Here's a question: How do you get a bunch of disillusioned kids in the arse end of Scotland into real time strategy games? I doubt it's a question the creators of Age of Empire 2 ever asked themselves but nonetheless, they provided a definitive answer. Now I can't help but wonder as I play through the recently released Definitive Edition, are there games that could manage similar feats? Better ones?
The 90s in Scotland was a bit...rubbish. Especially in its deprived areas (poverty fell in the late 90s but in depressing statistics according to the CPAG, it seems to be once more on the rise once again). It was difficult to be surrounded by the remains of a post-industrial nation and feel any sense of pride or hope about the future or present, never mind the past. Then along came Braveheart. It might sound dumb to credit one film (made by Hollywood with an American fielding a questionable Scottish accent in the lead role) with a surge in national pride but, well, it absolutely did cause one. Scotland's history, of outnumbered rebels fighting against English reign is easy to romanticise but it was also abstract for a load of folk. This over-the-top movie (whose historical inaccuracies are no better summed up than featuring the famed Battle of Stirling Bridge...with no bridge) made Scottish history tangible, emotional and inspiring. The fever that emerged among Scots following the film even had some English critics describing Braveheart as spreading "Anglophobia". Point is, finally there was some easy sense of identity for young folk to latch on to. I cannot overstate how much this film was watched when I was growing up.
Then four years later along comes Age of Empires 2 with a campaign about the Scottish Wars of Independence. Another American production (from the now sadly defunct Ensemble Studios), it doesn't take much to imagine that this was likely an inclusion entirely as a result of Braveheart's success (it won five Oscars, including best picture) but the effect was surprising. See, a lot of kids my age didn't have much time for video games beyond FIFA or whatever. Maybe some Tekken. Games were an occasional thing, not a hobby. See Age of Empires 2 though? You could play as the Scots. No video game lets you be Scottish. Even today if you wanna be Scottish in a video game your best hope is as a dwarven warrior in some fantasy RPG.
Now, trying to explain Real Time Strategy to the kid two doors down who spent more time playing football and fighting wasn't the easiest task on the planet (though explaining how to install the game on their da's computer was even tougher) but once they had it, they were away. Suddenly you had a bunch of folk who'd never touched a strategy game in their lives tearing into Age of Empires 2. A sight to behold. It got them into all other portions of history too! I confess at this point in time I was more interested in the Joan of Arc campaign for reasons that weren't yet clear to me (let me tell you, finding out there was a film where Milla Jovovich played her did things for me, dear reader) which was fine by the folk I knew, 'cause she also battered the English.
The William Wallace campaign was the tutorial, introducing players to the game's basics, which was just perfect for the kids I knew. None of us at the time really took note of just how awful the Scottish accents are, with the actor somehow settling on being a pirate instead. The campaign itself alludes to famous battles but is as true to them as Braveheart, with its base building design and simple combat not really allowing it to facilitate the kinds of tactics that defined the Scottish Wars of Independence. Hardly educational in any sense, but enthralling all the same.
It didn't stop there however.
Once you got a bunch of eager young kids into one RTS, suddenly they wanted to know about others. Soon I had folk who distinctly would've shunned "space shite" asking about Starcraft and soon enough Command & Conquer. These kids who'd never let themselves be called nerds in a million years were now desperately figuring out how to construct additional pylons. Wild stuff. You should've seen their faces when I showed them Shogun: Total War for the first time where you could have thousands of dudes on screen at once. There was also an actual Braveheart video game too...it was just, not very good.
It didn't really last of course. Most drifted back to their preferred series like FIFA. But for a little while, they wanted to know. I won't forget how easily Age of Empires got a whole bunch of kids who had no interest in strategy games hooked on the genre with the simple promise of representation. How powerful it can be to see something of yourself in the art available to you. For me, however, my taste in games only broadened while my relationship with my Scottish identity grew more complicated over time as I found myself repulsed by nationalism but deeply connected with my heritage. Sometimes my personal feelings hover around that famous speech from Renton in Trainspotting, which came out a year after Braveheart.
Age of Empires 2 helped me understand not only the value of representation at a very young age, but, as I grew older and more disillusioned, also helped me see how dire the representation people often get is. We spend so much time struggling to get a seat at the table that we don't get any time there to discuss the full spectrum of our experiences. On the rare occasion a game covers our history, it's not from a Scottish perspective, and you do wonder how warped our sense of self has become from external romanticism. Where are the tales that wrestle with our identity, our position as a nation of colonisers and the colonised? That expose more personal truths about what being Scottish really means? If Age of Empires 2 could so easily draw folk around me in, how easily could it have shown us a more thoughtful story?
As keenly as I am aware of the topics and stories of Scotland that remain untouched, I can see the blank spaces of my own understanding, where whole nations and peoples have barely had their stories told in favour of another story about the plight of the privileged.
I am dying for more Scottish games and, well, games from every kind of folks. Cause when you get these games, when you let people celebrate their own history and culture, you can invite them into whole new ideas. There's power in that beyond just getting them to sit down with another genre.
With the Definitive Edition here, I doubt it'll have the impact it did on a bunch of hopeless kids back in the 90s but I'm tempted to return, to get a wee slice of my own history through the lens of an accessible RTS. Even if it's only to long for more substantial games about my home country. Well, that and to see if they sorted out the bloody awful accents.