Accuracy, historical realism

How overboard is historical realism? I mean, I know it’s my game I am writing, and I can do whatever I want, but lets say it takes place in a certain time period. Are people going to get picky if say, certain things weren’t readily available in my setting? Like, let’s say a certain book was published in europe, in real life in the mid 19th-century it might not have been commonly available in the US. Is that going to be the kind of detail that’s a stickler for players? Or do people don’t actually care about such things?

It’s sort of like the tv show “the rifleman” where the star used a gun that was introduced some 30 years after the show took place. But in reality no one cared.

I’d say it depends on what kind of game it is. Nobody expects Life of Brain (to pick a somewhat extreme example) to depict life 2000 years ago with much accuracy. But when I’m reading Ellis Peters, I expect it to be mostly true to how life was in medieval Shrewsbury. (I don’t know how well researched those books are, and my knowledge of 12th century Britain isn’t great, so I’m easily fooled, but if I had knowledge that was contradicted, that would be a problem for my enjoyment of those books.)

As a general rule, I think a bit of research is a good thing. Besides getting the facts right, it can also help flesh out the setting, and provide inspiration.

But if the story is improved by ignoring parts of history, go for it (as long as you’re not pretending to write anything but fiction).

The most important thing is to be consistent, and establish early what your readers can expect from you. If you’re writing with a Renaissance-lite flavor where everything is kept kind of vague or downright fantastic, anachronisms are fine and arguably go with the territory. But if you go off on the exact detailing of the period-accurate gun in one part, don’t be surprised if someone calls you on your period-inaccurate textile mills in a later part. And don’t hinge your entire plot on an anachronism.

Edit: Yeah, what Trumgottist said.

In general, gamers forgive all sins of the awesome, and feed savagely on the mediocre.

In other words: If your game rocks, virtually nobody will call it out for anachronisms. If your game doesn’t rock, tarring and feathering it will provide a consolation-prize form of entertainment.

There are subtler concerns (anachronism chosen for a purpose compared to obvious laziness, for example … most folks can tell the difference), but in practice, it all boils down to: does it rock?

All together now: It Depends.

For most stories, I wouldn’t worry much about being absolutely correct in every detail; there’s diminishing returns on this kind of thing, and super-researched historical accuracy can often make a story pedantic and turgid. (I’m looking at you, Turtledove.) If you’re writing a story which really positions itself as more Historical than Fiction, like 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery or the Colonial Williamsburg thing that one guy was kickstarting, on the other hand, your standards should be considerably higher.

The important thing is that you don’t make errors about things that are important: to your story, and generally to the way that you depict the era. If you have a historically inaccurate style of revolver in your American Civil War game, this will annoy two and a half re-enactment / historical firearm nerds, but if guns aren’t really the focus of the game it’s not a big deal. But if you depict everyone on the Union side as racially-enlightened civil-rights enthusiasts, for instance, then you’ve demonstrated a failure to grasp essential things about the period, and readers will be well within their rights to be annoyed. This is particularly true for Lazy Everybody-Knows History. Check your myths.

As a corollary to Ghalev’s thing: if you do something big and spectacular, get it right or just ditch any appeal to historical background. Augustine did moderately well in IF Comp 2002; it wasn’t a top-10 game, but it had its fans. But nowadays the only thing that anybody remembers about it is the scene where the hero confronts the villain in the lava pits of Aberystwyth, a city hundreds of miles from anywhere with volcanic activity (and which at least one community member had lived in). People still make jokes about the Aberystwyth lava pits. If Augustine hadn’t tried to give itself historical credibility by tying itself to specific real-world locations, there would have been no joke.

This. To put the same point in another way: you should have a clear idea of what you’re using the history for, and your audience should quickly understand what it is.

It would be three, but we told Cletus not to mess around with that gun until it got good and cleaned up.

Heck, I never even played the game, and now I’m going to start making jokes about the Aberystwyth lava pits. Just as soon as I’m 100% sure how to pronounce it.

There’s a way of doing anachronisms really well. Malcolm Pryce’s book series set in Aberystwyth is a good example: it posits an alt-history noir version of the Welsh seaside town; anachronistic elements like Patagonian war veterans, a druidic mafia and toffee-apple dens are absolutely fantastic in both sense of the word.

Even the lava pits of Aberystwyth can probably be got away with if you’re awesome enough. There’s this bit from “The Roads Round Pisa”:

Thanks, everyone. So, if I’m awesome, I can pull off anything. If I’m not, I better at least be accurate, or make the inaccuracy so awesome in itself no one will care if there’s a pink spotted elephant in the Colosseum. Which, by the way, the Romans didn’t call the Colosseum - they called it the Flavian Amphitheatre.

Though to be fair, it’s the anachronisms that can make the difference between a mediocre game and an awesome one. On the one hand, if you introduce a glaring anachronism, people will call you out. On the other hand, some parts of your game might not be as fun without introducing an anachronism. In movie terms, think of “A Knight’s Tale” without the historical inaccuracies - it’s not nearly as fun.

I think it boils down to “keep it historically accurate as you can, but if breaking history will make the game more fun - do it!”

If the game’s meant to be real to the time and place, I will complain about any and all non-language anachronisms I encounter (all the ones in whose case I’m qualified enough to be able to identify in the first place… so clearly you can run many things past me much of the time.) Big or small, if I know for a fact some concrete thing is wrong, I’ll tsk-tsk.

Ultimately, any game will encounter someone who can spot a particular thing that’s factually wrong in it. Whether you care about that or not is up to you. I like to check my facts so these troublemaking people will never have cause to complain to me in person or to besmirch my project fact-wise in some kind of written review.

When it comes to spoken language, that’s much tougher. How do I really know how people spoke in certain times and places? I read books and watch films, which is all I can do. Sometimes we think we can trace specific dialogue traits and phrases to certain eras. That’s easy-ish with a lot of meme-bloated contemporary phrases, but otherwise, maybe not.

Or take “Lord Bellwater’s Secret”. There are golden retrievers on the portrait, even though the breed didn’t exist at the time.

I think I was the only person who noticed, and I barely cared.

Well. As far as vocabulary goes, anything from Shakespeare on is pretty easy to check, if time-consuming. (You can check things before then, too, but there’s a lot less documentary evidence, and you’re suddenly bereft of an enormous number of crucial words.) Beyond that… yeah.

I mean, this is pretty old hat: Anne Hollander has a general point about how dress is represented in historical fiction, which applies to more or less everything else – every era invariably depicts the past according to its own aesthetics. (And their practical needs: see Mad Freddy N, as usual.) You can go all-out for Historical Accuracy, but even that is going to be according to how good your culture’s historical knowledge is, and which bits they think are most important or interesting. (Even if you make no factual errors, you’ll betray yourself on matters of emphasis and style.) So, in effect, you’re doomed, and it’s really about how to make your peace with this gracefully.

I’d already said as much in the text you quoted, under ‘subtler concerns.’

Well… yes. But as interpreted it, you meant “Sometimes anachronisms don’t hurt,”, while I attempted to expand that to “sometimes, including anachronisms actually improve games.”
Including a subtle anachronism to make a game flow better is fine, usually. But including a glaring, well-lampshaded anachronism can make a game even better. The best IF I’ve played were not the strict, everything-in-place kind of games, but rather the somewhat-tongue-in-cheek kind of games. I don’t speak for everyone, to be sure, but I would rather see some overt anachronisms than a painfully precise game.

The phrase I used was “anachronism chosen for a purpose.”

One might almost say it would be chosen for a purpose.