this image is Baldr, the son of Oðinn and Frigg. In the traditional Norse mythos, the infant Baldr was prophesied to die. His devastated mother persuaded every living thing to swear not to harm her son, leaving Baldr impervious to harm. But Frigg neglected to secure a promise from mistletoe because it appeared so harmless. In the Prose Edda, Baldr is ultimately killed when Loki tricks the blind god Höðr into shooting Baldr with an arrow made of mistletoe. Baldr ultimately resides in Helheim, the land of the dead, until the completion of Ragnarök.

It’s the End of the World as We Know It.

But why open the game with Baldr? He is not the most recognizable character from the mythos; he’s no ƿórr (Thor) or Oðinn or Loki. But he’s also not just a throwaway tutorial god that would allow the player to learn how to handle the game. Baldr has an important role in Norse mythology, and his death is the first of a series of events which will lead to Ragnarök: the end of the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Kratos’ past form, this connection is important to the plot of God of War.

Ragnarök’s relevance to the events of God of War is first revealed through an encounter with the Witch of the Wood: the outcast Freya. In Norse mythology, Freya is a distinct goddess, but in this game, she has been made a composite character with Frigg, Oðinn’s wife. Freya mentions to Kratos that there are very few living people left in the realms, as many have fled out of fear. She remarks that an unknown shift in the balance of the world has created the swarms of dead-like and maleficent beings in the realms.

Freya’s comment about the rise of dead suggests that Kratos’ actions in Greece in the first three games also had an impact in Scandinavia. She remarks that the gods of this realm know who he is and what he is capable of. While she does not explicitly divulge her knowledge of Ragnarök to Kratos, there are a few hints that she knows more than she lets on.

Subtle clues about impending events of Ragnarök appear throughout the 2018 game, and even one of its predecessors. At the very end of God of War III, during the final battle with Zeus, the seas begin to flood the earth and the sky turns black and fills with lightning. These phenomena are recorded in the medieval sources as precursors of Ragnarök. The Voluspa predicts “Sunshine becomes black the next summer.” Gylfaginning goes further, professing that “The sun shall be darkened, earth sinks in the sea.”

Like Father Like Son.

But if Kratos’s actions in Greece did affect Scandinavia, the question then becomes: how? In Norse mythology, Ragnarök stems from the actions of Loki and his children Jormungandr the world serpent, Fenrir the wolf, and Slepnir the horse. There is no mention of an angry, tattooed, Greek God.

The game resolves this issue by revealing in its finale that Kratos’s son, Atreus, is in fact Loki.

The reveal of Atreus’ identity at the end of the game is a bit of a bombshell. But there are a number of hints that this is the case throughout the game. Atreus has a deep connection with animals throughout the realms, specifically with Jormungandr (the World Serpent). This parallel’s Loki’s association with his animal offspring. Atreus carries mistletoe arrows, mirroring Loki’s association with the plant and Baldr’s death. Most tellingly, Loki’s mother was the giantess, Laufey–clearly represented in game by Atreus’ mother Fey.

The medieval narratives that record earlier Scandinavian lore, such as The Prose Edda, dispute the identity of Loki’s father. But in the game, Atreus/Loki’s father is a god (immortal) and his mother a giantess (a powerful but mortal being) making Atreus/Loki a demi-god. Because he is still immortal and of the realm of the gods, he can impact, relate to, or be a threat the other gods. But he can also be seen as an outcast, due to his quasi-foreignness and quasi-mortality.

Kratos is therefore the destroyer of not just the Greek, but also the Norse gods. Had he not destroyed the Greek gods and fled to the North, he would not have met Fey and begat Atreus/Loki. And without Loki, there is no true catalyst for Ragnarök. Kratos is truly the god of war, and no matter how much he tries to get away from it, he can’t avoid his nature and its ramifications on the world.

So, Who’s the ‘Good Guy’?

Considering all of this information, Kratos should be the ultimate evil, right? The game’s narrative structure is linear and follows a predetermined set of actions for the player as Kratos to perform. Regardless of how you, as the player, view the character of Kratos, you are obligated to follow the progression. There is no real opportunity to roleplay a “good” Kratos in the massive landscape.

As the narrative progresses, you learn that Kratos’s view of the world is sardonic and antagonistic, not exactly what you might expect for a heroic character. To hammer Kratos’ anti-heroism home, at one point he admonishes Atreus, saying, “There are no good guys, boy, I thought I taught you that.” Given the cold and vengeful outlook that he wears in the original trilogy, it would be strange if Kratos were to suddenly change. Though he is a parent, he has not changed his basic nature.

But having said this, Kratos doesn’t seem evil. The beauty of the game’s plot is the depth of Kratos and Atreus’s developing relationship and their heart-wrenchingly painful interactions, like when Kratos dejectedly carries his dying son back to Freya. With each challenge, Atreus becomes a bit more hardened, and Kratos becomes a bit softer. Kratos gets a bit more nuance with each step. This is actually in keeping the medieval mythological narratives.

Good Gods, Bad Gods

In the Old Norse myths, it can be difficult to tell the true intentions and morality of the characters. Unlike some other cultures or societies, which more-clearly define the moral characters of their supernatural beings, most Scandinavian gods and goddesses are not strictly good or bad. Certain characters may lean one way or the other, but most moral choices depend on the context of the moment.

For example, Oðinn has many names: The Helm-Bearer, The Changeable, The Concealer, Father of All, Attacker by Horse, Inciter to Strife, The Wise, Fiery-Eyed, and He who Lulls to Sleep, to name just a few.. He’s a formidable figure who disguises himself sometimes to test or trick people and other times to protect them.

Even the honorable ƿórr has a temper which leads to trouble when facing the Jötnar, the giants. One such example comes from The Poetic Edda:

Thor alone struck a blow there, swollen with rage, he seldom sits still when he hears such things said; the oaths broke apart, the words and the promises, all the solemn pledges which had passed between them.

