The past, according to the past: Total War: Three Kingdoms and adapting historical fiction

This blog has mostly concerned itself so far with the question of how to translate our understandings of the past into a piece of fiction to be consumed by a modern audience. We run into an entirely different problem, however, when we try to adapt a piece of fiction for modern audiences which is itself a work of historical fiction. The view of the past is, in a way, double-filtered: once by the original creator, and again by the current one. Should creators and adapters prioritise the best understanding modern historians have of the period being predicted, or should they adopt the conventions and understandings of that period held by the original author?

The example I’ll be using in this post is Total War: Three Kingdoms, Creative Assembly’s upcoming strategy game set in ancient China, adapting the 16th-century novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Romance details the Three Kingdoms period of China, during which the Han Empire broke up into multiple warring states for around 100 years, and it takes multiple historical figures from the time and interprets them as heroic, villainous, admirable, or despicable according to the political mores and ideals of the Ming dynasty, when it was written.

Total War: Three Kingdoms draws on Chinese history, but also dramatic depictions of Chinese history. Does this make it less ‘historical’?

The historical gulf here is vast and bifurcated: over a thousand years of difference between the events depicted in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE and the 16th-century writing of the novel, and roughly four hundred years between the writing of the novel and the production of the video game. Creative Assembly is no stranger to large historical gulfs of this kind; their earliest-set Total War campaign is the Wrath of Sparta DLC for Rome 2, depicting the Peloponnesian War and beginning in 432 BCE.  However, there is a specific challenge in framing the game as an adaptation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms, rather than simply a historical game set during the period Romance depicts.

This challenge is most easily illustrated for a western audience by considering a different adaptation of a piece of historical fiction: BBC’s The Hollow Crown, specifically that series’ Henry V. The Hollow Crown is a film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Major Tetralogy, comprising Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V; this last play concerns itself greatly with the prosecution of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. The concepts of national identity in the early 15th century, when Henry V is set, were, although being defined by the conflict between England and France, still somewhat nebulous[1]. Shakespeare, however, writing in 1599 for a late-16th-century audience, confidently asserts an ‘English’ identity for the soldiers under Henry V, as well as the King and nobles.

This makes sense for a 16th-century play, as the strengthening of an ‘English’ identity was an important political project at the time[2]. The Hollow Crown, produced by the BBC for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012[3], frames itself in its mise-en-scene and costuming as a semi-accurate adaptation of a story about the Hundred Years’ War, filming in period castles, using period costumes, etc. However, being an adaptation of Shakespeare, it transmits Shakespeare’s construction of an ‘English’ identity that is somewhat anachronistic to the period it’s portraying. Further, it casts Paterson Joseph, a man of colour, as the Duke of York – injecting a modern concept of civic nationalism into Shakespeare’s interpretation of the Hundred Years’ War[4].  What we’re left with, then, is a strange mishmash: a historical event being filtered through a later gaze, which is in itself being commented upon by a modern production.

The Hollow Crown, like Shakespeare’s play, emphasises ‘English’ identity – but a 16th-century view of English identity that is far removed from the English identity intelligible in 1415. Should The Hollow Crown cleave to 15th-century attitudes, or 16th? Does this make it legitimate for the film to comment on modern changes to what constitutes ‘English’ identity? 

Is it correct to consider The Hollow Crown: Henry V, then, as a modern piece of historical fiction and assess it on that level? Or is it better to think of it as an adaptation of Shakespeare which happens to borrow the aesthetics of a historical period? Does the production’s use of a modern interpretation of medieval aesthetics mean it should be assessed as a portrayal of the medieval period? Or is it an imagination of how Shakespeare, if he lived in modern Britain and held modern British values, might have imagined the past?

The 2012 Cultural Olympiad also included Sacrilege, a bouncy castle based on Stonehenge, reinterpreting what was likely a religious ritual site as a children’s playground. Re-evaluating and examining Britain’s history (within approved limits) was a major point of the initiative.

