Fake history will teach us even less

Confession time: even though I’ve a degree in History, I’m actually pretty okay with films, books and games that aren’t above playing around with historical facts. I quite enjoyed how the Assassin’s Creed games gave the Middle Ages, the Renaissane and revolutionary America the Dan Brown treatment, pretty much deciding that everything’s better with a healthy dollop of conspiracy theory. If you’re telling a story, don’t let history get in the way too much of what works and what doesn’t work in storytelling. Let’s face it, more often than not history has pretty bad plotting, even if there may be good overall ideas.

Bang, bang... or: Everybody's got the right to their dream.

Nevertheless, Das Attentat: Sarajevo 1914 the TV movie produced and shown by the ZDF, one of Germany’s two national public-service broadcasters, made me angry. It didn’t help that the film mistook having an earnest tone for having something to say, and that it became duller as it tried to ratchet up the tension. What bothered me most, though, was this: here we’ve got a film shown on the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the act that triggered the First World War. It’s produced by national television, which comes at least with an implicit stamp of officiality. Its tone suggests that it purports to be important. Yet, and that’s the thing that stings, it’s largely a fabrication, a piece of historical revisionism. The set dressing is nicely historical, but the story that claims the assassination to have been orchestrated by German and Austrian military, government and, most importantly, industrials is silly hogwash.

It’s also unnecessary hogwash: the European elites by and large were rearing to have a go at their enemies after a century that was rife with conflict over nations, resources and colonies. Did the German government want the war? Very likely yes, but that is true for pretty much every major government at the time. Yet the film’s writers decided they wanted a different story, one of the fin de siècle Military-Industrial complex, though only the German one, manipulating things to their own capitalist ends. While I sympathise with the politics, what bothers me is this: the film was placed to look like an officially endorsed rendition of historical events in good faith. I don’t think the ZDF or the film makers consciously wanted to mislead people, but history syllabi being what they are I doubt that most people in the audience know, or care, enough to question Sarajevo 1914‘s version of what happened to see it as a “What if?” scenario.

Historical Revisionism

And that, to me, makes this different from many other examples of historical fiction that takes liberties with the source material. Games of “What if?” are most fun if you know how they change history to tell a different story, they pretty much depend on the historical foil. Alternatively, history is full of question marks, and there’s a lot of space to present different takes on what happened – I’m by no means looking for an official, monolithical History, seeing as I’m a big believer in multiple lower-case histories that form capital-H History with all their gaps, contradictions and ambiguities. But presenting utter invention with the veneer of authenticity and official truth? Perhaps I’m not the only one who finds this problematic, actually – the ZDF followed the premiere of Sarajevo 1914 with a documentary that looked at the causes and motivations behind the assassination, and they were presented to be considerably more murky and less black-and-white than the fictional version suggested. Still, realistically speaking: how many people stuck around to watch the documentary, which didn’t even contain a completely made up, generic love story to spice up the tale of murder and intrigue?

Then again, while I’m being jaded and cynical: how many people watched the first minute of Sarajevo 1914 and thought they’d rather watch something modern – where 90% of the men don’t wear big, bushy moustaches?

As that noted philosopher once said...

Shredding geeks

Many gamers are looking for one semi-mythic, intangible quality in games: immersion. It’s basically the ineffable property of making you forget that you’re sitting in front of a computer screen or TV, grasping a gamepad or a mouse, and feel that you’re really there. But, let’s face it, even with the most immersive games you never feel like you’re a mute MIT graduate saving the world with a gun in one hand and a crowbar in the other, or a cyber-ninja special operative infiltrating terrorist strongholds or a Persian prince able to run along steep walls and turn back time. There are worlds between playing FIFA 08 and actually kicking a football – there’s little to no comparison between pressing X or O and propelling a leather ball towards the enemy goal with your foot. Possibly the only game that offers near-absolute immersion is computerised chess, because as if you’re, like, really playing chess!

Okay, enough sarcasm – what I’m getting at is this: there are few games that make you believe you’re really doing what your on-screen avatar is doing. Fair enough, really; there are limits to how much I’d want to believe I’m being shot at by alien armies while killer zombies are trying to chew my frontal lobe. And I definitely don’t want to believe I’m actually playing football at Wembley Stadium.

There is a game (or several games, by now) that gives you a fairly convincing illusion that you’re actually doing the thing you’re playing, and that game is called Guitar Hero. I’ve had it for a while, but I’ve only recently started to play it again. And it’s great fun. Looked at objectively, it should be a humiliating experience: you stand there holding a plastic toy shaped like a Gibson guitar, pressing colour buttons and strumming a white bar in sync with popular rock songs. You’re as close to rock stardom as Third French Lord in an amateur production of Henry V is from saying, “And I would like to thank the Academy…”

But, hell, if it isn’t fun… And it does a great job of making you feel like you’re playing complex solos, totally rocking the place, dude! The game mainly works because the rock songs used make for surprisingly good videogame levels. So far, I’ve only made it to the second of four difficulty levels with any success – I’m only using four of the five fret buttons, which means that my hands are in for some pretty bad strain. But the choice of songs is almost perfect: Guitar Hero has everything from ’70s glam rock to ’80s cheese rock (is that a term? it should be!) to 21st century alternative rock. And since I don’t really listen to the radio, it’s this game that has introduced me to the following eminently cool song:

However, there’s a further turn of the screw to my geek joy. I’m very much an old-school gamer – I played games on machines that are practically Etch-a-Sketches compared to a five-year old mobile phone. My first slice of nerd heaven was a Commodore 64, a name that still brings on a hush of awe in the right crowd. The C-64 has been defunct for decades, yet there are insane people still working with them… and this is where I don’t care just how nerdy and geeky I sound, but the following is just distilled nostalgic coolness: