Playful Medievalisms for a COVIDian-Summer

This entry was originally published in Medievally Speaking, May 12, 2020.


A haphazard and half-formed listicle research agenda for medievalists and medievalismists in need of more interaction and whimsy in these moribund times.

Kevin Moberly, Old Dominion University Brent Moberly, Indiana University

Joust (1982) – If you must social distance, then what better way to do it than armed with a six-foot lance astride an ostrich (or a stork) soaring over an ever-rising lava lake. The gameplay is as simple as it is allegorical: keep flapping and don’t let the buzzards get you down. Originally released as an arcade game, Joust has been ported to any number of home entertainment systems and is still widely playable on the web. It also lives on as a sort of ghost in the machine, with cameos in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (2010) and Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011). For those of us with as-of-yet unspent research monies, a restored version of the original arcade cabinet is available for around $3000.[1]

Conquests of the Longbow: Robin Hood (1991) – Christy Marx’s Conquests of the Longbow was the third mass-market game in 1991 to feature Robin Hood—a moment of ludic synchronicity motivated by a desire to capitalize on that year’s release of the feature film Robin Hood Prince of Thieves. Marx’s expressly antiquarian take on the Robin Hood legend is the best of the three by far and still remains compelling today, especially for those of us whose summer trips to Nottingham have been cancelled due to the quarantine. The game calls upon players to serve both as the conscious of a wistful Robin Hood and as putative scholars of his legend, charging them with assembling the authoritative account of his deeds as they guide him through the dream visions, inventory puzzles, and “authentically medieval” minigames that comprise the bulk of the game’s narrative. For those more interested in Nottinghamshire than in its most legendary forebearer, the game renders the shire’s most infamous tourist traps as late-twelfth-century versions of their present selves. Free to play on the web, or $6.00 on gog.com.

Trüberbrook (2019) – The year is 1967, and the rural German village of Trüberbrook finds itself at the heart of a potentially catastrophic quantum convergence. At the center of the village stands a suit of armor memorializing the town’s thirteenth-century margrave and savior, one “Hilarious the Unready.” In keeping with its namesake, the margrave’s armor does not survive the events of the game and only has a small role in the game’s overall narrative. Nevertheless, its initial prominence in a game that bills itself as a “sci-fi mystery” along the lines of “Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and Stranger Things” raises important questions about the continued significance of the medieval in a world increasingly defined by the hard sciences. Aside from this, the game is worth playing for its scenery and sets, which were hand-crafted as miniature scale models and then digitized for the game. $30 on Steam. A downloadable travel-guide to Trüberbrook is free, but requires the base game.

World of Warcraft (2004 to eternity) – Not the original, but arguably the most enduring neo-medieval wasteland. Where else can one cavort with the likes of Jhordy Lapforge, Hemet Nesingwary, and Harrison Jones, all while saving Azeroth from a revolving cast of underwhelming and largely interchangeable baddies. Never quite satisfied with the serious business of its own medievalesque narrative, the game indulges in a seemingly endless meta-commentary on the popular works (Peter Jackson’s [and J.R.R. Tolkien’s] Lord of the Rings, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, among many, many others) that have come to define contemporary medievalism. Available for Windows and macOS, the game requires a monthly subscription to play. This subscription, though, includes seven expansions worth of content and, for those of you who are curious as to whether the game is still as addicting as it was when you had a dissertation to finish, access to the recently-restored “Classic” version of the game.

Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014) – Set during the French revolution, the game is not as noteworthy for its plot, which has something to do with the Knights Templar, as it is for its take on Notre-Dame de Paris. The “real” Notre Dame is arguably itself a simulation, having been so extensively “restored” by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc in the mid-nineteenth century as to be, as Michael Camille argues, paradoxically more medieval than the original.[2] Assassin’s Creed Unity infuses this simulational logic with the imperatives of the late-capitalist tourism and culture industry, and the end result is a doubly impossible version of the cathedral, one that recalls Viollet-le-Duc’s distinctive restorations but from the context of Revolutionary Paris, nearly three-quarters of a century before such work began. UbiSoft made the game available for free in the weeks following last April’s catastrophic fire, but it will cost you $30 to play today. Yes, there are probably cheaper or more historically accurate ways to experience Notre Dame in all its pre-fire glory, but do any of these ways include Templars?

Carcassonne (2017) – For those needing another Viollet-le-Duc fix but with less Templars this time, there is always Asmodee Digital’s adaptation of the classic board game Carcassonne. The game’s take on medieval travel and commerce, rural or otherwise, is just as fanciful as the picturesque witches’ hats that Viollet-le-Duc grafted onto the towers of Carcassonne proper, but this doesn’t make the game any less engaging or charming. The digital version of the game follows the original closely, but without the unhygienic uncertainties of reaching into a bag of tiles that has just been pawed through by the unwashed masses, one’s immediate colleagues, or some combination thereof. It also adds, among other things, a medievalesque soundtrack, animated tiles, and a nifty field tracker that makes it much more difficult for your opponents to sneak their dirty meeples onto your estates. The game is available for desktop and mobile platforms for just $10, but expansions and the winter tileset cost extra, which here again, is unfortunately completely in keeping with the original board game’s business model.

