Art History in Video Game Art

The art of video games has been around since 1975 with the very first home console of Pong released by Atari. A straightforward game of a ball and two sticks that act like goalies trying to prevent the other person from getting a goal. Donkey Kong was an infamous game that was released in 1981, with this significant release on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). This was the beginning of iconic characters like Super Mario and Donkey Kong being a selling point to Nintendo. Gaming has evolved drastically over the years, with many variations of consoles, games, and stories. Video gaming is not just a form of entertainment, it’s a culture that withstands the tests of time, and one of the most familiar components of video gaming that anyone can resonate with is the influence of art in video games. Not only does the resolution of gaming continually evolve, but so does the quality and creativity within them. 

Video games are a fascinating vessel for demonstrating real history. In Animal Crossing, you play as the villager creating your dream island. One creative thing to purchase in-game is art. With the art, you can place it around your island, or your house, or donate it to the museum. Within the art museum in the game, gamers are informed of the significance of the art and how it was created. This is a fun way to engage gamers while also shaping an element of education. But not all games are like this. In some games, the main character you control is in a different time period either portraying the past, present, or future. Games like Assassin’s Creed portray both the present and past of the main characters' ancestry. Other games like God of War are twisted stories, but are based on real characters in Greek and Norse mythology, and Overwatch where two very different characters are based on history, art, and real inspirations. 

The Tale of Genji

Overwatch is a team-based first-person shooter (FPS) that was released in 2016 for modern consoles and at the time it was the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and later on the Nintendo Switch. Before the game was released, the developer and publisher of Overwatch released animated shorts that brought in lore, context, and hype for the game. “Dragons” was the third animated short and the first short to be released after the initial release. This short focuses on two playable characters, the Shimada brothers, Hanzo and Genji Shimada. As their history is complex, the resolutions are deeper within. 

The synopsis for this story is that Genji was a young playboy, and a freeloader, who somewhat cared but not fully about his family’s mission and family values and took it for granted. Meanwhile, Hanzo is the older brother who follows his father's values and morals to keep the family tradition strong. One day, Hanzo was so fed up with Genji, that the two brothers fought. Even though Hanzo succeeded, he also murdered his brother. 10 years later, with a surprise visit from his now robotic brother, they re-matched but Genji spared Hanzo’s life so he could live a life without a heavy burden. 

Funny enough, even though this lore is fun and interesting, according to art history, they were never brothers. Hanzo was based on Hattori Hanzo, a Japanese Samurai who was a real person who was born from 1542 to 1596. This Hanzo was from the Sengoku Period. This was a violent period where constant civil wars would happen and warlords would continuously fight over the control of Japan. As for Genji’s character, Genji is notable from a novel titled The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu in 1008. This Genji was named Hikaru Genji. Genji was born during the Heian Period. This period was known for diary entries, poetry, and court ladies who produced fiction. In this story, Hikaru Genji is similar to Overwatch’s Genji. According to history, when Hikaru Genji was older, he constantly had affairs and was exiled from home. With his grandsons ruling the new empire in the story, Genji passes away. 

Hanzo and Genji Overwatch

However, this is only half true. Hanzo and Genji are based on real brothers. In an interview from ShackNews, author Cassidee Moser interviewed Geoff Goodman, Overwatch’s lead designer for heroes, and Michael Chu, the senior designer for the lore and story of Overwatch, who inspired Hanzo and Genji to be, “Influenced by the brothers in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” According to ScreenRant, Jiro, who has two sons, takes up the legacy to make the best sushi in all of Japan. The oldest son expected to stay with his father to take over the business someday while Jiro’s youngest son was allowed and given the option to choose to stay or part with the family to open his very own sushi branch to form his own legacy. 

Having this sort of story is something fun to build up hype and have gamers learn not only new characters and their stories, but the real history that they are based upon. Video game designers go through many different phases of character creation. Depending on what the game is about, designers will select a time period, a solid backstory, a creative arc, traits, their purpose, and more. Once the characters are studied, a story line is formed, like God of War.  

The context for God of War is complicated yet twisted. The first game was released in 2005  during the sixth generation of gaming, God of War was released exclusively for PS2 owners. God of War will always have a place in gamers' hearts as you follow Kratos, an apprentice to the God of War, and Ares, who tricked Kratos into killing his family and seeks revenge on the gods for their wrongdoing. Throughout the games, Kratos slayed about 10 gods in Greek mythology and five so far in Norse mythology. Gods like Hades, Zeus, Poseidon, Mimir, and many more are deceived, tricked, or took advantage of Kratos. 

Though this Kratos is a form of fiction, there are similarities that do show up in the Kratos in actual Greek mythology. Kratos (a.k.a Cratus) is an offspring of the goddess of the underworld river, Styx, and the god of battle and WarCraft, Pallas. Pallas had troubles and fought against Zeus, but wouldn’t continue to fight as his wife and kids were allied to Zeus himself, but would fight with the titans during the Titanomachy. As for Styx, she ruled one of the five rivers in the underworld. The river she ruled was dubbed the River of Hate. This river's purpose was to have souls travel through the underworld to meet Hades. As punishment for not paying the price to the ferryman, their souls would be trapped in the river of Styx for all of eternity. This is what Kratos’s mother did as it was her duty as a Goddess. 

