Artistic Freedom vs Accuracy: How Age of Empires' historical liberties make it fun01 Jul 2020 2
I believe it is safe to assume that everyone who likes strategy games has, at some point, played one of the Age of Empires games. Actually, I bet that quite a few of our readers will have played one of them, eventually uninstalled it, and then out of nowhere installed it once more, repeating the play-uninstall-install cycle every once in a while. For some, RTS is the kind of strategy game that you don’t really grow out of, for some reason.
Why is that, though? Why would you go back to a game that in terms of graphics, mechanics, and gameplay style has long since been surpassed? Simple: the sense of belonging and familiarity. AoE is a especially curious example: as a Brazilian, I can’t choose my country in any of the games in the franchise, but as a historian by degree and at heart, I’ve studied many of those empires closely -- the familiarity with the leaders’ names and cultures or even the opportunity to play with history and command powerful armies is quite a big pull.
Generally speaking, some people may take umbrage with the franchise’s nonchalant approach to accuracy -- they say that the franchise took far too much liberty with history and the result of historical battles. In the second title of the franchise, for example, there is a unique take on the defeat of William Wallace and his retirement as head of the Scots after the Battle of Falkirk -- in the game, not only Wallace brings his people to victory, but he also remains their leader. Again in AoE II, the whole gameplay with Saladin during the crusades and the way he lost Acre also differ from historical record, as do many other events and individuals depicted in the game’s different campaigns. For some, that took away from the game, but I couldn’t disagree more.
While it is very important for games to have the historical facts available for those who wish to know them, all forms of art (and gaming is very much one of them) can benefit from poetic freedom. Many literary and artistic works don’t stick to facts all (or even most) of the time, so why should every game? As long as the factual information is readily available, I don’t see any problems with playing a bit with history in a respectful manner; something which AoE mostly does.
One of the best classifications I ever found about works to do with history is: “I would divide historical fiction into three categories: books that are as true to history as possible, usually about people and events that actually existed; books about fictitious characters living in historical settings and cultures; and books that are based on history but stray far from it for the sake of the author’s story.”
Although the quote speaks specifically of novels, it can be definitely attributed to other media. A few good examples of very well known books that didn’t tell history exactly as it was (and even straight up invented whole parts of it) are The Iliad and The Odyssey, both from Homer; and Os Lusiadas from Camões, which describes Portuguese history in a clear attempt to flatter the king. Less known and more recent works would include Slaughter in the Sun from John Prebble, and even a lot of poems written about WWI.
Another example, and this one way more recent, is the series Man In The High Castle. The Nazis definitely did not win WWII, but for the sake of storytelling and to create and engage their viewers, the creators decided to choose a momentous war from our past and twist it. It's classified as a dystopia, and any history book will tell you what really happened then, so the liberty taken is valid. Again, as it is done in a careful way, there is no issue in playing around with history. In fact, we can use it to learn if not only to have fun.
The same applies to Age of Empires. The historical freedom of the main campaign aside, the actual gameplay of the titles can be quite charming. In the third game, you can see the clear difference in the buildings of each civilisation during any of the five ages the game takes place in -- which aside from interesting, is honestly unexpected and refreshing since other games (even of the same franchise) did not care for such subtlety. You can see the extensiveness and thoughtfulness of the research done for the game in the amount of detail they placed on every civilisation -- even the ones on the expansion packs -- and in the multiplayer mode, one can modify and decorate your own metropolis and their specific landscapes in a way that makes them quite unique.
Another detail I find fascinating about the Age of Empires games are the languages. Even if you got ridiculously annoyed at the mumblings your workers cried every single time you clicked on them to build, cut, or dig something, the fact that their words are quite accurate is extraordinary. It shows an attention to detail that is amazing -- although my go-to nation in AoE III was England, for example, I sometimes chose Portugal just to hear my own language being spoken in its ancient (or old-ish, at least) form, and it was brilliant. I have a Japanese friend who loved choosing Japan for the same reason -- you feel connected, and it makes you care about the game.
That all being said, of course one has to acknowledge and be wary of biased takes, such as the unfair advantage that some empires like the Dutch in AoE III for some inexplicable reason have (maybe someone just really liked the Dutch when programming them). The multiplayer allows you to bypass some of that by generating maps on the versus mode which offer you the chance to set up things like the number of enemies, allies, map size, kind of weather, difficulty, and more. There you can build up whatever challenge you wish for and deal with it at your own time (or lose repeatedly against the damn Dutch, as it often happened -- no comments, please).
All in all, no Age of Empires is a perfect game, and definitely not the best historic strategy game around -- especially 11 years after the last entry’s been released -- but it is one that will forever be in the minds of those who played them. Whether due to a crushing victory or defeat, the graphics, the variety of civilisations you have to choose from, the pleasure of seeing your army organising themselves in a click of a button when you tell them to, or even those unforgettable and ridiculously annoying “yes, my lord”s that you hear so often you can hear for days afterwards in your dreams (or nightmares), the Age of Empires franchise definitely remains a player favourite.
There’s a reason why the franchise attracts over 27 thousands players a day on Steam, with even the divisive Age of Empires III scoring a “Very Positive” on user reviews and hitting an impressive average (for a 10 year old game) of 2.4 thousand players a day: the franchise may not be the most accurate historic game around, but it’s handling of history is undeniably fun -- and on top of that, it is quite the perfect game to pass the time and play online during these quarantine times.
Renata Mojola is a historian focused on digital gaming and heritage sites, with a Master's Degree in World Heritage Studies from the University of Birmingham. She was kind enough to donate this article to Strategy Gamer.