In just over a week, you’ll be able to wander through the ninth-century palace of Quierzy (in modern-day France), interviewing historical figures about the real-life suspicious death of an abbot called Walahfrid. You’ll try to get an audience with King Charles the Bald, encounter the egos of rockstar churchmen and sneak down to the prison to speak with the accused heretic monk Gottschalk (great name, I know).
This will all be in our prototype interactive fiction game, The Death of Walahfrid, an experimental piece of public history which is being released for beta-testing through the York Festival of Ideas in early June. The aim of the game is to make the past a bit more playable, to really give people the chance to interact with history, rather than just read or hear about it. What better way to get to grips with the complex and dangerous interweaving of politics and theology in the early Middle Ages than to have to navigate it yourself? Next week’s blog post will go into a bit more detail about the history behind the game’s narrative, but right now we just want to give a little bit of background about how and why two medieval scholars found themselves developing a text-based game.
For years now, we (that’s Lauren and Robert) have been interested in doing public history. We know that the Middle Ages are intriguing, multi-faceted, sophisticated, brutal, romantic, thrilling, dangerous and funny, and we wanted to do something which really engaged people with that vibrant reality and allowed them to experience it a bit. We tried blogging and podcasting and planning talks, but nothing really stuck. After a long time scouring our brains for a really interactive something which we could make ourselves, we were inspired to take the leap into games by Castle, Forest, Island, Sea from the Open University. This text adventure game takes you through a surreal fantasy world while teaching you about key philosophical debates – if you’re interested, you can have a go at it here: https://www2.open.ac.uk/openlearn/philosophy/castle-forest-island-sea.html). By playing these debates through, you get to grips with the philosophy so much better than if you just read about it, and this was exactly the sort of thing we were after.
The ability for games or game-like elements to improve learning is well known and is well implemented in school environments – just look up “game-based learning” or “gamification in education” to see what we mean. But while the use of games is growing in the classroom, it’s rare in public academia. You may have heard about Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey with their educational modes which are signed off by experts in Egyptology and the Classics, but these are still additions to a game that was not created primarily in order to make academic research more accessible. You don’t find many games, particularly in the Humanities, whose design develops out of an area of academic research, with the explicit purpose of sharing ideas and engaging a general audience.
This has meant that making The Death of Walahfrid has been a huge learning curve for us – not least because we had to learn how to code a game from scratch in Inform 7, a natural programming language created specifically for interactive fiction. Along the way, we’ve been grappling with some key questions. Is it possible to tell history through game? How can we make historical narratives both exciting and accurate? What contribution can games make to public history?
We’re excited to be able to explore these questions by beta-testing the game through the Festival of Ideas. We hope that players will give their feedback, telling us what they like and what can be improved and giving us some insight into how playing the past makes it more accessible. You can also come and join our live Q&A session on 12 June, where we’ll be answering questions on the game development process. Just go to https://yorkfestivalofideas.com/2021/calendar/death-walahfrid/ to book and we look forward to seeing you there!