Odds are you’ve heard of the Grand Theft Auto series (modern-day, urban crime action-adventures), even if you’re not a gamer. It was Grand Theft Auto III (2001) that propelled open-world games to prominence in the industry, but open-world games have been around for a long time – and while I am not very interested in GTA’s setting, luckily for me, it’s just the tip of the open-world iceberg. There are open-world first person shooters, such as Far Cry 2, set in an African civil war; and STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, set in a near-future “Zone” around Chernobyl populated by mutants, monsters and mercenaries. There are open-world RPGs, such as fantasy epics Daggerfall through to Oblivion; and the post-apocalyptic Fallout series. There’s an open-world medieval combat simulator, the Mount and Blade series. There is even the open-world, multi-genre, minigame-filled extravaganza Space Rangers 2, where you variously fly a spaceship around the galaxy, command ground forces in an RTS, and get out of jail by playing text adventures.
But there is one potentially awesome setting that has been overlooked: Ancient Rome. Specifically, the city of Rome, during the fall of the Republic.
Now, Rome has a lot of things going for it. From a marketability perspective, we’ve all heard of it. We may no longer learn Latin in school, but we have seen the HBO TV series, watched Gladiator, played Rome: Total War. From a gameplay perspective, Rome was big! In its heyday, it was the most populous city in the world, and it offers a corresponding amount of variety for players.
Imagine a game that began with choosing a background a la Dragon Age. Perhaps you’re an equestrian youngster from the provinces? A dissolute patrician? Or the scion of an august senatorial clan? Then, choose your skills, choose your friends, and build a career as a hoodlum, orator and lawyer, aspiring politician, or merchant*, with distinct minigames and social circles: perhaps a text-based adventure for a lawsuit or a Senate debate, a trading sim for a mercantile transaction, a brawler for the street combat. These categories wouldn’t even be mutually exclusive! This was a city where politicians hired street gangs to beat up their rivals – and died at the hands of their rivals’ gangs.
Or if you wanted a more actiony game, what about the Hollywood, sword-and-sandals version of Rome? Consider Centurion: Defender of Rome (as described here by Troy Goodfellow), which, 20 years ago, let you race chariots, fight as a gladiator, and command the flagship at sea, in between more conventional land battles (preceding Rome: Total War). How cool would that be with modern-day technology, and the ability to explore Rome in between bouts?
Rome is only the start as far as historical settings are concerned. I know almost nothing about, say, early 1700s London, but from what little I know, it would work well: dystopic squalor amongst commoners and in Newgate Prison for a “street”-level game, tension between Whigs and Tories in the corridors of power for a more political game, the shenanigans of the South Sea Company for a game about the budding world of modern finance. Or – to name another setting I don’t know much about, but which sounds very cool – what of a game in 1500s or 1600s Asia, a world that increasingly encountered European freebooters, merchants and companies hungry for porcelain and spices?
Human history, in all its richness, is often tapped by strategy games and wargames. But to the best of my knowledge, there are rather fewer open-world games that take advantage of its possibilities. This is a pity. I hope I’ve shown the potential in a Roman game, or an early-modern British game, or an Age of Discovery Asian game – and if Rockstar can branch out to the Wild West with Red Dead Redemption, who’s to say that one day, we might not get free rein of the city on the Tiber?
* I haven’t played this series, Taikou Risshiden, but, in that it’s about playing one of a number of professions such as swordsmith, merchant and warrior, it sounds a lot like a Sengoku Japanese version of what I have in mind.