Loki, a trickster, is sometime portrayed as a friend and companion of ƿórr, but other times as a mischievous child. In the instance of Ragnarök, he is one of the primary actors, but his actions are seen as inevitable and not merely a repercussion of his character traits to personal intentions.

These characterizations have led some scholars, like Jonas Wellendorf in his Gods and Humans in Medieval Scandinavia, to conclude that the medieval Scandinavians understood these figures as nearly human, with a blend of honorable qualities and fatal flaws. Perhaps this fickleness led to the types of ritual practices they developed. They sacrificed to remain in the favor of the powerful gods who influenced their lives. Gods were like people: they could be noble yet flawed or malicious with a kind streak.

It’s All Greek to Me

So, where does this leave us on God of War? Is Kratos a tragic hero with a disturbed past fighting to redeem himself? Or are the gods of medieval Scandinavia the “good guys” fighting to save their world from the threat of this foreign agent of destruction?

Perhaps it is a bit of both. It just depends on your perspective. Like many narratives of conflict, both sides in God of War and in Norse mythology truly believed in the justice of their cause. The Norse people depicted in the Christian and Islamic texts of the period are strange, tormented, malicious, and disgusting outsiders, and more notably, the evil despoilers of holy sites. You can find this characterization in Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s account of a funeral from the 10th century, entitled “The Rus,” the monk Adam of Bremen’s hearsay account of a sacrifice at Uppsala, or the account from Lindisfarne in 793AD.

In the game, as in real life, the portrayals of villains and heroes depends on the author. Moral judgements are driven by the writer’s cultural background. The interactions in the game demonstrate this point very well; many of the beings that Kratos and Atreus meet along the way are cautious, threatened, or hostile to them. Freya spells it out to Kratos at one point: “The gods of this realm don’t take kindly to outsiders…”.

In the first three games, Kratos’ agenda is fueled by his lust for revenge. His morality appears lost in a sea of fiery confusion. His tortured soul is relieved when he releases “Hope” from Pandora’s box at the end of the trilogy and saves what little is left of Greece. But it is difficult to tell whether he did this for the sake of humanity, or to keep it out of the hands of the remaining Greek gods who had repeatedly betrayed him. For the majority of these games, Kratos was true to the title ‘God of War’ and plays the expected role of a callous ancient Greek god well.

In this new God of War, Kratos’ morality steadily evolves. He no longer kills everyone he meets. He cautiously considers his options before making decisions and tempers his anger, especially when it concerns Atreus. This dynamic provides room for Kratos to change. He becomes more like the Norse gods: morally grey with elements of nobility and of malice.

Ultimately, the game forges Kratos into a tragic hero. Since you see the world through his eyes, it reflects the way in which you are supposed to understand the other characters around you, and their culture as well. Kratos’ instinct for survival and wary opinion of others drives his antagonism to the gods of medieval Scandinavia. While attempting to redeem himself in this new landscape, Kratos cannot relinquish parts of his character or past. Maybe in a sequel he’ll become more than just the God of War.

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The Witching Hour of Modern Polish Nationalism

The Witcher is a series of multiple award-winning medieval fantasy role-playing games for PC and consoles. Unlike many other fantasy role playing games, often developed by American or large international companies, The Witcher is distinctly Polish. It was developed by Polish game development company CD Projekt (which began small but, with the success of the game has grown significantly). It is based on a popular series of books of the same name by Polish author Andrej Sapkowski.

But gamers were not the only ones to take notice of the series: The Witcher games have attracted notice from very high places. During a diplomatic trip to Poland in June of 2014, Barrack Obama had a bit to say about the game:

The last time I was here, Donald [Tusk] gave me a gift, the video game developed here in Poland that’s won fans the world over, “The Witcher.” I confess, I’m not very good at video games, but I’ve been told that it is a great example of Poland’s place in the new global economy.

While Obama praised the series on the basis that it signalled the flourishing of Poland’s post-Cold War technology industry, it has a more symbolic meaning for its Polish developers. In response to Obama’s comments, Adam Badowski (then-director of The Witcher 2), issued this statement:

This is an extraordinary acknowledgement of our hard work here at CD Projekt Red. The Witcher 2 is a game we created for players around the world by drawing from various sources including our national heritage. We are truly pleased to promote our culture in this manner.

The developers of The Witcher series clearly sought to invoke a romanticized perception of the nation’s past to perpetuate a particular cultural identity. In doing so they created a cultural artifact that can be recognized both locally and internationally as ‘Polish’. Their vision of Poland is defined by a broad pan-Slavic cultural heritage, rather than adhering to a narrower nationalist (racially homogenous and Catholic) ideal. Leaning on these historical and cultural traditions has provided a rich source base for an immersive series which articulates a new interpretation of Polish history and culture in the post-Cold War era.

This vision of Poland stands against a rising tide of far-right Polish nationalism and appropriation of the past by extremist groups. Poland is but one of the many states across Europe undergoing a nationalist revival and the construction of a unique Polish identity in The Witcher series has emerged as another conflict in this ongoing cultural war.

Geralt prepares to confront two brutes in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.

The Witcher Basics

As mentioned The Witcher games are based on the successful fantasy book series by Andrzej Sapkowski. Although the games have received important and considered criticism for their absence of black characters and a lack of female agency, many players and critics celebrate the series for how it represents Polish folklore and culture. Its worldwide popularity is a testament to this. The trilogy of games sold an impressive 33 million copies between 2007 and 2017. The Witcher franchise has only grown in popularity over time, with the third installment now hailed by many as one of the greatest open-world games of all time.

The series follows Geralt of Rivia, a hunter-for-hire of supernatural monsters (known, in this world, as ‘witchers’. Witchers are capable of supernatural abilities, trained to combat beasts and the other dark forces that plague the lands. They are subjected to alchemical processes and gene-modifying substances, setting them physically apart from the other inhabitants of this fantasy realm. These supernatural abilities, combined with their itinerant lifestyle, and status as outsiders mean that witchers are viewed with suspicion by the general population.

