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I finished my last post with the claim that, for video game medievalism, 2016 has really been building up to something greater than itself in 2017. Indeed, there is plenty to look forward to in the coming year which suggests that the digital Middle Ages is set to become more prevalent than ever. With broader target audiences, increasingly sophisticated technology, and more competition in the market than previously, how is the phenomenon of simulating the medieval past shaping up in the near future?
One of the biggest upcoming medieval titles is Ubisoft’s For Honor, a competitive hack-n-slash experience set in a fictional Middle Ages filled with battling knights, samurai, and Vikings. Whilst the full game is not set for release until 14 February next year, players have been able to put the game to the test in the closed alpha demo that ran from 15 to 18 September. Initial feedback was universally positive, with players particularly impressed by the tactical depth of the game’s combat, as well as the wide variety of medieval arms and armour available to choose from. However, although For Honor has lots to offer gamers who enjoy fast-paced, visceral fighting gameplay, the offerings for medievalists are a little thin on the ground. The game’s creative director, Jason Vandenberghe, stated in a recent interview that ‘this game is about you. And so what kind of warrior are you, right? You can change the skin color of your Vikings, too. You want to have a black Viking? Knock yourself out.’ Indeed, For Honor not only allows players to create characters of any ethnicity but also of either gender. Undoubtedly, this design decision was, in part, spurred on by the problems Ubisoft encountered previously in Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which received considerable flack from the gaming community for lacking any female avatars. So, is For Honor, due for release in a few months time, more appealing to the increasingly diverse gaming demographic than earlier Ubisoft titles? Yes. Is it also interested in matters of historical accuracy? With the exceptions of weaponry and fighting styles, probably not. Don’t read too much into a game that has been described by its creative director as ‘trying to evoke your fantasy of history…It’s warrior wonderland’.
Another medieval title that has received a lot of media coverage in 2016 is TaleWorlds Entertainment’s Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, due to hit shelves some time next year (although the exact release date is a touchy subject for its eager fans and its secretive development team). Bannerlord is the latest in a video game series that has been praised for combining highly-enjoyable game mechanics with a genuine interest in depicting a no-thrills medieval world devoid of dragons, wizards, and modern attitudes to race and gender. The Mount and Blade franchise has previously dabbled with ‘real’ historical settings, with the spin-offs Viking Conquest and Napoleonic Wars based in ninth-century Britain and nineteenth-century France and Belgium respectively. Bannerlord looks set to maintain TaleWorlds’ high standard of gameplay quality and historicism, with siege warfare, dynastic politics, and medieval industry and economics all receiving revamped features and representation in the latest addition. Although Bannerlord will portray a fictional medieval world, the details in the setting – including everything from diet to architecture – have heavy parallels with the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire. This, of course, says nothing about the undoubted abundance of player-made modifications that will build on the base game. In earlier Mount and Blade titles this has included user-created worlds set in the Hundred Years War, Feudal Japan, and the Crusader States, to name just a few. Although still a way off, Bannerlord has shown a lot of promise for medievalist gamers this year and is certainly one to watch.
The other upcoming medieval title that has been turning heads at this year’s major gaming events is Kingdom Come: Deliverance, the first outing of Czech developers Warhorse Studios. Originally set for a late 2016 release, this open-world role-playing game, set in fifteenth-century Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic), has been pushed back into 2017 to allow developers more time to fine tune their labours. While Bannerlord projects a ‘realistic’ medieval fantasy world, Kingdom Come has gone one step further, according to its creative director, Dan Vavra, on Games.cz: ‘We set forth to make a Middle Ages simulator and we feel that this is what a lot of other people want as well. So far it seems that this is indeed the case.’ Vavra’s comment alludes to the fact that the money behind Kingdom Come (over £1 million to date) has been provided almost entirely by crowdfunding using kickstarter.com. Its promises of including traditional medieval music for the soundtrack, realistic swordfighting mechanics, and a mundane medieval environment, reflect the historical interests of a gaming community that wants to get to grips with a muddy, bloody, and unvarnished medieval past. Without the pedigree enjoyed by TaleWorlds, it will be interesting to see how Warhorse Studios’ fledgling development team (which, admittedly consists of many veterans of the game development world) fares when Kingdom Come is eventually released.
The release of three big medieval video game titles in the same year is by no means coincidental. It is clear from the current shape of the gaming industry that history, the Middle Ages in particular, continues to be an important source of inspiration for developers. Discussion of the reasons behind this is worthy of a post on its own. However, it is sufficient to state here that people like medieval games because they offer a setting that, while quite removed from our own, still retains a sense of familiarity. The innate appeal of a world that seems much simpler than the globalised present but is equally full of human activity and dilemmas is demonstrated well in these upcoming titles – and I can only hope that they do justice to a past that is fascinating even without additional layers of digital gloss.
