Home > Designer Insights, dialogues, Game Design, Historical Problem Space, Theory and Practice > Dreams of Darkness as a Historical Problem Space: A Discussion

Dreams of Darkness as a Historical Problem Space: A Discussion

Friend and HGS colleague currently working with Dream of Darkness, Tamika Glouftsis, wrote an insightful blog in April Can the Historical Problem Space framework help us make better history games? I was excited to see her thoughts, not least of all because I’m considering a book project specifically on using the HPS framework to guide game design for students (in the form of interactive texts, and physical boardgame design) a guide that, hopefully, would have value for teacher-designers and historical game developers too. So with that in mind, and the pleasure of exploring this topic for any synergistic insights we or others might developed,  I wrote some interlinear comments to Tamika’s post to continue the discussion, and Tamika wrote some additional comment to turn this into a dialogue. So what we have is, we think, an interesting discussion of ideas and a continued exploration of how developers (in addition to those studying historical games) might use the Historical Problem Space framework (McCall, 2020) as an analytical tool for historical game development. Both Tamika and I welcome further conversations on this, so please reach out to us with questions and comments

The parts of the post and the order they were drafted, for those interested in the archaeology of the text, work like this.

Black text = Tamika’s original post

Blue text = Jeremiah’s first comments on the original post

Red text = Tamika’s comments

Purple text = Jeremiah’s second round of comments

Tamika, OP: [Title] Can the Historical Problem Space framework help us make better history games?

Hello everyone! This is the first of a series of blog posts about how the Dream of Darkness team are applying scholarly research and concepts in our game design. I’m Tamika, a PhD candidate studying the representation of history in video games, and Community Lead and Historical Game Designer for the Dream of Darkness team. I’ve taken on the exciting task of sharing the inner workings of how our developers and historians are collaborating to create a super cool scholarship-informed game!

Today, inspired by a conversation with fellow game scholar and friend Jeremiah McCall, I want to talk about the ‘Historical Problem Space’ (HPS) and our design of our upcoming prototype featuring Marina (also known as La Malinche) as a playable character. Jeremiah McCall’s Historical Problem Space framework has largely been proposed to help educators and historians analyze games. This framework is super exciting to me as a way of mapping out how the choices facing historical actors are represented procedurally in games. It has mostly seen use by educators and scholars, but how can the framework also be used by developers during the historical game design process? Let’s find out!

Jeremiah: In the decade or so I have refined the Historical Problem Space framework (McCall 2012, McCall 2020), it has been pointed out that the framework, designed as a tool for academic analysis (as an academic or as an educator guiding students), has significant application for historical game designers. Makes sense. I’ve practiced game design for quite some time as an amateur for my history classes, with some complete games and many incomplete prototypes. I’ve studied the craft intensely by listening to countless game devs talk about their design work, and occasionally dabbled a little in professional game design. So I’m excited to come to appreciate that  HPS, since it is meant to be a practical approach to how historical games do history, has potential value for designers. Hoping to bring this all together in a book, designed for teachers guiding students in historical game design, but also, I hope, naturally useful for academic and professional historical game developers.

Tamika, OP: The Historical Problem Space

Our in-progress prototype

Tamika: Firstly, what is the Historical Problem Space? In short, it’s a way to analyze and understand the unique way games portray the past. Jeremiah McCall designed the HPS as a tool for discussing historical games as games, on their own terms, as formal mathematical systems. Games are interactive; they present the player with a problem or goal, and place them within a system of possible actions, limitations, obstacles, and affordances. Essentially, the HPS framework allows us to map all of these game elements and determine what sort of historical messages they send.

J: Right on! Games, really any game that models a world though historical games are our focus, are about systemic relationships between different components of the modeled world. HPS tries to provide language and concepts for understanding, articulating, and, apparently designing, those systemic relationships to others.

T, OP: The guiding principle of the HPS is that each (historical) element of the game should be evaluated not as a separate, discrete representation, but in the context of how it functions in the game world. To borrow an example from McCall’s blog post on Through the Darkest of Times: one could critique the lack of representation of other political parties in the game’s depiction of 1930s Germany, but this critique would be incomplete without considering how political parties function as an element in the game world. We cannot simply look at a game object and critique it without thinking about how it functions.

J: Yeah! I wrote the original essay advancing the HPS concept in 2012 during my more active stint at the start of www.playthepast.org in two parts (Part I, Part II) and the essay was tapped a little later that year to become an article for the Journal of Digital Humanities (Historical Simulations as Problem Spaces: Criticism and Classroom Use). This point about assessing (and thus designing) each element of a historical game in the context of its relationship to the rest, was a core motivation. At the time on playthepast, there was an excellent dialogue taking place about Sid Meier’s Colonization and its problematic portrayals of Native Americans, in addition to its silence on enslavement and disease. And it occurred to me that the question of why historical game designers depicted this or that feature of history in the way they did could not be approached like one might approach a sentence in a historical article or book. Hypothetically, when critiquing, when understanding, a particular historical proposition in a historical text narrative or analysis one should look at the overall argument that contextualize that single proposition. But it is also possible, and quite frequently the case that individual propositions are critiqued standing on their own: “ The historian’s assertion on page 23, third sentence is just plain wrong.” We often treat historical texts atomistically, breaking them down into a series of statements and assessing the evidence for each statement.