The lore and characterisation of witchers draws on European folklore, referencing figures such as cunning folk, white witches/wizards, or magi. Like Geralt, these individuals were healers, diviners, or repositories of local knowledge, sought out for their magical charms until (more often than not) the local community turned on them for some real or imagined indiscretion.

The History and Mythology of The Witcher

The Witcher games take place in the quasi-medieval ‘Northern Kingdoms’, a collection of states set on ‘The Continent’. The majority of the population is human but the standard fantasy races of elves, dwarves, halflings, and gnomes are also present alongside numerous more-fantastical monsters. On the surface, the series ticks all the boxes for generic Western European fantasy.

However, despite surface similarities to games like Skyrim and Dragon Age, The Witcher draws on rather different source material. Instead of the more typical Arthurian, French, Germanic, or Nordic influences, the Northern Kingdoms are based primarily on a mythological pan-Slavic vision of Central Europe.

The Redanian Eagle, from The Witcher.

The Witcher draws from the political history of medieval Poland and its neighbouring states. The kingdom of Redania, a major power throughout the series, bears a crest that is nearly identical to the Polish coat of arms. Other powers in-game draw clear inspiration from the region: Nilfgaard leans heavily on the medieval the Holy Roman Empire (in, more or less, modern-day Germany), while the nation of Skellige is clearly inspired by Scandinavia.

But it’s the source material behind The Witcher’s portrayal of the fantastic which really sets it apart from most RPGs. The game’s rich world is intertwined with the supernatural realm. But instead of generic orcs and goblins, the player is beset by creatures and monsters drawn from Slavic and Eastern European folktales. These creatures include the Leshen, based on the Leshy or Leszt; a shapeshifting forest deity that can command plants and animals. Also appearing are the Noonwraiths, inspired by the Poludnica; a spirit that manifested in fields as a swirling vortex on windless days and killed workers who failed to take shelter from the harsh midday sun. There’s a diversity and depth here which is rarely found in the game’s competitors.

Encountering a Leshen – Witcher 3 Screenshot

More Than a Different Setting

The Witcher is not just an innovative setting though. Its engagement with Slavic and Eastern European traditions is an invocative expression of modern Polish cultural identity.

A Polish postage stamp featuring Geralt, the protagonist of The Witcher.

The franchise has become one of Poland’s best known cultural exports. Numerous renowned Polish actors, including Jacek Rozenek and Anna Cieslak, have been cast as voices in the games. The series has been adapted for TV and film twice already, with an international Netflix series set to release by the end of 2019. Geralt even has a national stamp. Marcin Iwinski, the co-founder of CD Projekt, has explicitly stated that The Witcher universe stands as “a tribute to the Polish language and to Polishness in general”.

CD Projekt and its subsidiaries are one of the success stories of the Polish gaming industry, which is now one of the biggest in Europe. They have achieved this feat by embracing their own cultural experiences, crafting a world which builds on the conventions of Western fantasy while tempering this with the sensibilities of Slavic folklore. The Witcher is very much a Polish game, shaped by Polish history and a broader conception of pan-Slavic heritage.

Polish Nationalism

The creators of The Witcher are not the only ones to make use of this cultural heritage. The series was developed during a period of historical revisionism in Poland. Nationalist movements have swept across Europe in the past decade; The Witcher’s attempt to articulate a cultural identity has emerged within this increasingly contested polemical space.

Polish nationalism has its origins in the late 18th century following the dissolution of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the subsequent partitioning of Polish lands by foreign powers. Nationalist sentiments were suppressed, to a certain extent, through incorporation within Communist doctrine during the Cold War. But, they have been reignited in recent years. The emergence of a Polish nationalist movement has intensified since the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) were swept into power in 2015 on the back of an anti-migration and pro-nationalist campaign. The last few years have also seen a surge in activity by Polish far-right militant nationalists.

Polish Nationalist March November 2017

These nationalist groups frequently draw on the rhetoric and iconography of 19th and 20th century nationalist movements. They employ many of the same historical and cultural influences used in The Witcher to configure Poland as a homogenously white state and so justify the exclusion and expulsion of ‘non-Poles’ from their nation.

The Polish nationalist movement is committed to an ethno-centric Catholic Poland: one that, they believe, can act as a bulwark against the perceived threats of ‘cultural Marxism’ (a snarl word used to paint all progressives as part of a vast communist and/or Jewish conspiracy) and Islam. During a November march in 2017 chants like “Europe Will Be White” and “Not red, not rainbow but national Poland” could be heard from the crowd. As far-right and populist political parties take power across Europe, rhetoric such as this has become more common and far more bold.

Same Sources, Different Arguments

But while nationalist groups and the developers of The Witcher series draw on similar historical and cultural sources, their goals and approaches are substantially different. Where the nationalists use this cultural heritage to divide and persecute, CD Projekt Red use it to reflect upon the injustices of Polish and Slavic history.

The non-humans in The Witcher games are treated as second class citizens, a clear reference to the treatment of many groups throughout history. For instance, in one of the quests from The Witcher called “Racists”, Geralt comes upon a dwarf – named Zoltan – being tormented by humans in a fishing village. The attackers are attempting to shave off Zoltan’s beard and can be heard delivering insults like: “Hands off human women, dwarf!” and “Send him to a reservation!” Fending off the mob earns the player Zoltan’s thanks and some experience points needed to unlock new skills and powers. This amounts to an explicit condemnation of racial oppression through both game narrative and game mechanics.

This quest invokes numerous historical episodes, particularly the treatment of Polish Jews who were publicly assaulted (and shaved) under the Nazi occupation. The game developers present a world and story which bears many striking parallels with medieval Poland but use this world to discuss recent and contemporary racial and political tensions. In stark contrast with the rhetoric of Polish far-right nationalists, The Witcher series uses the past to decry the persecution of outsiders.

Unity or Fracture?

Today’s Polish nationalists often emphasise the supremacy of their state on a territorial basis. Up until the 18th century, Poland exercised control over a vast territory in Eastern Europe. Modern nationalists use these historical borders as the basis for claims over parts of Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic.