This conflict can be even more complicated when it comes to Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As Hyuk-Chan Kwon notes in his essay in Playing with the Past[5], many modern video game adaptations of the novel, developed by Japanese studios for a predominantly Japanese market, are heavily influenced by the 20th-century rewriting of the Romance by Yoshikawa Eiji, which recasts the narrative through the genre tropes of samurai fiction, emphasising the feudal relationship between samurai and daimyo and thus the structure of a feudal society – a structure that did not necessarily exist in the warring states period of Chinese history and is not precisely depicted by the original Romance[6]. The structure of many of these games, casting the player as a feudal lord who must recruit heroes and conquer territory, with an emphasis on the relationship between warrior and overlord, reflects that cultural understanding of the work as much as it does the original Romance.

Many adaptations of the Romance are based on Japanese retellings – to the point where series based on the Romance are often highly similar in gameplay to series based on Japanese history, despite these being two very different periods.

When we consider Total War: Three Kingdoms, then, we are examining a game, developed by an English studio, portraying China’s 2nd and 3rd centuries through the lens of a 15th-century Chinese novel, awaiting release into a landscape of video game adaptations of that novel heavily influenced by a 20th-century Japanese rewriting of that novel. To say the game’s relationship with history is complex is an understatement. Creative Assembly have bridged this massive intertextual gulf in an interesting way, however.

Total War: Three Kingdoms can be played in two modes. First is ‘Romance’ mode, which draws inspiration from the Romance and reflects the larger-than-life characters in the novel and in the contemporary culture of Romance adaptations, emphasising duels between heroes who can decimate entire units of commoners, with equipment that is more ceremonial, stylised, or later period than what would be historically accurate, and so on. Second is ‘Records’ mode, in which many anachronistic or stylised elements are removed. Individual hero units are rendered as generals with personal bodyguards, units manoeuvre more slowly, and equipment is far more period-appropriate. Both modes’ campaign sections focus heavily on the political and personal relationships between characters, with loyalties, friendships, and rivalries developing based on player orders or sandbox circumstance. However, in ‘Romance’ mode, relationships and scripted events are based on the sequence of events in the novel, whereas in ‘Records’ mode those relationships and events are based on history. The core gameplay loops are essentially the same, but one mode is an adaptation of a massively culturally-significant work of fiction, and the other is in many ways an interrogation of that work of fiction with regards to its historical accuracy[7].

All of these examples raise important questions about adapting works of fiction. When we create works of fiction about the past, are we presenting the past as it was at the time, the past as it was understood at a later date, or the past as we understand it now? Can we disentangle modern understandings and presentations of the past from the cultural baggage that has grown up through prior presentations? Should we?

Adapting and analysing works of historical fiction which are themselves historical can shed interesting new insights on the period in which they were created; Henry V emphasises patriotism and national identity in an anachronistic way to show support for English military efforts in 1599 – but that same emphasis can be co-opted to construct a different narrative of national unity during a major sporting event[8]. A novel can be written to legitimate neo-Confucian ideology by examining the Three Kingdoms period and be reinterpreted as a legitimation of a constructed image of a feudal social structure. In looking at these works as products of their times as well as representations of past periods, we can understand their times – and reinterpret their values and concerns with our own.

Ultimately, historical fiction is not just about representing the past. It’s about using the past to speak to the present. Our historical fiction will be used by future historians to understand our views of our world, as well as our views of the past, just as past historical fiction has been used by us. If this blog has made you think about one thing, let it be this: how does this representation of history reflect the context and purpose of its own production? Total War: Three Kingdoms will reflect its context. Battlefield V will reflect its context. How they use visions of the past to articulate their views of the present, and to act within the constraints of their medium and genre, is, I feel, a more interesting – and probably more relevant – question than whether or not they are strictly ‘accurate’.

[1] There is debate among medievalists whether non-noble retainers and peasantry within Henry V’s would have considered themselves ‘English’ as an identity category, rather than identifying themselves with their region of origin (like ‘Lancashire’ or ‘London’) or the noble they served.

