Historical Themes in Fallout 3

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m well behind the console game curve — here I am, for instance, just having a finished a game that came out in 2008. But I thought that the historical elements of the game were interesting and I’m going to discuss them briefly. I’ve written before about video games on this blog (scroll down for the Skyrim stuff) and I just recently voiced some thoughts on Western themes in Fallout: New Vegas over on my gaming blog. So let’s take a look at historical stuff in Fallout 3.

In some ways, post-apocalyptic games always have a sense of the history, since by definition they’re post something — and that something is us (although Borderlands might be an exception to that, set as it is on another planet). The Fallout series is an interesting spin on that, because although it’s set after the collapse of a futuristic society, that futuristic society is very old-fashioned, with its sort of vaguely 30s-50s aesthetic, resulting in a feeling of nostalgia even for a society that’s nominally set far in our future. You know the kind of thing I’m talking about:

But quite aside from the general historical bent of the post-apocalypse genre (it occurs to me that many films set in the middle ages are basically post-apocalyptic films, which may also mean that they are basically westerns), Fallout 3 has a heck of a lot of history content. In fact, you spend quite a lot of the early-mid game (if you’re me, anyway) in museums, archives and libraries.

There are several different viewpoints on history expressed by characters in Fallout 3. Perhaps the simplest view is that of Abraham Washington.


Abraham Washington is the head of the Capital Preservation Society, and he will pay good money for historical artefacts you find lying around. In fact, on one of these missions — to recover the Declaration of Independence — you run into another artefact (or should I say relic?) hunter, Sydney.

Abraham’s interest in the past is simple: he collects it. He has the biggest and best collection of historical artefacts in the DC area. He doesn’t understand it — his account of the Declaration of Independence is gibberish — but he likes it and he wants it. Sydney doesn’t care about it at all, either; she’s just a professional who needs the money Abraham offers.

A more sophisticated viewpoint is offered by Moira Brown, one of the first contacts you make in the game. Moira is writing a book, The Wasteland Survival Guide, and she wants your help. Over time, you can chat to her about her motivations, and I think what she says is pretty interesting.


Here’s the full text:

Player: Why are you always working on such weird ideas?

Moira: Well, look around at the world we live in. It may be okay to you, but I’ve read about what it used to be like, and this wasn’t it. So we all need something that keeps us going, despite all the terrible things around us. For me, it’s things like this book.

Player: I don’t understand. Crazy experiments are what keep you going?

Moira: No. It’s like… Did you ever try to put a broken piece of glass back together? Even if the pieces fit, you can’t make it whole again the way it was. But if you’re clever, you can still use the pieces to make other useful things. Maybe even something wonderful, like a mosaic. Well, the world broke just like glass. And everyone’s trying to put it back together like it was, but it’ll never come together the same way.

Player: So you’re trying to make the world better than it was?

Moira: Hey, it sounds crazy when you say it that way, but that’s what I’m aiming for, yeah. The Wasteland Survival Guide isn’t much towards that lofty goal, but it’s an important one. And that’s why I need your help. I don’t think I can do it alone.

For Moira, the things of the past are things you take and use to build new things; she’s a bricoleur. Moira is one of the few characters in the game who think they can improve the world by moving forward. Even her closest ideological counterparts, sincere and benign people like Three Dog and Owyn Lyons, are really only interested in keeping the people out there in the Wasteland safe right now — Lyons doesn’t believe he can actually make life better until an opportunity to do it falls in his lap.

Meanwhile, over on the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Hannibal Hamlin. Hannibal — named after Lincoln’s abolitionist vice president — is the leader of a group of escaped slaves (slavery is a big theme in the game) who wants you to clear some slavers out of the Lincoln Memorial so that he can restore him. Hannibal’s understanding of who Lincoln was is about as garbled as Abraham Washington’s, but the point is that he’s doing something with it — for him, history is a reason to go out and change the world, an example and a motivation. And if that means that he basically worships Abraham Lincoln as a god, well … if it leads to gunning down slavers in the Lincoln Memorial, that’s all to the good.

The last of our big four historical characters is John Henry Eden, self-proclaimed President of the United States. For most of the early game, you only encounter Eden through his radio broadcasts, in which he waxes lyrical about the old days — about his boyhood in rural Kentucky, his beloved dog, and so on. He also promises to bring back the United States, exactly the way it was, complete with financial aid to students, a baseball team in every major city, and the elimination of ghouls, mutants and basically everyone who doesn’t live up to his ideals for humanity. Without giving the game away, we can say that Eden’s vision of the past is as a standard to return to; it’s the reverse of Moira’s.

So there you have four major perspectives on the past in the game. You can think of them as opposed pairs: Hannibal / Abraham and Moira / John Henry. Fundamentally, they’re all asking the same question: what is the past for?

Now, as it happens, this question doesn’t ever really get resolved by the game. Its only resolution is in the choices you make. The end of the game winds up being a big-ass battle between pretty clear good guys and bad guys, with your choice limited to “who you got?” Which is fine for me, since I’m light side for life and always have been.

But it might be the most interesting examination of the individual’s relationship to history I’ve ever seen in a game, and right at this very moment I’m having trouble thinking of better instances in other media.

