Series Info...Playing with History #1:

Games without Frontiers

by Michael Karlin
February 5, 2003

"History is a child building a sand-castle by the sea, and that child is the whole majesty of man's power in the world." — Heraclitus.

Hello Skotosians!

Welcome to the first article of this new column. In developing Glory of the Nile, myself and my team have faced some interesting challenges that are unique to the historical fiction genre. Therefore, I am going to use this space to share them with you on a biweekly basis. Along the way I will entertain you with witty quips, strategies for improving your historical fiction game, and perhaps show to you how aspects of your daily life, that you may or may not take for granted, do in fact reflect in your gameplay.

Historical Fiction

First of all, what is history? I can't possibly get away with writing a column about one topic without defining said topic. That would be silly, no?

Well, I'm not going to try within the confines of this article, because a few people more intelligent than myself, and many less, have tried and failed at such definitions. The eminent German philosopher GWF Hegel did it, so I suggest reading him. What I will attempt to define now is historical fiction. So what is historical fiction?

It's fiction, with history somewhere in it. You aren't satisfied, are you? You see, it does not matter what aspect of history you include in your historical fiction, just that it is (relatively) true to whatever aspect you pick. It is a matter of degree, and in the end, only the game designer can determine exactly how much history and how much fiction are involved. Usually, the "historical fiction" moniker is given to those games which tell a fictional story within an environment that actually existed at some point. Usually, but not always. I'll go into the nitty-gritty of subgenres in a later article.

The Balance

Glory of the Nile, the game that I have the pleasure of developing for all of you, is the "purest" example of historical fiction that can be found on Skotos. It takes place during ancient Egypt, with a Pharaoh that actually existed, with many of the same clothes, foods, peoples, etc. that existed at that place at that time. The stories the players will create are the fictional aspect, as well as the liberties we took with certain events immediately before the game period. We did this to make the game more enjoyable, and to fill in the gaps left by a lack of archaeological evidence pertaining to our time. The balance between history and playability is probably the most subjective, and therefore the most challenging decision a game designer must overcome in this genre. With too little "history" in your historical fiction, you risk losing the credibility of claiming that your game is historical fiction at all and is not simply fiction with frills, whereas too much history means your game world will probably become rigid and static.

Strict authenticity does not guarantee a better game, just a more anal one. A computer game is not the ideal medium to flood your audience with all your knowledge regarding the Treaty of Utrecht. If an aspect of historical authenticity detracts from the fun of the game, sack it. The Balance (I capitalize it to make it seem special) is a nebulous thing, and really cannot be objectively defined.

Remember that because of the aforementioned ethic, your Balance between rewriting a high school textbook and rewriting the Mummy is dynamic. In some areas, you might want to insert exact authenticity and others you might want to fudge completely. Napoleon can lose the Battle of Waterloo, but at the same time be a pantomime sheep. In the end, your game is fiction and therefore in your hands. If you want to be exact in your detailing, represent your game as a "historical re-enactment."

The End of the Beginning

And so I conclude my introductory article. I'm going to cover a lot of ground, and give you a glimpse of what is yet to come regarding Glory of the Nile. I'll talk about how many players have difficulty operating characters in an autocratic environment when they were raised in a liberal democratic one. I'll also talk about how staging a game on Earth means that you have 24-hour days and therefore you will have a horde of nocturnal characters. I'll even mention that women were treated like garbage for most of history, and you are more than justified to change that in your game environment. Needless to say, I'm going to be thorough.

Why historical fiction at all? The real world, in my opinion, is usually more interesting than a fabricated one. The complexities of life on this planet are so overwhelming that no author, and certainly no game designer, has come close to matching it. The sea of ideas and the sands of time give you the opportunity to build a sand castle for a community to frolic in.

Hopefully, my article will give you tips as to preventing your castle from being washed away.

In two weeks: History, mythology, and finding your Balance.

Recent Discussions on Playing with History:

jump new