[2] Relating to an ongoing geopolitical conflict with the Spanish Empire, anxieties over the religious sway of the Church of England as opposed to the Catholic Church, and, in the play’s earliest forms, an immediate justification for (and, in Shakespeare’s subtle way, examination of) a military campaign in Ireland.

[3] An adjunct to an Olympic Games where an ethnically-diverse Team GB competed, and part of a government-driven narrative around the Games highlighting both the United Kingdom’s history and its diversity.

[4] And dovetailing with a practice of somewhat colour-blind casting in British theatre.

[5] A series of essays analysing the presentation of history found in contemporary video games; Bloomsbury, 2013, page 123.

[6] And is itself a revisionist construction of historical Japanese social relations authorised by a nationalist government in a time of war; Eiji’s rewriting was serialised in a newspaper from 1939-1941.

[7] Adaptations of Romance of the Three Kingdoms which focus on historical accuracy and reinterrogate the novel’s casting of characters as heroes or villains based on the political and social mores of Ming China are common, so this isn’t a new thing, but it is interesting to find it in the same game as a more straightforward adaptation.

[8] Indeed, the use of sections of Henry V at English sporting events is almost as ubiquitous as the co-opting of its story beats for war movies.

Agency, Mechanics, Mindset: strategy games and imparting a historical worldview

It’s 907 AD. In Eoferwic, former stronghold of the Norsemen, the King of the Britons of Strathclyde, Run, marshals his warbands. In the twenty years since Alfred, King of Wessex, and Guðrum, King of East Anglia, agreed a temporary peace after the Battle of Eddington, Run has led the Britons from their fastness at Govan to smash the invading Norsemen of Northumbria and their English vassals, forge an alliance with the Vikings who now rule in Alba, and break the back of the Mercians. Now, he turns his gaze further south, directing his sons and brothers – for he is seventy winters old, and unable to lead a band himself – to prepare to strike at the oldest foe of the Old North, the last, strongest bastion of the English in these islands: the Kingdom of Wessex.

This never happened.

British cavalry move forward to attack Saxon infantry – a battle that never happened, but could have.

The name of the King of Strathclyde after the sack of Dumbarton in 870 by Vikings is unknown. While there was a Kingdom of Strathclyde, it did not overcome the new settlement of Norsemen in Northumbria, or conquer its way down to York (Eoferwic). And it certainly did not engage in a long struggle for overall control of what is now called England; while that struggle did take place (although to call it a singular struggle is somewhat misleading), it was between the English of Wessex and the Danelaw.

What I described above is not history. It is a counterfactual history produced by the mechanics of a video game – in this case, Creative Assembly’s Total War: Thrones of Britannia. I’ve alluded previously to the way that historical fiction is ‘inherently inaccurate’ by its nature as fiction, but in this post I want to explore the ways in which video games’ greatest asset – the agency they can afford players – affects their presentation of history, how that can distort the picture of the past – and how designers can leverage it to produce a greater understanding of a historical worldview and the process by which history is made.

Strathclyde (called Yr Hen Ogledd in this phase of the game) in dark red in the north of England. FOR THE OLD NORTH!

Almost all historical games present a historical counterfactual. In some, it is the idea of a fictional character influencing key figures and events of a particular place and time (a la Assassin’s Creed), in others, it’s the idea that players can refight historical battles and come to a different result (historical shooters generally, but in terms of games this blog has analysed, the Battlefield series is a good example). In the case of strategy games, though, particularly the open-ended kind, the counterfactual runs deeper, and has more possibility: not just that one can refight battles and change the result, but that a player can step into the shoes of a historical leader and radically alter the course of history by prevailing where others failed, making peace where others warred.