Historical Themes in Fallout 3

Book review: Evo Moment 37 by Glenn Cravens


I have written previously about my recent infatuation with fighting games. As I said last time, this is a little curious considering that I have never really been that into them. When I was 14, I played the odd round of Street Fighter II like everyone else, and when I was at university I played some Soul Edge (it hadn’t yet been released in English as Soul Blade) with my friend Timothy, who had that unheard-of thing, a PlayStation. I just remembered the other day that the common room at my college also had Virtua Fighter 3, or possibly 2, as well as a Marvel game, possibly Marvel Super Heroes. I dropped quite a lot of cash into them, but I was never really great at them, and they couldn’t compete with the other arcade cabinets they had, which I seem to recall were Puzzle Bobble and Metal SlugMetal Slug is pretty damn great, let’s not lie.

So I didn’t really become interested in the genre until a year or two ago that I read an article by Ben Kuchera on the old Penny Arcade Report, in which he linked to this video:

Now, if you know anything about fighting games, you know what this video is without even having to click on it: it’s the famous “Daigo Parry,” in which Daigo Umehara, one of the world’s most successful Street Fighter players, pulls out a seemingly-impossible victory against American player Justin Wong. This clip is so famous partly because you need so little context to understand it. For the uninitiated: Daigo is playing Ken, the guy in the white, and Justin is playing Chun-Li, the woman in blue. Justin has reduced Daigo to a tiny fraction of his health; if he takes a single hit, he loses. Justin then launches a “super art” — a special attack that, even if blocked, will do a tiny amount of damage. Normally, this minor damage, called “chip damage,” isn’t much to worry about, but it’ll be enough to take care of Daigo.

The only way to avoid chip damage is to parry the attack — to push forward on the stick at the exact moment the attack connects. Parrying is very unforgiving; if the player’s timing isn’t right, the attack will hit, so it’s a gamble. Block and you’ll take a wee bit of damage; fail a parry and you’ll take much more. Of course, it makes no difference to Daigo here; he can’t afford to do either. But not only does Daigo have to parry the first attack, he then has to parry fourteen more, each at the exact moment it hits. To do this, he has to know what his opponent is doing at the same time his opponent does — or even before. It’s a tremendously powerful and simple demonstration of one of the core elements of fighting games; anticipating what your opponent is going to do and reacting accordingly. 

And now there’s a book about it: Evo Moment 37 by Salinas, CA-based sportswriter and video game enthusiast Glenn Cravens. You can get it in paperback here or on Kindle here.


Now, I’ve talked previously about historical themes in videogames: for instance, in Skyrim or in FarCry 3. But I don’t think I’ve talked much about the history of video games. And this is especially interesting, I think, when it comes to fighting games. Despite the fact that they’re a very early form of competitive gaming, fighting games have never really taken off in the way that some other types of game have. Their community remains small and their corporate backing pretty minor. And as a culture, the fighting game community (FGC for short) seems to be divided about whether it wants to be “esports,” or whether this will get rid of the underground, grassroots feeling that is such an important part of it.

So there isn’t a lot of historical material out there about this community, or at least not material that’s easy for a newcomer to access. The history of the community gets handed down as folklore (although check out this fantastic oral history of the development of Street Fighter II). But now we have Cravens looking at the context of this famous event. What can looking at the Daigo Parry teach us about the FGC, its history, and why people play fighting games?

Craven’s structure is basically a narrative: he starts with the story of downloading the video himself (back in the days before YouTube) and relates it to the stories of other people encountering it. From there, he moves into the background — the generally poor reception of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike in the US, the growth of the tournament scene, and the early career of Justin Wong. He evokes the arcade scene as it existed in the early 2000s and talks about the logistical, behind-the-scenes challenges facing tournament organisers.

Gradually, we move through a series of other tournaments (including the butchery that was the 2003 USA vs Japan 5 v 5 match) and incidents to EVO 2004, with an interesting aside on where the “Evolution” name came from and the format changes that went with it, which at the time many people probably thought would eclipse the events of the tournament itself. We get the expected breakdown of the tournament, its brackets and results, and then, perhaps most interestingly, the aftermath of the event, including the viral spread of the video, which has been viewed, according to one estimate, around 30 million times.

There’s some analysis, but in the end this is a largely narrative story — a tale with a beginning, middle and end in which the parry itself is a climax, but not the climax.

What’s good about it?

I found myself turning the pages of Evo Moment 37 pretty rapidly — which is a bit of a feat considering that I, like anyone who might be motivated to pick up this book, already know how the story ended since it happened 10 years ago. It’s a slender work (it feels like it could have been a magazine article or series of blog posts, but got beefed up with extra material) but I felt like it covered the whole period and did a good job explaining the significance of the parry and the accompanying parry video.

It was an interesting evocation of the fighting game community — and perhaps of gamer culture in general — at a certain place and time. I found it fascinating the number of people who feature prominently in the text who are still leading members of the FGC today: the same three guys run EVO, for instance, and if you watched the 2014 finals of Ultra Street Fighter IV, you heard the same announcer calling the match that you hear on the 2004 video, Seth Killian (who discusses the parry in this PAR article). 

I thought the discussion of the spread of the video, first through sites devoted only to fighting game fans and then through good old YouTube, was fun. 

Cravens drew on interviews with many of the participants to form his account (although we don’t hear very much from Daigo’s perspective; Umehara doesn’t speak English and is reputedly a hard man to get hold of), and the view into their lives is very cool: the story of Justin Wong hiding his career as a video gamer from his family even as he became more and more well-known sounds bizarre; it’s hard to image it would be possible today, in the full flowering of the internet, but perhaps I’m wrong. 