Ciaran Stoker completed his MA in Medieval Studies at Exeter this year. His MA dissertation investigated video game medievalism.
2016 has had its fair share of popular medievalism in the media. However, for video game medievalism in particular, this year has been one of record-smashing and new frontiers. From the blockbuster cinema experience of Warcraft: The Beginning bringing in over $400 million (making it the most successful video game franchise film of all time) to the bestselling new Minecraft handbook Medieval Fortress, stock images from the Middle Ages continue to stand front and centre in the modern imagination. But is this commercially-driven movement positive for ‘medieval studies’, as we understand it, or is it a step in the wrong direction?
Arguably the biggest medieval title of the year was FromSoftware’s Dark Souls III, which sold an eye-watering three million copies in little more than a month of its global release in April. Not only did this immensely successful hack-n-slash RPG become the bestselling media content in North America during its first month, it also highlighted the huge amount of interest that exists for the digital Middle Ages in the modern world. Regardless of one’s own cultural heritage (Dark Souls III was commerically triumphant in Asia, North America, and Europe respectively), the Gothic architecture, eurocentric medieval weaponry, and distinctly Western mythology of the game was clearly attractive to a wide audience. What is most interesting about the Dark Souls franchise, from a medievalist perspective at least, is that it is poduced by a Japanese company and thus represents a Japanese reimagining of the Middle Ages in Europe. One might see FromSoftware’s approach as an ‘outside’ perspective on a medieval culture, although the extent to which we as Europeans are ‘outside’ our own medieval heritage is itself debatable. Of course, this idea of reimagining another society’s history is not new in digital medievalism, considering that the vast majority of media set in medieval Europe is actually produced by (and largely for) Americans. To my mind, this is largely a positive phenomenon. The further we, as a global society, distance ourselves from the Middle Ages, the easier it becomes to examine them without socio-political agendas colouring our perspectives. Dark Souls III is not a commentary on modern events or on medieval cultures, it is simply using a fantasy European Middle Ages to create an engaging world that compliments the fast-paced, nerve-wracking gameplay style. However, not all medieval game developers this year have used the Middle Ages in quite such a frivolous fashion.
Also set to become a major medieval title of 2016 is Ubisoft’s imminent release of Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection, which contains HD remasters of Assassins Creed II (2009), Brotherhood (2010), and Revelations (2011) in a single box. The Assassin’s Creed franchise, for those unfamiliar with it, sets its games in key socio-political episodes from history – be that the Holy Land during the Third Crusade, Massachusetts in the American War of Independence, or, as in this case, fifteenth-century Renaissance Italy. One of the biggest intellectual properties in the gaming industry, Ubisoft’s action-adventure series has hit somewhat of a slump in sales and review scores in recent years. No doubt it is hoped a return to some of the earliest (and undoubtedly best) outings for the company, combined with a feature film starring Michael Fassbender this December, might help rekindle Assassin’s fire. Never a company to shy away from controversy, Ubisoft’s questionable representations of history have got them into hot water on numerous occasions, often due to their portrayal of key historical characters or events. At the very least, this controversy suggests some gamers are self-aware of the medievalism at work in the games they play, and of the importance of approaching such topics with caution. Whilst the Italian Renaissance Assassin Ezio Auditore has always been a fan-favourite in the series, one might also consider the decision to avoid a remastered version of Altair Ibn La Ahad’s story from the original game – and its interesting take on twelfth- and thirteenth-century Middle Eastern history – an uncharacteristically prudent move by Ubisoft, given current geopolitics. For me personally, I am hoping the Ezio Collection might encourage the franchise to return to its medieval roots and explore some of the other fascinating chapters in the medieval history in future games. Without a doubt, the Middle Ages still has almost limitless mileage left as a setting for video games generally and my next post will examine some of the ways this has been realised, and capitalised on, by developers releasing titles in 2017.
This is not to say that the age-old genre of medieval fantasy is dying out. Before I draw my conclusions I’d like to do a quick round-up of some of the numerous psuedo-medieval fantasy video games that have sprung up this year. Total War: Warhammer ventures into new territory for the historical military simulator Total War series, building on the lore of Games Workshop’s tabletop game Warhammer to create medieval battles filled with monsters and magic. Released on 24 May, it is the fastest selling Total War game to date, accumulating half a million sales within its first few days on shelves. A week later, the latest in the Witcher franchise, the expansion pack Witcher III: Wild Hunt: Blood and Wine, received near perfect scores across the boards, cementing the Polish medieval fantasy’s place in mainstream gaming with record sales. And finally, a high-definition remake of Bethesda’s masterpiece, Skyrim, was released on 27 October, which gives players a chance to explore a fictional world inspired by Nordic mythology for a second time (or for those who have been living under a rock – a first time), complete with dragons, draugr, skalds, and runestones.
