As the first of what will undoubtedly be many more posts to come, let’s start this off with an introduction. I am the Inquisitive Loon, a long-time blogger whose profession IRL is a history teacher (this becomes important later). I’ve always been incredibly enthused by the potential for stories in video games and what they can offer. Be forewarned that this is the guy who will fucking gush when he finds some obscure piece of plot that he likes, and nitpick the absolute shit out of stuff that normal people just don’t give a good goddamn about. And fair enough. If you don’t like my op eds, then by all means there are a number of other reviews and news articles on this website that will surely catch your fancy. But the creative side of video games is my playground, so you can safely expect me to focus on that in my posts.
Now, to kick off my stay at For Gamers; From Gamers*, let’s talk about video game history: the backstory and world-building of RPGs in particular.
That One Boring Social Studies Class
One universal truth is that history is almost never taught well in school. Ask your friends what their favorite class was, and “Social studies” will rarely be the answer. And I totally get that. For hundreds of years, history has been that subject where you are bombarded with people, dates, events… Everything had to be memorized and then regurgitated onto dusty Scantrons & blue essay books until your wrist gave out. What made it especially sad was how taking Advanced Placement (AP) classes only exacerbated the issue, making you cram in more dates and write ever-longer essays. This experience sticks with you. It is one of the primary reasons why so few people are interested in history today.
But let’s take a step beyond schooling. Why don’t people pick it up later, regardless of what school did to them? I believe that this doesn’t happen because not much of history is especially mysterious. As children, many of us can remember watching Indiana Jones, and thinking to ourselves, “Why can’t learning about history be like that?” We never get that Indy moment where we want to drop everything, throw on a fedora, and fly around the world to visit a museum or ancient ruin. We never have that yearning to go flip through crisp, yellowed pages in a dusty library, eagerly reading about this artifact or that lost empire.
Thing is, if you randomly want to know what a historical figure was doing, you can just look it up on your phone. If you want to know who Benjamin Franklin was banging in France while he was serving as ambassador, Wikipedia is your new best friend. There is no mystery in this. No surprise. It’s all at our fingertips now and, even before that, encyclopedias had the answers. So when I ask a student, “Why don’t you want to read a book about this,” the student explains, “Why should I bother? It’s all online.” And they are usually right.
Taking a Torch into the Fictional Dark
But there are always exceptions to the rule, and it is in these exceptions that science fiction, fantasy, and, by extension, video games find inspiration for their stories. For example, nobody really knows for sure why the ancient Roman Empire declined and then fell apart. Many people can’t definitively pin down the exact reason why many major wars began, from the American Civil War to World War I. There are countless books and historians at war with each other on a host of issues. The sources are too much at odds with each other, too sketchy, or too damaged. Nobody is unable to find out what precisely happened in events like these. And we probably never will.
This hint of mystery is rare in our past, and schools never spend much time on it (mostly because of the belief that the pizza-faced noobs should learn the basics before diving into murky issues that have no clear answer). But authors of fiction cling on to such historical uncertainties like a lifeline. JRR Tolkien was quite possibly the first of these, creating a fictional world inspired by real-life peoples and events that allowed his imagination to run rampant. Did you know that the Rohirrim, the Horselords of The Two Towers, were inspired by what Tolkien read of ancient and heroic Germanic tribes? Did you know that the plot of Lord of the Rings itself was based on Viking sagas so old that nobody truly knows for sure who wrote them? It’s wild stuff, and authors like Tolkien and ever after have turned around these rare moments of historical mystery and forged them to play a huge part in what makes their fictional universes so damn enthralling. Thus it is that, surprising as it may seem, behind almost every sci-fi and fantasy author you’ll find a lover of history.
Now while this is a good introduction as to why the backstory in sci-fi/fantasies can feel fresh and exciting compared to the real McCoy, let’s get more specific. How can video game history thrill and excite in a way that is unique to the format? To do this, I want to talk about one trope in particular: the idea of Precursors.