What could be better?

I think there were three main problems with Evo Moment 37. The first is that this book really needed a good going-over by an editor. Leaving aside frequent errors of tense or word choice, it’s heavily overwritten. For instance, instead of saying “Capcom games” or “games made by Capcom,” Cravens says “games born of the Capcom brand” or words to that effect. It isn’t the ideal word choice, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be the right way to express the idea. Now, Cravens is a journalist, so I know he knows that. It just goes to show that you can’t edit yourself. It reads like a first draft, not in terms of the information it conveys but in terms of how the writing flows. 

Perhaps relatedly, I mostly skimmed the blow-by-blow accounts of each fight. I didn’t find them exciting, and I found Cravens’s attempts to liven up the writing unhelpful. This, I think, is just a fundamental problem in writing about such an inherently visual thing. I’m willing to accept that this is a matter of taste. I did like the way the fights were broken down by the amount of time remaining on the clock, which is a good way of reminding the reader how little time is passing as all these strategies and counter-strategies are taking place. It keeps the tension high, and that’s good. 

Lastly … I don’t know if this is a criticism so much as an observation. I’m not sure who this book is for. For example, at the beginning, Cravens describes the video in detail, explaining who Chun-Li and Ken are as characters, and then later telling us about Third Strike as a game. Which is all well and good — but later on, he mentions things like Urien’s Aegis Reflector attack without explaining them at all. 

I want you to try to envision the hypothetical reader who doesn’t know who Ken and Chun-Li are but does know what the Aegis Reflector is. At least Dudley’s Machine-gun Blow is exactly what it sounds like: a rapid series of punches. So the introduction is based on the idea that you don’t really know much about fighting games, but the blow-by-blows won’t make any sense if you haven’t played Third Strike at least a time or two. 

I suppose, honestly, that the target audience is someone like me — someone who has a basic familiarity with the genre but hasn’t been around long enough to know anything about the community’s history. So I guess that’s fair. 


Initially, I thought the roughness of the text was going to hurt my enjoyment of the book, but I didn’t find that it did. It could definitely do with some hard-hearted editing (a future second edition, perhaps?) and perhaps a clearer statement of its thesis. Perhaps if you’re a veteran fighting game guy it won’t tell you anything you didn’t already know. I can’t speak to that — for me, the most interesting part of it was the surrounding context. The parry itself is very impressive, but it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff that I found particularly compelling. If you’re interested in the history of video games — or perhaps more accurately, interested in the history of video gaming and gaming communities — I think this is worth a read. 

It occurs to me that I own a lot of this kind of geek history and I should probably write more about it. At another time, perhaps; this has gone on way longer than I intended it to. 

And also … 

A week or two ago, Third Strike went on sale on XBLA for like £2.49, so I grabbed it. It was the first time I’d ever really played a fighting game since my teens, and I (can you guess?) stank at it. Stink at it, I should say, because I’m still practicing and learning a bit, even though I can barely beat the computer. 

The other day, I was plugging away in training mode, and I did something right. Which might not sound like a big deal to you, but believe me, it is to me. I saw where the computer character was, and where I was, and I said to myself “I bet that it’s going to do this … so what if I do this …“. Sure enough, my prediction was right, my counterattack landed and I felt like the greatest strategic mind of the century for the 3 seconds it took for the opponent to get up and start using me for target practice again. 

But I can see why these games are addictive. 

Book review: Evo Moment 37 by Glenn Cravens

The lazy greatest-hits album

I have a busy day today, but I have been thinking on a subject lately — namely, why do certain posts keep turning up over and over again in my stats? Some of my posts pop up, get read, then disappear again, while others keep getting hit a few times a day. What’s the difference? Why do some posts have this long tail? I thought I’d go over them and think it over.

The first and most obvious is The Weight of History in Warhammer 40,000, which looks at the way in which this game uses history to create a certain aesthetic and how that aesthetic has changed over the years. I know why this one is popular: it got noticed by a couple of 40K blogs and went from there to the Warhammer 40,000 subreddit. This is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written, and it’s basically because I wrote it about a popular subject.

Similarly, the Archaeological Themes in Skyrim series seems to occasionally be picked up by Skyrim fans on Tumblr or similar.

But the other popular ones are a little less obvious.

Ancient History, Conspiracy Theory and Hip-Hop is a weird one. In it, I mention that a Google search provides very little information about one of Vinnie Paz’s conspiracy theory references — in fact, it mostly just produces baffled Jedi Mind Tricks fans wondering what on earth Paz means. My suspicion is that this post is now relatively high on the search results for that same topic — so if you Google Paz’s line, you get me pointing out that there isn’t much information if you Google Paz’s line.

Viking Hats Through the Ages has been super-popular for some reason. Not sure I get this one.

Movie Monday: The Viking (1928) has been the most popular of my Movie Monday posts. I think, again, that this is because there has been relatively little written about this film compared to some of the other ones I’ve reviewed. Although most movie Monday reviews do have a pretty good trickle of views months into their lives. Which I suppose means that “Sign of the Pagan review” is a search term for someone. 

I think the conclusion I can draw from this is that if I want to have a post be popular, I need to write either about something very, very popular or something very, very obscure.