How might we as medievalists summarise this year in the gaming industry then? A year of expansion, certainly, with more people enjoying games set in medieval worlds than ever before. But also a year of waiting. By this I mean that whilst 2016 has had more than a standard helping of media creations set in, or drawing upon, the Middle Ages, this year has really been about setting up several big releases in early 2017. In my next post I will take a look at some of the upcoming titles due to hit shelves next year and consider what the immediate future of video game medievalism might be. How has 2016 been for you as medievalists, historians, or simply as gamers? Comment below and let me know. That’s it from me for now but I’ll see you next time!
Ciaran Stoker completed his MA in Medieval Studies at Exeter this year. His MA dissertation investigated video game medievalism.
On Friday night I attended a screening of the 1922 film Robin Hood at the Barbican Centre in London. In addition to bringing a silent cinema classic back to the big screen, the event also showcased Neil Brand’s rousing new score for the film, which was performed live by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. The new music is certainly an improvement on the soundtrack attached to the film on Youtube, however, as with most film scores, it is the visual spectacle rather than the music that stays with you.
Robin Hood was one of the most expensive and extravagant films of its day. It was an unashamed vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks, as clearly indicated by the film’s official title: Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood. Fairbanks helped to adapt the story (he is credited under his middle names ‘Elton Thomas’) and gave himself, in effect, three roles to play: first, the Earl of Huntingdon, a virtuous, chain-mail clad knight; then his alter ego, Robin Hood, marked out by his hose, goatee beard, and bow and arrow; and, underlying both, the charming matinee idol version of himself. The latter is alluded to most obviously following his defeat of Guy of Gisbourne in the opening tournament, when it is revealed that the Earl of Huntingdon/Fairbanks is afraid of women. The physically imposing and jovial Richard the Lionheart, played with gusto by Wallace Beery, finds this hilarious – and encourages all the female spectators at the tournament to mob him. Poor Fairbanks is forced to dive into the moat to escape and, luckily, isn’t hindered by his stunt chainmail.
The pace of the film is somewhat surprising. The first hour and a quarter of the story is devoted to the initial set-up in which the Earl of Huntingdon falls in love with Marian, is wronged by Guy of Gisbourne, and then abandons the crusade to save England from Prince John’s tyranny. At this point, Robin Hood makes his first appearance and the final hour of the film gallops along at a much merrier pace: Robin’s outlaw band prance all over the screen as they save the oppressed people of England; Robin rescues Marian, brutally kills Guy (the new score includes a rather nasty crack as his spine snaps), is captured by John and saved from a Sebastian-like martyrdom by the arrival of King Richard. At the climax of the film, Robin and Marian marry – and poor Richard, who seems to think that, as their monarch and their chum, he is entitled to hang out with them on their wedding night, finds himself locked out of their chamber. There is much to raise the modern eyebrow in this film, not least the bromance of lingering looks between Robin Hood and Little John – particularly in contrast to the rather chaste and motherly relationship between Marian and Robin.
For the medievalist, there is also much to amuse. The films opens with the statement that ‘history – in its ideal state – is a compound of legend and chronicle’, which, while irking the purist, probably represents popular attitudes to medieval films both then and now. The same liberal approach is evident with regard to the sets. Robin Hood’s landscape draws on the extant architecture of the medieval past and the distorted structures of medieval illustration. When the camera follows Richard’s crusader army to France, the audience is presented with an open plain and turreted castles perched on rocky outcrops, which seem culled from later medieval manuscript imagery. Back in England, Nottingham has been given similar treatment: it has the small, warped structures and large doorways of dwellings in manuscript-land. Finally, the cavernous inside of the royal castle mixes the height, space and light of a Gothic Cathedral with romanesque arches that could never have supported such a structure – and is quite different to the pokey palaces of medieval reality. This strange world also finds expression in the intertitles, which are deliberately archaized to the extent that they are sometimes a little difficult to understand on first reading. There is also a classic piece of medieval-sounding gibberish textually uttered by Friar Tuck as he prepares to test the fighting skills of a mysterious stranger:
So what did 1920s audiences want from Robin Hood and the Middle Ages? Well, above all, they wanted Fairbanks and they wanted him in an extravagant setting. Robin Hood was a high-end, lavish production that came hot on the heels of Fairbanks’ smash hits The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Three Musketeers (1921). The film offered a suitably strange and archaic ‘impression of the Middle Ages’, which both accorded with audience expectations and provided Fairbanks with the fantastic backdrop needed for his latest swashbucking epic.