To explain what Precursors are, let’s bring it back to Tolkien. For many people, the Elves were the coolest part of Tolkien’s world. And this isn’t hard to understand, even if you hate the pointy-eared bastards. The fact remains that they were the most mysterious and ancient part of Middle Earth. You knew what the humans were like. The dwarves were uncomplicated, the hobbits simple-minded, and the orcs hopelessy predictable. But the elves? They were always presented as these few remaining champions of an older world, a better world, just outside of comprehension and just beyond memory. Even if they could be haughty pricks, Tolkien conveyed powerfully that this pride came from knowledge. They served as a fading reminder of a mythical past that always seemed so much brighter than the current day.
In real life, there has never really been an equal to this trope. The closest historical example lies in the Dark Ages. In this Medieval time period, things had fallen to shit so severely that, even if it wasn’t the truth, peasants and nobility both would wistfully recall that Roman era when everything seemed so much cleaner, safer, and just better. They would dream of a time when centurions patrolled the roads, an age when the aqueducts were maintained, and when the idea of learning how to read wasn’t a distant dream. When is the last time we have thought of our ancestors with such a sense of wonder? I think that this absence is another reason why people just don’t get into history even after they leave school. But authors, and eventually video game writers, seized upon historical snapshots in time such as these as tropes and inspirations worth carrying into every epic story worth its salt.
Punching Out the Classics
But let’s bring it back to the Precursors. How often do we see this trope in the best of our video games?
- The Elder Scrolls – The clockwork ruins of the Dwemer.
- Final Fantasy VII – Aeris and the Ancients.
- Starcraft – The Xel’Naga.
- Mass Effect – The Protheans.
- Dragon Age – The Elves of Arlathan.
It almost becomes harder to find examples of RPGs or story-driven games without the trope! But what does this mean? How does this make video game history more exciting than its real-world equivalent?
Well, think about it. What do all of these examples have in common? We see races that are almost entirely extinct. We see civilizations that represented the height of knowledge in each of these video game universes, masters of technology far beyond what “we today” know how to use. But, most important of all, when you play these games, you as the player take steps to discover more about these Precursors. You explore ruins, listen to NPCs speak nostalgically of the past, and you ask questions. Why did the Dwemer vanish from Tamriel? How were the Protheans defeated? Just what happened in Arlathan?
Questions… That’s what you get out of all these examples. I emphasize this because these are all of the questions you didn’t care to ask in history class, because you knew you could look them up. In a way so clever that you often don’t even realize it, those video games with Precursors or even a strong backstory turn you into, if only for a few hours, into that eager kid wanting to put on his fedora, light up a torch, and push confidently into the dark. What does video game history offer that, in so many cases, real history does not? Questions. Mystery. That hint of the unknown that makes you take that first step forward. A step towards adventure.
This is what can make video game history so exciting. Not only are you dealing with entirely new fictional universes that you know nothing about, but even within those universes there are unanswered questions that you, as the player, can only scratch the surface of. It is through this that we get crazy excited to search through an ancient elven ruin in a video game and read the flavor text for that shining sword. Thus we’ll pore eagerly through a hard-found book in Skyrim, but not even consider flipping through a textbook on ancient China.
What’s interesting is that, as a history teacher, this doesn’t really bother me. Because I’ve read a lot about history, I know that so much more of it is exciting than one would initially think. It is this mindset that makes me want to be the teacher we all never had, inspiring people to look into its mysteries and question some of its “truths.” But I’m not here to try and sell you on that. I’m simply here to point out one aspect of why I love video games. They inspire us to become young Indy, to search for every codex entry, scour the land for just another glimpse behind why a world fell apart, and get us so much more engaged than real history can.
Or, at least, a lot more easily than real history can. 😉
* I know I have posted here before, but I never did so with any consistency and with any particular theme in mind. Now you know!