Not that I care! I only benefit from this blog, other than in ego terms, if someone decides to download my ebook after reading it (more formats coming soon once I remember to remember to do it). I’m just curious about what makes a post long-term popular. Rest assured that if I were aiming for a mass market I would have … done something completely different.

The lazy greatest-hits album

Archaeological Themes in FarCry 3 (no, really)

Why do they even make guns that aren’t light machine guns?

As you may know from my previous posts about archaeological themes in Skyrim (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), I am always pleasantly surprised when archaeology stuff turns up in video games. I tend to play games years after they come out — I only acquired an Xbox 360 late in its lifecycle (I think around the time the Xbone came out, in fact) and so I’m always finding things that everyone else already knows about. The good thing about it is that playing games that are one generation obsolete is very economical (beyond that and rarity starts to become an issue). 

Anyway, a long while ago, a friend of the blog (who, in fact, is the same person who gave me the 360) pointed out that there’s some good medieval China stuff in FarCry 3, but since I hadn’t played it at the time, I went “interesting!” and then completely forgot about it. Now I’ve started playing the game, and I’m reaching the point where it starts to turn up. I think it’s very interesting, in fact. 

So in FarCry 3 you play schlub Jason Brody, who learns to survive in the jungle, find the warrior within, and so on, when his friends are captured by pirates. It’s your usual coming-of-age-by-jumping-off-a-roof-and-stabbing-a-guy story. And, this being a video game, you never meet anyone who doesn’t have some weird errand they want done in order to give you the dingus you need to get to the next stabjumping opportunity. One of these guys is a mercenary named Buck, who’s looking for some artefact or other and sends you to infiltrate a boat where some baddie is keeping some information that will lead you to the next yadda yadda. 

So I infiltrate (ed: does “infiltrate” mean “bombard with rockets, then board and finish off the scattered survivors with a hail of machine gun fire”? Check this) the boat only to find out that it is full of Chinese artefacts (like the ones above and below): 

There are also some lion(?) statues. 

And throughout the game, it becomes clear that the island was once visited by the (very real) exploration fleet of 15th-century Chinese admiral Zheng He. That is a canny choice — I think most people probably know that Zheng He existed, thanks to Gavin Menzies and his … excitable … interpretation of the story, but most people, myself included, don’t actually know much about him. And it transpires that there is a shipwreck from Zheng He’s fleet around here somewhere, although if you can get to it I haven’t yet; I had a couple of weeks off the game lately due to obsessively watching Justified being busy.

Now, I don’t know what 15th-century Chinese sailors are doing with 3rd-century BC terracotta warriors, but let that pass for a moment. What’s interesting is the way that Zheng He’s fleet is portrayed both as kind of a good thing for the island and a bad thing at the same time. The Chinese built these amazing monuments, like Citra’s temple.



But they did it by conquering and enslaving the island people. You can see the same story happening with the island’s WWII ruins — the Japanese occupied the island in the same way as the Chinese (there’s a complicated backstory to both, actually, which you can discover or ignore as you please). And, of course, these parallel the story of the pirates who currently dominate the island and who need to be jumped on and stabbed. These means that the story’s central tension — do you stay behind to help the islanders fight for their freedom or save your friends and return to a home you may no longer recognise — has a little extra weight behind it. 

I am not the only one to have written about this, either: check out this post on “The historical architecture of the Rook Islands archipelago” at H Does Heritage. 


Archaeological Themes in FarCry 3 (no, really)

Video games and history, part whatever: the ubiquitous WWII shooter

I am not very up-to-the-minute in my purchasing of video games. I came to both this console generation and the previous one late, and I’ve never had the kind of high-powered PC that you want for recent things, so unless it’s some undemanding indie title chances are I’ll play it in a few years when it’s £5. I guess what that means is that I’m talking about a trend that actually appears to be mostly over already. But while it was going it was really going.

For a while there, there was a WWII game around every corner. You had your Medal of Honor, your Call of Duty, there was Brothers in Arms and Company of Heroes. They weren’t all shooters per se, but the big ones were and they shared certain commonalities. Penny Arcade commented on it at the time:



What was interesting to me was that these types of games were derived largely from films, and largely from the same films. The two obvious ones were Saving Private Ryan and Enemy at the Gates, but there was also the TV series Band of Brothers and older films like A Bridge Too FarCall of Duty has an Arnhem mission, and so does Medal of Honour: Frontline. I’m pretty sure it’s Brothers in Arms that starts off with the D-Day parachute drops, which are also in Call of Duty (and of course Band of Brothers) and so on and so on. Now, obviously, these are the kinds of things you’d probably recreate in a video game regardless, but it’s also pretty obviously not a coincidence. 

The visuals are kind of … similar. Here’s the assault on a bunker on D-Day, from both Saving Private Ryan and Medal of Honor: Allied Assault.

bunker2 106079_mohaa


As you can see, they’re pretty similar. The Stalingrad scenes in Call of Duty are also pretty heavily based on Enemy at the Gates:

An-intense-battle-scene-from-Paramounts-Enemy-At-The-Gates-2001-14 Stalingrad_Soviets_running_CoD1


Now, there’s nothing wrong with this — most games include some elements ripped off from another source. LA Noire should be called Mulholland Chinatown Confidential. But I wonder if these repetitions have a tendency to make people think that they must be just “the norm” for talking about this period. I just read an article that described Spielberg’s use of desaturated colour in Saving Private Ryan as “realistic,” which … er … I’m not so sure about. “Washed-out colour” will probably become one of those signifiers of authenticity, like “everything covered in filth.”

