With the release of Total War: Three Kingdoms Creative Assembly brings its epic series to China for the first time. This is quite a departure; with some exceptions, the standard setting for a Total War game, from 2002’s Medieval to 2015’s Attila, has been Europe with parts of Asia and North Africa. This means that over thirteen years and eight titles, Total War has depicted Ireland again and again – sometimes as an afterthought, sometimes as an essential part of the game.
I’m interested in exploring how twenty centuries of history have been conveyed in a videogame series, so let’s take Ireland as a reference point to explore how Total War has developed and what videogames can tell us about history.
Rome: Total War (2004)
It’s 270BCE. See that blob of land, out beyond Britannia, covered with snow in the winter? That’s Hibernia. If you bother going there, you will find a settlement called Tara with a handful of barbarians in it. In early Total War any place not important enough to have its own faction came under the generic grey banner of “Rebels”, and this was Ireland’s fate in 2004.
Were we done some terrible injustice? Hell, no. This game is about the epic rise and bitter civil wars of the Roman Empire. Historically, the Romans never even made it to Ireland, and their name for it suggests that they saw it as a miserable and cold place – which is hard to dispute.
Fast-forward five hundred years to Rome’s expansion pack: Barbarian Invasion. The Roman Empire is crumbling, and one of the dozen or so factions pouring into its territory are the Celts, poised to strike from modern-day Ireland and Scotland. They are a colourful bunch, with chariots, wolfhounds and druids. They also have a unit called “Hounds of Culann,” a nod to Irish mythology; they are purple-skinned, green-cloaked lunatics who wave around sticks with big metal balls on the end, like lollipops. If the Celts succeed in driving the Romans out of Britain, they usually end up fighting the Romano-British faction, derived from Arthurian legends.
By no stretch of the imagination were Ireland and Scotland united under one king at this time, or ever; there were no Hounds of Culann, and the jury is out on whether anyone resembling King Arthur ever existed. Still, fair play to Creative Assembly for populating that dreary corner of the map with this weird, fun little faction.
Total War: Rome 2 (2013) and Total War: Attila (2015)
Of course, CA has effectively remade these games in more recent years. There are no more generic grey “Rebels”; instead there are heaps of factions, making the map diverse and mysterious. The strategic map is rendered so lovingly it will make all but the highest-end computers stutter and stagger. Install the Celtic Cultures pack for Attila and load it up, and you’ll find the Ebdanians in control of Ireland. These new Celts are every bit as colourful as the old Celts, with wolfhounds and berserkers returning alongside the legendary Fianna.
The Ebdanians and their capital, Eblana, are based on a map scribbled by Ptolemy in the 2nd century CE. This map populated Ireland with a host of tribes and named many rivers and settlements, but it was probably a Chinese-whispers situation where he got all the names wrong. CA took this scribbled name in the corner of a map, combined it with Irish legend and archaeology, and created a lot from a little. It’s impressive and fun. Shame we have to pay extra to get it.
Medieval: Total War (2002)
Hundreds of years later, Ireland is a grey blob again. In 2002 the trademark Total War strategic map was literally just a map and Ireland just another Risk-style province, rebel-held and destined to be gobbled up.
A Viking-themed expansion pack set in the 8th century zoomed in on Britain and Ireland. Here Britain is a patchwork of small kingdoms, plagued by Scandinavian raids and invasions. Ireland is divided into five provinces, and Total War’s first ever Irish faction is a major player in the game. Though the mechanics of early Total War look primitive now, this was an impressive portrayal of Ireland.
Medieval 2: Total War (2006)
Medieval 2 was beautiful, dynamic and incredibly addictive. But Ireland was once again reduced to a grey “rebel” province for England to conquer. Landing in Ireland, your army can recruit kerns and gallowglasses, which is a nice piece of local colour. But the sum of their action here will be a single siege of Dublin, and unwalled village ruled by a generic NPC with a name like “Captain Alfred.” To add insult to indignity, the island is named “Dublin Region.”
Once again, the expansion pack saved the day. Kingdoms featured a detailed map of Ireland divided into eight provinces and settlements, covered with forests, rivers and mountains. English armies occupy half of the island, but it’s not at all hard to link up the disparate Irish settlements, drive out the Anglo-Norman settlers and build up a prosperous and powerful Irish kingdom. Any halfway competent player should be at this point decades before the bubonic plague hits.
