Did you know that Admiral Nelson, bastion of the establishment up on his pillar, was married but spent most of his life living in sin with a dishy Cheshire lass, whom he picked up in Naples and her aged, aristocratic husband? Me neither, till I saw his ‘Great Britons’. That’s the beauty of biography, you’d go over a lot of the same ground focusing on the war or the era but the tangential titbits are often the most interesting. My current favourite is the American Experience series, produced by PBS, which devotes 3-4 hours to the lives of each of the 20th century US presidents. I may be becoming inured to the slightly bombastic style of US documentaries but I find it very intelligent, it moves along at a good pace and the detail is a rare treat. No rushing through the material here but never a dull moment – honest!
Biographic information is easier to remember as well; its better organised than facts on a timeline and the colour of a person’s life helps hold it all together. Plus it’s often more relevant to us, not least as an endless source of consolation. The lives of ‘great’ people are littered with failure, misery and mediocrity. A look at President Truman’s first 40 years is enough to cheer anyone up. As far as I can tell, this applies equally to screen-less media, although I am drawing on a considerably smaller sample. All the best In Our Times focus on a single person and the one biography I have read, Camus, was excellent. There would never have been time to focus on all his affairs or indeed his flirtation with professional football in a book on Existentialism! Even typing “a book on Existentialism” is dull.
Biography’s advantages apply equally in games but no one has yet resolved the need for players to make their own decisions with the point of telling someone’s own particular story. Multiplayer is also hard to conceive if everyone is the same person – this is why there are board games about every possible historical subject but hardly any about a person. And yet, as games evolve, there is less reason to think that these problems will be insurmountable forever.
I am a huge admirer of Assassin’s Creed’s integration and presentation of historical elements. Meeting Leonardo outside the duomo in Florence and visiting his workshop as he jabbers about his inventions and even alludes to his homosexuality is a sign that games are growing up – this sort of factual detail used to only be found in strategy games. The Ubisoft teams clearly have a passion for their subject matter and certainly do it justice. Games’ advantage over other media is that the active role of the player increases their engagement hugely. If you can hold a player’s attention, they will drink this stuff in, just look at fan’s treatment of Mass Effect’s lore; I think they know it better than the writers at this point.
I can’t wait for a game that invites you to live the life of one of history’s great figures facing the same choices but choosing your own path. Card-driven board games, such as Twilight Struggle, use cards to represent the key moments in a historical narrative and while these will inevitably be all jumbled up, the story still comes through. Applying this to an RPG, quests might cover the key events in a person’s life but their order and the player’s choices, when faced with the same decisions, will vary. Cynics might ask if it’s worth using a person’s life as your theme, if you have to split it all up and allow it to be skewed by the player. I would say yes! Games will always take liberties with their subjects; it is the price of player choice, but what better way to explore a great person’s life than to live it?