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What Would Our World Look Like if History Were Changed by Video Games?

In games like "Wolfenstein 3D" and "Ryse: Son of Rome," real-world history takes a back seat to interactive fiction. But what if the stories were the truth?

Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It might be that you've never considered how history as we know it would be if the Events of Popular Video Games were factored into account(s). But you're here now, so you might as well stick around for a minute.

Think of school. For some of you, this might be a current concern. For others, so long ago that to even begin to poke at the memory is to break down in floods of tears over that time what's-her-face flatly rejected you in the middle of morning break, in the spring of 1994, in front of the kids you wanted to be mates with but could never breach the circle of. The scars heal, somewhat, but time can't cure the ache now, can it?


But it's while you're at school that the Roman Empire and Ancient Egypt fill your thoughts for, like, an hour per week, scrawls of text spilling over ruled pages, crappy papier-mâché sarcophagi littering classroom worktops. (At least, that's how it was for me. You probably have iPads and Segways, now.) And video games have long mined this era for narrative inspiration, sowing seeds of change as they've gone, like little pixelated Scott Bakulas.

Xbox One launch title Ryse: Son of Rome features a wealth of they-really-existed-because-they're-in-books-and-stuff characters, like the famously fiddling Emperor Nero and the Queen of the Iceni, Boudica. You play as the couldn't-have-a-blander-name Marius Titus, and it's up to you keep Nero from harm while repelling the rebellious Celts. A whole bunch more happens, too, with gods and that, assuming you can see its story through—and a key moment is the deadly face-off between Boudica and Titus. Guess who wins.

In the Real World, the actual circumstances surrounding Boudica's defeat, and death, are rather flaky. But what's fairly certain is that she was not, as Ryse depicts, decapitated in Rome by a nobody. Had she been, you'd no doubt see a good few statues of Marius Titus during a city break to the Italian capital.

But this kind of playing with historical fact—the game's treatment of Nero is also adjusted to fit its own narrative design—mightn't have made all that much difference to how Rome's fortunes ultimately fared. Once Nero had passed, the Empire would last only another 100 years before Marcus Aurelius' son, the "guileless" and ignorant Commodus, would set in motion misrule that would collapse everything his predecessors had worked for. Titus was some years shy of having a major effect on the Empire's fortunes.


'Ryse: Son of Rome,' Vengeance trailer.

Ryse, at least, retains realism in the way it presents its characters. Set across the Mediterranean in the Egypt of teenage pharaoh "Tutenkhamen" (sic), 2003's Sphinx and the Cursed Mummy built a world full of anthropomorphic creatures cohabiting with humans. Bird-like beings call the ancient city of Abydos home, while Heliopolis is run by bipedal dogs speaking perfect English. Imagine what horrors a genuine curse of the pharaohs would wreak upon tomb-botherers had these ungodly chimeras actually mixed, and mated, with the people of Cleopatra et al. It'd be like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, only several fold and lasting for 500 years. You wouldn't want to go diving in the Red Sea of a summer holiday, that's for sure.

The likes of Age of Empires and other real-time strategy titles referencing historical events are great examples of video games that twist the past as we know it through player-determined events. The Microsoft-published series has looked to the Iron Age, the Middle Ages, and the early modern era (among others) as backdrops for its campaigns, while Koei's Romance of the Three Kingdoms games and Dynasty Warriors spin-offs have given gamers a say in the fate of China's Han Dynasty.

Perhaps, through the Romance… player's ineptitude, Cao Cao fails to take his place as a key player in the Three Kingdoms period, which could, if mirrored by history, result in catastrophe for what is now the city of Xuchang. His policies on agriculture and education brought stability to a region in crisis, and his love of poetry wound influence what was written during the Tang dynasty. Basically, no Cao Cao where he should be, and the China of today becomes a very different place.


Something else we're all made to sit through in school history lessons is the First and Second World Wars— and with good reason, too, you ungrateful shits. The outcome of these indelible conflicts has determined so much about how we live our lives today. I mean, we could all be speaking German had things gone differently, right? That's what the old dudes in the pub, the guys who can make a pint last two and a half hours, tell me. I've no reason not to believe them—it's not like they're pissed on a mug of low-booze bitter and some pork scratchings.

