What historical games can learn from Hamilton
How does a triple-A gameplay engineer code monkey peon,
Somehow portray a long-forgotten aeon?
How do you rebuild n’ revive a bygone nation,
Make it feel alive to the Xbox generation?
Yo! Turns out we have a great example,
A musical sensation we’ll look to for a sample.
Its verbal velocity vivisects the body politic,
Games can learn a lot from Broadway’s founding father fan-fic…
“You’re Incredible in Court. You’re Succinct, Persuasive”
Despite being the most innovative historical fiction piece in a decade, Hamilton is at its core a simple Greek tragedy -- the story of a man who rises through his talent, hard work, and refusal back down, then falls for the same reasons.
For a play about a political figure, the stakes in Hamilton are intensely personal. The songs spend more time developing characters and exploring conflicts than they do on Hamilton’s accomplishments. Burr doesn’t shoot Hamilton because the two disagree on policy, he does it because of their deep antipathy -- the drama comes from relationships, not politics.
Consider: there are half a dozen songs about Hamilton’s relationships with women, and only one directly explaining -- in a couple of breezy lines -- his plan for the federal government to assume state debts. Even when Hamilton gets down to the nitty-gritty of exchanging the debt plan for the capitol, “The Room Where It Happens” is mostly about Hamilton’s pivot away from idealism and Burr’s longing for power. This isn’t a West Wing-style issue examination, it’s an exploration of how and why an extraordinary person made his mark on the world.
Hamilton, ironically, cuts out large parts of its central character’s life. The musical breezes through important information and simplifies a great deal. For example, it neglects to mention that Hamilton was Inspector General and Senior Officer of the U.S. Army during the Quasi-War with France. It minimizes his multi-year undermining of the Adams Administration and his push to capture Spanish colonies. The story itself takes place entirely in the New York region, with major events in Philadelphia and Boston only mentioned via sly references. Hell, Hamilton was quartered at Valley Forge and crossed the Delaware and the show doesn’t even mention it. That got cut.
And -- History Degree forgive me -- the show’s way, way better for it. All that stuff has nothing to do with Hamilton’s meteoric rise and tragic fall. It adds nothing to his feud with Burr or self-destructive ambition. Hamilton gives us a focused story that serves up everything we need and little we don’t.
Contrast that with, say, the Assassin’s Creed III, which often takes huge diversions into material that doesn’t serve the plot. At its worst, the game feels like a revolutionary Forrest Gump, with Ratonhnhaké:ton blundering into every major event of the war. And though a lack of focus is almost inevitable in an open-world game, these diversions effectively hamstrung the personal side of the narrative, burying the driving motivations under historical detail. The tradeoff was a large amount of historical detail, but detail doesn’t help if it’s confusing and unfocused. To this day, the franchise struggles with the balance between storytelling and historical background.
1979 Revolution: Black Friday does a better job in that regard. By zeroing in on one person’s limited experience, the game uses a personal story to reveal the causes, questions, and compromises of the revolution rather than taking you on a tour of the big events. Like Hamilton, it tells you only what you need to know in order to understand the narrative and give it emotional heft.
“Every Action’s an Act of Creation!”
Hamilton knows it’s a musical -- and takes advantage of that with every song, every rhyme, and every showman’s trick it can muster. It draws strength from what it is.
Press and fans have paid a lot of attention to the fact that Hamilton utilizes hip hop and rap as the sound of the Revolution, and for good reason. Hip hop fits well with the Revolutionary setting because, at heart, the founding fathers were writers and orators, people who changed the world with ink as much as lead. Rap uses verbal dexterity to express this in contemporary style, while also providing incredible information density to flesh out the backstory.
However, while focusing on the hip hop style, fans have overlooked how dependent this story is on the medium -- Hamilton could only work as a musical. Only in musical theater could you cram so many points of view into 2.5 hours. Were this a film or traditional play, characters would constantly interrupt each other or hide their motives. Realist drama doesn’t take kindly to long monologues that parade a character’s innermost thoughts, desires, and struggles in front of the audience -- but in musicals, it’s normal to dive inside a character’s head. Imagine Hamilton without that ability. You’d lose “Helpless” and “Satisfied,” not to mention “Wait for It,” and “The Room Where it Happens.” We couldn’t see Hamilton grapple with his thoughts in “Hurricane.” Sure, you could do it in a book, but with nowhere near the panache -- if you don’t believe me, go read the excellent (but less quotable) Ron Chernow biography.
More than that, Hamilton being a musical increases audience engagement. One reason fans continue to obsess over the soundtrack is that they can easily listen to it over and over, discovering new layers and points of view. Unlike a film or book, you can examine it while cooking or on a treadmill, unearthing out-of-place references and double meanings you never noticed before. It’s literature that’s convenient and pleasurable to re-read. Without the hip hop style and medium of a Broadway musical, it would lose that -- and who knows if it would’ve become so big.
In other words, Hamilton works because it’s a seamless marriage of story, style and medium -- just as the best historical games are.
Historical games tend to work best when they leverage gameplay to depict the period. Consider Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, a game built around the gap between myth and reality in the Old West. The game’s narrative conceit is that the action isn’t happening live, but in a drunken bar story told by a washed-up bounty hunter. As other patrons ask the narrator questions or challenge his story’s veracity, he corrects himself or clarifies, causing the terrain to shift under the player’s feet. Meanwhile, players find collectable “Nuggets of Truth” that provide the actual stories behind dime novel bandits -- like Billy the Kid -- that serve as the story’s larger-than-life villains. Thus, the game’s narrative isn’t in itself good history, but it has a lot to say about American tall tales, and how the public quickly mythologized and romanticized the West. It’s a story that could only be told in an interactive format.