Anyway, it’s not that these various WWII shooters weren’t fun. The big set-piece battles in Call of Duty were really tense. At the beginning of the apartment building defense sequence in CoD (or maybe in United Offensive?) there’s this bit where they go

Machiiiiiiiine gyahns?

Machine guns READY!

Anti-tyaank rrrrriiiifles?

Anti-tank rifles READY!

that if I heard it again today would probably get my hair standing on end like it did the gazillion times I played that mission. In fairness to the makers of the game, that sequence isn’t based on a movie that I’m aware of — it’s just a famous actual incident in the Battle of Stalingrad, the defense of Pavlov’s House.



Do I have a point? I don’t think so, other than that for a while in the early-to-mid 2000s, “World War 2 shooter” was a recognisable genre, in the way that, say, “sci-fi shooter” was. I played MOHAA and CoD at around the same time, and I can’t always exactly remember which game had climbing the belltower to snipe the guys with Panzerfausts and which game had running around the hallways of the bunker with a stolen MP40 to plant the demolition charges. Or rather, which of the many versions of that level went with which game.

Most criticisms of these types of games imply alternatives that are no fun: why is there never a WWII game where you’re stuck with a realistically clumsy and useless BAR, or forced to carry the baseplate of a mortar like a chump? Why don’t you ever play a terrified German draftee being crushed by the relentless advance of the Red Army, or a woman on the home front terrified her son won’t come back? These questions answer themselves: because no one wants reality or even realism, just a realistic gloss on exciting battle-type action.



And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t want to be some history-snob: I like to boot down doors and be all eat lead fascist pigs as much as, or possibly more than, the next guy. It’s just interesting to me that a period of history can become a de facto genre. Is there a comparable example in other periods of history? I’m not sure — there aren’t like a dozen games where you’re a gladiator in ancient Rome, as far as I know, and although there are a lot of games about pirates, they’re very dissimilar to one another, unlike WW2 shooters, which are pretty much the same.



Apart from Return to Castle Wolfenstein, that is.

I wonder if this is because the movies on which they’re based are basically similar; typically earnest, more or less realistic, lots of explosions throwing dirt and gravel in the air. I’ve never seen a Kelly’s Heroes type of game, in which the characters were just goofs and/or scoundrels, but I’m sure (and I hope) that someone will come along and point one out to me. 

Video games and history, part whatever: the ubiquitous WWII shooter

Abraham Lincoln INFINITE COMBO

I have a habit of getting periodically obsessed with things that I neither know anything about nor have any reason to care about. For the last couple of months, it’s been competitive fighting games. I have barely played a fighting game in my life, except for a little Soul Blade (then called Soul Edge) at university and the usual unsuccessful Street Fighter II button mashing in junior high. So why am I watching videos of gameplay on Youtube? I have no idea.

However, it did inspire a few thoughts. For one thing, I think the characters in some games are really charming. Take, for instance, Dudley from Street Fighter III and IV:

An English boxer with rolled-up sleeves and a curly moustache who tells people they have no dignity? J’approve.

The old-timiness of Dudley made me think about other fighting games. Did you know for instance, that there’s a homebrew fighting game based on Les Miserables? It’s called Arm Joe, for reasons that make sense in Japanese. You can choose from a cast of characters including Javert, the Thenardiers (who are a single character), Valjean, Enjolras, Marius, an unnamed policeman, Robo-Valjean, and loveable bunny(?) Ponpon. So there are some deviations from the canon is what I’m saying. Anyway, observe:


Anyway, the spectacle of a fighting game character just straight shooting a dude with a musket inspired the thought that I like games where you get to play historical characters. I know you have leaders in games like Civilisation, where the fact that Gandhi is a murderous psychopath is a running gag. But I mean actually playing those characters as your characters. And a fighting game could actually be a fun way of doing that!

The obvious person who springs to mind as a potential character is Abraham Lincoln, or, as he’s known in these parts, “American Major General Abraham Lincoln.” (This is a joke that like three other people, including my wife, will get.) Lincoln himself was a big dude with some history in the grapplin’ business.


Long reach, mostly throws, I’m guessing.

So yeah, now I want to see this game, in which major historical figures brawl to determine who is the greatest.

Plato was also a champion wrestler, as it happens.  I’m just sayin’.

Abraham Lincoln INFINITE COMBO

More video games and history: LA Noire this time


As I mentioned earlier, I was ill over Christmas, and even after recovering I was pretty low on energy for a couple of days. What I did during this period was sit around in my pyjamas and play L.A. Noire. Although the game came out in 2011, I only recently got a 360, so it was new to me — which is also why I did my series of posts about archaeological themes in Skyrim so recently.

Anyway, this game was a gift from a good friend who knows that I love interwar and postwar Americana in general, and James Ellroy in particular, so there was always going to be some rich stuff in there for me.