But that is exactly how NOT to approach a historical game. A sentence can be taken from a text history and handled as a free-floating idea. An element in a historical video game (and board games too though often less mathematically)  is pretty much NEVER free floating. That element ws designed to function mathematically, systematically with the other elements of the game world. And so, a sensitive consideration of why, to use the inspiring example, Native Americans are portrayed as they are in Colonization 2008 is to consider how they function in the overall gameworld system, the game functions they rely on and add. The essay on Through the Darkest of Times, represents a more developed application of that analytical process, after quite awhile thinking about the HPS framework and using it as an educator and Historical-Game-Studies academic.

Tamika: And this is precisely what makes the HPS framework so valuable! It cuts right to the core of how procedural rhetoric must be understood and analysed. Meaning emerges not only from the textual, visual, or auditory dimensions of the interactive object, but from the way it functions in a system.

I think it’s especially helpful to consider Robert Rosenstone’s idea of ‘true invention’ here. ‘True invention’ is when a fictional element of a work is nevertheless consistent with existing historical discourse despite being a factual invention, as opposed to ‘false invention’ which ignores or contradicts historical discourse. Through a HPS framework that integrates procedural meaning into analyses, a game element that is ‘inaccurate’ or ‘wrong’ in terms of literal factual fidelity can nonetheless communicate something historically meaningful and consistent with established discourses through its procedural and systemic meanings.

This also makes me think about how complex and layered meaning is in video games more broadly. In a game, so many different representational, algorithmic, and procedural sources of meaning interact simultaneously. Emil Ludendal Hammar’s great article about slaves in Assassins: Creed: Freedomy Cry is a great example of multiple layered and sometimes conflicting meanings operating at different levels of representation.

Tamika, OP: The HPS considers the following elements as components of a game’s historical argument:

  • A player agent that interacts with the world. This can be a specific person, as in Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, or a group or civilization, such as Civilization or Age of Empires.
  • Primary goals and secondary goals. Defeating the enemy, solving a puzzle, etc. Players can set their own goals, too, but usually we consider the goals the designer has set as victory conditions.
  • The player agent and goals are contained in a gameworld: the setting of the game.
  • The game world is made up of gameworld elements that either aid or hinder the player in their progress towards the goal. These can be:
    • Resources that can be accumulated and spent (e.g. wealth, bullets, stamina)
    • Obstacles (e.g. terrain, path obstructions, or enemies)
    • Agents (either competitive rival agents, or allied subordinates)
    • Tools (e.g. weapons, vehicles)
    • Producers (e.g. buildings that generate resources in RTS games)

Jeremiah: I had forgotten all about producers! I geared up to write a lengthy introduction to the HPS framework, a decade into my thinking on it, for www.playthepast.org. The HPS that I outlined in that essay talked about producers But in the process, I ended up writing a more formal introduction to the theory for Game Studies (The Historical Problem Space Framework: Games as a Historical Medium) and somehow left producers out as one of the functions of gameworld elements. I may put it back in when I get to the book. Here’s the thing. While HPS is a comprehensive framework for analyzing historical games and their gameworld, the types of gameword elements I note are definitely not exhaustive. Metrics, for example, (which I would define as values that are primarily used as measurements rather than spendable resources) are an important type of gameworld element. I think when I wrote the 2020 article, I subsumed producers under tools, defining tools as gameworld element that enable the player agent to achieve/access/unlock/create other elements. Good call, Tamika! Let’s reclaim producers as a type of tool. I will be very happy if HPS gets well-used enough that people will suggest some other element types.

If you do want the most detailed explanation of these element to-date, check out McCall 2020

Tamika, OP:

  • Finally, in order to navigate the game world elements and achieve the goal, the player engages in behaviours and strategies.

These elements can be mapped out onto a visual representation:

(Image from here. Check out this post for McCall’s cool problem space for Through the Darkest of Times!)

So that summary and the conceptual chart above deliver the critical main point: historical games create systemic gameworlds with these components, and these components interact with each other in usually very precisely defined ways. My diagrams for this change quite frequently – HPS for me is very much a living framework still in development; when I get to writing the hoped-for formal book on HPS it will still be a living framework. Usually the inspiration for changing the diagrams is to provide a better blank worksheet for my students when they analyze a history game in class as an HPS Here’s the latest (2022) 2 diagram versions that will come out with Gaming the Past, Using Video Games to Teach Secondary HIstory, Second Edition at the end of this year.

