Historical Fiction and Interactive Learning

by Raincrystal 

At a recent anime convention, I was talking to a Japanese history teacher who told me a story about a fascinating historical person. I was quite surprised when the story suddenly started turning into another story that I knew very well!

Yoshitsune Minamoto was a warrior who won many military victories because of his brilliance and leadership. He helped his older brother Yoritomo Minamoto to rise to power, armed only with his skill and the assistance of many followers who were impressed by Yoshitsune's abilities. The most loyal of all Yoshitsune's followers was Benkei, his trusted retainer and faithful companion.

When Yoritomo grew too hungry for power, he decided to dispose of his brother out of fear that people might try to depose Yoritomo and set Yoshitsune on the throne. He ordered Yoshitsune's arrest, and the younger brother tried to raise a rebellion against Yoritomo. Failing this, he and Benkei fled with a small group of bodyguards, disguising themselves as monks. Yoshitsune himself was disguised as the monks' servant.

Here's where it gets exceptionally interesting. Their party arrived at a checkpoint (the Ataka Barrier,) and one of the guards recognized the face of the "servant" as that of Yoshitsune Minamoto. Benkei grabbed a stick and began to beat Yoshitsune furiously, yelling at the "servant" for always making so much trouble. The guards were so impressed by Benkei's loyalty in risking certain death to beat the man whom they knew was really Benkei's own master, that they allowed the party to pass unchallenged. Afterwards, Benkei fully expected to be killed for what he had done, but of course Yoshitsune did not punish him.

If you have played Suikoden, you may recognize this last passage as the tale of Gremio and the hero. The similarities in the stories are too strong to dismiss as mere coincidence; there is little reason to doubt that Konami based the scene on the historical incident involving Benkei. When I heard this story, I was practically bouncing up and down in my seat with excitement; being a story from one of my favorite RPGs, it meant more to me than an ordinary tale. This led me to wonder what further incidents in RPGs may be based on historical events of which I am unaware. In fact, I surmised, it would be very possible to create an entire RPG based on historical truth.

What if we could learn history through RPGs? I think that many of us would establish a stronger "bond" with histories if we role-played them ourselves. As much as I adore history and literature, I find that it is even easier to sympathize with RPG characters that I have controlled, characters whose lives I have had a hand in shaping, than people whom I merely read about. Some people learn by doing. I find that I am more likely to remember things, as well as more likely to fully understand them, if I take an active part in the story as I do in an RPG. Playing is intensive studying, because the gamer is forced to allow the story to reveal itself slowly; and a good RPG is one in which the player can be completely immersed. Such experiences are more likely to be remembered years later, and their impact may sometimes be more fully felt because of this immersion.

It would also help our voice be heard in the community at large. Many non-gamers still find it hard to believe that RPGs can be in any way worthwhile: they do not see the games' artistic value, nor do they understand how a video game can possibly have anything intellectual to say. However, if RPGs were popularly viewed as a teaching tool, more people would realize that the medium has possibilities beyond sheer frivolous entertainment. Perhaps this could provide the in-road that RPGs need in order to make an impact upon the average non-gamer. It could prove to be a windfall for those of us who wish to encourage the public perception of RPGs as a valid form of art.

I think it would be awesome if companies would make RPGs based on actual history, games which teach about real events. The benefits would be threefold: some people could learn better from such an interactive experience, non-gamers might be more likely to understand that RPGs can be a serious medium of statement, and of course, we would all be highly entertained by our schoolwork.

Of course, there is no use sitting around waiting for Squaresoft or Working Designs to decide to release a historically accurate game. No matter how much potential this idea has, it will do us no good unless someone actually makes a historical game. We have no direct and unsubtle influence over the stories chosen by famous companies; they don't use other people's story ideas because of potential copyright infringements. The best we can do as consumers is to buy such a game if it does come out.

But a few of us do have power of a kind, though it does not rival Square's. Not every RPG is made by the giants. If any of you out there are programmers looking for a project, or you want to design an RPG but have no idea for a plot, perhaps the project you are looking for is right here. If we are to have a voice, then someone must take action. Some one of us might design a beautiful RPG, with a splendid soundtrack, gorgeous heart-stopping graphics, an elegant and powerful script, and a plot lifted directly out of the history books. I don't mean such a plot disguised as an original story, but an actual, real, historical narrative, presented as the honest truth that it is.

There are plenty of fascinating stories in the real world; and while I enjoy escaping reality in the form of a magical or high-tech adventure, I also love to escape into these rich worlds of history, many of which exist today only in fictional format. It is fantasy of a kind to travel to medireview Europe to the land of political intrigue, or to the ancient Roman Empire, or to the days of the Aztecs, the ancient Egyptians or the Native Americans. Perhaps one could take advantage of an interest in Japanese culture to research samurai heroes and portray their lives as "true stories on the console," or maybe their knightly British counterparts provide the material a game company needs. Regardless of what era or what story, there are plenty of fantastic tales that have the potential to be no less entertaining than the most wildly imaginative made-up plot of pure fiction.

Now that I've (hopefully) expanded your concept of RPG stories and their possible uses, go forth and program!

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