What if we made a video game using the data gathered from the Atlas of a Medieval life project? It’s a simple question, but the answer stretches wide and far and in many directions like a system of a tree’s roots. Some might ask, “why make a video game of all things?” to which I would reply, “why not?” The goal here is to color in the pictures created by asking “what if” and then think about what those pictures might mean and signify. So, in other words, possibly creating a video game based on the data collected from the Atlas of a Medieval life project would allow us to meditate on how we in the present engage with the past on a more theoretical level.
Also, this thought experiment will be fun. Trust me.
In this blog post I would like to pitch three different possible games that a group of dedicated game developers (I’ll try to complicate that term later) could make from the Hereford Cathedral Muniments or Roger de Breynton Life Records. Each game will align with one of the three possible main goals for a group like the one that gathered to embark on the Atlas of a Medieval Life project. The three mini pitches will also include similar existing games within their respective genres and an examination of how a possible Roger de Breynton/Medieval Hereford game might achieve said goals utilizing the structures of that form and genre. Also, the pitches will be divided up by a broad goal.
The first goal is to teach. This game would be educational in nature and its mechanics would need to focus on informing the players about something regarding our data. The second goal is to entertain. Here, we need to focus on players enjoying themselves within whatever we construct utilizing the signifiers of the medieval as either set dressing or major elements of the plot. The third goal is to comment. The game proposed here would try to offer up some form of social critique that could resonate with both players while staying true to the documents we use to create that commentary.
All three game pitches will attempt to think on a micro scale—whether that means in scope, focus, or who gets to be featured. This is partially because I have never designed a full-scale game (whatever that means) and partially because I want us to zoom in on some essential element of that ideal game. If we were to actually make one of these a reality, scaling them up would be a priority, but for now we’ll keep things small.
With so many different paths that one could take on a theoretical project like this, I thought that it might be for the best to lean into that uncertainty. In that regard, the following blog post will use a lot of conditional language—I’m just spitballing here, after all. However, I also want to use this as an opportunity to think through methodology overall. How do we go about achieving our more specific goals—whatever they may be?
The first of those goals that stretches across the three pitches would be invoking medievalism. I would like to consider this highly hypothetical project a further example of participatory medievalism as defined by Daniel T. Kline in his essay “Participatory Medievalism, role playing, and digital gaming.” Kline’s participatory medievalism is “a spectrum of active, embodied encounter that carries participants into created medieval worlds with varying degrees of immersion, yielding the sense of participating in, and even inhabiting, a neomedieval world” (76). He uses the concept to talk about medievalism and gaming which lends itself readily to the work here, however, I would posit that from the position of game developers (which you and I are, for the duration of this blog post, dear reader) we have to think about our game as invitational as well. We are crafting something to encourage people to join the “neomedieval” space of our game and thus should think of elements that will draw in an ideal audience that will then engage with the form of medievalism we create.
The next major goal would be establishing who the “we” included in making this video game happens to be. Are “we” a group of medievalists? People with game development experience? Casual hobbyists? The group gathered for this Atlas of a Medieval Life project itself is already diverse and some of the original plans included having more undergraduate students involved as well. In this way, the “we” determines not only what we can do to produce this game, but also our goals with it. All projects require a statement of purpose of some kind, however, with a video game being produced by a group it is important that the group is on one accord to keep everything moving smoothly.
Before I proceed to the pitches, I have one more concern to raise with regards to my methodology. Here, I want to think through possibilities of ludonarrative dissonance when creating a proverbial Roger de Breynton/Medieval Hereford video game. The term comes from a blog post by Clint Hocking in a 2007 critique of the first game in the Bioshock franchise where he points out that “Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story” and that by “the leveraging of the game’s narrative structure against its ludic structure all but destroys the player’s ability to feel connected to either, forcing the player to either abandon the game in protest… or simply accept that the game cannot be enjoyed as both a game and a story” and are left with a hollow experience from having played the game. The idea of ludonarrative dissonance has grown from that initial post to cover when the mechanics of the game run perpendicular to the story, leaving the two saying or implying different things.