These historical borders were those of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, from the 16th to the 18th century. During this time, the Commonwealth imagined itself as a beacon of civilization, and treated Poles as culturally superior to the other various ethnicities that lived within its borders. This notion of Polish superiority informs modern Polish nationalism: Poland is presented as a natural territorial unit extending well beyond its current borders, unified through its shared (and supposedly superior) culture, history, and heritage.

Battle of Grumwald by Jan Matejko, 1878. The Battle of Grunwald in 1410 was the first battle that unified the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which ultimately led to the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.

In contrast, the Northern Kingdoms of The Witcher are a fragmented and turbulent region. This pseudo-Poland is based more closely on the divided Polish duchies of the 12th and 13th centuries than the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. While resistance to outside invasion is a major theme within the games, the unification (or conquest) of The Witcher’s Northern Kingdoms is a goal only pursued by the most megalomaniacal of the kings in the game. The powerful Nilfgaardian Empire is a consistent and powerful antagonist with its xenophobic attitudes and imperialistic aspirations on full display. This is an implicit indictment of the rhetoric of many modern-day nationalists.

Catholic or Pagan?

Modern Polish nationalist identity is often closely linked with Roman-Catholicism. Following the lead of 18th and 19th century Polish writers, these modern nationalists reconstruct the history of Poland within a tight Roman-Catholic model. This is an attempt to align their movement with a broad unifying characteristic within Poland: at present 87.2% of Poles identify as Catholic.

Furthermore, this link to Catholicism allows nationalists to claim a historical legacy for their movement, stretching back to the baptism of King Mieszko I (the first King of Poland) in 966. Through this, Polish nationalists frame medieval Poland as a religiously homogenous Catholic state.

“Mieszko I Crushes Pagan Idols.” Jan Kazimierz Wilczynski Album Wilenskie, 1835

The Witcher presents a very different image of religion in the Northern Kingdoms and, by extension, in Poland. A range of different deities are worshipped throughout the region. A pantheon of gods drawn from Norse mythology rub shoulders with powerful spirits influenced by Slavic culture and a monotheist religion based on the Roman Catholic Church. Far from the monolithic unifying factor presented by modern nationalists, the religion of the Northern Kingdoms is diverse and rich. The developers of The Witcher present Polish cultural identity as incorporating Slavic folklore and traditions, rather than excluding it.

This interpretation is drawn from the diverse religious practices in Poland through much of the Middle Ages. The Christianization of Poland was a lengthy process and was accomplished from the top-down. Mieszko and the ruling classes may have converted in 966 but pagan beliefs survived and co-existed with Christianity for many centuries. Even in the modern world, the ‘pagan’ folklore of Poland remains intertwined with the predominantly Catholic identity of the Polish people.

In fact, The Witcher presents a fairly negative view of Christianity. The monotheist ‘Church of the Eternal Fire’ in the game draws heavily on Christian doctrine, symbolism, and tropes. In the city of Novigrad the Church exerts complete power, led by the pope-like figure named Hierarch Cyrus Engelkind Hemmelfart. The Church considers all sorcery as inherently evil and labels non-humans and supernatural creatures as its enemies.

The atrocities committed by The Eternal Fire and their followers have strong parallels with the darkest deeds committed in the name of the Catholic Church against religious and social outsiders. This amounts to a critique of Roman Catholicism’s historical role in Central Europe, particularly as this is a fantasy setting where other deities and supernatural creatures are actually present. In the Witcher games we see the effects of religious oppression and persecution from the point of view of its victims. The Church of The Witcher is not a unifying nationalist force for good, but a divisive and destructive power.

Polish Romanticism

The Witcher and contemporary Polish nationalists share a further set of historical source material and ideology: that of the Polish Romantics.

European Romanticism was an artistic and intellectual movement that emerged during the late 18th century. It was first conceived by figures like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Edmund Burke as a rejection to Enlightenment ideals of scientific and social progress. Seeing the mass poverty and disruption caused by the agricultural and industrial revolutions and the horrors of political revolutions in France, America, and elsewhere, the Romantics sought to return to a simpler and, in their eyes, ‘better’ time. The movement revolved around the central themes of venerating the natural realm, embracing emotional forms of piety, and reviving an idealised form of medievalism.

Later Romanticism developed powerful nationalist sentiments as it elevated folk customs to primordial markers of cultural and national identity. Romantic nationalism proved fundamental to many ethnic groups in 19th century Europe without an established nation state.

Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz – Vladyslav Ciesielski, 1899

In the case of Poland, Romantic nationalism was the ideology through which a proto-form of national identity was constructed. The writings of Polish Romantics such as Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński—Poland’s ‘Three Bards’ (Trzej Wieszcze)—were instrumental in this movement and laid the foundations for the ideology of the modern Polish state. All three of these individuals worked in exile during the Partitions of Poland and their texts underlined sentiments of Christian martyrdom, Polish independence, and resistance to foreign powers. They invoked Poland’s past and envisioned a glorious future for the nation, drawing on a mythologized view of the Polish people. In doing so, the Polish Romantics naturalized and appropriated many Slavic traditions and folktales, thereby inventing a Polish cultural identity that was actually pan-Slavic in nature.

Modern Polish nationalist groups draw on these ideals, but direct them towards the construction of an aggressive national identity. The Three Bards are central to the Polish literary canon and, by perverting their political sentiments, far-right nationalists claim legitimacy for their ideology.

Where the Polish Romantics rallied against the annexation of Polish territory by militarily superior foreign powers, modern nationalists use the same rhetoric to decry the perceived influx of refugees from war-torn countries or the proliferation of what they call ‘non-Polish’ cultural values. Modern Polish nationalism uses the language and imagery of romanticism to demand the protection of supposedly ‘Polish values’ against invading forces. But where the invading enemies of Romantic Poland were the Great Powers of the 18th century, today’s nationalists seek to paint vulnerable and ostracized outsiders, religious minorities and refugees, with the same brush.

