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‘Assassin’s Creed: Origins’ and How Gaming Taught Me History

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Ubisoft’s announcement that Assassin’s Creed: Origins will contain an educational Discovery Tour mode has sparked a lot of controversy in recent weeks, but players seem to broadly agree on one point: that games are uniquely suited to bring such worlds to life, and the effort that goes into their detail is worth appreciation. Whether non-combat modes threaten the status of game difficulty or not, it has been uplifting to see players welcome a bid for historical accuracy and authenticity in the games we play. The Assassin’s Creed series has always had a special relationship with the annals of history, blurring the lines between real historical figures, geographic locations, and famous events, with conspiracy theory plots, secret organizations, and even the interference of the gods in our daily lives.

Yet armed with the Animus and its Database of real historic information Assassin’s Creed has long highlighted how games are uniquely suited to allow players the visceral experience of stepping back in time and exploring a new world. Origins seeks to take the next step forward, with a Discovery Tour mode populating the world with ‘dozens of interactive tours curated by historians and Egyptologists’, players will have access to a wealth of sourced information ranging from lessons in mummification, to the life of Cleopatra. It’s a bold move to add educational non-gameplay elements to such a popular triple-A franchise, and the game’s creative director, Jean Guesdon, admits that they ‘hope that teachers will seize this opportunity’, and that ‘many more people than just players can benefit’ from the new mode.

But why would a studio choose to accept such heavy responsibilities for a move that has nothing to do with gameplay, or even necessarily story? I believe the answer lies in an acknowledgment of the reality of players’ relationships to the games they play.

Games, educational or not, have always been a source for learning and inspiration for the generations of children (and adults) that play them. Looking back at the games I played growing up it’s not hard to see that I was unwittingly learning about history, geography, religion, or even economics, and the more I rediscover how games have shaped my interests today the more I agree that games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins have a debt of authenticity towards the worlds they depict, and the players they inspire.

Some Unconventional Course Material

I first noticed how games had set me up with a knowledge of odd miscellanea during secondary school, in a class where the topic of runes somehow came up, and it came out that I was the only one in the room who had heard of them before. Strange as it seemed then, it made me suddenly aware of the fact that while I been playing Runescape and being at home in worlds inspired by Norse mythology the rest of my class had had very little reason to ever come across the subject. Of course, I didn’t have a comprehensive knowledge of runic lore, and my classmates would undoubtedly come across the topic sooner or later, but it was the first in a long list of areas gaming had tutored me in without my ever being the wiser. From battle tactics to fantasy lore, gaming has long proven itself an unlikely gateway to information about ancient cultures and rare arcana.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins isn’t the only game delving into ancient Egypt

The more I consider how many concepts games introduced me to, the more I realize that my formal education was wholly lacking in some areas. Taking ancient Egypt as an example: a subject we never even brushed on in my history classes, my understanding of the topic could so easily have been nothing more than a vague amalgamation of biblical stories and Disney channel representations. Lucky for me, I had a copy of Pharaoh, a strategy game published by Sierra in 1999, where players delve into the world of ancient Egypt to build thriving cities on the banks of the river Nile.

With the same lofty aspirations as Assassin’s Creed: OriginsPharaoh spans nearly twenty centuries of Egyptian history, from the pre-dynastic period to the new kingdom, as the building of pyramids gives way to the wars with the Roman Octavian. Pharaoh taught me about irrigation and the vital importance of the Nile to early Egyptian settlements, about ancient gods and ritual rites of death, and about a tireless civilization that wrought sphinxes into being and birthed the Library of Alexandria. Toiling in the sands of Egypt lit a fire in my mind that led me to devour documentaries and books on the Egyptians, despite my lacking formal education. Yet I am sure I was not alone in being inspired by Pharaoh, and it certainly wasn’t the only game that pushed me towards an interest in ancient history.

From the Annals of History to an Age of Mythology

The massively popular real-time strategy game Age of Empires is fondly remembered for a campaign mode that jumped through fascinating revolutions of history, but I was an even bigger fan of its spin-off series Age of Mythology. Though the campaigns hero, Arkantos, hero of Atlantis, was entirely fictional, his exploits across Greek, Norse, and Egyptian myths enveloped me in a world of legends, all of which were new and exciting. Arkantos sieges Troy, rescues Odysseus from the enchantress Circe, resurrects Egyptian gods, reforges Mjolnir, and rises back from more than one underworld. Frankly, it’s a wonder the Templars aren’t involved. Age of Mythology may have been completely departed from reality, but it sparked my imagination and began to familiarize me with a whole host of beliefs and cultures that I’d never encountered before.

In school, meanwhile, my education in mythology was completed within a single hour-long religion lesson that consisted of an A4 sheet of paper explaining everything I needed to know about Greek, Norse, and Egyptian mythology. I should be thankful that we even looked at religions outside of Christianity in that subject, but even as a child, and largely thanks to the games I’d played, I was incredibly sad that we didn’t spend more time with the likes of Odysseus and Ajax.

