[Examining the story of Age of Empires II from both a historical and creative perspective, writer Ryan Rigney delves into how the team handled its portrayal of Joan of Arc -- comparing history to game.]
In the centuries since her life and death, Joan of Arc has been portrayed in a number of different, often conflicting ways: as a French heroine, and as a vile witch deserving of death; as a person guided by divine inspiration, and as an ordinary girl who was merely misguided. The types of media used to tell the story of Joan of Arc are just as numerous and varied as the messages behind the stories; the tale of the illiterate peasant girl who led an army and altered the course of a war has been told through plays, books, film and, in recent years, interactive digital media -- the video game.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings is one such video game that attempts to once again weave the story of the Maid of Orléans. The second entry in the multimillion-selling series is a real-time strategy game for Windows/Mac-based computers, and it allows players to control hundreds of on-screen units at once with the swipe of a mouse.
Although many players flock to the game for its competitive multiplayer component, the core of the experience lies in a selection of five separate military campaigns that push players through battles and significant events connected to popular historical figures like Genghis Khan, Barbarossa and (of course) Joan of Arc.
As with several of the campaigns, the creators of Age of Empires elected to pull not only from the image of Joan that historians generally agree upon, but also from myth and legend.
To say that Joan -- who was condemned to death at the stake by the English in 1431 and later canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920 -- is a controversial figure would be an understatement at best, leaving the game's developers in something of a predicament: what is the best way to represent a person as complex as Joan of Arc using an interactive medium?
This leads me to the driving question behind my research: among the various portrayals that have been made of her since the 15th century, from the popular to the theological and from the political to the scholarly, which canonical representations of Joan of Arc influenced the depiction of her in Age of Empires II's campaign about her?
"Death is by now an old companion, but for Joan, we will face it again."
– February 19: The Journal of Guy Josselyne (Age of Empires II)
Each of the six missions in Age of Empires II's Joan of Arc campaign is decidedly heavy on combat, while the more intricate political and personal details behind the story's major players are told through short, storybook style cutscenes that bookend the game's interactive segments.
These cutscenes are narrated by an entirely fictional character, Guy Josselyne (so named after one of the developer's ancestors), who tells the tale from the perspective of a French soldier under Joan's command. The story picks up on a late Februrary morning at an army camp near the French city of Vaucouleurs, where Joan had recently arrived to request an escort to Chinon for a potential meeting with the Dauphin -- the soon-to-be King Charles VII.
"She told us she did not know how to ride or fight," writes the bedraggled-sounding Josselyne. "She told us that she intended to rescue France." The fictitious soldier goes on to paint her as a prodigious speech-giver and mobilizer of the downtrodden. "The darkness lifted from the men's souls. Her voice rang with conviction, and we drank in her every word. I may have lost my faith, but Joan has not lost hers, and that is enough for me."
The developers of Age of Kings accomplish several things by establishing a fictional character as a narrative filter for players over the course of the campaign. By not letting Joan to speak for herself, the game's designers avoid the obligation to comment on the veracity of her claims of divine guidance.
The story picks up long after the transpiring of Joan's supposed meeting with the three saints/angels who told her to drive the English from France and bring the Dauphin to Rheims for his coronation. By not depicting the meeting with the saints, it is not asserted that Joan either did or did not have God on her side. This allows the developers to avoid any potential controversy, and keeps the focus on Joan's military campaign.
Age of Empires II team member Dr. Greg Street (who now works as lead systems designer for Blizzard on World of Warcraft) claims that potential religious controversy was intentionally avoided for the sake of the game's publisher -- Microsoft.
"We were published (and later owned) by Microsoft, so we didn't want to give anyone a reason, legitimate or not, to make a stink out of our portrayal of religion," says Street. "Part of the spirit of the Age series is that you represent the guiding force of your civilization, and we included civilizations with a wide variety of religious backgrounds. We didn't want to represent any particular religion as being more correct than any other."
Street touts the value of presenting the campaign's story from an outside perspective. "Dramatically, I also thought it was more powerful to not get inside Joan's head," he says. "Ultimately, the most interesting part of her story is the amazing influence she had on other people. I thought it would be cool to try and show that. Personally I also think the Joan story is more interesting when you aren't entirely sure whether she was nuts or actually talking to higher beings."