When Creative Assembly started work on the next Total War game, they decided they wanted to tell a story around the exploits of one man. As you know, they decided to go with Napoleon. We asked them why him and not, for example, Hitler.
The Creative Assembly’s Kieran Brigden told me that Napoleon: Total War represents something of a sea change for the veteran series, which launched with Shogun nearly ten years ago and has seen Medieval, Rome and Empire follow, along with various sequels and expansion packs. They want to tell the story of Napoleon, the man, through Total War, rather than the more generic period of time we’ve become used to in the series.
“We knew we wanted to have more of a narrative base and tell a story about one person,” says Brigden. “But the Total War games are always focused on an entire era. So it almost came about by accident when we were getting to the end of Empire and researching different generals, we thought, hang on, Napoleon’s a pretty big character, you know. He wasn’t just a general, he was an emperor of a country that defined an entire region and era. It suddenly made sense. He ticked all our criteria and we knew we had our guy who could tell a story.”
In more prosaic terms, that means they’ve split the game into three full campaigns. First, the Italian campaign which sees Napoleon take his first military command and finds himself fighting against the Austrians in northern Italy in a post-Revolution France. Second, the African campaign which sees Napoleon march his army into Egypt. Third, there’s the grand European campaign that defined Napoleon’s career and where France is at its most mighty and powerful against all the other nations of Europe.
Brigden continues: “He’s the last major figure really – with the exception of Hitler since, and Alexander and Caesar before him – who links himself to the destination of a whole nation and then influences all of Europe as a result. He really does rank up amongst the great generals to leaders to superpowers. The story of France is the story of Napoleon.”
I asked Brigden if it’s likely we would ever see Hitler: Total War. It was a jokey, throwaway question that I hadn’t prepared and, even as I said it, didn’t expect to be given serious consideration. I was wrong.
“I doubt that,” says Brigden, chuckling. “If we were to do a Total War game in the Second World War it would be based around the whole war, not just one character. Mein Kampf: Total War wouldn’t really work!”
But he didn’t stop there. Later in the chat, the prospect of a World War II Total War game was raised again. I found Brigden’s answer to be fascinating.
“Here’s the thing about World War II, you’re talking really quick warfare, you’re talking about rolling across whole countries, so how do we adapt the Total War mechanics to account for that?” he asks.
“In addition, Total War has never really shied away from actual history, even when it’s difficult and embarrassing and tough to face up to. What do you do with something like Nazi Germany? Do you let players build concentration camps? You know, how do you deal with the historical aspects of the ultimate solution? There’s a lot in there which is really quite tricky stuff.
“But to give it the Total War treatment, we aren’t using kid gloves when it comes to history. If we did something like World War II or even Vietnam, we’d want to do it in a realistic way, we’d want to find a way of treating those mechanics. The way Total War works is that you can choose any faction that could have won – and the Germans could have won – so you can play as Germany. Then what do we do, do we reward the player for changing the government from National Socialism to a Democratic Republic or whatever? It’s hard because you don’t want to imply moral judgement. It’s all about historical accuracy and when you start implying that this was bad and that was good, you have to reward players or penalise them for those things.
“We’ve got a load of WWII historical fans at the Creative Assembly, they build model tanks, the play the board games and we’re obviously big fans of games like Company of Heroes. There’s a big contingent within the team that would love to do a WWII game, but if we do it we have to do it right.”
He’s right, though I’m struggling to imagine how you could possibly do it right. There are plenty of WWII games out there, and plenty of WWII strategy games that approach the subject very seriously. But few – if any – have been willing to tackle the difficult questions an authentic WWII game would have to ask. Luke wrote yesterday about the many different stories video games have yet to tell about World War II. But perhaps there are also new angles to take on the stories we thought we’d already told.