Here’s a sample chart for diagramming. In this example I decided to focus on lumping together all the elements by major types:

Jeremiah: These definitely do not replace the earlier versions. I think the version Tamika pulled is far better for getting into the deeper analysis of game design. Whatever version is used, ultimately a diagram like this will only give a partial view of a games HPS. Also each person will likely have their own ideas about what constitute elements for a game world that should be labeled. One person might lump together “mineral resources” from a game with mining and production on the chart. Another might list each mineral resources and its uses separately. The reality is that both levels of granularity are valid depending on the current analysis.

Tamika: I actually really prefer the version you’ve shared here! Grouping each category together feels like a neater and more cohesive way to organise problem space elements. This way helps to focus the analysis on the limitations and affordances facing the historical agent. For example, in DoD, we might think about what tools and resources Marina has at her disposal and how they mount arguments about her real-life capabilities. In a new mechanic we’re currently designing, Marina can learn key words from her enemies and use them to her advantage. Enemy agents then become resources she can use and acquire tools from. Lots of implications there for discussion how the real-life Marina was able to attain her position. 🙂 This way of mapping out the HPS foregrounds these historical questions. 

Tamika, OP: For me, the greatest strength of the HPS lies in its ability to map out and better understand the choices facing historical actors, whether they be individual people, groups, or whole civilizations. McCall states that the HPS focuses on “how game designers use these [game] forms to represent contextualized decision making in the past through gameplay.” Likewise, the Dream of Darkness team is especially interested in depicting how people made difficult decisions in impossible situations.

Jeremiah: Awesome! Decision making, the choices available to the player agent (the main character), are at the heart of an HPS analysis! I have come to call them action-choices: the actions player agents choose to make (of course there are also involuntary actions, but we’re coming at this from a developer focus) The human player, of course, does not have to pursue, value, or even understand the gameworld goals the developers have created for their game ( as Sicart reminds us and recently Kristine Jørgensen insightfully explored in “Transgressive Play” in the Encyclopedia of Ludic Terms). If the player agent does choose to pursue those designer goals, they will make choices, form strategies, and adopt behaviors in the process of decision making. Optimally, only from a designed goals standpoint, the player agent will capitalize on the assistance of some gameworld elements and avoid or overcome the constraints posed by others in order to achieve the gameworld goals.

So the HPS in a real sense lays out for analysis and design, some of the main choices that are intended to be available to the player agent, why those exist, and how the world systems respond to those choices. In this way HPS, arguably, supports very well the idea of games as “a series of interesting decisions” famously noted by Sid Meier, but also the common design practice of designing a game by identifying an designing around a game’s verbs.

And this seems, as Tamika kindly points out, to be a pretty helpful perspective for historical game design: asking what the gameworld consists of and developing how the player agent in that world can choose and act in an effort to reach goals the developer has designed. HPS from the beginning has always been developer-centric. It supposes (because it’s true) that historical game developers are historians (“developer-historians” as Chapman 2016 terms them) and asks us, whoever we are, when analyzing gamic history to look at the design as a whole and try to see the systems and synergies that developers are ultimately working with. I’m delighted that for some designers it’s an easy step to go from “developer-centric” to “helpful for developers”

Tamika: Yes! These are great reflections. The practice of designing around a game’s verbs is crucial to consider; in meaningful historical game design, the player agent’s verbs should be reasonably discursively consistent with the historical affordances of the historical agent being depicted. It would make no historical sense for our Marina to wield a sword or do parkour. But she can run, hide, observe, translate, speak, negotiate, mislead, or strategise. We select our verbs carefully to ensure they communicate something meaningful. 

T, OP: Marina, for example, has a contested and controversial legacy. Even today, most Mexicans think of her as the archetypal traitor (even the derogatory term “malinchista”, derived from her name, refers to someone who prefers the foreign over the national!) However, we now know that she was a much more complex individual, thrust into a terrible situation and lacking options. Hatred for Marina, therefore, stems from a lack of understanding of the choices available to her and the context in which she made them. In this way, the HPS beautifully complements our goal of contextualizing the often-judged and misunderstood decisions Marina made. (Let me know if you want to see a blog post about Marina’s legacy and our interpretation!)

J: This is really exciting! Often “we,” certainly on the learning history through game analysis side, hope for historical games that will help players develop historical empathy. Though it is not always (often) easy, in theory providing a player with an awareness of the context and choices available to an agent should help with that.

T, OP: What would Marina’s problem space in our prototype look like if we were to map it out according to McCall’s diagram?

J: To my knowledge, this is the first time anyone outside of my classes has actually done an HPS diagram. Exciting!

T: Woohoo! 

T, OP: The Historical Problem Space for Dream of Darkness Game, an upcoming indie Aztec horror game. This diagram maps out the choices, affordances, limitations, and constraints of our historical protagonist, Marina.

Let’s go through each element!

Our player agent: Marina.

  • She is a specific historical agent.
  • Her abilities and gameworld affordances are informed by the historical record: she is not a fighter, but can use violence. She strategises, uses diplomacy, and makes alliances. She largely runs and hides to avoid hostile threats.