They are Billions (2019) – In this Steampunk take on the tower-defense genre, you must defend your settlements against wave after wave of an infectious and unrelenting horde. If any of the infected make it through your defenses, they will infect your villagers, who will then infect their neighbors, and things get exponentially worse until your entire colony is overrun. The game’s survival mode is as addictive as it is punishing, and its swarming mechanics are a wonder in their own right. Still, and in much the same way that The Quiet Place was eminently watchable, but yet…, it’s hard to stomach the racist and colonialist implications inherent in the unironic spectacle of explicitly white imperialists facing off against wave after wave of dark and infectious natives. If the game was tone-deaf before the pandemic, it’s even more tone-death now, especially given the Trump Administration’s recent push to capitalize on the pandemic to further its anti-immigrant agenda and, more generally, the ways in which the handling of the pandemic has been troubled by systemic racism. $30 on Steam, but only if you find yourself in need of perhaps the most explicit example as of late that parts of the gaming industry still insist that fascism makes compelling gameplay.

King’s Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! (1990) – If you are in need of a comfort game right now, any of Roberta Williams’ original King’s Quest games (or their fan-enhanced remakes) will serve, but King’s Quest V seems particularly apropos to today’s woes. Here, a middle-aged King Graham returns from a walk only to find that his castle and its contents, including his family, have been quarantined (in a bottle!) by the evil wizard Mordack, all because Graham’s son Alexander turned Mordack’s brother into a cat at the end of King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human. Graham is accompanied on his adventures by Cedric the Owl, the adventure-game precursor to Microsoft’s Clippy. This means that the game also counts as productivity software. Free to play on the web, or $10 bundled with King’s Quest 4 and 6 on gog.com (Windows only).

King’s Quest (2015) – The Odd Gentlemen’s reboot of Sierra’s venerable King’s Quest franchise offers a decidedly melancholic and neoliberal account of King Graham’s past. Graham arrives in Daventry with only five coins and a help-wanted poster in his inventory. Yet, Graham’s entry into the kingdom’s professional class of “knights, dentists, and other protectors of crowns” is far from assured. In order to secure his rightful place in the franchise, he must first overcome the kingdom's moribund bureaucracy and what, at least in the neoliberal imagination, is its private-sector corollary: a trade union comprised of bridge trolls. The first (and most substantial) chapter is free on Steam. The remaining chapters will cost you, though.

Bioshock (2007) – A plane crash leaves players stranded in the undersea city of Rapture, which was constructed by Andrew Ryan as an objectivist refuge for the world’s elite but is now on the verge of collapse and teams with mechanical and genetically-mutated horrors. On the diegetic level, Rapture and its grotesqueries bear witness to the postlapsarian failure of Ryan’s utopian project. The ravaged city, however, also testifies to the failure of what, to many early-twentieth-century social reformers, was one of the chief promises of the medieval as articulated through the architecture of such icons as the Empire State Building and Cathedral of Learning: the hope that the excesses of industrial capitalism could be tempered and even redirected by invoking the values of a presumably less alienating and mechanistic era. Bioshock immerses players in a nightmare vision that is explicitly constructed as the logical consequence of such hopes, one in which player agency is manifested through a horrific form of chivalry that forces players to choose whether or not to sacrifice girl-like little sisters in order to endow their characters with the sort of quasi-medieval, quasi-magical abilities that are commonplace in more-explicitly-medieval-themed games.

The Night of the Rabbit (2013) – with only “two days of adventure left” before the start of the new school year, a young Jerry Hazelnut apprentices himself to a white rabbit who promises to make him into a “tree-walker,” allowing him to cast magic and travel between worlds. This choice frees Jerry from the dreary prospects of the impending school term and the grey realities of an ever-encroaching suburbia, but it ends up costing him more than just that night’s dinner. A lyrical meditation on memory and loss and the allure and limits of fantasy, with hand-drawn backgrounds, compelling voice acting, and a moving soundtrack. $20 for Windows or macOS, but a free demo is also available.

[1] Here and throughout, we are providing purchase links for informational purposes only. Lest we be seen as complete and utterly unrepentant shills, these are not affiliate links, and we receive no commissions from them. Full disclosure: we did consider affiliate links but given the limited and generally parsimonious nature of our readership, we eventually determined that it would be more economically feasible to just file for unemployment. [2] Michael Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre Dame: Medievalism and the Monsters of Modernity (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 357-358.

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