Historical accuracy is important in video games. here’s why

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

In April 2019, the world was shocked when Notre Dame was engulfed in flames. Extensive damage to such an important landmark was difficult for the city, and reconstruction efforts began as soon as the structure was stable, with potential design partners emerging in the more unconventional places.

For example, fans of a long-running video game franchise Assassin’s Creed suggested use one of the games to help restore the gothic cathedral. Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the eighth title in the series, is set in Paris during the French Revolution and features a 3D model of the building crafted with unerring precision. Every buttress, organ and gargoyle has been recreated as faithfully as possible in two years project supervised by level designer Caroline Miousse.

The idea that a video game could play a useful role in the reconstruction of one of the most famous buildings in Europe was extraordinary. It turned out to be a bit more than wishful thinking on behalf of fans of the franchise, as Ubisoft, the game’s publisher, revealed that it had donated €500,000 to the rebuilding project but was never asked to share its model.

It’s a story that points to an interesting shift in the way video games are beginning to be perceived by the world at large. Once considered portals of escape, games now aspire to be increasingly historically accurate. Bookstores are brimming with historical fiction and multiplexes regularly air blockbusters rooted in specific historical eras – and there are now all sorts of games acclaimed for their fidelity to the past.

How do video game designers and makers ensure their games are historically accurate? And why would a studio devote so much time, effort and attention to digitally reproducing a scale building seen in Assassin’s Creed? In hopes of establishing why the past has become so prized in forward-thinking media, VICE spoke to experts in games focused on historical narratives.

Peter-Alexander Kerkhof, researcher at the University of Leiden, is a linguist and medievalist. “As scientists, we like to point out out loud that things weren’t really like this in the past,” he said. “People who aren’t in our field don’t tend to care, or at least not until you relate to how they actually experience the world. Examining how games go wrong on historical things definitely piques people’s interest.

When it comes to playing games, Kerkhof enjoys those where you build cities, especially if they’re medieval, although they tend not to be historically accurate. “A lot of these games are based on the idea that you can keep developing and expanding a village. It wasn’t really like that in the Middle Ages,” he said, “Cities weren’t only organically built. When people moved to a certain area, they made plans in advance. This is still the case today, but people often think that things were very different in the Middle Ages.

Kerkhof, who is consulted on films and TV shows depicting the Middle Ages, said historical inaccuracy is not just a problem in the gaming industry. “The common thread running through this decision-making process is: will people who have no historical knowledge know the difference?”

Additionally, while accuracy is important to publishers and consumers, a game should still be enjoyable. This is why designers often have to make compromises. Kerkhof evokes another game in the Assassin’s Creed series as an example. In Valhalla, a Viking-themed title, players spend a lot of time navigating narrow fields. In reality, these sorts of fields were often half a mile or more wide. “However, you’re not going to show it in a game, because then you’d be walking on the same strip of land for hours.”

The designers of fire fire – an indie development studio based in Utrecht – use historical details in their worldbuilding when it makes sense for the story they’re trying to tell in a game. “You want to capture the look of a certain era “said Aïda de Ridder, director of Wispfire. “We take care of all aspects of the art, ensuring that our research is thorough and the sources we have used are sound.”

The team travels to the field frequently to make sure they are doing things right. For their last game, Herald: An Interactive Period Drama, they visited many museums in the Netherlands. Narrative designer Roy van Der Schilden also crossed the North Sea to visit the Cutty Sark in London, a 19th-century merchant ship that inspired the digitally rendered boat at the center of the Dutch team’s nautical mystery.

However, Wispfire also had to adapt his research to his game. The parts of the real Cutty Sark were tiny, but if they had been modeled completely accurately in Heraldthe experience for the player would have been visually unappealing and claustrophobic.

Historical accuracy can also play an educational role. “It’s very frustrating for us when people purposely downplay conversations about the Dutch colonial past, or just don’t understand it,” de Ridder said. “We wanted to see if we could develop a game that would invite the player to experience colonialism in the 19th century. This experience is intended to introduce players to the source of many of the current issues we are facing.

Kerkhof agreed with Wispfire’s position on this. “I would like to see games incorporate our scientific knowledge little by little, so that people are introduced to the idea that the world of the past is recognizable, but was very different at the same time,” he said. “One of the reasons I care so much about historical accuracy in games is because games as a medium are very effective at changing existing perceptions.”