From this Early Cradle of Civilization on Towards the Stars

Bitter as I may be, the story of my lackluster education in history is ultimately a happy one, because it didn’t end with secondary school and it likely never will. As time has gone by, the seeds planted by these early games have led me to books, lectures, and museums that have only continued to feed a passion for history. Most recently I attended an exhibit at The British Museum in London about the history of the Scythians: a nomadic people whose tribes ruled the Siberian steppes with fearsome armies of mounted archers. Why did I decide to go? I hadn’t heard of the Scythians until the rather more recent release of Civilization VI. Yet Firaxis’ depiction of the fearless Scythian Queen Tomyris, coupled with her AI’s notably aggressive early-game tactics, introduced me once again, this time as an adult, to a chapter of history that was new, captivating, and worth exploring.

Seeing the Scythians marked in stone and gold made me realize how much influence games can have over our interests and education outside the world of pixels and high-scores, and if I can take so much inspiration from early games about history and mythology I can only imagine what new generations are finding in the murky streets of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate or the Roman temples of Brotherhood.

What’s Past is Prologue

I’ve talked a lot about games inspired by ancient history and mythology, but there are just as many which teach players about economics, trade, or even business management. With so many differing depictions I think Ubisoft are right to step up to the challenge of authentic representation. This is not to say that Assassin’s Creed can’t feature a few historically inaccurate liaisons with Cleopatra or the odd conversation with the goddess Juno, but where a game takes up the role of depicting a real culture and history they have a responsibility to authenticity.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is taking an admirable step in bringing games that much closer to being living exhibits of accurate and interactive information. Of course, we’ll always want the fun of challenging gameplay and the madness of a typical Assassin’s Creed story, but the addition of a separate Discovery Tour mode will bring so many more resources to the hands of players who might be witnessing the world of ancient Egypt for the first time. In many ways, games began my education in history, and if games can awaken a love of history and mythology in others as they have done me, then I can see Assassin’s Creed: Origins going on to stand the test of time.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins launches on October 27th, and its Discovery Tour mode will be released in early 2018.

Helen Jones is a Ravenclaw graduate who likes to apparate between her homes in England and Denmark. She spends her time reading fantasy novels, climbing mountains, and loves to play story-focused and experimental indie games like The Stanley Parable or Night in the Woods. She also covers tabletop and board games over at Zatu Games, and you can follow her twitter @BarnacleDrive for updates, blogs, and pictures of mushrooms.

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This Heart’s on Fire: ‘Death Stranding’ and Heartman

‘Death Stranding’ has no shortage of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is the eccentric Heartman.

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Death Stranding Heartman

*This article contains spoilers up to and including Chapter 8 of Death Stranding*

Over the course of Hideo Kojima’s wildly ambitious Death Stranding there are a whole cavalcade of intriguing and intoxicating characters for players to meet and acquaint themselves with. From the guy with the weird goalie mask to the lady with the magical umbrella, there is no shortage here of your standard Kojima weirdos but one that almost no one is talking about is Heartman.

Portrayed by writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn, best known for Drive, Heartman brings the game to a dead halt when you finally meet him face to face in chapter 8 but the reprieve comes as a welcome comfort to the player. Having just crossed a treacherous mountain range and survived a second trip to Clifford Unger’s war-torn beach, most players will welcome a little down time, and Heartman is there to provide it.

Death Stranding
It’s immediately clear that Heartman’s home is something special from the moment Sam walks through the door. Lit with a ring of holographic fire, the foyer of the mansion is immediately welcoming in the hostile environment of the snowy mountains. However, it also has a sort of clinical detachment to it. This is by design, as reality for Heartman is merely a distraction — downtime to be filled.

Yes, Heartman comes with the tragic backstory players will no doubt be expecting but, like most of them in Death Stranding, his is a real treat. Delivered partly through voiceover and partly through flashback, Heartman reveals how he lost his family to a terrorist attack while in the hospital for a heart operation. When he flatlined during the operation, though, he was able to find them on the beach before being whisked away back to reality.

Obsessed with finding them again and joining them, Heartman now spends his life in 24 minute intervals: 21 minutes of life, 3 minutes of death. Every 21 minutes Heartman journeys to the beach by flatlining himself with a personal AED, only to be resurrected 3 minutes later. During those 3 minutes though, where time is altered by the elastic effect of the Death Stranding, he seeks out his family and makes observations on how the beaches and the after life work.

Death Stranding
Bizarre as all of this is, it makes Heartman a truly fascinating character. Since his life is mainly confined to 21 minutes at a time, he has collected hundreds of books, movies, and albums which can be experienced during that tiny window of time. His study is brimming with them, stacked on the ceiling high bookshelves that surround his work area. Also in the study are eerie recreations of frozen corpses, old family photos, and a host of other curiosities, each of which will earn the player likes from Heartman for noticing them.

Of course, this is the most interesting part of the meeting. As Heartman continues to explain his theories, a counter occasionally appears in the bottom corner of the screen, showing how long Heartman has before he will flatline again. When the moment of truth finally comes, he lays himself down on a chaise lounge, turns over a golden hourglass and dies before your eyes. As the Funeral March begins playing from an old record player, Sam must keep himself busy for 3 minutes while he waits for Heartman to return to the land of the living. It’s a truly brilliant moment, as a counter appears in the bottom corner again, and the player must simply take in Heartman’s eccentric home from a first person perspective for 3 minutes uninterrupted.