The Witcher series often references Romantic figures and invokes Romantic imagery. For example, during a quest called “The Heat of the Day”, Geralt and his companion Dandelion are tasked with calming a restless spirit. This quest involves a marriage, sordid love affairs, and an impassioned murder: all conventional elements of European Romantic literature. At one point, Dandelion even recites lines taken verbatim from Mickiewicz’s The Ghost (Upior), a work that presents Slavic folklore as central to the Polish national identity.

As this literary allusion illustrates, and Iwinski acknowledges, CD Projekt Red have used Romantic ideals in The Witcher as a means of shaping perceptions of Polish cultural identity. The developers of The Witcher series followed in the footsteps of the Polish Romantics by drawing on broader elements of European, especially Slavic, folklore and traditions and defining these as Polish.

The significance of folklore in The Witcher is displayed clearly through the supernatural forces that the player encounters as Geralt. Many of these creatures like the Leshen and the Noonwraiths still retain their pre-Christian nature, existing as raw personifications of nature, driven by their primordial desires. But unlike many western European role-playing games which demand that their audience exterminate such monsters, The Witcher generally gives the player the option to leave these creatures in peace. In fact, many of the better story and material outcomes to quests are achieved by allowing these monsters to live.

The game embraces a neo-pagan worldview where monsters and folktales are central to culture, not evil outsiders to serve as sword-fodder for the player. This game mechanic promotes acceptance of different ethnicities and belief systems, a sharp contrast with the rhetoric presented by the Polish nationalists. The two interpretations of Romantic ideology differ massively despite originating from the same source material.

A Different Model of Cultural Identity?

Against a groundswell of Polish nationalism, The Witcher series stands out for the type of cultural identity that it promotes. In shaping the fantasy world of The Witcher, CD Projekt Red drew on Romantic perceptions of medieval and pre-Christian Polish history, basing their narratives in the dark nature of Slavic folklore. While other game series like Mount and Blade also draw on historical perceptions of Central and Eastern medieval Europe, The Witcher is underlined by a far more ideological conception of cultural identity. The supernatural creatures depicted in these games are personifications of a romanticised Polish heritage, one that invokes the spirit of Slavic folklore. The great achievement of these games is how they bring the supernatural elements of these folktales to life, claiming these creatures as uniquely Polish. The Witcher games follow in the traditions European Romantics: proclaiming folklore as a primordial expression of the Polish identity.

In drawing on a Romantic interpretation of Polish cultural identity The Witcher comes into conflict with the far-right interpretation of Polish national identity constructed in the past few decades. While both models employ Romantic nationalist rhetoric to define what is Polish, there are fundamental differences between their conclusions. Nationalist groups push an ideology in which Poland exists as a historically homogenous Catholic state with clearly defined cultural traditions. The Witcher presents a broader pan-Slavic interpretation of Poland in which the boundaries between Slavic and Polish traditions are decisively blurred. Both models, while in conflict, are evident of an overarching movement in which the Polish people are actively attempting to redefine their culture and identity in the wake of the Cold War.

The future of Poland is being actively determined by revisionist interpretations of its past and, as the last few years have shown, it is the voice of the far-right nationalists that is the loudest. In this contested space, The Witcher series, despite its shortcomings, is an important and potentially influential counter.

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Reigns: The Great, Simple, King Simulator with a “Dark Ages” Problem

Reigns is a medieval monarch simulator game for smartphone and PC by Devolver Games. Currently selling for £1.99, it’s worth a look (and is a cheap gift). I’ve sunk an alarming number of hours into Crusader Kings II, the Total War and Civilization series (and other medievalesque strategy games). So, I thought this would be right up my strategic alley. And I was right. Reigns is awesome in many ways.

This is not the campaign map I was expecting.

Reigns is an altogether different beast from these other series. It doesn’t have anywhere near the mechanical depth of Grand Strategy games like Civilization VI. But that’s not a problem. In fact, the game has been widely praised for its simple mechanics. Sure, Reigns is entertaining. And we can go further than that: despite being a relatively simple game developed for smartphones, Reigns is also a great simulation of the core of medieval rule. And more, it has a surprisingly compelling message about the Middle Ages.

Better to Reign in Hell

Reigns is built around two key mechanics. The first of these are decision cards. Every year of your reign, you turn over a card and are presented with an issue. You are then given a binary choice as to how you solve it (and, in Tinder-esque form, you do this by swiping left or right on the card). There’s a fire in the capital! Do you save the army, or the treasury? A wandering preacher arrives at the castle gates! Do you invite him in, or burn him as a heretic?

Sorry men, I need the cash.

Many of these decisions have long-term consequences. Some lead immediately to other cards, and others unlock new cards that appear later, introduce new characters, or progress the plot.

Almost all of these decisions influence the second mechanic. Your kingdom has four meters: the Church, the peasants, the army, and the merchants. Each of your decisions will cause one or more of these ratings to change. Did you save the army in the fire? Your military meter will go up, but since your treasury goes up in flames you lose some support from the merchants. Did you let the wandering preacher in? The peasants are pleased, but the Church begins to question your piety.

As king, you must keep all of these elements in balance to retain your throne. If your military rating drops to zero, your kingdom will be conquered by your rivals. At the same time, you cannot allow any of the ratings to rise too high—if the military become too powerful, they will stage a coup and depose you. When (it’s a definite when—you’re going to be overthrown a lot as you play) you start over with your heir, your ratings reset back to the middle.

Under normal circumstances (with one exception that involves eating some strange coloured fungi) the extent of the impact of each decision you make is obscured. You get an indication of which ratings will be influenced, whether it will be positive or negative, and whether the impact will be great or small (no precise value, just a binary big or little). As you also don’t know the precise value of any of your current ratings, the game can get surprisingly tense as you try to prevent the various factions from destroying you horribly.

People always said I was a ‘fun-guy’! HAHAHAHAHAHA. Seriously though, stay away from those mushrooms.

