Late last year I was taken on a highlights tour of the records office in Ipswich. In the strongroom, with its hum of climate control and surrounded by mobile shelving, we opened drawers and pulled out boxes. My guide was a staff member and talented storyteller who knew very well where to find the best bits of history and could also be amazed by the thousands of stories hidden in the archives.
An archive such as the one in Ipswich is full of stories and colourful characters. It is full of detailed maps of farmland and villages, the register of countless lives, deaths, marriages, people’s promises and depts and misdeeds, juicy newspaper clippings, the careful documentation of business transactions… Many kilometres of human history.
I thought about this experience – and many like them – when I read Ed Rodley’s latest blogpost(s) about story world design.
Ed describes how over the past decade or so, narrative-driven massive open world games have become hugely popular. Such games tell hundreds of interconnected stories with thousands of characters. Games placed in a historical context, such as Assassin’s Creed, typically employ historians to ensure the accuracy of these stories, the setting, artefacts, and characters.
Ed also points to an observation made by Daniel Pett: In the latest Assassin’s Creed game you can find museum content from the Met, which is available under their open access policy.
Games and their story worlds rely on cultural heritage, its stories, and artefacts. And cultural heritage can make games better. It is a natural fit.
Upload the content of the record office in Ipswich in Anvil, Decima, Dunia or any other game engine, hire some quest designers, and you may have a deeply engaging experience around heritage content.*
The advantage from any museum’s or archive’s point of view is simple: exposure. If a painting from your collection or an artefact from your depot ends up in the next Far Cry or Battlefield game, millions may interact with it. And if that isn’t enough, some games may welcome a satellite venue of your museum into their world.
From the game studio’s point of view, museums and archives have a lot to offer as well.
- Game assets: millions of digitised objects can be used to bring story worlds to life.
- Characters. Every time you die (and die you will) in the opening mission of Battlefield One – a WW1 themed game – a (fictional?) name of a soldier appears on the screen with a date of birth and date of death. This is a powerful reminder of the human cost of the conflict, but it could be so much more powerful by linking it to for instance the War Diary Project to tell the stories behind the names.
- Genuinly surprising stories, and the back stories to make them work. Although game narratives may have improved even more than their graphics and gameplay in recent years, most missions are still hunt and gather. Museum stories and archival materials tell complex, layered stories that can serve as a template for more unexpected quests.
- Naturally evolved settings. All details in a game are designed in a short period of time. The real world, however, has evolved over centuries in a natural and logical way. The layout of a village does not look logical, it is. The contours of a landscape do not seem natural, they are. Archives store the record of this development, which would allow for designing historically accurate, naturally evolved settings.
Although I’m intrigued by the world of game design, I’m not an expert in the processes that underly the development of a blockbuster title. Some games and their narratives seem so extremely well designed (Horizon Zero Dawn comes to mind) that I find it hard to believe game studies have not already learned to use cultural heritage content to their advantage. I’d love to hear (and get a tour!) if this assumption is correct.
Even if it is, as Ed says as well, I believe we have only barely begun to scratch the surface when it comes to the opportunities for collaboration between museums, archives, and game designers. And I, for one, cannot wait to see what those collaborations will bring us!
* Developing a game is much, much more complicated than this, I know.