This is a far deeper possible counterfactual than other games produce. In a historical shooter one can refight an engagement, but the course of the historical war on which other maps are based does not change, so the counterfactual the game can present is fundamentally limited[1]. In contrast, something like Total War, in by and large abandoning historical particularity for the construction of a historical sandbox, allows a much greater array of alternate pasts to be constructed.

The series generally constructs a historical start position in which the player can take control of several different factions, gives the player objectives (sometimes simply to expand, sometimes to capture specific regions in the game map), and lets them have at it. Computer-controlled factions will follow their own logic, objectives, and long-term strategies in a dynamic fashion, resulting in a situation that is never the same twice. In a game set in the ancient Mediterranean, Sparta might forge an alliance with Athens and expunge the kingdoms of the Diadochi while Rome seized the Western Mediterranean. A crafty Daimyo might forge a Republic of Japan from the Boshin War. The Kingdom of Strathclyde might come back from the brink[2].

Total War has reproduced its strategy sandbox in a number of historical settings, from Ancient Rome to the Boshin War in 19th-century Japan. Often mechanics are changed to reflect setting, but the core gameplay remains consistent.

This is, on the face of it, bad history. It’s inherently wrong: the past is a series of events that happened, and allowing radical change of this nature means that the game is inevitably becoming less of a history and more of a fantasy. It’s also somewhat difficult to reconcile the player’s position in a game like this with any actual historical figure. Many other historical games have the player taking control of an actual individual, and even if they’re a fictional one, this is easy to reconcile with historical reality: historical fiction imagines non-existent people all the time. In a strategy game such as Total War or Civilization, though, the player takes on the role of an almost all-seeing, all-knowing commander: immortal, untouchable, capable of exactly marshalling the resources of an entire group at once, giving orders that are conveyed instantly across thousands of miles, exactly controlling multiple characters in the game. Clearly, such an entity did not exist: it’s an abstraction of gameplay.

However, what such abstractions and counterfactual achieve is producing a greater understanding of historical contingency than might otherwise be achieved. I said in the last paragraph that the past is a series of events that happened. This is a popular theory, and one that seems sound, but I believe it obscures an important facet about the past. we can characterise things that happened – major storms, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and meteors – as events that happened, outside of any human choice and therefore without possibility for change.

But History is not about the study of things that had nothing to do with humans. History is about the study of the human past, and humans have agency. They make choices, according to their worldviews and circumstances. They are unpredictable. Every human action is taken in a web of possible actions, and in choosing one thing to do every person subtly changes the universe from one where all those other possible actions could happen into one in which they did not. History is the study of decisions humans have made. Often, these are small, or unconscious, or only visible in aggregate. It’s difficult to categorise a plague, for instance, as a result of human decisions, but without trade networks or urban centres or an appreciable laxity of pest control or hygiene, plagues would not occur – and these are all the result of human action and therefore human choices.

In this light, then, sandbox strategy games in which the player can send history careening off around a different path become a valuable tool for analysing the potentialities in historical situations. Is it likely that the Kingdom of Strathclyde would surge back and retake Britain? No. But it’s possible, given certain choices and circumstances by many different people. Total War presents a gameplay sandbox within which the player can make choices and produce these counterfactuals.

Total War: Attila allows players to hold the Western Roman Empire together against the collapse of the fifth century, something that would have drastically changed the course of history – but could have happened.

However, even in the production of historical counterfactuals there are gradations of historical plausibility and possibility. Total War, as its name suggests, is focussed mainly on conflict. Raising and commanding armies is the series’ primary mechanic. Diplomacy is often perfunctory, and there is no way for a state or faction to project ‘soft power’. There is no way to re-enact Gaius Popillius Laenas’ circle in the sand around King Antiochus[3], even if you’re playing as Rome. Thus the view of history the series projects is one where the main driver of history is force of arms. Even if one ultimately subscribes to this view, it’s clear that Total War’s view of history can seem a little myopic.

