It’s not entirely as self-serious as it sounds. It’s a video game, after all.JFK Reloaded offered the ability to tweak the in-game physics to a cartoonish degree, presenting the tantalising opportunity to turn the sombre events of November 22 into bloody slapstick comedy, complete with a “Chaos Meter” tracking how comically ahistorical the simulation was getting.
State of Emergency, published by Rockstar Games, gave Ewing his first taste of controversy. During the development of the game, anti-globalisation protests in Seattle during a 1999 World Trade Organisation ministerial conference turned violent. “The game ended up being described as if we were inspired by the riots, even though we were two years into development at that stage,” Ewing said.The experience of developing State of Emergency, aside from being a crash course in manufactured controversy, gave Ewing ideas on how history, politics and current affairs “could be woven into the idea of a video game”. The games industry was moving that way anyway.“There was a kind of explosion, a sort of liberation we all had at the time,” Ewing said. “We can make games for adults, we can make games with adult themes. We can make these new types of entertainment that aren’t based on mushrooms or orcs.”
To this day, fans still ask him for a version that gives players the simple pleasure of taking a shot from the knoll.
It was this commitment to the historical record, Ewing believes, that doomed the game in the general public’s eye. Fans still ask him for a version that gives players the simple pleasure of taking a shot from the knoll. “I'm sure that, if I had done that, I probably wouldn't have gotten in as much trouble. If we’d created it as a sort of fantasy experience, people would have accepted it more.”
Oliver Stone’s vehemently anti-Warren Commission film JFK won two Oscars, and here he was “being dragged out onto the streets” for a game that was, in his view, more respectful of the establishment narrative.
It wasn’t all negative. Aside from committed fans of the game — some of whom unsuccessfully pleaded with Ewing to make a Princess Diana followup where they could “play the motorcycle outriders” — one particular piece of correspondence remains a source of amusement. It’s a letter from the head of the Royal Armouries in London, who told him they had a Mannlicher–Carcano rifle in the collection, and complimented him on the ballistics simulation. “So I’m actually endorsed by the Queen of England,” Ewing added.Ewing, who has worked at an augmented reality company for a decade now, sees the current fascination with the metaverse as a partial vindication of what JFK Reloaded set out to do. Now everyone is talking about immersive virtual experiences as a tool for education and entertainment. Strip away the controversy, and that’s what he intended with his visceral exploration of the events in Dallas in 1963.“I think that JFK, in my mind, does have its place in video gaming history,” he said. “Because it did make the suggestion that you could have real events and real moments to delve back into.”“And I guess that I think that's probably going to become a more popular function as we move forward in the metaverse, and people look for ways to explore history or explore time in different ways.”Follow James on Twitter and subscribe to his newsletter.Read more from VICE Australia.