Murder mysteries in general are usually about digging up the past, metaphorically and often literally. Not for nothing are historians often compared to detectives. And the “sunny noir” genre — LA Confidential, Chinatown, even Who Framed Roger Rabbit — are often specifically how the sordid micro-history of a murder investigation is related to the grander history of an American city, usually Los Angeles. Given that it’s basically a pastiche of these novels and films, LA Noire is no different — we start with the usual series of crimes, but the unfolding backstory of what happened to Cole Phelps and his comrades during the war will provide the context for the end of the story. In the meantime, however, the individual personal tragedies are part of a larger setting where unstoppable “progress” is transforming the American landscape.

So, interesting in that respect. The other aspect of the game’s use of history that interested me was the role of the murder of Elizabeth Short (the “Black Dahlia”), one of LA’s most famous unsolved crimes. It’s a particularly gruesome crime and it’s provoked a lot of speculation about the killer’s identity, particularly after it was fictionalised by James Ellroy and then made into a film. But somehow there was some aspect of the killing’s use in the game that rubbed me the wrong way, as if the statute of limitations on the Short case had not yet expired. Which is weird — I’m certain there are several games that use the Jack the Ripper murders as part of their gameplay, and that probably wouldn’t bother me. But somehow in this case it seemed … I don’t know. It didn’t sit right with me, and I’m not sure why.

The third thing I thought was interesting was the game’s use, or non-use, of racial epithets. Racial and social prejudice is depicted throughout — there are characters with insulting things to say about Jews, African-Americans, Latinos and above all women; the second act pairs Phelps with a misogynist boor of a partner. But the language is mostly toned down. Characters sneer about “blacks,” or “Hispanics,” but there are only a few instances of racial epithets. The N-word comes up once, in the mouth of a black character. I thought that was very odd. If they had left it out altogether, I would have said “yeah, they’re making an (admittedly unrealistic) concession to modern sensibilities.” If they had larded the game with it, I would have said “yeah, they’re depicting (admittedly kind of offensively) the way people probably talked in 1947.” But to have it appear just once (together with just one example of a few other ethnic slurs) felt very strange, and I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that decision. Not that anyone has to explain anything to me, of course.

So yeah, part of the pleasure for me was just the visual design — the houses, the cars, the ads, the documents, all evoking a certain time and place. If it weren’t for the game’s frustrating, repetitive driving gameplay, just driving around the city would have been half the fun. But I do think the historical themes in the game go a little deeper than that, although largely because they’re so important in the genre from which it’s derived.

More video games and history: LA Noire this time

Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 4

OK, so over the last few posts I’ve talked about my overall impression of the way archaeology works in Skyrim (and in Skyrim, if you see what I mean). I’ve specifically looked at the cases of Saarthal and Nchuand-Zel, but there are a few other things I want to mention before moving on to general conclusions. The first is that for a pseudo-medieval kingdom, Skyrim has got a lot of museums and educational institutions. In addition to the College of Winterhold, there’s a bards’ college in Solitude, which has a Professor of History and everything. And one of the very first plots you do when you join the College (after going down a dungeon and killing some monsters, obviously) is to falsify an ancient verse, on the grounds that a) it’s not in a modern enough style, b) it’s incomplete anyway, and c) by monkeying with it you can persuade the Jarl of Solitude to favour your side in an argument. That is some pretty sophisticated sociopolitical shenanigans for a fetch quest!

The head of the College finds the verse unsatisfactory.
The head of the College finds the verse unsatisfactory.

There’s a little museum in Windhelm, and it’s great — it’s basically a wunderkammer, full of weird items, both natural curiosities (including valuable alchemical reagents) and historical artefacts (like Ysgramor’s Soup Spoon, which is actually a fork). Although it’s partly meant to be a joke, it plays an important role in setting up its proprietor as an expert on antiques, which comes up in a plot, and as a harmless eccentric, which is a fakeout. He even talks about he was once an adventurer like you, but now contemplating these items is how he relives his glory days.

There are quite a lot of skulls, now that you mention it.
There are quite a lot of skulls, now that you mention it.

I’ve already mentioned the Dwemer Museum in Markarth, but I think it makes an interesting example — it is much more a proper museum, run by officials, patrolled by guards and full of valuable objects. I am given to understand that later on I’ll be asked to carry out a heist.



Lastly, there’s a tiny museum in Dawnstar, which is no more than a few display cases in this guy’s house. It is … odd. The museum celebrates a cult who worshipped Mehrunes Dagon, the main baddie in the previous game, Oblivion. Its proprietor wants to send you on some fetch quests with an obvious ulterior motive. I suspect a hammer-murdering lies in his future. So once again I’m struck by the diversity of the portrayals of archaeology and memory in this setting.



And this ties right in with one of the two main plotlines of the game, the war between the Stormcloaks and the Empire. Unlike in some similar games (say, Fallout: New Vegas), the conflict between the two factions is very complex and subtle in its differences. It’s very possible to find yourself sympathising with both sides. After leading an Imperial attack on Fort Dunstad, I felt genuinely remorseful for the killing — the game makes it clear that the Stormcloaks are, in their way, no less idealistic and patriotic than their Imperial counterparts. Each faction has its flaws — General Tullius, the Imperial commander, is a callous bigot, while Ulfric, the leader of the Stormcloaks, is an ambitious self-seeker. The Empire is flawed and authoritarian; the Stormcloaks are provincial and exclusionary. And all of this centres around their views of their own history. As far as the Stormcloaks are concerned, by turning their back on the worship of Talos, the god who was once a man, the Empire has violated Skyrim’s culture, a culture that is always talked about in terms of the ancestral, heroic dead. Same goes for the Empire: Skyrim has always been part of the Empire, Skyrim will always remain part of the Empire. Each side has its own version of a patriotic song condemning the other; although they differ in several verses, both contain the line “we’re the sons of Skyrim.” But everywhere you go, the history you encounter, whether from books or from archaeology, tells you that things are much more complex than that.