J: And even though it may seem obvious, it’s worth mentioning that Marina is what I would call an embodied agent as opposed to an unembodied agent (terms I first talked about in this digital talk in Helsinki, but  did not use in writing until this year’s “History Games” article in the Encyclopedia of Ludic Terms; they also show up in the upcoming Second Edition of Gaming the Past). These terms can helpfully describe whether the player agent has a “physical” i.e. space-occupying avatar in the gameworld or does not. So, the experimenting-deity figures in a game of Civilization, even though they are nominally specific historical figures, have no gamespace-occupying avatar. Marina, on the other hand, very much IS an embodied player agent as she is journeying through the game world. Generally speaking, embodied agents focus on maneuvering the avatar through gameworld space and most if not all of their powers and concrete abilities are spatially centered on the avatar. Marina’s running and hiding and limited abilities to use violence – all these powers are centered on her. The same is true for diplomacy and alliances, I assume; Marina is making alliances for herself with others? 

Tamika: This is SUCH an important point and I’m so glad you brought this up! As a young indigenous girl navigating a brutal period of colonialism and conflict, Marina’s physical embodiment is such an important centre of meaning for us. The way she navigates the game world is absolutely informed by her embodied experiences as an indigenous girl. One of the key elements in her design that proved somewhat challenging to achieve, for example, was to make physically evident that she was only 13 years old. This is part of our intersectional approach to design informed by the complexities of the lived experiences of our characters and their unique contexts.

To reference Adam Chapman’s (2016) mapping of historical epistemologies onto game genres, our game could be described as a realist simulation: it’s an experiential, ‘immersive’ 3D adventure game, reasonably linear, and tied to the diegetic moment(s) of the playable character(s). However, we are trying to break free of the strict ‘reconstructionist’ epistemological approach and instead incorporate constructionist and deconstructionist epistemologies into our game design. It is not what one would normally think of when thinking about immersive realist simualtion games, which is part of what is so challenging yet fresh and exciting about our game!

Tamika, OP: Her primary goal in this prototype is to find allies and thereby escape Tezcatlipoca’s illusion.

  • Secondary goals: find and desecrate Tezcatlipoca’s artifacts to provoke his grief and break his focus.

Jeremiah: And these goals are SO important for the shape of the overall history any developer is crafting. Most, arguably all (with the edge cases of walking simulators) historical games are teleologically focused by design. To put it another way, the historical problem spaces presented by historical games tend to be teleological: they are constructed to refer to the goal-oriented behaviors of agents. So, goals are critical in the design. They focus a game both in what it includes and in the far greater amount of activities and actions and achievements in the world it excludes. The goals are one of the developers’ clearest places to say, “this is what our history is about”. 

T: Although outcomes are critical in most game design, I also think games have tremendous potential to show the complex multiplicities and contingencies of history, and work against teleological interpretations that cast historical events as inevitable. This is especially important for our approach to the Spanish colonisation of Mesoamerica, as we never want to reinforce the myth that the conquest was ‘inevitable’.

T, OP: The virtual gameworld – the physical environment is that of Tenochtitlan, but it also takes place in a series of illusory worlds. Each illusion takes place in a significant moment and location from Marina’s past. Exploring and traversing the environment are the two affordances offered in our chosen gameplay genre.

J: And that makes sense since exploring and traversing (along with contesting) seem to be the primary spatial interactions / action-choices (action-choices focused on the agent in the gameworld space) of an embodied agent. The other two main types of interactions, control and exploit, seem to belong more to unembodied agents. 

T, OP: Gameworld elements – hostile illusions, allied illusions, artifacts, stamina, hiding spots, environmental obstacles, examinable objects.

J: And, again as makes sense for the embodied Marina, these elements either help or hinder Marina directly in space (illusions, hiding spots, obstacles, artifacts?) provide objects for Marina to learn from (illusions?, examinable objects), or serve as metrics of Marina’s well being and power (stamina) 

I’m not sure yet if this is the right place to bring it up, but I want to leave a placeholder here that we should talk about the action-choices available to the player agent and the extent to which those action-choices are intended to defensibly model the action-choices in the historical record available to any particular historical agents. Really important to note at the outset that the action-choices available to a player-agent do not have to defensibly model the action choices of a historical agent (an agent in the historical record). (A quick note: defensible is a term I use in Gaming the Past and I simply mean arguable: a defensible claim is one a reasonable person can support from a well-sourced historical narrative/details.)

 A historical game is not better or worse for that; just different. Often, though, (I speculate here) when a historical game’s problem space has a player agent whose action choices are not intended (or don’t) defensibly model a particular historical agent’s action-choices, important historical content comes from the player-agent serving as a witness to that content. So, for example, in most Assassin’s Creed games, certainly historical games by most reckonings, player agents whose available action-choices are mostly not particularly those of a particular historical agent, but they have the important action-choice of witnessing, of being a spectator and sometimes a conversant in the historical landscape and figures around them. I don’t know enough yet about player agent Marina, but it seems witnessing history is probably an important action-choice.