What would be boring as sin under the wrong direction becomes a welcome moment for the player to just sit and absorb this strange, yet comforting, place. Then, after three minutes have elapsed, Heartman reawakens and picks up from where he left off as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. He even breaks the 4th wall as he continues to talk, swatting away the timer when it appears on screen again and adding likes to your counter in real time.


There’s really nothing like the meeting with Heartman in all of Death Stranding — but then, there’s nothing like Death Stranding really in the realm of gaming either. With its long periods of walking between haunted destinations and its deliberately cryptic mythology, the game is like a series of tone poems and intellectual treatises mashed together into a post-apocalyptic courier sim.

Heartman then, with his heart-shaped lake and pink-lit study, is just one more piece of Kojima’s mad puzzle here but what a piece he is. Who would have thought the most normal looking member of Death Stranding‘s bewildering cast would end up also being one of its most interesting? Certainly not this writer. Still, Heartman and his eerie, purgatorial existence make for one of the nicest surprises in the game.

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Five Best New Pokémon Designs from ‘Pokémon Sword and Shield’

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Much like Pokémon Sun and Moon before, Pokémon Sword and Shield is an adventure full of fascinating surprises. Some of those many surprises across the Galar region are the new pokémon you will come up against. While many of the designs in the eighth generation were a sorry sight to behold, here are five that should stand the test of time as welcome additions to the ever-growing franchise.

Flapple

When I first encountered an Applin, there was a stark realization across my mind that Pokémon had ran out of ideas. Here I was, with my then Sobble, about to fight an apple with eyes. It was about as baffling as the ice cream cone back in Black and White, which looked as if it was designed by a child. But for not the first time, I was wrong, and instead of becoming three apples or a pear, Applin actually has a fantastic evolutionary journey.

Throw a sweet apple at Applin, and it’ll evolve into a Appletun, which is an interesting evolution in its own right. But when you throw a tart apple in its direction, it evolves into something so much better, with the result becoming the Flapple we see above. A tiny dragon using the broken apple it burst out of to flap around in the air is a creative concept to say the least, and certainly helped to change my early judgement on the apple core pokémon.

Sirfetch’d

Farfetch’d has been an unfortunate pokémon ever since its illustrious debut on Pokémon Red and Blue. A weak pokémon that was rare by virtue of being delicious, Farfetch’d has been a pokédex filler ever since. Luckily, in the Galar region, the Farfetch’d are a little more feisty, with a new typing to match.

With a little patience and a shovel of goof fortune, you can evolve your Galarian form Farfetch’d into Sirfetch’d if you manage to deal three critical hits in one battle. The odds are increased if you catch a Farfetch’d holding a leek, and then further increased at level 55 when your Farfetch’d learns leaf blade. For what it’s worth, the hard work does pay off. Sirfetch’d is a fantastic design and suits the theme of Pokémon Sword and Shield honorably. The evolution that Farfetch’d always needed has been worth the two decade wait.

Galarian Corsola

For all the demonic ghost pokédex entries and back stories, the Galarian form Corsola hits most close to home. While the change is largely a new colour and a sad face, the reasoning can be a little more tragic.

There are no secrets about the destruction of the coral reefs across the world due to climate change. It only takes a change of a degree in temperature for the coral to expel the algae that gives them their unique colouring and become the bleached white. While the coral isn’t dead immediately, if left in that state, it does eventually starve to death. Hence Galarian form Corsola represents more than the sum of its parts, and its a clever message Game Freak has left in Pokémon Sword and Shield about the destruction of our ocean ecosystems.

Grapploct

Ever since Hawlucha, I have a bias towards Mexican wrestling pokémon. They’re fantastic. Clobbopus and Grapploct are no exception, and the only reason I’ve chosen Grapploct over Clobbopus is because of way Grapploct swam like a hungry Olympic swimmer to announce my destruction.

While its base stats are actually average, the confidence it showed to pursue me on my journey across the sea certainly left a stain. The design of Grapploct itself is so consistent with fighting type pokémon that it’s one of the least lazy designs in Pokémon Sword and Shield, and for all the prayers to Arceus, there are some hopelessly lazy designs in this generation.

Corviknight

This is going to be huge statement that might rile up a number of pokémon fans, but for me, Corviknight is the best designed bird pokémon. The whole concept fits the brief, from the armour on its head, to its seamless fit into the inspiration behind the region.

It’s no secret that the Galar region was inspired by England, from the train system to the architecture, there are pieces of Ol’ Blighty everywhere in Pokémon Sword and Shield. Some of those influences are seen in the pokémon themselves, and none express that more than Corviknight. The raven has a lot of folklore behind it, particularly its presence in the Tower of London. It is said that if the ravens were to leave the tower, then the destruction of England is imminent. As such, not only does Corviknight look like a formidable bird pokémon, it actually has a clever reason behind its design.

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‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still as Difficult, Demanding and Amazing to This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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