This brings us neatly onto the topic of how designers can shape the historical worldview their game imparts by carefully tuning its mechanics, and how the sandbox of tools offered to the player can help the player understand the predominant worldview of the time. Here I’m going to use two games by Paradox Interactive as examples, to contrast with Total War: Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis IV.

Like the Total War series, these two games present a historical startpoint[4] from which systemic gameplay can begin, and like Total War, both assume an ‘overseer’ player character who acts through individuals or institutions in the game world. However, both games take great care (arguably greater care than Total War does) to tailor their mechanics to the time period they depict: in the case of Crusader Kings, the middle ages, and for Europa Universalis the Early Modern period.

Crusader Kings can be quickly described as a ‘feudal politics simulator’: the player controls a historical figure and their dynasty, switching to the next heir when the avatar character dies. Rather than interface with armies or command nations, the player interacts with the world strictly as a specific individual[5]. When the player conducts diplomacy, it is with other characters. Rather than selecting ‘generals’ to command forces, players must cultivate relationships with their households and select marshals. Instead of simply pressing a button to marry, players can woo potentially spouses and educate their heirs (although arranged marriages are simpler to achieve). In this, the game eloquently communicates the fusion of the personal and political that characterised feudalism as a form of political organisation[6]: if you’re at war with the Kingdom of France, the likelihood is that it’s because of your relationship with the King, not because two arbitrary states wanted each other’s territory.

In Crusader Kings 2, players must carefully educate their heirs – because, like real feudal lords, it’s their heirs that will carry on the dynasty.

Europa Universalis, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. Individuals exist in Europa Universalis, but unlike Crusader Kings’ full characters with wants, needs, foibles, and virtues, they’re mostly abstractions used as tools or providing statistical bonuses to the player. What the player truly controls in Europa Universalis is the institutions of a state (again, as an ‘overseer’ rather than a specific individual). The game focusses on trade, diplomacy, networks of treaties, and the development of political structures. In Crusader Kings you might be concerned with making sure your heir doesn’t grow up a weakling or a monk, but in Europa Universalis you’re more likely to worry about balancing the flow of goods through your centres of trade or developing an institutional memory in your navy so they can more effectively hunt pirates. Where Crusader Kings centres the personal, Europa Universalis puts the institutional in the spotlight.

This is about as much detail Europa Universalis IV goes into with individuals – a series of statistics that affect the abstracted mechanics of your state.

Both of these games use their mechanics to represent a historical worldview – indeed, to present a historical argument about what was important at the time. Should the player wish to ally with, say, Castile in both games, they will go about it in different ways: in Crusader Kings they’ll send gifts to the monarch, or support his heirs and siblings in usurping him. Power flows from individuals and their support among other individuals. In Europa Universalis, the player will propose an alliance with the Castilian state, perhaps offering territories or mutual defence against other states. Power flows from institutions and political structures: discontented nobles are a statistic to manage, not individuals to keep sweet. Both of these arguments have their flaws: politics was intensely personal throughout the Early Modern period, and Medieval states often had sophisticated institutions which could function almost divorced from the individuals operating them. Both games take their view of history from their mechanics; in defining the basic methods of interacting with the world, the designers have encoded a belief system and worldview into the game.

But what these games, and Total War, reveal is a possibility of using video games as a powerful pedagogical tool. I talked in my post on Discovery Tour about how we can use video games to show people the past as it happened, but with games like this we can help people relive the past as it was made. It’s one thing to have the personal nature of politics explained – how, say, overlords could use symbolic titles to bestow status on vassals to keep them loyal – and quite another to have to navigate the subtle politics of rival vassals by carefully distributing the positions of Royal Falconer and Cupbearer. It brings history alive by guiding the player into thinking like those in the past – and acknowledging that history was not inevitable, but was in fact the result of choices that those acting upon and within those worldviews made.

That’s extremely valuable.

[1] For example: Battlefield 1 offers a maps depicting the 1918 Spring Offensive in which the German Army pressed the British Army back to Amiens, and maps depicting the Allied counteroffensive through the Marne, Meuse, and Argonne sectors that followed the Allied victory at Amiens – but it does not offer maps depicting a counterfactual German breakthrough at Amiens. Even in a game that takes a possible counterfactual as its basis, the scope for changing history is limited.