It’s Tough to be King

This leads to some interesting gameplay and delicate decisions. In order to keep your throne, you may have to do some pretty awful things. I found myself failing to prepare adequately for an invasion and allowing my peasants to suffer terribly, because throwing more funding at the army would have allowed the general to overthrow me. Later, to appease the Church, I had an inordinate number of my peasants burned as heretics and had advanced medical techniques banned as sacrilegious.

Sorry peasants, I need the cash.

By all accounts, this should feel like a straitjacket. You have to make snap decisions along restricted lines. There are no third options. In order to keep the different factions in line, you often have to act erratically, supporting one side then another. You can’t present reasonable compromises.

But this makes the game work. The simplicity and speed of the gameplay takes the edge off the binary choices. Moreover, when your king dies, you just continue immediately with his heir. This removes most of the sting from an inopportune decision. There is very little that carries over from one king to the next, so despite the apparent pressure, the stakes aren’t too high. The variety and humour of the decisions cap this off; you’ll probably get through a run before the game starts wearing thin.

Royal Realism

More importantly, these elements of the game give represent medieval rule in a way that isn’t really matched by the more complex king-sims. The decisions you make here come at you fast. Their impact is immediate and often decisive. You don’t have a codex of useful statistics to consult, or in depth mechanics to master and exploit. You just get a rough idea of what each decision will do, just like a medieval ruler.

The light roleplay elements—each card is sketched as an interaction with a member of your court—are also important . They better represent the decisions and consequences that are often weirdly abstract in Grand Strategy Games. Telling a peasant that you’re cutting their food supply is very different from moving some icons around and seeing numbers change when you hit ‘end turn’.

Yes, money is good.

Warfare in Reigns is also very peripheral to most of the gameplay. This also encourages the player to play like a real king. Wars will happen, and your decisions will affect their outcome. But military activity is a relatively minor part of Reigns, as it was for many medieval monarchs. Wars impact each section of society, they’re not just a means to conquest. In fact, in Reigns, as often was the case in the actual Middle Ages, there is no conquest. If you win a war, some of your ratings are adjusted and play continues. This stands in stark contrast to your typical king-sim where warfare and conquest are, almost inevitably, the goal.

The lack of permanence between kings also is a bit closer to how medieval kings actually behaved. There is almost no long-term planning in the game. Most decisions will not impact anything beyond your current reign. The few exceptions (introducing new characters, constructing a handful of buildings, and advancing the plot) are significant because of their rarity. Medieval kings acted in a similar manner: sure we see dynastic planning, but never on the millennia spanning scale of typical Grand Strategy Games, and this long-term thinking often took a back seat to immediate problems. Just like medieval kings, the player is forced to focus on the short-term even as they try to make use of longer term plans.

All in all, Reigns does a lot of good in simulating the life of a monarch. It’s abstract, and has a lot of silly elements, but it really captures the essence of medieval rule. It’s all about staying on top no matter the price.

So Reigns is great, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and teaches a bit about real history, perhaps in spite of itself. End of article.

It feels like there’s a lesson to be learnt here.

Okay, okay, it’s not perfect. Let’s start by splitting hairs. The narrative isn’t always remotely medieval. There are elements of modernity (colonisation of a pseudo-American continent) and elements of fantasy (is that… is that a dragon?). On the surface this isn’t really an issue. It doesn’t hurt the medievalness of the core mechanics of the game. It certainly doesn’t hurt the play of the game. It’s generally entertaining stuff.

The problem with the narrative is it gets repetitive pretty quickly. There are a finite number of cards. You’ll start seeing some of them again and again before the end of your first playthrough. Even with the expansion, you’ll start to feel like you’ve been through a lot of this before even as you get into your second run.

To a certain extent, this is fair. There’s only so much content that you can squeeze out for a game this reasonably priced. The expansion DLC represents a valiant attempt to address this issue by the developer. Furthermore, I’m pretty convinced there are still cards that I’ve not seen—and seeing the same card twice is hardly a problem as it lets you find out what happens if you decide differently.

It’s not a Bug, It’s a Feature

The repetition of cards and decisions actually ties in well with the overall goal of the game. See, the plot of the game, beyond the balance of power within any individual reign, is to help (over the course of many reigns) your kingdom to escape the endless cycle of the “dark ages.” You only have a set number of years to accomplish this, at the end of which you either succeed, or fail to break the curse. You are told this at the start, and at various points during the game. And, in the default ending it gets laid on pretty thick.

Important foreshadowing.

The problem is that this ultimate goal is fairly easy to miss. Despite the opening brief and reminders periodically throughout the game, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day strategy and comedy of running your kingdom. It’s not too hard to completely forget about the goal only to be rudely awakened at the end of the game.

You’re going to need a second run through to succeed. The solution to the game requires several specific conditions to be met. This in turn requires a certain specific sequence of cards to come up—and they might never do so. So your victory can ultimately be in the hands of the Random Number Generator.

Losing is Fun

Figuring out how to escape the cycle is difficult and requires thinking outside the framework of the game mechanics. You have to think differently, pay attention, and—no spoilers—have a breakthrough moment of enlightenment.

Putting this into practice is likewise difficult, but for different reasons. You have to play in a different way with a different focus. You need to act like the quintessential Renaissance Man—or at least, the way that “Renaissance Men” liked to think of themselves—looking to change the nature of his world. You must move on from being a Medieval “barbarian” trying to succeed within the existing “backward” setting. However, in doing this, you will encounter the same events repeatedly, you will be distracted by the core gameplay and achievements that this drives, and you will be constantly frustrated by factors beyond your control.

This is an excellent analogy with the way that popular histories have depicted the Enlightenment: new thinkers with new ideas enduring great hardships to drag their fellows out of the Dark Ages. It’s a powerful analogy, and coming from such a simple game it rather blindsides you. It’s still frustrating to see victory escape you for the fifth or sixth time, but at least it feels like there’s a bigger message here.

Jacob Burckhardt was a Hack

The real problem though isn’t how the game sells its message, which it does very well, but what that message is. The idea of “the Dark Ages,” that the Middle Ages was a period of stagnation and darkness, is outdated. It’s a hangover from the historians of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, from Emmanuel Kant to Edward Gibbon to Jacob Burckhardt, They needed to present history as fundamentally about “progress,” in order to justify their personal and political worldviews.