T: I’m so keen to discuss this further, as my musings about Marina’s verbs above seem to contradict what you’re writing here! I think, however, that we ultimately agree on the point that a player agent’s action-choices do not strictly have to be historically defensible. The design decision of whether to make something strictly adhere to the historical record or not is contingent on so many things. The extent to which one deviates or invents will depend, as you’ve indicated, not only on what sort of history or historical value the game wishes to convey, but how the developers have gone about doing so. Witnessing history is certainly a valid method of communicating a historical argument, although the rhetoric used may be significantly less procedural than a game that primarily wishes to convey its argument through player action/interaction.

T, OP: Strategies, choices, behaviours – Marina must evade the hostile illusions by running, hiding, and sometimes attacking. She must explore the non-linear map and determine the best pathways and approaches. By exploring the environment, she will find the artifacts that allow her to progress (in places that, via environmental storytelling, convey which gods and real avatars the objects belonged to). Finding her allies and determining how to make herself indispensable is her major narrative goal.

J: So, continuing with what I said above about action-choices, the action-choices clustering around Marina making herself indispensable are arguably historically defensible. From what little I know about her, the historical Marina absolutely had to consider how to achieve this. THe running hiding and attacking illusions are arguably not historically defensible. There is a lot of witnessing in this that can get overlooked, however: witnessing of spaces and places and figures. This witnessing is a really important part of historical games and I’m guessing it is/will be important to Dreams of Darkness.

T: Absolutely! I want to make a few comments on historically defensible action-choices. You’re right that running and hiding from illusions is not something the real Marina would have done. However, we believe that the game-actions we have given her are still within the realm of historical plausibility, even though the specific situation (an illusion world) is entirely invented. This is where we create meaning in our game through the inclusion and exclusion of affordances and communicate historical arguments.

There are a number of reasons for this. The illusion world is conjured by the god Tezcatlipoca to punish the Spanish and their allies for committing the Toxcatl massacre. Marina arrived at the scene that night with Cortes and co, in the aftermath of the massacre. Although we don’t know for sure whether Marina ever had to run and hide in a conflict situation, we can assume that the unarmed, civilian victims of the massacre would have likely done so that night. Since our Tezcatlipoca wants to take revenge on the Spanish and give them a ‘taste of their own medicine’, it makes sense to us for Marina to have to run and hide from vicious enemies in the illusion world, just as those alike to her in their capabilities and affordances would have done during the massacre.

Jeremiah: So in HPS terms, I’d say that Marina is archetyping here, making action-choices that would apply to historical figures in these situations. Of course there is always room for debate whether archetypes did exist and did do these sorts of things. What I find striking is the idea that you have hypothesized actions for those suffering the massacre and attempt to reflect those through Marina. Pretty cool!

Tamika: Archetyping is a great term and concept, I love that!

T: A key element of this scene is that Marina cannot actually directly attack, fight, or kill these illusions. She can only use language to distract and misdirect. The dev team discussed Marina using the language mechanic to conjure and wield an illusory sword to fight opponents. However, we decided this was contradictory to the historical argument we wanted to make about Marina: that in lieu of physical strength, she had to rely on her linguistic skills to survive. The image of Marina wielding a sword seemed too historically indefensible. Although there is the ‘illusion world logic’ trope we could have relied upon, we realised that in order to convey the message we wanted, there were limits to how far we could push the ‘because illusions lol’ explanation. In this case, the sword-wielding would hinder, not help, our historical arguments. It thus fell into the category of ‘false invention’, not ‘true invention’. Ultimately, the affordances we gave her were not anything that we couldn’t plausibly imagine the real Marina having the capability to do. 

Jeremiah: What I appreciate so much about your team’s efforts and what you bring to the table is self-awareness that you share with any (like me) who want to discuss. When all is said and done, it is still the case that someone can say, “bottom line: DoDis not historically accurate: supernatural dreamstate encounters didn’t happen, or at least empirically didn’t happen.” Far more interesting to discuss with the team, to listen to the choices you made and talk about them.

Tamika: At the end of the day, we want to make a historically sound video game, but we also want to make a game that is attention-grabbing and cool. 🙂 I would like to humbly propose that our world would be enriched by more supernatural dreamstate historical fictions!

Here we are getting to the point where my goals as a classroom history teacher align with my goals as a historical game studies person. The importance of discussion. I have this somewhat naive belief that good faith discussion with evidence is a means to better understanding the past (I know that’s really simplistic; I know, but hey good teachers have to believe in the possibility of real learning, right!?!?). I love that you folks are doing just that and inviting others to engage. That, to me, is just an awesome thing!

Tamika: Open, good-faith discussion is the bread and butter of all real learning to me!