At the opening and closing the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall I was asked to share my thoughts on Thomas Cromwell with presenter Simon Bates on BBC Radio Devon’s ‘Good Morning Devon’ Breakfast Show. Hilary Mantel’s novels have challenged the conventional casting of the familiar Reformation drama making Chancellor More the grim-faced obstacle in the path of our new hero, ‘Mr Secretary Crumwell’.
The Wolf Hall phenomenon, of course, owes much to the general appeal of the Tudors and a fair number of the 3 million viewers that switched on to the TV adaptation were drawn purely by the promise of witnessing once more the marital melodrama of Bluff King Hal. Yet the summons to Wolf Hall has resounded far further than any other of the recent retellings of Henry’s serial monogamy. For those that profess to select their reading from the Man Booker shortlist, Philippa Gregory is generally a guilty pleasure to be left on the holiday cottage’s communal bookshelf. But Mantel’s books have returned historical fiction to the Paperwhites™ and Book Groups of these Readers of Literary Novels and to the Public Critics – the Frostrups and the Naughties – who guide them. Part of it, of course, is her painstaking authenticity. As an early reviewer trilled, you can almost scent the damp wool of Cromwell’s cloak as he steals across the outer court of old Austin Friars, and the Readers of Literary Novels need to know that their fare has been lovingly prepared through long hours in the BL reading room. But the root of Mantel’s success, I suspect, lies not in her careful recreation of an old reality but in her subtle fashioning of a new one; for what might at first appear to be simply another strain of the timeless chant, ‘divorced-beheaded-died’ – which the self-conscious literati would spurn – in fact recasts the story to fit the historical imagination de nos jours. Mantel’s Tudor England is no stock-image of that generic ‘past’ which we want served up in colour and drama but not in detail. No, these Tudors have been photo-shopped to suit our new historical aesthetic; above all, to satisfy our ultra-relativism.
So it follows that neither one nor t’other Boleyn girl is now our hero, still less Lord Chancellor More, a man whom Mantel seems on the brink of mocking for his Brownian ‘moral compass’. No, it is Thomas C. who must be the man for our seasons. Thomas of the troubled childhood, the victim of an abusive father for whom he harbours hope of formal justice into middle age; Thomas of the exemplary work-life balance, as likely to be found working-from-home and even contemplating home-schooling his clever daughter than to play the monarch’s minion. The case for home-schooling, of course, is as clear as day to the auto-didact Thomas, the University-of-Life man whose internship with Wolsey propels him further and faster than the smug graduates which surround him. Thomas is a man of new science, not old books, a champion of the communications revolution coming with the printing press, now poring over the tablet-sized page-proof of Tyndale’s dangerously Smart Testament. Thomas learns quickly the truth of our preferred clichés about politics and public life, the greasiness of the pole, the venality of those that make the climb, and that money and sex that always drive them. These each serve to make Thomas a recognisable, sympathetic figure but what brings him wholly onside is that in his progress to Wolf Hall he exposes the always narrow, often wicked world view of the old establishment. This is the view represented not only by Wolsey – the figurehead of a hierarchical church securing privilege and sustaining inequality through fear and superstition – but also by the urbane More, whose Christian Humanism is equally if not more insidious since it cloaks a creed of cultural and social elitism in the promise of Utopia. Here, curiously, as well as a Thomas Cromwell-for-our-time, Mantel would seem to want to breathe new life into the oldest Tudor myth of all, of the Reformation as a definitive step towards the rational, liberal uplands of the modern world.
Now, you might well say that it hardly matters if through the doors of Wolf Hall we glimpse a grotesque distortion of the Henrician Reformation: these days surely it is something that only animates us academic historians, and every other reader and viewer will be well satisfied as long as Anne does lose her head at the appointed time, with the right sort of weft showing in her worsted cloak. Well, maybe so. You might also be inclined to argue that bringing Thomas and his world closer to our own can only be a good thing: empathy and relevance should not be dismissed, otherwise, before long you will be in danger of questioning the spectacle of ceramic poppies outside the Tower. But if we continue in this direction, isn’t there also a danger that we will narrow our historical imagination to the point of closure? If that happens, it won’t only be our understanding of something with apparently such low stakes as the Reformation that will be in peril. We must cultivate the curiosity – and at the same time, perhaps, suppress the instinctive self-obsession – to explore a world whose views on childhood, family, education, work, technology, and the power of ideas – were far removed from our own. In looking on the past it is high time we rediscovered the virtue of difference.