The idea that people were “trapped” in the Middle Ages is a major issue. A medieval stasis which could only be broken by the great and revolutionary thinkers of the Enlightenment meshes with colonialist arguments justifying the exploitation of “backwards peoples” by more enlightened Europeans. This idea of “progress” was weaponized against those whom European imperialist projects around the globe targeted for exploitation or extinction. So, when I say that the idea of the “Dark Ages” is outdated, I don’t just mean a quaint relic from the past: it is a key part of racist, imperialist, and colonialist ideologies.

The very phrase “Dark Ages” is emblematic of this idea (how are you going have an enlightenment if it’s not dark to start with?). Study any medieval history and you see this is not the case. We see in the Middle Ages scientific, economic, architectural, agricultural, and social changes which moved us closer to the present day. The Italian Renaissance happened in the Middle Ages. People in the Middle Ages did not believe the world was flat. The first Universities were founded in this period. Outside Europe, the Islamic World, parts of Africa, and China went through cultural, technological, and economic Golden Ages.

A lot of the negative aspects associated with the Middle Ages are either remnants from the ancient world (a lack of core medical concepts, alchemy and other weird “science”) or didn’t happen until the modern period (burning witches, using leeches, and yet more comically bad medical practices). Moreover, by ascribing modern atrocities to the Middle Ages, Reigns falls into a typical contemporary pattern: anything horrific in the modern world—from violence, to stupidity, to online abuse—is described as “medieval,” distancing it from our world and excusing us from viewing it as our problem.

Not that sort of doctor…

The message set out by the core mechanics of Reigns runs completely counter to current thinking on the Middle Ages and feeds into a narrative which permits some very negative uses of the Middle Ages in the modern world. The game is far from the worst offender in this regard, but it’s certainly part of this overarching issue.

Could Do Better?

I anticipate there being a couple of responses to this. Let me head them off at the pass.

“But it’s only a game. It’s not meant to be taken seriously.” That’s an awful excuse and it infantilises the medium. If we want better games, we need to stop seeing them as facile things. Reigns is not a silly game. It has silly elements, but a very serious core. Reigns does a great job of dealing with a complex idea using very basic mechanics. Unfortunately, the idea is demonstrably removed from reality and forms part of a harmful cultural weapon.

“But it’s art. It doesn’t have to conform to reality.” That’s only slightly better. The emergence of the world from a Dark Ages is a good story. It provides a nice strong foundational narrative for the game in a way that “the Middle Ages were a period of sporadic but steady progress and led seamlessly into the modern world” simply cannot. Deviating from history in this fundamental manner may be a net benefit to the quality of the game. It’s problematic in the broader scheme of events, but makes perfect sense for the game itself.

But that’s the thing: Reigns inadvertently ends up feeding harmful misconceptions about the Middle Ages. There’s not any malice behind this, and this is certainly a mirror of typical modern attitudes towards the period. It a drop in the bucket of a harmful cultural misconception.

This is a mis-step, especially considering the efforts made by the designers to counter the glorification of many of the troublesome themes it addresses. In the game, crusades and colonisation not only force the player to deal with some uncomfortable decisions, but actively make it harder to control the kingdom. To win the game you have to engage with social outsiders, become part of a revolutionary conspiracy led by a woman, and encounter knowledge and technology from the game’s version of the Middle East. The sequels, Reigns: Her Majesty and Reigns: Game of Thrones take this social commentary further (and are also worth a look if you enjoy the original). I’m also intrigued by the forthcoming tabletop game

To sum up then: Reigns is great fun. On the surface, it’s a strong, but abstract, simulator of being a medieval monarch. As you dig deeper, there’s an important message about the nature of the Middle Ages, and its place in the broader span of history. This message fits perfectly within the game’s story and mechanics and makes for a very interesting story told in an innovative way. The game demonstrates how simple mechanics can be very effective in creating a space for both play and story. It’s just unfortunate that this story doesn’t match the medieval reality and that it reinforces harmful trends in modern popular thinking. It could do better, but it’s still a great and innovative game which is definitely worth a look.

Just one more reign…
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Give Him a Mask, and He Will Tell You the Truth

Masks are fascinating things. Today, many wear them only for Halloween or for fancy-dress parties. But facial coverings are some of the oldest pieces of technology we have—they have been used in cultures around the world for ceremonies and rituals, as status symbols or funeral objects, for over nine millennia. This is because masks are powerful; they allow the wearer to become someone else within their society—they can symbolically become a manifestation of a goddess or god, an heroic figure, an animal, a clown, or anything else. And more, the act of wearing a mask gives the wearer permission, or even encouragement, to act as someone else. Paradoxically, as Oscar Wilde said in the quote that makes up the title of this article, people often show their truest colours when hidden behind the guise of someone else.

In 2000, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask for the N64. It was a landmark, and offered a fascinating new perspective on protagonist Link’s world. Majora’s Mask presents a medievalesque world that also draws heavily from the Japanese Noh tradition of masked, stylized classical theatre. Adding elements of the Japanese masked theatre tradition to an otherwise fairly standard fantasy adventure series sets the game apart, and introduces an important new element of cultural hybridity. The masks in the game are influenced strongly both by the Noh tradition and by Western ideas; they provide the possibility of truly exploring the “others” that are so often quickly dispensed with in games. This creates a vibrant game world, although as you might expect, there are some problematic implications—as often happens in explorations of “others” in fantasy worlds.
The ominous Moon over Termina, at

The Man in the Goron Mask

Throughout the game, Link collects and acquires different masks. The masks are typically awarded upon completion of a mission, quest, or as the result of completing a certain series of events. Wearing each of these masks offer special abilities to the player; this forms a core element of gameplay. Specific masks can offer access to new locations. Others grant special abilities. Some masks do both.

