This post is meant as a follow-up to my previous thoughts about medievalists telling medieval stories. In that piece, I begin by considering a video game and end with reflections on the larger implications for storytelling about the Middle Ages. After writing it, I got to thinking about other medieval video games, so decided to check some more out. Naturally, I went to see what’s offered on Steam.
There’s no surprise that searching by the keywords “medieval” and “Middle Ages” brings up quite a few hits (and some irrelevant results, as far as I can tell). I can’t go through the whole list, but here’s a selection of games released in 2017 that promise some sort of “medieval” experience–and notes on how they seem to represent the Middle Ages, at least on the surface.
Many of my criticisms are based on what claims each game seems to make about the medieval period as well as diversity (or lack thereof). These seem to be two of the biggest ways that misconceptions of the Middle Ages have taken over pop culture. Of course, these are knee-jerk reactions based on the content up front on each game’s page, including the trailer, screenshots, & description. So here we go.
“The Dark Ages” Fail
First, I’m going to lump a few games together under this single heading. All of these games have one thing in common: they prominently display the zombie lie of the medieval period as “The Dark Ages” and fail in doing so. (See number 5 in this piece for a good, brief take-down of the problem.) Here are the games in this category of cringe-worthiness:
Age of Darkness: With this name, I can’t even. Nope.
The Guild 3: This is a follow-up to the game I already addressed in my previous post, and it doesn’t portray the Middle Ages any better. Its description uses the same premise and failed description: “The dark middle ages, once dominated through nobles and clergy, ends and a new era begins: the age of the free cities of trading and of the free mind!” Nope.
Strategy & Tactics: Dark Ages: In addition to the failure of a name, the game goes for the dark theme, too, since it’s “set in the violent world of alternate Middle Ages.” Still, the game does capture a certain sense of the global Middle Ages, since it appears that players can build armies from figures who seemingly represent Europeans, Middle Easterners, Asians, and a range of races and character types. Unfortunately, we don’t have to read far into the description to find these non-Europeans referred to as “the exotic cults of the Mesopotamia.” Exoticizing and Orientalizing fail.
Hints Toward Complexity
Life is Feudal: This MMO game looks pretty. But it’s hard to tell how it fares for representation. Setting aside the problem history of the term “feudal,” the game seems to tap into the idea that the Middle Ages were, in the game description’s words, “unforgiving.” After all, the title itself puns on the homophonic pair “feudal” and “futile.” Eye rolls from the medievalists who know otherwise, though maybe it’s not that egregious. It seems mainly to evoke Northern Europe in its settings. It’s also very white. Perhaps a positive: I think I did see a woman warrior in the trailer (though she was pretty white & blond). The sword and sickle as a logo is a curious choice, since it’s pretty evocative of the famous Hammer and Sickle as a Communist symbol (see a discussion thread related to the game logo here); perhaps more could be said about this.
Armed Warrior VR: Having gotten medieval with virtual reality once, this looks fun. Given the development of VR games (from what I’ve seen), it’s not surprising that this game is mainly a weapons & battle game. As the description says, “With medieval fantasy background, users become medieval knights and adventure with various weapons.” These weapons are, for the most part, related to European varieties: swords and shields, bows and arrows, and catapults. Some have nice fantasy twists. And a few weapons (some arrows and catapult items) even feature explosives, presumably because of gunpowder–which was a medieval weapon developed in the East that spread West in the later Middle Ages. Players can also fight dragons with ranged weapons, which just seems like loads of fun in VR. But for all its fantasy claims, it’s hard to tell how imaginative the game is with diversity: the trailer shows the ability to choose gender, but nothing other than whiteness.
Swords and Sandals Medieval: Like others in the Swords and Sandals series, this is a pretty straightforward cartoonish, turn-based combat RPG. The description poses it as a pretty light-hearted game: “In Swords and Sandals Medieval you start as a peasant and turn him into one of the greatest knights in the realm. You will fight other knights, from a distance and up close using melee weapons, joust, go on quests and get into to all sorts of chivalrous mischief and adventure.” In a surprisingly nice turn of events, a few of the screenshots (like the one displayed here) indicate more racial diversity than we usually see, even if all the knights pictured are guys.
What These Games Tell Us
Finally, just a few reflections emerge from these examples. One is that there are layers at work in these games. Some of my criticisms address issues only on the surface, while more complexity emerges with more exploration. In other instances, some of the criticisms are related to deeper aspects of story, setting, gameplay, characters, and more.
It also comes out that the sensationalism of the alterity of the medieval period as dark, violent, ruthless, and completely foreign is also part of what is expected to sell these types of games. Whether this view is true or not is somewhat a sideline. Games creators think this sells.
That last point is significant in relation to my call for more medievalists telling better stories for the public. Perhaps the sensationalism and alterity of the Middle Ages does sell. But we also need to show the public other ways of telling medieval stories. And we need to show the public that other medieval stories can also be popular and successful in their own ways.
Many untold medieval stories have great potential to grab popular imaginations. We need to tell those stories so that they begin to shift the types of medieval stories told in popular media.