Tamika: Following your lead, Jeremiah, I want to emphasise that this doesn’t mean a sword-wielding Marina would be a bad or terrible mechanic in another hypothetical game. After all, one could make an argument for a cool metaphor equating words with swords, conveying that words and diplomacy were just as powerful and important as the blade in this period. However, this is simply something that didn’t fit with our game and our specific historical goals. I think every dev team needs to decide for themselves how far they can push at the boundaries of historical plausibility and defensibility in order to convey what they want to convey – for some, that may be more elastic than others, and perhaps more or less elastic in particular chosen discursive dimensions.

Jeremiah: completely agreed!

Tamika: Your words about witnessing here make me think, once again, about how different historical epistemologies interact in a game. Chapman (2016) loosely correlates witnessing history with realist-reconstructionist games and making arguments about history with conceptual-simulation games. I might suggest that ‘witnessing’ is the primary mode through which realist-reconstructionist games engage with history. In DoD, we certainly want the player to witness and experience our authentic reconstructions of elements of pre-conquest Mesoamerica and the subsequent colonial encounters. Showcasing aspects of indigenous cultural heritage is very important to us. However, our narrative design and procedural rhetorics strive to engage with constructionist and deconstructionist epistemologies as well. We take a significant step further than most realist-reconstructionist games by deliberately prompting our players to think about their relationship to historical narratives and how the past is interpreted and constructed by historians. Chapman acknowledges that multiple epistemologies can be in action at the same time in the same game, and that is what we’re aiming for! 🙂 

T, OP: It was actually not difficult at all for me to fill in the historical problem space for Marina, because all of this information was already mapped out in a similar way in our game design board. Check it out! (Details redacted to avoid spoilers, of course!)

Our game design board on Miro!

J: It’s very gratifying to hear shifting Marina into a historical problem space framework was easy, because I truly intend the framework to be descriptive of design practice!

T, OP: There was one notable challenge in this exercise, however. The HPS is usually applied to strategy/simulation games and was constructed with them in mind. As a story-driven adventure game with puzzle and stealth elements, our problem space provides fewer resources and affordances than grand, sweeping strategy games. Our problem space may initially seem shallower than one like Through The Darkness of Times, with its plethora of elements for the player to control and influence. In Dream of Darkness, large portions of Marina’s problem space are represented in the narrative and environmental storytelling, rather than purely through game mechanics.

Jeremiah: True. I originally applied the kernel of HPS analysis to Sid Meier’s Civilization IV Colonization, and to Hegemony: Wars of Ancient Greece, both strategy games very much in the conceptual simulation style mode that Adam Chapman (2016) defines so helpfully. Since then, though, I have been working to see how well it can be applied to games fitting the realist simulation style Chapman lays out – Dreams of Darkness seems to clearly fit into this style or presentation. Hopefully the notes I made above about witnessing and about defensible action-choices help. Without knowing much about the game, I would suggest that the way this is being developed, we would expect, just as you say, Tamika, that

“large portions of Marina’s problem space are represented in the narrative and environmental storytelling, rather than purely through game mechanics.”

We’re now getting into the leading edge of the thinking work I have done so far in setting out the terms and concepts for an HPS analysis. Off the top of my head I would propose that maybe, for conscientious developer historians like your team, an effective design goal is to make the less-defensible (shallower as you say) action-choices tie meaningfully into all the environmental witnessing, to make that witnessing even more compelling? Truly just speculating here. I would love to know what you think!

Tamika: Once again, we’re on the same wavelength. I keep anticipating your next points! As you said, our game does fit into the realist-simulation style, albeit with some twists, as I alluded to above and will lay out in full in my next blog post. 🙂 I hope the design processes and considerations I outlined above gave some solid insight into how we created the less-defensible mechanics.

I would love to dig into the word ‘witnessing’ more, actually. ‘Witnessing’ to me implies taking a passive position that is not part of the action. I wonder how applicable this is to a video game where the player is taking an active role in making historical events unfold. My instinct is to say that it’s a complicated phenomena. Ultimately, the player is experiencing a predetermined sequence of events programmed by the developer-historian and (ideally) determined by the historical record, hence ‘witnessing’. But at the same time, the player does inhabit the role of a character, and makes decisions and takes actions that progress the story. In a sense, the player-as-witness is also complicit in the unfolding of events. I feel like the implications would also change significantly depending on whether the player is controlling a specific historical agent or an invented character. Can a player inhabiting the role of Marina be ‘witnessing’, or is the nature of the experience something a bit different? I truly don’t know the answer here and would love to hear your thoughts. 

Jeremiah: Let’s talk about this more in a second installment?

Tamika: Sounds like a plan!

T, OP: McCall’s upcoming second edition of Gaming the Past (2012) is going to expand the application of the HPS beyond the strategy/simulation games largely focused on in the first edition. I wish the book was already available, but alas, we might just have to write an updated blog when it is 😉 I’m greatly looking forward to seeing how the framework can be better applied to the scaled-down problem space of a single character in a specific, limited time and place.