The First World War hasn't been all that common a backdrop for video game plots—I can think of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, and the old Red Baron Atari game, which I only recall because of its Xbox Game Room inclusion, but I'd have to turn to Wikipedia to list any more. But the Second? Flipping millions of them.

Let's talk Wolfenstein 3D. According to the story behind id Software's first-person-shooter-popularizing PC game of 1992, one man alone is responsible for the fall of the Nazi Party—William "BJ" Blazkowicz. He annihilates countless enemy soldiers before encountering the big man himself, Adolf, at the game's climax. Except Adolf's not cowering in a bunker, tearing himself up over whether to pop a pill or pull a trigger—he's wearing a robotic suit and packing enough chain gun heat to bring down an entire battalion. Now, our BJ's a tough guy in video game terms, but one actual, real-life man against that? Come on, now. If Wolfenstein was how World War II really went down, then Hitler would have stomped out the Allied resistance with one mechanical boot, and half the population of East Anglia would be chowing down on bratwurst this evening.


Einstein eliminates Hitler at the beginning of 'Command and Conquer: Red Alert.'

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Hitler's died a variety of ways, according to video games. In Assassin's Creed lore, he's a rogue Templar ultimately taken care of by the assassins that give the series its name. Sniper Elite V2 gives you the chance to shoot his balls off. (Yes, plural.) At the end of Bionic Commando on the NES, a revived Hitler, aka "Master D," summons the Albatross (a big space ship thing) to repel Nathan Spencer, only to go down with it. Command and Conquer: Red Alert really pushes the alternative reality agenda in its portrayal of his demise, though. The 1996 RTS hit's prologue shows Albert Einstein traveling back in time, from the 1940s to 1924, where he eliminates the future Nazi leader with a shake of his hand. How? To quote the scientist himself: "The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination."

Well-known figures from history have a habit of popping up in games—just this year, the inventor Nikola Tesla played an important role in the brief, muddled story of The Order: 1886, while the next Assassin's Creed, the Victorian London-set Syndicate, will star Charles Darwin and Dickens in a DLC mission. Drumming buster Phil Collins had a cameo in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories where you could, if you wanted to, kill him. Sort of, anyway, because he just keeps singing. Nothing, not even fiery molotovs, can stop the (soft) rock.


But all of these people are ancient. What about more recent happenings that might entirely change the way we see our world? Well, there's the 2007-set events of 1999's Outcast to consider, where silly scientists conspire to crack open a black hole right next to Earth. Naturally, "you" have to fix that situation—but let's say you didn't. You wouldn't be reading this, now, for one thing. If the happenings of Half-Life weren't confined to the imaginations of the Valve team, we'd also be right in the shit right now, given its 00s setting and no clear resolution to the problems that began at Black Mesa.

The Battle of Wounded Knee display in 'Bioshock Infinite.'

Slip back just a few years and the 80s-set Hotline Miami games paint a pretty sorry picture for anyone living in major American cities at the time. If your mother survived the fallout, chances are you're scrolling through this, checking the apocalypse-proof Twitter on your phone, preparing yourself a bowl of refreshing sludge, and gently stroking your abnormally proportioned chin at the same time, courtesy of your four arms, you nuclear freak.

But anyway, we've both been here long enough. Metal Gear Solid 3 alters events of the Cold War. The God of War series does horrible things to Greek mythology (which is real history, right?). Resistance tells us that the world got invaded by aliens in the 1950s, and everything that happens in Bioshock Infinite might well have played out differently had it not featured a protagonist entirely messed up in the head by what "he" witnessed at Wounded Knee. The same game also altered the events of the Boxer Rebellion, and features a statue of John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot dead Abraham Lincoln—in the world Infinite presents, or at least its little floating corner of it, this is a man to be eulogized, not demonized. I don't want to think about where any of us would be right now had Shaquille O'Neal not defeated the malevolent mummy Sett Ra during the course of Shaq Fu, and here's something even more terrifying: imagine if Chuck Rock hadn't overcome bully boy Garry Gritter back in 16bit Paleolithic times. I get chills.

And through it all, through the entire history of video games messing with what we consider the truth that preceded our present miserable existences, everything's made more sense than even a few minutes of Prometheus. Which goes to prove that video games are better than movies. Probably.

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