The following is a guest post by Zach Wolf, a recent graduate in humanities from Willamette University.
History-themed games are a popular niche of video games. But if many players care about historical accuracy, historical setting seem to take a back seat in most discussion about such games. Often, when a setting is discussed, it is used as a way to talk about the game’s features. For example, you’re more likely to hear from players that “Assassin’s Creed’s Rome allows Ezio to traverse and platform his way through the city,” despite publishers’ claiming that “Assassin’s Creed is architecturally accurate of Ancient Rome” – tweaked for the sake of gameplay, of course. Developers, in the case of Assassin’s Creed, have crafted a Rome very recognizable to your standard viewer, someone who is not an academic or hobbyist of Roman history. This is shown through recognizable tropes, like in depicting Rome as culturally significant but politically corrupt. That is accurate to the Rome of the time but it treads a too common path. Here we begin to understand videogames slippery interpretation of history, which inevitably shows up in the setting, presentation, and thus gameplay, of most games.
Frequently, games adapt history and make it their own without trying to be specific nor accurate. Zelda is interesting to look at here. Zelda takes inspiration from high fantasy: Link looks like an elf and has a fairy companion, as well as being tasked with beating the evil doer who has ruined your home (although, depending on the entry in the series, Link’s adventure has varying levels of inspiration from Japanese folklore also). High Fantasy looks a lot like popular imaginings of medieval Europe: knights slaying monsters, lots of evil (poverty and sickness being the main two). There are also the smaller tropes such as potions (based off alchemy), wizards (based on monks), and so on. Shovel Knight continues the trend of being inspired by popular imaginings of the medieval period. Shovel Knight depicts popular tropes and settings that most anyone can connect with Medieval Europe, without being entirely accurate nor unique. This establishes a familiar, but simple, background and mise en scene to Shovel Knight that anyone can understand and then continue on their way playing the game without much more thought as to the setting.
This mode of portrayal becomes a simulacrum: a pastiche of popular images morphed into one to present, while not accurately representing, an idea or object. An automaton or robot is a simulacrum of a human. Gilles Deleuze, a French postmodernist theorist, saw simulacrum as opening up a space for challenging an accepted norm. Shovel Knight presents medieval Europe as a simulacrum. Simulacra can often seem real but be false after careful inspection: many commonly held ideas about the medieval period are plain wrong. For example, it was standard, at least amongst educated people of the time (of whom there were more than we typically think), to believe the Earth was round. The late medieval period was also a fruitful time for philosophies and the arts. Medieval art existed in abundance and was heralded in its day, as well as contemporaneously, inspiring Expressionist and Abstract art movements. The above facts, and more examples, contradict how most imagine the medieval period in Europe. So simulacra are a mirror into our misunderstandings about what is usually taken as fact.
Shovel Knight does not itself add or critique any of the (scholarly) debate about the medieval period in Europe. By not taking an explicit and critical stance it portrays the popular view of the medieval period. Shovel Knight presents a village where there is a bard, goat men, horse women, and lots of pantyhose, the frock-like dress women wore at the time. There are timber houses with beige smooth surfaces, as well as stone and dark wood backgrounds for where you can acquire more HP and magic. Underground is a tavern evoking many Game of Thrones scenes. It all looks familiar, even comfortably so. This village is the second place you go to in Shovel Knight and you will come back briefly to spend some money. Simple and effective as a backdrop to the game, the village also allows the player something recognizable and familiar as an in between to discovering and playing through new levels.
It was not until I reached Tinker Knight’s stage, which is populated with rotating gears and flying knives, that I saw the pastiche of influences on Shovel Knight. All of a sudden it was kind of Steampunk, while retaining its theme of knights and adventure. Video games frequently use this collage-like aesthetic simply because they can. Technology based art allows for anything that comes into your head to appear on screen soon after, given the proper tools and skills. But, presentation often takes the supporting role in relation gameplay. The background should look nice and inform the story or how the player should feel, rather than dictating the gameplay itself. This means that developers have relatively unlimited tools to let their imaginations run amok, but also that those imaginations do not have to be particularly solid, connected, or coherent. Shovel Knight uses another connection: the one between fantasy and medieval Europe.
Fantasy always takes inspiration from medieval Europe, as seen in Zelda. In Shovel Knight, you play as a knight who has some potential to do magic, your enemy is the Enchantress (or Enchanter), and there are various hybrid human-animal characters throughout the game (figures heavily featured in Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings.) This combining of the medieval with fantasy, or further, the fantasy genre explicit influence of medieval Europe, is key to the narrative of Shovel Knight. It is a story of growth. Your character has recurring dreams of rescuing Shield Knight. Eventually Shield Knight assists you in defeating the Enchantress and subsequently rescuing you from the Tower of Fate’s destruction. The game is highly themed, with all 10 playable areas clearly with their own unique ideas. This interacts with the gameplay too: Specter Knight’s stage has lightning flashes to match with the cemetery setting, Tinker Knight’s has gears that spin towards you for its factory setting, and Plague Knight’s has boiling green vats for its laboratory setting. These provide straightforward and understandable backdrops to compelling gameplay stages, successfully fusing gameplay and presentation. All in all, the dialogue is straight to the point and very quippy, the soundtrack does 8-bit tunes well, and the moral of the story is a given. It has all the hallmarks of a great fantasy adventure in part because of its pastiche.
Shovel Knight plays on the chivalry trope too. Chivalry is interwoven into being a knight. Every knightly story has a relationship: saving the damsel in distress is the ultimate heroic act. You are a knight who is saving a fellow knight who is by default female. It is both the typical video game trope, but Shield Knight is herself a capable knight and Yacht Club Games has included a gender swap feature so your travels through Shovel Knight can become a gay love story. So, while seemingly set up to be filled with typical fantasy and video game tropes the game subverts some of these notions, reminding us of what a simulacrum can be or do. Of course, the entirety of the gameplay subverts chivalry and medieval tropes because your weapon is a shovel. You’re made fun of by the cast in the game. You are not particularly feared nor revered by any of the fellow knights or village peoples. Usually fantasy creates a tale of epic proportions, causing you to root for the protagonist while making their overcoming of insurmountable odds seem at least somewhat realistic or doable. In Shovel Knight your character may appear relatively incapable, but in the end still defeats the villain and gets the lover.
What do we do with all this? Our understanding of history informs our present in many ways, but it becomes warped through repeatedly passing through the popular imagination. Videogames make extensive use of tropes, frequently hurtfully so, because they need backdrops on which gameplay can take place. The endless world of computer technologies means that there is at least a striving towards something more inspired and immersive than other popular media. In doing so, though, developers often take their inspiration from popular histories. This is both easy and somewhat lazy. Although I am not accusing Shovel Knight of being uninspired, but rather that its pastiche of medieval and fantasy tropes creates a simple and easy backdrop. What I hope for are more games in which history might appear in both more authentic, representative, and unique ways. Recent indie game Mulaka presents an indigenous people’s culture. That is just one example of using history’s strength to broaden people’s understanding of a specific culture while also being an excellent springboard for gameplay. This conversation can also expand beyond the two types of games outlined here: games that are too close to history, ultimately failing in their goal of “authentic portrayal”, and games that are too loose with their history.
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