One of the really nice things about the game is that the setting’s history — as expressed in the previous games in the series — actually sees a lot of societal change. For instance, the Five Hundred Companions were once the warriors who fought for Ysgramor, basically Skyrim’s equivalent of the knights of the Round Table. Now the organisation is little better than a gang of mercenaries with an unpleasant secret. But they still collect artefacts to do with Ysgramor, including the hull of one of his ships, Jorrvaskr, and the fragments of his axe, Wuuthrad. You have to wonder if this is a way of bolstering their image as Ysgramor’s heirs in the face of their apparent diminution in the modern day. Similarly, another organisation in the game, the Blades, appear in Oblivion and the previous games as a noble order of warriors and agents who serve the Emperor, but turn up in Skyrim as a hunted secret society, on the run from the victorious Thalmor. 

This level of change in the “modern” setting is reflected in the history. Empires have risen and fallen, whole cultures have vanished or been exterminated. The Nords’ claim to being the people of Skyrim is contested, as you learn by exploring their tombs and the tombs of the societies that came before them — not to mention getting talked at by some of their victims. In fact, almost every group’s view of its own history is slightly off in some way. 

The thing that interests me the most about this is that this is very unlike how history and archaeology are treated in most fantasy literature. I’m not saying that history isn’t complex in some fantasy, because obviously it can be bewilderingly complex, but that it isn’t usually treated as this shifting and contentious thing. It’s usually the answer to a question, instead of the thing that raises questions. This is, probably not coincidentally, how history was viewed by the writers of the 19th-century adventure fiction that inspired a lot of fantasy authors. But in Skyrim, the legendary past is contested and mysterious, and there are a lot of people in the setting actively trying to manipulate it for their own ends. I think that’s very unusual in fantasy fiction and fantasy gaming, and I think the fact in Skyrim is worthy of mention. 


Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 4

Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 3

OK, yesterday we talked about the archaeological storyline in Skyrim that takes you to Saarthal, which is (nerd hat on) an abandoned Nord city from the Merethic period. As we saw, the plot is your basic dungeon malarkey, but there are a few sly comments in there that make it particularly interesting.

We now turn to the next (or maybe the first, since you can do the quests in Skyrim more or less in whatever order you like, or not do some of them at all, or whatever) archaeological storyline. This one is set in the west of Skyrim, in the Reach. The capital city of the Reach is Markarth, a town very unlike other Nord cities.



Nice, eh? That fancy architecture with the bronze domes tells us that Markarth is not actually built by the Nords. In fact, it occupies a city built by the Dwemer, or Dwarves, and abandoned long ago when that race just sort of … mysteriously disappeared. There are areas of it that still haven’t been explored, and one of these is the vast complex underneath the city, Nchuand-Zel.

You find the Nchuand-Zel excavation by talking to the court wizard, a guy called Calcelmo. Talking to the court wizard is something you do when you arrive in any new town in Skyrim, in my case because I’ve been murdering wizards with my hammer and taking their clothes, and the court wizard is a good way to turn those clothes into profit.

Calcelmo is an interesting example of the way scholars get characterised in Skyrim: as we saw in the last one, they’re often portrayed as sort of absent-minded, but Calcelmo adds a streak of callousness. I’ll explain later. In any event, he grumbles at you if you ask to see the excavation, but in the end he lets you go in if you agree to kill a big spider that’s lurking in there. Once you’ve done that, you find a dead member of the previous expedition and Calcelmo tasks you with going in to find what became of them. Predictably, they are all dead, and you find their various journals and stuff, fight the usual bunch of monsters (with extra cleverness, because there are actually two lots of enemies, who can be induced to fight each other) and come back. When you come back, Calcelmo pays you with the money he was going to pay the guys who died.




Like all Dwemer cities, Nchuand-Zel looks absolutely gorgeous, and it’s a huge amount of fun prowling around it picking off the foul-looking baddies, the Falmer (a former slave race to the Dwemer who didn’t disappear when their masters did. The common -mer element in Dwemer and Falmer, incidentally, is the same as the “mer” in “Merethic,” above).

The dead members of the expedition are where the archaeological content really gets interesting. Each of them kept a journal, and their notes are more than the prosaic series of clues you might expect. The four members of the expedition (apart from some soldiers who were guarding them) were Erj, Krag, Stromm and Staubin.

  • Staubin’s notes include a sort of general introduction to the expedition and are useful to locate the others. He expresses regret at the deaths of his students and talks about how “I have to bring this place back to life.” Clearly Staubin’s is a restoration-not-conservation guy.
  • Krag is the guy I think I would be if I were excavating the ruins of an ancient city. He writes: “It’s only been a day and I already miss my desk and chair. I thought it would be a little more fun to explore, but so far it’s just been fighting spiders and getting to view an occasional rubble pile. Hopefully we get to the main room soon so we can set up a camp and I can start cataloguing some of the items I’ve been able to find.”
  • Erj is the scoundrel of the bunch: he appears to have been scheming to skim off some of the artefacts found by the expedition and sell them to “a private collector” known to Krag.
  • Stromm is the one whose writing contains the most actual archaeology: he describes what he believes to be the function of the rooms he died defending, a set of what appear to be living quarters. In the centre of the area is a tree, which is bizarrely out of place in the stone and metal environment of Nchuand-Zel. Stromm speculates about what it might be, but can’t say for certain. I don’t think the tree is ever explained, but it resembles the Gildergreen, a tree which grows in the city of Whiterun and which is considered sacred to the goddess Kynareth.