(For good reason: making maps for every possible counterfactual would be an absurd demand on developers).

[2] Each of these examples comes from a campaign I’ve played in Rome 2, Shogun 2, and Thrones of Britannia respectively.

[3] An anecdote from the apogee of the Roman Republic’s power: a senator, Pompillius brought a decree to a foreign king demanding he end his war against Egypt, and when the King stated he would discuss this with his council, Pompillius drew a circle around the King in the sand, stating that he King would not move until he had given Pompillius a reply to give the senate. Livy and Polybius relate this as an example of the power and hegemony Rome held throughout the Mediterranean, that a Roman could issue this decree to a King in front of his army and be obeyed merely by invoking the threat of Roman displeasure.

[4] In fact, they present several: each has a series of ‘bookmarks’ from which players can start which approximate the state of the game world at a given date.

[5] Mostly. Commanding armies and levying taxes is done through ‘impossible’ means and features similar mechanical abstractions as in Total War.

[6] To what extend ‘Feudalism’ as a form of political organisation ever existed, and how far one can describe the political settlements of various medieval states as ‘feudal’, and even what the word ‘feudal’ means is an extremely contested topic among medievalists; the word is used here as a shorthand.

War as an aesthetic: Battlefield V and historical accuracy

Battlefield V’s debut trailer and pre-release coverage have been rather controversial. EA and DICE[1] revealed Battlefield V with a highly bombastic, action-packed trailer, following a squad of British soldiers (including a female sniper with a prosthetic arm,) through a series of action set-pieces: clearing a house of Germans, moving fast alongside a tank advance, holding off a German attack, and the impact of a V1 flying bomb.

This portrayal, EA’s marketing focus on customisation of player characters so soldiers look unique, and the reveal’s emphasis on high-octane action all contributed to accusations that the game was not hewing to the spirit of what it portrays: the Second World War.

Battlefield V’s Reveal Trailer

It is instantly obvious that this is not a depiction of a real engagement in WWII; the British Army did not deploy women in uniform in its frontline units, nor were V1s, Churchill tanks, or MG42s involved in the 1940 fighting around Escaut the trailer ostensibly depicts. A great deal of artistic licence has been used in order to produce a cinematic trailer and to highlight gameplay or customisation elements DICE wishes to emphasize. The trailer caused significant amounts of controversy within the series’ community, with much focus on the character models of the four soldiers. EA’s description of in-game customisation options has led to accusations that the game will lose its identity as a WWII game. These criticisms generally did not focus on the weaponry (with some exceptions – the cricket bat and katana melee weapons caused some comment) or the vehicles, but on the visual customisation. Why is it specifically these elements that caused controversy, when many other elements of the game are equally inaccurate?

Battlefield V heavily emphasises player customisation, especially visual customisation, allowing players to create their own personalised soldiers – even when this makes them impausible in the context of WWII.

Battlefield is not an accurate depiction of historical or contemporary conflict, nor has it ever been. DICE have always been open about the fact that their aim is to create an interesting sandbox for players by drawing from their inspirations – modern war in the case of Battlefields 3 and 4, the First World War in the case of Battlefield 1, and now WWII in Battlefield V. This does not generally generate a great deal of controversy; realistic shooter games exist, but the loosened realism of the series has always let it attract gamers who are interested in fast gameplay and action rather than the slower pace of many more realistic games. When it comes to historical representation, the series has always taken inspiration from past events rather than aim for hyper-faithful depiction.