I bring up the concept of ludonarrative dissonance because of some of the games pitched below are not actually about Roger de Breynton. In choosing who or what to feature as the protagonist (or if one was needed at all, for that matter) I had to consider if shifting focus away from Roger himself aligned with our goals with the Atlas of a Medieval life. In the broadest possible terms, this concern is perhaps more ludonarrative dissonance adjacent. However, if we were to develop this game with Roger in mind and pivot away from him, his life, and his movements as central elements, then there would be question of what of Roger—beyond the signifiers of medieval Hereford—were actually part of the process. Furthermore, players could be left—like Hocking—feeling that by being asked to think of a Roger who is only used as an entry point also disconnected to the historical elements we intend to present.
Perhaps it will surprise absolutely no one that I remember the sensation playing of the first video game I ever encountered more than the game itself. My preschool group took our class on a field trip to a mall—it was the nineties, so that was still a novel idea, I guess—and I found myself in an arcade somehow, separated from everyone else. Somehow, I had ended up in front of the only game there that could be played by someone my height without assistance and just stayed in the corner for almost four hours. The game wanted me to match shapes and colors. If I did it correctly, cartoon animals would pop out and sing songs and lights would flash. If I did it incorrectly, cartoon animals would pop up and encourage me to try again. It was a simple and straightforward concept.
However, it bears repeating that I stood at that console for four hours.
It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that I was doing nothing but learning colors and shapes (most of which I already knew at that point), but this was before the major advent of accessible learning games for preschool aged children. Later games like those produced by Jumpstart or even licensed ones like Arthur’s Reading Race would eventually come on the scene, but when I think about educational games, my mind always returns to the color and shape matching.
So let’s say we want to make an educational game about Roger de Breynton. One of the first things we would need to think about is how to make play—whatever type we land on—facilitate learning. In their essay “The Gamefication of Learning, Christian Renaud and Bridgette Wagoner argue that “games offer constant performance feedback that, when aligned closely to learning goals, can … allow students to fail (and learn) without judgment. It is inherent in gaming culture to keep failing until you succeed” which can allow for longevity with whatever game we create (58). The second thing we need to think about are models of other games in the “educational” genre.
One such example would be The Oregon Trail which was originally developed in 1971 and by the turn of the 21st century existed within many people’s minds as The educational video game. In this regard, if we were to make an educational Roger de Breynton game, we should take a cue from Oregon Trail and make it a text-based adventure. To sweeten the pot a bit this game should also include point-and-click adventure elements similar to games of the early JumpStart franchise. I think these generic elements would be important to an educational game because of how they utilize elements familiar to the classroom and learning (reading). As theoretical game developers we have to remember—as Shane Pill points out in his essay “Game Play: What Does It Mean for Pedagogy to Think Like a Game Developer?”—that, “game experience is built on empowerment; empowerment of learners to make things happen… Through problem solving there is a need to make decisions that affect the progression of the game” which gives the players agency to move through both learning and the play space on their own terms (12).
To get a bit more specific, this theoretical game would—like Oregon Trail—be centered around a journey. We the developers could pick a trip that Roger took at some point during his life and craft a narrative around what Roger did going from point A to B. For example, one such trip that might inspire an interesting game would be the one where Roger left the diocese in 1322 to go study abroad. Somehow in the course of this trip, Roger ends up in the company of the soon-to-be king Edward III heading to the court of Charles IV in France.
I would argue that, that is pretty far from Hereford.
This game could detail the path that Roger took with the goal making sure that he survives to the France trip. Like Oregon trail, this game could explore the various pitfalls one could fall into traveling across 14th century England—though perhaps with fewer hazards like suddenly contracting dysentery. Instead, we could have players make choices between when to staying an extra night in one location and moving forward as planned, with a possible consequence of getting caught in a rainstorm.
If you weren’t alive or cognizant during the late nineties, then you probably don’t know about the stranglehold Pokémon had on pop culture. Pokémon Red and Green were released in Japan in 1996 with the English ports Red and Blue following in 1998. The games were revolutionary in ways far too numerous to mention here, but what is important about them is how fun those original games were. The premise was simple: gather little and collect little monsters, have them fight each other, and maybe fight your friends. Back then, gameplay was fairly repetitive, but that was part of what made it fun. For me, the fun came from the threadbare plot. The original Pokémon games didn’t really have one, so you the player had to read story into them. In this regard, the fun came from how we the players moved around testing the limits of that world through those basic, repetitive battle mechanics.