Again, we see how the archaeological storyline is both just an excuse for a more-or-less standard dungeon run and something a little more. We have diverse motives and attitudes among the archaeologists, and some recognition of the idea of an illicit artefact trade. Indeed, there is a museum of Dwemer artefacts in Markarth, but the player is more likely to be interested in Dwemer antiquities because some of them can be melted down to manufacture weapons and armour, or indeed resold, which puts the player character more in sympathy with Erj!

Next: heritage in Skyrim, or what this all might mean.

Archaeological themes in Skyrim: 3

Archaeological Themes in Skyrim: 2

I am reliably informed that if I took a look at some of the expansions for Skyrim, I would discover even more archaeology in them. However, since I’ve been playing this game for the equivalent of several days of my life and haven’t even got halfway through it yet, I think the chances of my downloading more of it are pretty slight. Also I just started playing XCOM. But that’s a side point.

So far, I’ve found two actual archaeological excavations in Skyrim. These are at Saarthal, near Winterhold, and Nchuand-Zel, underneath the city of Markarth. I’m going to begin with Saarthal, as it’s the simplest of the pair, and I’ll talk about Nchuand-Zel tomorrow or whenever.

So, Saarthal. There are two (at least two) ways to get into Saarthal. One is a plot in which you go around looking for fragments of this lost amulet. It is a bit tiresome; you go into a tomb full of traps and undead, beat a guy, take his amulet, repeat. Once you have all the bits of the amulet, you take them somewhere else, fight all three guys, and you’re done. What’s interesting about one of the tombs, Saarthal, is that when you get there you can’t get in because the doors are locked. In fact, the whole place (it’s part of a larger ruined city) is locked down because it is part of an archaeological excavation.



This is the sight you see as you arrive. The crumbling buildings have been scaffolded, new steps have been built, and that little enclosure on the left is full of expedition supplies. The shelves you can see there are full of ancient burial urns, apparently excavated and waiting to be catalogued. They can be plundered of their offerings. The barrels are full of food.

Now, leaving aside the usual videogamey question of why a giant oaf carrying a magic hammer capable of killing a bear with one blow can’t batter down a thousand-year-old door, you’re left at a bit of a loss for what to do here. At least, I was, because the aforesaid giant oaf didn’t seem like a natural fit for a college that teaches you to be a wizard. But eventually I went there and they accepted me despite my obvious lack of aptitude. Once you’ve gone through some introductory courses, been shown your room in the dorms (I am not making any of this up), and met your fellow students, you get taken on a field trip to Saarthal.

You go on, and you and your fellow students are tasked to exist various different wizards who are engaged in the excavation.



(This is the library in the College of Winterhold, by the way. It is staffed by a brutish orc who threatens you with grisly murder if you mess with his books but is apparently OK with the students drinking wine at the library tables. I suppose they’re fellows and he can’t do anything about it.)

Now, once you get deep inside Saarthal, it loses its archaeological flavour and becomes just another D&D-lite dungeon, with traps and puzzles and a series of savage hammer-beatings for anyone or anything foolish enough to get in your way. So I’m going to focus on the very beginning.

One of the things that I did think was interesting is that your fellow students have very different reactions to arriving at the site. One of them asks you “do you think there is gold here?” which is, in fact, a question that has been asked by many arriving at a dig site in the real world. So fair play there. The guy you get sent to work for, Arniel Gane, is grumbling about having to work on the excavation instead of doing his own research, and when you find him he’s slacking off reading a book. His dialogue includes lines like “Well, certainly none of this will benefit my research,”  “I’ll be amazed if we find anything useful here,” and “It’s going to take forever to sift through all this.”

Now, this is foreshadowing — Arniel is working on some secret, apparently unauthorised, research. But I really like the little jokes and side-points that undercut some archaeology cliche. In this case, the abstracted, awkward scholar, usually the guy who’s super-keen on doing some digging, thinks the whole thing is a bit of a waste of time. It’s rather clever, and there’s going to be a lot more of it in Nchuand-Zel, which I’ll talk about tomorrow. Probably.

As for Saarthal itself, the teacher who leads you there also gives you a bit of a potted history of the place — there’s a lot of this kind of thing in Skyrim. You can more or less ignore it, but it ties seamlessly into a dozen other little history lessons found lying around the setting, either in stories about locations or in books that you can find. (Stocking the bookshelves in my several residences is one of my favourite pastimes, which again is just like real life except for the “several residences” part.) Saarthal was once settled by the legendary king Ysgramor, but was wiped out by hostile Snow Elves, sparking a counter-genocide by Ysgramor and his followers (the evocatively-named Five Hundred Companions) which has consequences well into the time of the game. But I’ll talk about Skyrim’s attitude to history in general in post number 4.


Archaeological Themes in Skyrim: 2