This appears to be true of Battlefield V, judging from its pre-release footage and the gameplay that was displayed in its closed Alpha[3]. DICE’s marketing line is that Battlefield V is all about World War 2 as you’ve never seen it before”, and that the game will take players to lesser-known or underexplored areas of the war. From a public history perspective, the effect appears to be two-fold: in exploring less-depicted fronts and theatres, DICE can distinguish the game from its competitors and provide fresh experiences to players, while at the same time letting players learn about a wider scope of the war, not simply highly-depicted snapshots that are frequently seen in movies, tv, and other games.

However, the gameplay itself rests upon a highly inaccurate depiction of what combat in the Second World War was like[4], with soldiers being able to take multiple bullets before being disabled, revived with a single adrenaline injection, heal and resupply themselves mid-fight, quickly repair vehicles in combat, operate machine guns single-handed, et cetera. It’s clear that DICE is prioritising fast-moving action-packed gameplay over a realistic depiction of infantry combat and tactics in the Second World War[5].

An example of Battlefield V’s gameplay

It’s in this light we must examine the inaccuracies at the heart of the controversy: female soldiers. While the British Army and Wehrmacht deploying large numbers of female combatants in uniform on the front lines is greatly implausible, it is not more implausible than those same armies deploying V1 and JB-2 flying bombs at the Battle of Narvik, as the Alpha depicts, or indeed a host of late-war weapons and equipment that postdate that engagement. As previously noted, the gameplay itself is a construct designed for fun, not one designed to reflect real historical tactics and practices. Why, then, is the presence of female soldiers at Narvik more immediately obvious as a ‘wrong element’ than the presence of a Churchill Tank (which first saw action two full years after Narvik)?

My contention is twofold: first, the precise service histories of weapons and equipment are not a subject of which most casual players or viewers have much knowledge[6], whereas the fact that most armies in the war did not deploy women to frontline combat is well-known. It’s therefore understandable that a casual viewer would understand one element as obviously wrong rather than both. However, this element also appears to have caused controversy among gamers with a passion for the Second World War, who we can presume know that the Sturmgewehr 44 entered service in 1944 and should thus not be present in 1940. It therefore seems that there is a greater reason than simple inaccuracy causing this objection[7].

The reason, I suspect, stems from the Battlefield series’ approach to depicting conflict. Earlier I said that the games do not restrict themselves to realistic depiction, but instead draw from contemporary and historical conflicts to provide a framework for gameplay. Specifically, I would argue that the Battlefield series (and many, many other shooters) draw from an aesthetic of conflict rather than necessarily the conflict itself. This is greatly obvious when one examines the previous game in the series, Battlefield 1.

Battlefield 1’s Reveal Trailer. Note the differences in style from V’s.

Like Battlefield V, Battlefield 1 is not an accurate depiction of its subject matter. Its vision of the First World War draws heavily from the period, but it favours interesting or rare weaponry or equipment in order to frame its gameplay. Rather than the mass assault principally with bolt-action rifles, combat in Battlefield 1 is very similar to the combat found in the series’ modern-day instalments, with automatic weaponry common, and most players carrying weapons that were produced in very limited numbers or in several cases only existed as prototypes. What Battlefield 1 does do, however, is reinforce a culturally-understood aesthetic of the First World War. Many maps depict the Western Front, and those that do not, import elements of it: gas is a common weapon, even in environments where it was sparsely used; Mark V Tanks battle German A7Vs on fronts neither ever saw, and early-war battles involve the use of Fokker triplanes and Gotha Bombers, despite these being late-war innovations. We must therefore view the series’ approach to history as using a historical aesthetic to frame a shooter game, rather than crafting a shooter from historical reality.

The important point here is that the ‘understood aesthetic’ of historical conflicts often only bears a passing resemblance to their reality, due to other entertainment depictions, entrenched narratives that historiography has moved past but which still are accepted by the public, and a lack of understanding of the length of periods. This is true for almost all periods of history; the image we have of the ‘Victorian era’, for instance, will inevitably sandwich together elements from the full length of the period, despite it constituting a lifetime’s length of rapid change[8].