In real life, of course, the English aristocracy was never driven from Ireland throughout the medieval period. Why is it so easy in the game? In what ways has the game consciously departed from history, and in what ways has it accidentally done so? Can the mechanics of a game represent history at all, while still remaining fun to play?
Total War treats every “faction” as a modern nation-state under a single unified command – not, say, as a tribal confederation or a feudal society. However, I wouldn’t change this. If the games accurately reflected the actual political systems of the ancient or medieval world they would be fundamentally different (and probably less fun).
CA really did their homework on Kingdoms, by the way. The Irish faction is actually based on a neat little counterfactual. The in-game king, Brian O’Connor, was a real guy who tried to unite the Irish chiefs around 1250 – but unlike in the game, he failed. Had he succeeded, it wouldn’t have looked too different from the Irish faction that features in the game – except that it would have split again in ten years or so.
Medieval 2 stops around the year 1530. For some reason, CA has never ventured into the 17th Century, the age of witches, the Thirty Years’ War, the Siege of Vienna and the English Civil War. In Ireland, we skip the Battle of Kinsale, Cromwell, the Boyne – probably the most Total-War-esque period in Irish history – and land in 1700…
Empire: Total War (2009) and Napoleon: Total War (2010)
While you’re playing Total War, little messages will pop up every so often telling the player what’s going on in the world: that Gutenberg has invented the printing press, or that Mount Vesuvius is erupting. Empire chooses to notify players not only about the foundation of Guinness in 1759 but for those who prefer a lighter beverage, of Smithwicks in 1711 as well. It’s a reminder that the eighteenth century saw Ireland developing industrially – a development that was deliberately thwarted in the 19th century.
In Empire, Ireland is a province of Britain, although an unstable one wracked with religious tension. Empire is a sprawling and ambitious game – players less forgiving than me would say over-ambitious. With the Indian subcontinent and the Americas embraced in its epic sweep, it’d be a bit petty to complain about this or that detail regarding little Ireland. But CA definitely missed a trick. Ireland can emerge as a faction in Empire (and in its semi-sequel Napoleon) but only as an absolute monarchy ruled by some grumpy and very lazy ruler with a name like King Fergus or Rory I. Unfortunately, neither game touches on the rich history of the United Irishmen, who brought Catholics and Protestants together in a rebellion for a non-sectarian independent republic.
So in a history of Ireland according to Total War, we bid goodbye to Ireland around thirty years before the famine. From dull grey “Rebels” to purple-painted Celts and Ebdanians, it has ended up either as a province of Britain, an outpost of some other empire, or an independent but stagnant monarchy. All in all, it has featured more prominently than other European countries of comparable weight – say, Lithuania or Switzerland.
Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia (2018)
But I have broken the rules of chronology in order to save the best until last and to finish on the high that the Napoleonic period does not provide.
This year CA has blown all the above efforts out of the water with Thrones of Britannia. The game returns to the setting of Viking Invasion, but with an enormous and detailed map populated with dozens of factions. You can play as Meath or Dublin, and there are many more factions in Ireland alone. The warfare and diplomacy are as tortuous and full of intrigue as real Irish politics at the time, making it feel like a real achievement when you conquer another province. I realise I’m far from the only person in Ireland who fits into the Venn diagram between “Studied history in college” and “Plays too many videogames”; me and all the others in that subset could hardly believe it when Thrones of Brittania came out.
I enjoy Total War more if I’m familiar with the place or the time. If you’ve read a paperback or two about Napoleon, you won’t skip any of the shorter campaigns in Napoleon; if you did a module on the Middle Ages in college, there’s a whole new dimension to playing Medieval. If you commute past Athenry castle every day, and then you find yourself besieging the very same castle in-game, then you’re strangely invested. It’s that, not some nationalist instinct, that makes me, whenever I play a new Total War game, look for the Irish faction immediately. If there isn’t one, I invade the place at the earliest opportunity.
We’d like to thank Manus for giving us the opportunity to show off his work here today. Soon you’ll get to see more of his work on GamEir and we hope you are as impressed as we are. So stay tuned to GamEir for more Manus.