Similarly, Civilization provides an almost perfect mechanics-as-metaphor interpretation of how societies develop. It shows the building blocks of human development (if you want cities, you need agriculture) while treating intellectual concepts as their own, revolutionary form of technology. At its best, it also puts paid to myths that still dog public understanding of human culture. For example, just because monotheism “comes after” polytheism doesn’t make it “more advanced” -- it’s simply a route some societies take. Civilization leverages games’ greatest strength, the ability to experiment and get different results, to depict how humanity could’ve easily gone another path. It breaks the myth that history was a straight-line march to the present day.
Indeed, though I’ve picked on Assassin’s Creed games in this article, they do allow players to explore historical landscapes in a way that’s only possible in an interactive medium. And though it only applied the connection five games in, Far Cry Primal has a near-perfect set of mechanics to portray the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
“Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”
Hamilton teaches a few key things about the Revolution -- a staggering amount in two hours, frankly -- but it’s no substitute for articles, lectures, and books. Yet despite this, it’s triggered an upwelling of popular interest in the Revolutionary War. Visits to the Hamilton house have exploded, and the paperback of Ron Chernow’s biography -- that inspired the musical -- has now spent 37 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Hamilton is the show that launched a thousand Wikipedia searches.
This phenomenon is tangential learning at its best. Hamilton has gotten people excited enough to self-educate though seeking out information on its key figures, building extensive Genius commentaries and flocking to historical sources. The show incentivizes this behavior by referencing information that’s not in the production itself, essentially offering a riddle listeners can solve via research. For example, when Hercules Mulligan says he’s “got all y’all knuckleheads in loco parentis,” it doesn’t make much sense in the context of the show. Is he just older, and a parent figure? Is he the earthy voice of practicality among these dreamers?
Then you run a Google search and find that, in fact, Hamilton lived as a student lodger in Mulligan’s house -- and it was Mulligan who recruited Hamilton for the revolutionary cause. The production contains hundreds of these historical Easter eggs, some more meaningful than others.
Dirty secret: the point of historical fiction isn’t to teach history, it’s to inspire you to learn on your own. A film, novel, or musical will never give you as much historical understanding as a nonfiction book, but it may convince you to pick that book up in the first place. And Hamilton accomplishes this with aplomb.
Many games, by contrast, deliver these learning opportunities via an in-game database, letting the interested players deep-dive into historical information while others shrug and move on. I’m a fan of databases, but regardless of whether a game has one, developers should never underestimate the power of a minor aside.
Hamilton is sublime because -- even when Lin-Manuel Miranda’s research couldn’t fit in the lyrics -- it still influenced the show. Take “My Shot,” where Hamilton and his friends get drunk while bragging about their future as revolutionaries. Now, does this song explicitly state that taverns were a center of radical politics in early America? It does not.
But is it clear that Miranda knew this fact, and it guided how he wrote the scene? You bet. And while that’s not important plot information, even that subtle hat tip makes Hamilton a deeper experience.
If you’re a developer, don’t just put knowledge on display with a database -- weave it into the fabric of the narrative.
“I’d Rather Be Divisive Than Indecisive”
Funny thing about the founding fathers -- if you read a Hamilton biography, Jefferson and John Adams are villains. Read a John Adams biography, and Hamilton’s the villain. Read a Jefferson biography, and it’ll say he was the real intellectual hero. The irony is that America was a nation built on compromise, and it arguably needed these extreme personalities in order to hammer out an enduring middle ground.
And yet, and yet, there’s nothing wrong with Hamilton’s decision to be partisan. Contrasting the financially inclined, northern-influenced, abolitionist immigrant with the slaveholding agrarian plantation-owning Jefferson is one of the musical’s strongest second act motifs. And it works. It’s not even-handed, but it does reveal a different side to Jefferson than we usually encounter in both fiction and history.
Hamilton, after all, is a story about your obedient servant, A-dot-Ham -- and Jefferson and Burr are going to be the antagonists in that story. Only fair.
In fact, I wish more historical games would take a stand and plant their flag. Lately there’s been a tendency, especially in the Assassin’s Creed series, to construct stories that are evenhanded to a fault. Think Assassin’s Creed: Unity, where the ancien regime comes off as incompetent and oppressive, but the revolutionaries seem like a bloodthirsty mob who’re just as bad. It was hard to walk away from that game without feeling like it had a counter-revolutionary message, partially because it didn’t highlight how extensively the state used violence before the Revolution, or the legacies the Revolution left behind even after it went sour. Equivocation can be a fair position, but I put down the controller a little perplexed at Unity’s refusal to embrace the positive impacts the French Revolution had on the world.
Likewise, Hamilton’s treatment of race and diversity in early America charts a bold departure from media that’s often less confrontational. Its diverse casting aside, the threat of slavery pervades show’s lyrics, forming a dark undercurrent to its story of freedom. References to race and bondage aren’t central to the plot, but regular interjections remind the audience that, beneath the surface, another question of liberation is going unaddressed. At the same time, the show highlights the contributions of women like Eliza and Angelica, who engaged in letter-writing campaigns that helped shape the revolution’s intellectual thought and preserved the history of early America.
This proves, as I’ve argued before, that media can engage uncomfortable period themes even if they’re not central to the story. It’s unconscionable, for instance, that we’ve created 30 years worth of WWII games, and only a few of them even mention of the Holocaust. But much like Hamilton didn’t need to take us to an auction to remind us that chattel slavery existed, WWII games don’t have to be set in a concentration camp to acknowledge Nazi atrocities. A line of dialogue or a propaganda poster, though small, would at least point out that this happened and was a big part of the conflict.
That would be enough.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp