Historically accurate games.....or not?
I have had the privilege of reviewing many historically-based games. Some of them were very good; some should have been consigned to history before they hit the shelves. What is common to them all is that they profess to be historically accurate.
I know that when I first started reviewing games, I would take delight in trying to establish how historically accurate they in fact were. Many a happy night was spent poring over a game in the hope of finding a detail that either failed to appear or was in my eyes fundamentally wrong. However, age has now taught me that, just like the truth, there are many versions of history… and the only real truth is that each is correct in the eyes of the writer.
The challenge in designing an historical game is that generally there is nobody left alive who remembers the event and, over time, books and studies become more and more removed from the battle themselves. Even if there are survivors of the war portrayed in a game, their recollection relates to their place in the conflict, the side they were on, and where they were when they viewed the events of the day.
Here are some examples:
The Tiger tank; most feared and powerful of the German tanks. Or was this the case? Was the German tank feared more because the Western Allies had nothing that could immediately match it? Certainly, if you were sitting in a Sherman tank, knowing that your main gun was largely ineffective at all but close ranges, fear would be your constant companion.
How much of this was deserved, though?
The Russians definitely had a lesser view, with their own tests showing that while the Tiger had thick armour, it lacked essential minerals - making it more brittle than normal armour of lesser thickness. Arguably the Russian tanks of the time were a match for the Tigers.
So as a war game developer, how do you portray this? To be correct, do you apply armour values, slope characteristics, and mechanical breakdowns? As a player, how many of you would appreciate mounting up in your all powerful Tiger and finding that it won't start - just to be historically accurate.
Another example is the much-gamed-over battle of Normandy. Publish any game that covers this period and you will have a queue of players lining up to heap scorn on the slightest error in detail. It is fertile ground for amateur history buffs, who will be able to quote you chapter and verse their set of facts to support their version of history.
Having read extensive accounts of the battle from the Allies point of view, I was stunned to read German accounts which seemed to portray a different battle altogether. Popular views of the battle of Omaha Beach see this as a victory through the guts and determination of the invading infantry. Recent versions suggest close-in bombardment by the offshore destroyers helped silence the opposition. The view from the German side was that they could have held out longer if they had not started to run out of ammunition. Which is true? Probably somewhere in the middle.
There is a generation today that would probably be forgiven for thinking that D-Day was a wholly American affair, despite the Allied landing force being two thirds British and Canadian. Game developers, however, are driven by the need to sell to their biggest market. Accordingly, as time goes by are we going to see a different historical truth that sees the amazing efforts of the British and Canadians become a mere sideshow to the Americans? In fact, I would hazard a guess that there are people out there today who already have this historical belief.
So, portraying historical events in a game will always be a challenge because of the many versions of the truth. Often the best recourse for developers is to take the popular view on the basis that “it is the proper thing to wear at a given time”. So are they in fact historical games? Yes, as long as you understand that they are based on the developers’ version of history.
So I pose the question: how attractive would a game be if your tank would not start, your front line troops were Russian conscripts who want to surrender at the first opportunity, and an 18 inch naval shell has the ability to wipe out most of your forces in one hit? History in gaming is driven by popularly held truths of the time, and this is rooted in the need to sell the game.