Historical Accuracy in Videogames is Never Great

At Sony’s infamous 2006 E3 press conference we witnessed the birth of the infamous “giant enemy crab” internet meme. At one point during the conference Bill Rich claimed that a game called Genji 2 was historically accurate and more importantly, the game’s epic battles were based on “famous battles which actually took place in ancient Japan.” Skip ahead literally moments and everyone bore witness the sheer spectacle that was Genji fighting what was described at a “giant enemy crab”, a creature that we were told “you attack its weak point for massive damage”.

Had Mr. Rich not hyped the game up in such a way moments prior stating that the game was in some way historical, I don’t think the whole episode would have been quite as large of a laughing stock as it was. The main problem is that game companies, much like the movie industry, don’t go for “historically accurate” when they can go for “eye candy and explosions” in its place, but do they really need to be mutually exclusive? Why can’t we have games “based on history” that aren’t full of anachronisms?

This makes me think of some of my bugbears when it comes to being a history buff and consuming media that largely doesn’t really care about accuracy. Probably the best example of this that I’ve run into, within the past few years, is the game Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood (PS3), a game that is also “based on historical events” and yet falls into the same trap that many westerns on the silver screen have been doing lately; that is trying to make the “Wild West” into some kind of steam punk fantasy world.

Right from the very beginning of the game we bear witness to the McCall brothers, Ray and Thomas, fighting for the confederate army during an unnamed Civil War battle. The confederate base is a trench system encircled with sand bags, ammo crates and dirt piles. At one point you are ordered to take position on a series of Gatling guns and keep the Union Army at bay. Next thing we see is the McCall brothers tearing into federal flesh with a series of high powered lead bullets, ending the battle once and for all.

Yes, Gatling guns existed as early as 1850, but they weren’t to the specifications and speed of the ones shown in the game at all. Early Gatling guns were enormous expensive artillery pieces that required a team to operate the machine. The guns weren’t really adopted during the Civil War because they broke down very easily, overheated, and were a royal pain in the butt to use. It was also damn near impossible to justify such an expenditure when suuply lines were generally weak due to constant fighting.

twelve of the guns were purchased personally by union commanders and used at the siege of Petersburg VA in June 1864-April 1865 eight other Gatling guns were fitted on gun boats. These were not your Predator style hand-held miniguns in any way whatsoever. Perhaps one of these guns would be commonplace in such a battle as people with money were known to buy them for their own use, but the game presents it as if the Gatling gun is a hot new commodity and everyone has one. All covered wagons seem to have them mounted in the wagon, and there are even ones that can be carried around. While the game is very fun, and a decidedly underrated experience, I kept looking out for Kenneth Branagh riding a huge mechanical spider ala Will Smith’s film The Wild Wild West.

It seems that modern game makers are worried that the actual weapons of the particular time period they are making a game about are “boring” and need to be spiced up with anachronistic stuff. While the above example may not bother many due to films such as Jonah Hex using such weaponry as commonplace, we have to remember that there is a fifty or so year discrepancy with the guns shown. Now imagine a World War II game with soldiers that have computer HUD eyepieces and laser guided rifles; that would be a good comparison to what is wrong in that case.

Not all games do a bad job with historical accuracy, take Rockstar games very own Red Dead series as an example of a company that did it right (in keeping with our western theme here). While some western games try their hardest to pretend that the wild west was full of crazy machines and other falsehoods, Read Dead Redemption tells the story of a man that is “the last of his breed” in a dying west falling to urbanization and industry. The game does look a bit “older” than the timeframe of around 1911, the period in which the game takes place, but it does a good job of keeping up with the actual weapons, political issues, and ethnicities you’d come in contact with at that time.

There is a splash of Hollywood flair but it’s more in scope with Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly than something like Cowboys and Aliens. While not perfect I feel that Red Dead is one of those games that could actually teach you something about the west, the Mexican Revolution, and the end of the cowboy lifestyle while you play. Minus the zombies, of course. Granted, they also have Gatling Guns, but at least it fits more into the timeline!

I’m not calling for game companies to stop making games with historical inaccuracies, but instead to take care not to overhype a false fact. The problem also exists in Hollywood where movie companies will say things like “this is the true story of [insert famous guy here]” and yet change a ton of stuff for the sake of the dramatic elements of the film. I wish they’d at least say “loosely based on…” for this stuff, as it helps perpetrate false history. or in the case of Red Dead Redemption, do a few minor alterations, but keep it true to the time period. In this era of the “dumbing down” of the population, I cringe to think of the day when someone rents a game like Dante’s Inferno to do a school report when they should read the book, but that day may be closer than you think.

NOTE: A version of this was written for a website called Gamrfeed in 2011, I have overhauled it considerably.


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