More significantly though, most of the masks are not just masks; they change the character’s whole body in a totally seamless metamorphosis. This allows Link to create new identities for himself and follow multiple otherwise unavailable narratives. They allow the player to permeate different social spheres and hierarchies, presenting an almost anthropological aspect to the game. Wearing the Captain’s Hat, for example, causes the otherwise-hostile Stalchildren (undead skeletons) to become friendly, enabling the player to enter their graveyard lair and converse with them.

Like many role playing games, Majora’s Mask provides an extensive society for the player to explore. Masons and carpenters work tirelessly. Shopkeepers sell their wares around town. There are guilds and markets available to explore. The player can even learn more about the game’s lore and plot through dialogue with these characters, or acquire unique items and complete quests.

However, Majora’s Mask does something interesting with its NPC interactions. Using the masks, he is granted special access to different social classes. He can even masquerade as a member of different species. Some masks also enable Link to impersonate a specific person. For example, when he wears the “Zora” mask, he takes on the specific role of a recently deceased person named Mikau. With this new identity, Link-as-Mikau can meet with Mikau’s loved ones and even play with his rock band The Indigo-Go’s.

Not only does acquiring and using the masks help save the world, but it also enables the player to experience other species and cultures that would normally be indifferent or even hostile to the hero. Even more, the player can listen to and learn from them in ways that would be otherwise impossible. It’s an important twist on the standard way Role Playing Games allow the exploration of their worlds.

Noh Theatre

The appearance of the masks within the game draws heavily on the Noh theatrical tradition. As a very brief introduction, Noh theatre originated in fourteenth-century Japan and continues to the present day. Early performances featured juggling, dancing, and operatic singing, while the performers wore bright, colourful clothes. Stage props were seldom used; instead, the Noh mask, which was worn by the main character in the performance, was the primary focus point. Their masks defined their character.
With a subtle tilt of the head, the expression of a Noh mask changes dramatically.

The actor’s role was to add character to the relatively neutral appearance of the mask, bringing it to life. A skilled Noh actor can use the mask to convey a wide range of emotions; with a simple tilt, the mask’s expression can shift from absolute happiness to extreme anger. The masks become means of revealing hidden emotions and expressing new ones.

Noh traditions don’t just influence the appearance of the game’s masks—these traditions also steer the use and powers of the masks in game. In Majora’s Mask, when Link dons a mask, he does not just take on a character metaphorically or symbolically, he literally becomes someone else.

And even more than this, certain masks are entities in themselves, such as the titular “Majora’s Mask.” Majora’s Mask is demonic. It consumes and drains its host of their will and goodness—it acts as a parasite to its host. This mask is somewhat comparable to the hannya mask in the Noh tradition, which depicts a demon with sharp horns, metal eyes, and a wide, toothy grin. It can appear angry, melancholic, frightening, and dangerous—much like Majora’s Mask. And in some plays, like the famous Noh play Dōjōji, the hannya mask character enjoys tormenting people and acts as an agent of destruction. Similarly, Majora’s Mask seeks the destruction of the world, with no regard for its people or their well-being.

The Man Behind the Masks

The character of the Happy Mask Salesman—the vendor of many of the available masks—is another sign of the influence of Noh traditions in the game. The Salesman appears to transcend time and space, unbound from the limitations of physical constraints and boundaries in the environment. And more, he is as morally ambiguous as he is elusive. He tells Link:

I own the Happy Mask Shop. I travel far and wide in search for masks. During my travels, a very important mask was stolen from me by an imp in the woods. So here I am at a loss… And now I’ve found you. Now don’t think me rude, but I have been following you… For I know of a way to return to your former self. If you can get back the precious item that was stolen from you, I will return you back to normal. In exchange, all I ask is that you also get back my precious mask that imp stole from me. What? Is that not a simple task?
The Happy Mask Salesman

His true nature remains unclear. He clearly has supernatural power and knowledge. But is he divine, demonic, or a trickster spirit? What is clear is that his face clearly resembles Noh masks, frozen in place one moment, and unpredictably contorting to its extremes depending on his mood the next. Since this character is a vendor of masks, this likely an intentional connection: the Happy Mask Salesman fulfils the role of the mask carver of the Noh tradition, the one who imbues the masks with their terrible powers.


Despite the possibilities of the masks, there is also a problem with taking them on. Link represents a white male heroic avatar of fairy tales, but literally cannot save the day by being himself. He must literally must take on multiple identities, personalities, and species to defeat Majora’s Mask. Saving the world thus requires the efforts of people of different species, genders, and approaches.

Majora’s Mask is unique in the sense that it requires inclusiveness, multiple perspectives, and different approaches to win. The white protagonist must learn about and experience new cultures if he is to succeed.

But on the other hand, the game problematically suggests that white protagonists can walk among other communities simply by wearing a superficial mask. This runs the risk of minimizing or disregarding the real differences among peoples. In some ways, the anthropological aspect of this game runs into the same racist issues that have haunted the field of anthropology since its origins, and even raises the awful spectre of the blackface tradition. Link’s special white privilege as the anthropologist/maskwearer allows him to move through and among other cultures in a way that people in those very cultures cannot. They are studied or manipulated as objects to Link’s greater goal—and while Link’s goal (to save the world) is surely a noble one, the very idea that these cultures need an interposing, posing white saviour in order to survive is extremely condescending.

So, it is complicated and ambiguous. On the one hand, the game requires the player to walk among different cultures and take them seriously on their own terms. On the other hand, having a white male medieval fantasy hero as the one doing this has significant negative implications.

So, in short, Majora’s Mask explores the complexities of various cultural perspectives in a way that subsequent roleplaying games have rarely done. Rather than simply conceal, the masks in the game paradoxically enable the player to reveal identity while concealing their own. And wonderfully, this game illustrates how the creators of this game successfully put their own Japanese cultural stamp on the euro-centric fantasy genre. Majora’s Mask remains a hybrid of cultures which is still explorable and enjoyable today.

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The Fire Fades: Vulnerable Knights in Dark Souls


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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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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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, 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

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