The videogames that rewrote history

Wolfenstein: New Order builds on a history of videogames rewriting the past. David takes a look...

The Vikings won the Space Race shortly after the Anglo-Babylonian war drew to a bitter ceasefire.

What started as a heavy handed retaliation against the Americans demanding tribute from fair Albion escalated into the English civilisation becoming the de-facto international punching bag-slash-villain. This resulted in a war-forged coalition between the Sioux and the nation of Babylon to content the English colonial aggression.

With the Sioux eventually crushed and both the Babylonians and the English now hurting badly from the centuries-long fighting that had lasted through two full technological epochs, the Vikings were building their first IKEA on the Moon.

Around about the time of the siege of Little Bighorn, it became clear that there was no possible way that my original plan to crush the Vikings once I was done with these pesky Babylonians was still viable. Instead, I made a conscious decision that I wanted to live in a world where the Vikings were the first nation into space.

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Strategy vs. Story

The Civilisation series almost takes a slapstick approach to alternative history. Instead of anything terribly subtle, it substitutes coloured tokens in its board game mechanics for named and familiar cultures from our past and allows players to muddle along to bizarre conclusions along the lines of space vikings, but games do have a unique potential to allow us to explore and twist our own history.

Writing something about the Wolfenstein series recently, it became clear that video games can be strong players in the alternate history field due to their innate levels of interactivity and immersion. Being able to dabble in moments of our cultural past whilst simultaneously asking, or encouraging us to ask, “what if?” can be incredibly powerful. It can have a strong effect in literature, but this is magnified when you feel you are partly responsible for the divergence.

Strategy titles are probably the most obvious way of experiencing this. As well as the dangerously engaging Civilisation series, there are also more niche-appealing strategy titles that are for the hardcore history buffs. Something like the Hearts Of Iron series for example lets you to really get into the more logistical challenges of keeping supply lines maintained during a sustained conflict and can let you micromanage your alternate history to simulate more realistic war-management conditions.

Sitting at the other end of the dinner table from strategy titles and flicking the odd splotch of mash potato at them whilst they aren’t looking are the games with a story to tell. These feel a bit more like traditional alternate history fiction. Spend any time with the Assassin’s Creed series and you are going to get some accidental historical knowledge, albeit knowledge that you might have to run through the templar-assassin-ancient-advanced-civilisation-filter to get rid of the invented conspiracy plot.

Some games do this in a more subtle way than others. The series that got me thinking about this is actually rather intelligent in its execution.

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Wolfenstein: New Order

The Wolfenstein has never needed to or pretended to be terribly smart, but I am going to make the unusual argument that it has been subtle.

Wolfenstein: The New Order looks to feature a bombastic alternate history shock story where the Nazis “beat us to the bomb”, won the war and stomped all over the world. The “what if the Nazis won the war” angle is far from original and what the design team probably hoped would be a great shocking image with the White House flanked by Nazi flags is probably simply an image that anyone sitting too close to pop culture will probably have seen already. The internet has certainly done worse.

This big, pulpy and dialled-up-to-11 piece of sci-fi-alt-history is however moderately subtle as the series did not jump straight there. Wolfenstein has earned its twist in history.

The Wolfenstein series has been building its own parallel history of the Nazis since the release of Wolfenstein 3D and has been upping the ante ever since. Anyone playing the shareware version of Wolfenstein 3D probably would not even have been aware of anything out of the ordinary with their Nazi prison escape adventure, but the plot was actually about you trying to stop the Nazis reanimating a legion of undead soldiers.

Moving up to Return To Castle Wolfenstein, the plot was essentially the same, featuring more undead shenanigans, but this occult influence was much more obvious from the start. Rolling up to the Wolfenstein reboot in 2009, the player had access to supernatural powers from the outset to play around with and now that New Order is showing us a world dominated by fascists, we are not completely mind blown that the world is portrayed as completely inside out.

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Treading familiar ground

World War 2 and the Nazis are a popular choice for alternative history and what if scenarios. Mixing Nazis up with the occult is also popular, as demonstrated by practically any form of media featuring them as an antagonist. This is being relatively unambitious with its historical rewrite, but even here the trick seems to be not to change everything at once. Although one is hesitant to use the word believable insofar as reanimating the dead and supernatural powers are believable, we accept just a couple of changes at a time.

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