Conversely, a different game we could make would be about life in medieval Hereford. I might want to place this pitch within the farming sim and visual novel genres with a slice of life feel. An easy example of the former would be the indie darling Stardew Valley and an example of the latter would be Hatoful Boyfriend (otherwise known as the pigeon dating simulator). Farming sims and visual novels are quite similar due to how even when they have plots, they usually tend to be driven forward by the player’s relationships to other characters rather than a set progression. In other words, progression is determined by how successfully the player completes their tasks, if at all. In farming sims this manifests as doing quests and growing both produce and your farm while in visual novels this means literally becoming closer and closer to the diverse cast of characters. For a slice of life game about medieval Hereford, I would have our players step into the role of a new clerk at the diocese. Our new clerk—henceforth referred to as PC which is short of player character—has to act as the gopher for other senior clerks around the monastery as they carry out their daily duties.
With this game we would pull from land agreements between a certain time frame to create some of the fetch quests, missions, and people our clerk would need to interact with. Roger would be a featured character—perhaps the one who gives the PC tips and tutorials—but wouldn’t be as important as the various people we would help throughout Hereford. For example, PC might need to gather witnesses for a land agreement and might have to do several mini tasks in order to convince people to show up. Or PC might get sent to survey a plot of land to make sure that it does cover the area the charter says it does, but can’t get there without having a certain social link level with local people who will stop him from progressing otherwise.
Here the fun of this game comes from building up relationships with the various characters across Hereford. We could also include a ranking mechanic that shows how high up we are in either Roger or the Bishop’s eyes to give players something specific to constantly strive for while they focus on the smaller tasks.
In September of 2015 I, like many other people, found myself playing the soon-to-be critically acclaimed Undertale. It was an RPG—role playing game—with a unique mechanic: instead of fighting enemies to the death, you could choose to “spare” them. At first Undertale seemed like a standard RPG with that one twist, but as things quickly progressed so that at the end of the first story route, I realized that something was different. In this game the enemies—the monsters—were just regular people living their lives. If one played this game like a normal RPG, they would end up viciously slaughtering a lot of innocent creatures for no reason other than that they could. At one point in that original route, the ghosts of monsters that you may or may not have killed show up to explain this to you. Needless to say, this one moment in Undertale changed how I interacted with RPGS in the future.
It left me wondering what other things I could have been taking for granted.
The last game we could make might sound a bit like a fusion of the previous two pitches. This third game would seek to make some kind of commentary using medievalism and the format of a video game. The most straightforward example of this would be something like Dragon Age Inquisition which aims to think through how spirituality is mobilized in times of major crisis.
This game should be an RPG as well. It would feature Roger again as a major character and possibly a secondary protagonist to your PC. In this game the PC would be working to navigate the internal politics of the diocese as during the rise of Edward III between 1325 and 1327. There’s a changing political landscape and despite everything, thanks to Roger’s connection to the new king, Hereford is being drawn into everything. To fully utilize the RPG format, we would have the PC doing tasks around the monastery and town in order to “level up” which would give them greater access to information and resources.
The more the PC learns, the more choices they have laid in front of them because their “level” would reflect their degree of influence within the monastery. Here, the internal politics of the monastery and how the PC does or does not rise within the ranks can be used as a parallel between how Edward III ascended to the throne. This game would be much more highly fictionalized because thanks to the genre it needs to have a plot that the PC can interact with and affect. We even might delve into historical fiction or alternative history if we allow for the possibility for the PC to succeed Adam Orleton or take over Roger’s role as errant canon.
Personally, the second pitch is my favorite. While the farming sim/visual novel hybrid would be difficult to get started, utilizing the best of both genres could lead to a much more engaging experience for the players. The former isn’t bound exclusively by plot and, thus, players who just want to relax in the digital Hereford can do that and run errands with minimal interference from the rest of the game. Conversely, players who wish to deepen relationships can interact with the various NPCs while navigating dialogue and quest trees. However, regardless which pitch a theoretical group of game developers might pick, I think this was a useful exercise in imagining ways that data can be used when matched with an appropriate genre. The three pitches have similarities in that they all ask the player to invest themselves in a medieval past, however, with slight changes in genre and format we the developers are able to change to what end–whether that means to teach them about Roger de Breynton himself, let them play in the open sandbox of a digital Hereford, or make changes to the political landscape of 14th century England.