Styx and Pallas would have four children before the Titanomachy. The kids they had were Nike, the God of Victory, Zelos, the god of Rivalry, Kratos, the god of strength, and Bia, the goddess of power and force. Even though Kratos wasn’t in many stories, he was more of a servant to other gods. Kratos mostly makes appearances in stories with his sister, Bia. One famous story is that Prometheus stole fire from the different gods, and is now sentenced against a rock for all of eternity, and Bia and Kratos broke Prometheus free with chains created by Hephaestus. This angered Zeus and he sought vengeance against the siblings. This is where the story ends. 

One thing to learn from this is that, even though characters might be badass, they’re just fictional characters who only serve as entertainment and create a narrative that is a little far from what is real in stories that have been told. Even though most of them are fiction, this game franchise is still standing strong today. There is one game in particular that really stands out as a composition of art history in video games, though there are many inaccuracies. 

Assassin’s Creed was released in 2007 during the seventh generation of home consoles (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii). This game provides stealth, action, and open-world gameplay. Players are transported to the year 1191 during the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. With 12 games that are released in this franchise, it has been a mix of accuracies and inaccuracies of art history. But one accurate thing that I’ve always had fun with is climbing and scaling historic landmarks. Since this game is an open-world sandbox (meaning I can run around, climb anything, and essentially control my character to go anywhere on the map with no boundaries), I can do anything. Climbing up through the colosseum was fun, climbing up Big Ben in Europe was a sight to see, and climbing the tallest building in Italy was breathtaking. 

As the years go on with this franchise, the more accurate they are to today’s art history. Seeing real historical figures like George Washington or Leonardo da Vinci in time periods gives players something new to see and learn. This franchise was a game-changer to all of gaming history.  


One Reddit user created a thread where they looked at the historical inaccuracies in the franchise of all the games in order (prior to the 2020 recent entry in the franchise). Starting with the first game, the series takes place in 1191 AD during the Third Crusade, in the Levant, which consisted of Jerusalem, Damascus, Acre, and Masyaf. One of the points that this user brings up is that even though they are the main enemies you fight throughout the game, historically, the Templars (antagonist) were never that evil according to history. “Not the slightest evidence of the Templars and Assassins being opposed to each other historically, especially in the time period of the Third Crusade, which is the only moment in history both of them shared the same air.” The game tends to exaggerate them as being more evil than they really were. What actually happened was that Richard I would be informed of caution of warnings, but ignored it.

Moving on, the second game of the franchise takes place between 1459-1507 in Italy. Specifically the Florentine Republic, Romagna, Tuscany, Papal States, and the Republic of Venice. One point of history that the game inaccurately portrays is the Pazzi attack on the Medici brothers. Also known as the Pazzi Conspiracy, where two brothers Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici, were attacked inside the Duomo while attending Sunday mass in front of 10,000 people, leaving Giuliano dead and Lorenzo alive. The game changes this up by having the settings change from the inside of the church to the outside of the church for more of a dramatic effect. 

Assassins Creed Italy

Following that, the next main game in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed 3, takes place in two different places, London and Boston, during the years 1754 to 1783—a notable time period for the Revolutionary War. One event that took place is the Boston Tea Party. In history, the Boston Tea Party was led by Samuel Adams, who led the sons of Liberty to dress up as Native Americans who boarded the ships and threw over 300 chests (about 92,000 pounds) teas into the ocean. However, the game portrays this event as Non-Playable Characters (NPC’s) who were just regular citizens of Boston cheering the main character to fight against the redcoats. 

The fourth game of the main series took the franchise in a different direction. Instead of focusing on a specific point in time, the theme of this next one is pirates. This influenced lots of pop culture views like the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise or other games like Money Island. The period that they focused on is the Golden Age of Piracy (between the years 1650 to 1730s). One historical inaccuracy is that this game focuses on a historical figure, Laureano De Torres y Ayala. Ayala was a former governor of Cuba and follows the same personality as in the game. However, in the game, Torres was opposed to slavery. But the real-life matter is that he actually returned slaves who ran away back to their English masters. 

With the four main entry titles and seven side/spinoff games, the Assassin's Creed franchise really does explore the accuracies and inaccuracies of art history in video games. You can tell Ubisoft sometimes takes liberties with history, distorting it here and there for dramatic effect, and ultimately, a better game, but sometimes sticks to the actual events.. Just like Hollywood, video games are a work of fiction. 

With many types of different art forms, it's interesting where art pervades. Many of them tell stories of their time, while others learn about art history. Showing the accuracies and inaccuracies of art history in video games should not be overlooked. In order to get hooked on the lore, story, and characters, understanding the context behind these stories and characters is important. Though video games use more exaggeration for dramatic storytelling, it’s okay for them to change the stories around gameplay-wise.

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