J: And while the perspective in GTP 2E is very much of the educator guiding students to effectively describe and analyze, I think you have given me some clear insight here into an area that I can and should try to helpfully explore in my speculated book on helping teachers and students design Tabletop and Twine games (and just a little bit of video games)

Tamika, OP: Gameplay genre and historical discourse

It is interesting to reflect on how our chosen genre for Dream of Darkness might impact our historical discourse. Strictly in terms of gameplay genre, our game would seem to fit best in Adam Chapman’s ‘realist-simulation’ style. These games usually aim to show the past “as it really was” through the eyes of a historical character in a 3D-constructed verisimilitudinous space. However, we are aiming to somewhat complicate the reconstructionist historical epistemologies Chapman observes in this genre of gameplay. Our Historical Game Design Pillars will guide our path here – I’ll write about these in an upcoming post!

J: Which seems reasonable. As I understand it, the realist simulation approach, when not challenged or elaborated, fits a reconstructionist mode of history because it presents the past as a single continuous visually rendered world. Left to its own devices, realist games present one vision. There is no reason to suppose it has to be this way; indeed, I would think, there could be different character walkthroughs of the same episode in FPS or any number of ways that the realist mode could break with reconstructionism.

A common issue arising when mapping out problem spaces in historical games, as frequently discussed by McCall, is the constraining force of a pre-selected gameplay genre ‘imposed’ onto a historical setting. McCall observes that historical arguments in games are frequently dictated (at least to some extent) by unrelated gameplay genres or franchise styles applied to a given period, rather than holistically and organically deciding the gameplay genre. The Twitter post that spurred this blog post argues, for example, that Expeditions: Rome is the outcome of imposing the Expeditions game genre onto the historical record.

If we at Dream of Darkness had been constrained by a FPS or action-adventure genre, we would almost certainly be locked into very different historical arguments in our game. Instead, we are choosing to focus on stealth, exploration, puzzles, and story-driven interaction for our Marina prototype. These gameplay mechanics have been chosen based on who Marina was, and how to make her engaging for a player unfamiliar with her history. Different characters will have different gameplay capabilities based on who they were: for example, only our nurse Isabel Rodríguez will be able to heal.

One of our strengths, therefore, is the relative lack of violence in our game. A reduced focus on combat and fighting enables us to explore different historical problem spaces: those of a translator and diplomat or even a nurse, rather than solely that of a soldier. (The choice of horror as a thematic genre is also deeply significant for our game. I will talk more about horror and historical games in a future blog post!)

It’s helpful to understand our depiction of Marina in the context of whose problem space is being represented in games. McCall writes that the choices made by game devs about whose problem space to represent in any given game “necessarily locks the game into certain portrayals of the past”. Our goal with Dream of Darkness is to represent problem spaces that have not yet been shown in games, or in any media at all. Choosing Marina as our protagonist for the boss fight prototype — choosing to explore her problem space, and thus better understand her choices — was a decision informed by historical narratives and arguments on Marina and similar Nahua as described by Frances Karttunen, Camilla Townsend, and Matthew Restall.

Jeremiah: Terrific! I’m all for history FPS games that do something other than shooting as the dominant verb in the game! I played the original Doom in its original shareware release as a college student im ‘93 (almost 30 years; ouch) , and so I’m always ready for a first person perspective game that’s not a shooter. But just to clarify here the relationship that seems to be forming between the FPS genre and DoD …

The HPS framework is a set of terms and concepts for analyzing genres to the extent that it analyzes game mechanics. And, as you noted, I suggest genre has a considerable effect on how any given historical content is presented. So while I completely agree that the FPS genre has tended to focus on shooting, as the name suggests, the historical content in Dreams of Darkness still looks like it will still be a first-person perspective, realist style game, and that will be different from this content in other genres. 

Again we can think about embodied player agents. The embodied first-person perspective of fps for the player agent is perhaps the defining feature of the genre (this can surely be debated, I know, but for sake of argument). I’d suggest, as I did above, that an embodied agent usually brings with it a number of common features: A focus on maneuvering the avatar through gameword space (exploration), most if not all of player agent powers and concrete abilities are spatially centered on the avatar (solving locational puzzles; engaging in meaningful dialogue choices; Marina’s running and hiding; the infrequent fighting etc. So rather than say this is not genre influenced I would say that DoD leverages a number of first person genre features to tell this personal story. But still definitely in first-person-genre-mode. This becomes most apparent when we think about grand scale historical actions and processes that are not in the game that would be in a unembodied, experimenting-deity player agent game version of this in the mode of Civ, or Europa Universalis. The game would like pick a larger player agent than Marina; that player agent would likely not have a single avatar (but function as a sort of divine cursor); and larger systems like food, and troops numbers and disease might well be modeled and displayed in some form of more complicated interface. 

Does this make sense, as an example? I feel like there’s a lot to unpack here and I just wanted to give you my take, from reading and listening, on what DoD’s genre influences may be. And, of course, I could be completely mischaracterizing DoD here, so please guide me!