The female British soldier in the reveal trailer. Note the prosthetic arm.
The Second World War has a very strongly-entrenched cultural aesthetic, especially in videogame depictions. Hundreds of games have allowed players to step into the shoes of soldiers on the front lines of the war, and many have bent history to provide players interesting weapons and equipment, and to make design simpler. It is difficult from a design perspective to restrict weapons on a given map to those which were actually used in the theatre or engagement that map depicts while maintaining the game’s balance and gameplay loops, and it is frustrating for players if their favourite weapon is taken away simply because of a map’s mise-en-scene.  Thus many games reinforce the perception that certain elements were ubiquitous when they were not, and contribute to the cultural aesthetic of WWII, despite that aesthetic not matching historical reality.

Battlefield V appears to follow the same trajectory, but it makes greater departures from that understood aesthetic than many other games in terms of player customisation. While a Sturmgewehr might be a part of the war’s cultural aesthetic, female soldiers are not, so the latter element stands out as wrong despite being no more wrong than the former. Our reactions to media depicting history is governed as much by ourselves and the preconceptions we bring to that media as by the media’s actual plausibility[9]. It is worth remembering this when we discuss the accuracy of given videogames.

A WWII prosthetic arm. Sometimes real, accurate items can violate the understood aesthetic of a period. This is sometimes called the Aluminium Christmas Tree effect.
Battlefield V’s employment of this historical aesthetic, and its cheerful preference for player options and interesting gameplay over historical plausibility, however, puts it somewhat at odds with one of the game’s stated objectives: to increase awareness of lesser-known portions of the war. In positioning themselves simultaneously as some kind of historical educators and also purveyors of interesting gameplay cadging an aesthetic, DICE have set themselves a fine tightrope to walk. They must simultaneously get details right (and they do, in many cases; the sound design and visual details of most things depicted in the game are spot-on) and disregard details in the name of fun.

DICE have historically paid great attention to small details in the Battlefield series, producing games that are rich in verisimilitude but low on realism.

The backlash over the reveal can be taken as a consequence of getting this balance wrong. Battlefield V is about World War II as you’ve never seen it before, because it depicts World War II as it never existed. Whether or not this is a problem for the game depends on the individual player. Where should players and developers draw the line? How far can a game go before it ceases to be a meaningful representation of a period? Is accuracy, ultimately, a goal worth pursuing?

[1] Publisher and Developer of the Battlefield series respectively.

[3] A limited public release to allow gamers to try the game, and allow developers to tune gameplay and test servers.

[4] This is not necessarily a problem. ‘Accuracy’ as a metric for public historians is common, and pointing out things that entertainment gets ‘wrong’ is something many public historians do (indeed, it’s something many people with a knowledge of history do for fun; nit-picking can be highly enjoyable). However, I feel it is, perhaps, an unhelpful metric. For a start, it is absolute: even the most ardent postmodernist will generally agree that there was a single progression of past events that actually happened.

Therefore, historical fiction, due to its nature as fiction, is inaccurate by definition. What we are instead discussing when we talk about ‘accuracy’ is perhaps better called plausibility. We are assessing a likelihood that a given element could have existed in the past in the way in which it is depicted in a work of fiction, and that is inherently an interpretation.

[5] Indeed, the series markets itself partially on this exaggerated version of reality; ‘only-in-Battlefield’ moments of sudden, implausible chaos have been a touchstone for developers and community for years. Battlefield V‘s trailer appears to have been designed to showcase this.

[6] I, for example, had to look up the Churchill’s history for this post.

[7] It is worth questioning whether this controversy would have existed had the trailer depicted female Soviet soldiers on the eastern front.

[8] A prime example of this ‘sandwiching’ in entertainment is the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which depicts the East India Company being a global corporate superpower in the early 18th century Caribbean, while one movie’s foray to London depicts George II as an elderly king, with port Royal being the capital of Jamaica.

[9] Literary criticism calls the melange of preconceptions, cultural understandings, and personal feelings and ideas a viewer brings to a piece of media ‘paratext’.