Historical games tend to be either strategy games or feature magic or sci-fi as heavy influences. When games do take the plunge into portraying a historical setting, the results can be incredible—and while these five games don’t always represent history accurately, they are some of our favorite representations of history in an interactive form.
Assassin’s Creed II Brings the Italian Renaissance to Life
Yes, the Assassin’s Creed series does have some sci-fi influence and yes, every game in the series features a rich and detailed historical setting ranging from Crusades-era Jerusalem to Revolutionary France. But the level of detail and historical context in Assassin’s Creed II make it a favorite. The Renaissance was a time of scholarship, art, and philosophy with a heavy religious influence, as academics and clergy alike studied the importance of religion in their society.
This is a perfect complement to the series’ interest in science and religion, which work against one another as well as in tandem as Desmond and other subjects explore their past lives and the way that religion, the mysterious Precursors, and scientific achievement have shaped history.
Aside from the story connection, the setting of Assassin’s Creed II is varied, beautiful, and involving, encompassing multiple areas of Italy with tons of historical landmarks and hidden locations to explore. While the series has plenty of rich and diverse settings, Assassin’s Creed II is noteworthy because of the way its setting mirrors the plot, demonstrating human achievement alongside the reality of death and politics.
Red Dead Redemption Takes Players to the Wild West
There are far fewer western-themed historical games than you might expect, but maybe that’s because it would be hard to improve on the world depicted in Red Dead Redemption, which is as gritty and wonderfully rich a setting as one could ask for. Set in the American West and Mexico, the game allows you to explore cities, towns, and the wide-open Wild West as former outlaw John Marston. Historical context plays an important role, as this game takes places in the West on the cusp of modernization—Marston’s world is changing, and his role in it is uncertain. Automobiles and machine guns are replacing horses and good old-fashioned pistols, and the wild landscape is becoming more civilized.
Red Dead Redemption features one of the most gorgeous desert landscapes in modern gaming. While many deserts are bleak, sandy wastelands, the landscape of this game never feels dead—it’s teeming with both wildlife and people and the random encounters serve to make the world feel truly alive.
LA Noire Brings Old Hollywood to Life
LA Noire isn’t a perfect game, but its rendition of 1947 Los Angeles is notable for its richness, depth, and integration into the story. It’s a slow-burn tribute to film noir, characterized by morally gray characters in an even grayer world rife with corruption, deception, and mystery. But the setting is crucial—because noir is characterized by post-WWII anxieties, these ideas appear in the game’s plot in the form of murders and crimes that aren’t quite what they seem to be, all set against the backdrop of success and the American Dream that characterizes mid-century LA.
Though LA Noire is less about beautiful landscapes and exploration, it’s notable for the crucial role it plays in the story. Post-WWII America was an America with shattered hopes and dreams; the world had suffered very real losses and disillusionment and had to deal with the exploitation suffered by returning veterans. It’s a deep and engrossing portrayal of the seedy side of the American Dream, and it’s hard not to get sucked into the corruption that makes LA Noire‘s world go round.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Revels in 1980s Excess
As the third Rockstar game on this list, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is very different from the previous games. Vice City takes place in distant 1986, embodying the excess and glamor that comprised the decade’s popular culture. Featuring music, cars, clothing, and references to films like Scarface, Vice City paints a vivid and indulgent picture of the 1980s that is heavily inspired by Miami in the 80s. Like other games in the series, Vice City is a somewhat satirical, somewhat earnest portrayal of crime culture (in this case, the cocaine-fueled mob politics of the decade).
The 1980s don’t feel historical in the same way that the Italian Renaissance and the Wild West do, but the way that Tommy Vercetti fits into the landscape is just as immersive as any other game on this list. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a look back at our recent history, reminding us in a largely satirical way of the contrast between the bright clothing and chipper pop music and the crime and cocaine that also make up this iconic decade.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War Paints a Complex Picture of World War I
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a puzzle game set in Europe during World War I. Here, the setting is not so much a backdrop as a character itself; the game strives to show that the enemy is more than the mustache-twirling caricatures we usually imagine. Though that stereotype does make an appearance, other characters (good and bad) are humanized, reminding us that humans are humans no matter what their politics. Valiant Hearts isn’t your typical war game; this one shows us war from multiple views, balancing the experience of soldiers with the experience of nurses, showing the aftermath of combat in a highly effective manner.
The beautiful art style (whose inspiration was drawn from real soldiers’ letters) and inclusion of historical information make Valiant Hearts memorable. It’s rare to see a war game where the focus isn’t on killing as many enemy soldiers as possible, and Valiant Hearts does an admirable job of humanizing the conflict, reminding players that war isn’t comprised of heroes and villains, but people.
Which historical games are your favorite?