Historical media has long been an important art form, with the earliest period drama films debuting over 100 years ago, and video games are no different. Games such as Age of Empires and Assassin’s Creed grant players the opportunity to enter worlds of the past and educate themselves on the events that have shaped the world. In recent years, smaller developers such as iNK Stories and Gaming Minds Studios have realised the importance of historical games, and crafted experiences that allow insight into significant events of yesteryear.
Between 1978 and 1979, a revolution took place in the nation of Iran, resulting in the overthrow of the 2,500 years of continuous monarchy and the replacement with an Islamic republic. The revolution has gone largely untold within western media—an omission that developer iNK Stories aimed to solve with its debut title 1979 Revolution: Black Friday in 2016.
The game follows aspiring photojournalist Reza Shirazi after he returns to Iran during the revolution, and the player is forced to decide whether they wish to act pacifistic or hostile towards soldiers and police. By taking the events of the Iranian Revolution and placing them in an interactive setting, the game puts the player in the shoes of a participant of the events, making them feel the raw emotion and pressure of the revolution in a manner that no other medium can achieve. While passive media—books, television, and film—allow audiences an insight into the mind of others during historical events, games transfer the player into the events themselves. The player is Reza Shirazi—an active participant, not a bystander—and thus the revolution becomes much more impactful and palpable.
The 19th century period known as the Wild West—seemingly a common setting for video games—was a chapter in history led by pioneers of technological and governmental advancement. A significant part of this development was the introduction of the transcontinental railroad, a 1,900-mile (3,000 km) continuous railroad connecting several western American states, from Omaha, Nebraska to the Oakland Long Wharf on San Francisco Bay. The creation of the railroad would have been impossible without several factors, least of all the finance from the state and federal governments and the hard workers who set the track for six years. However, few realise the importance of those who had envisioned and developed the railroad on paper—an omission that Gaming Mind Studios’s Railway Empire pays due credit toward.
Railway Empire is a tycoon simulation game similar to many others: the player builds stations within cities, lays down track to connect the stations, selects and upgrades trains to fit the scenario, and chooses freight suitable for the destination. By using these common gameplay tropes within a historical setting, however, the developer grants an insight into the importance of such seemingly menial tasks.
In the game’s second chapter, for example, the player is tasked with reaching a population of 100,000 in the city of Baltimore. To do so, the demands of the city must be met, meaning the player should select suitable freight to transport to Baltimore to improve population growth; building appealing structures such as museums also increases growth, as does improving the industries of neighbouring cities, thereby increasing the population and positively impacting the growth of Baltimore. Such a task demonstrates the importance and complexity of a city building role, as it would in other tycoon games; however, adding this role to a historical context grants it more of an impact, as the player feels the stress of achieving their goals and realising that the same stress was once felt—on a far more substantial and far less virtual level—by those who designed and implemented the railroads in the 19th century.
In addition to these lessons of morale and emotion, Railway Empire is also teeming with educational information sure to satisfy any history or rail enthusiast. The game’s dates and locations are largely accurate—for example, the First Transcontinental Railroad began in Omaha in 1864, as it does in the game’s first chapter—while the locomotives are based on real machines of the time, such as the “Grasshopper” and the John Bull.
Another significant title set during the American frontier—in this case, during the death of the Old West in the early 1910s—is Rockstar Games’s Red Dead Redemption. The game’s settings—from small town Armadillo, to government-run Blackwater, to rebellious Mexican city Nuevo Paraíso—are entirely fictional, only based on representations of iconic American frontier locations, and the game’s characters are all original creations with no historical figures present. Where Red Dead Redemption falters in its historical accuracy, however, it compensates with historical atmosphere.
The game opens in the aforementioned city of Blackwater—not a Wild West town full of outlaws, cowboys, and gunfighting, but a civilised city advanced with cars, newspapers, and smoke. Protagonist John Marston, however, is not a civilised man but a former outlaw. Stuck in the past, in a world of crime and cowboys, Marston is lost in the modernising world—a feeling imitated by many stuck in a similar position in the early 1900s. As discussed earlier this week, Red Dead Redemption is a masterclass in game design, and the game’s opening demonstrates why it is also a masterclass in historical atmosphere—a notion that historian Holly Nielsen discussed in far more detail for The Telegraph.
Video games may be the most suitable and significant medium through which historical information is conveyed. Through games such as 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, the impact and emotion of events of the past become far more prominent and palpable. Tycoon and simulation games allow for deeper character studies into the lives of those present during historical periods, as in the case of Railway Empire. Games that forego historical accuracy can still achieve an effective atmosphere, though, transporting the player to a world representing one of history without the same locations and characters, such as with Red Dead Redemption. Historical games are important and, with the impending release of Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 tomorrow, are clearly not going anywhere any time soon.