And, as Tamika and I have noted, none of this is about whether the game is awesome as a game. It’s just about the interactions between historical content and design

Tamika: That’s a great outline of the differences between how a first-person and a conceptual simulation game interface with the past. I absolutely concur with your observations about how Marina’s (and the player’s) relationship with the historical problem space is defined (or perhaps, mediated by) the choice of genre and player agent. Dream of Darkness wants to tell personal stories and foster empathy with historical figures. Controlling armies, distributing resources, managing food supply etc. are definitely not in Marina’s problem space, whereas a conceptual sim with an unembodied player agent might deal with such things. I really like the way you’ve phrased ‘leveraging genre features to tell this personal story’! That hits the nail on the head.

One key element I want to quickly point out is that Dream of Darkness is actually third-person, not first-person. Traditionally, people tend to think of first-person games as being easier for the player to insert themselves into the spatial environment and thus roleplay as/assume the role of the embodied player agent. In third-person mode, however, the player tends to view the protagonist as more of a separate, self-contained character, an entity affected by the player’s input yet more  ontologically separate from the player. Furthermore, the physicality of the designed character is always in view in a third-person mode, making it much harder for the player to ignore its gender, age, race etc. in favour of full self-insertion. This is really crucial for Dream of Darkness and Marina in particular, since her physical embodiment as a young indigenous woman is so central to how she interfaces with the world. Third-person mode should hopefully strike that nice balance of empathising with the character while understanding what separates them historically, culturally, temporally and ontologically from Marina.

Jeremiah: Got it! Thanks for explaining

Tamika, OP: Constraints of the game development process

One of the biggest challenges we have come across when designing Dream of Darkness is the tension between wanting to include absolutely everything we can find in the historical record in great detail, and the practical, material limitations of the game development process. Much like the creative process of the professional historian, the process of making a game is one of selection and inclusion. We can never include every possible affordance or problem space element that was available to a historical actor (how can we even know what this might look like?), and so we must prioritise which elements of the problem space will best espouse our chosen historical arguments and discourses.

I really appreciate how McCall proposes this critical question when evaluating the historical value of a game: “how else might the designers have reasonably and more consistently with the historical record represented a particular historical feature in the game components and systems that realize this problem space?” McCall takes into account the reality that a specific problem space must be selected, and no one problem space (or history) can be a comprehensive representation of the past. McCall goes on to observe that:

“…components that portray some aspect of the past that thematically happens to fit well within the overall problem space will be more likely to portray that past element in accordance with the historical record. Components, on the other hand, portraying some aspect of the past that does not fit as well within the overall problem space are more likely to portray that past element in distorted or overly simplistic ways. So, for example, a fast-paced simple economic and battleground RTS problem space is a better fit with components whose historical content focuses on wars and economic development; it will be a more awkward fit representing historical content about, say, peaceful meditative practices.”

McCall’s observations are very true. As indicated above, a game adhering to an FPS genre will not necessarily excel at depicting diplomacy. Likewise, a game in the horror/adventure genre like Dream of Darkness might not necessarily show the intricacies of Aztec combat. We are rapidly finding that this is largely a result of both limited time and resources, and the necessary act of all history to select, magnify, and abstract elements of the historical based on the historical arguments they wish to explore.

Jeremiah: Selection of sources, “facts”, details is the critical aspect that makes all history an interpretation. And you folks are doing that, which is why it’s important to recognize that what you are doing is history, gamic history! And we’re so excited that you are doing that! What could be better from a historical game studies perspective than a game so carefully thought out in its historical connections and selections? All of this encourages rather than stifles discussion!

Tamika, OP: I will write more about our recent process of prioritizing which elements need to adhere to the historical record most strongly. In short: it’s the opposite process to what most other game studios do. 😉

Is the HPS useful from a developer perspective?

So, to conclude, are developers essentially already using the historical problem space to design their games? Perhaps! They may not be thinking about it explicitly, but the process is remarkably similar. Could we make better, more historically valuable games if we thought more explicitly about the historical implications of our own selected and designed ‘problem spaces’? Almost certainly!

Developers are thinking more like historians, and historians are thinking more like developers. Exciting! Are you keen to forge ahead with us into this unknown territory?

If you’ve read all this and made it this far, I bet you’re an incredibly cool and smart person who knows their way around both a controller and an academic text. We like you already! Pop your email in the box below so we can make friends with you, and so you can become part of our mission to achieve full collaboration between devs and scholars.

Jeremiah: I look forward to learning more from you, Tamika! Thank you again and the Dreams of Darkness team, for fostering such productive discussion and designing a gamic work of history as labor of love!

Tamika: Thank you, Jeremiah, for offering such insightful and illuminating commentary on our work! This is really worth its weight in gold for us as developers (or developer-historians!) trying to make a meaningful historical game. This has been a great discussion – let’s do a Part 2 sometime for sure!

Jeremiah: I’ve learned a lot from this discussion and it’s always a pleasure to explore these ideas. By all means, let’s continue !

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