Seeing and Hearing the Past in Video Games

Videogames with historical (or counter-historical) settings often mimic and recreate popular media images of the ‘real world’ as the basis for their virtual environments. Of course, this is a necessity for texts which consciously try to build highly detailed, immersive and interactive virtual landscapes, depicting ‘the past’, in an effort toward facilitating ‘authentic’ player experiences.

But though a technologically advanced and unquestionably postmodern medium, many contemporary video game creators also recreate and utilise ‘old media’ materials, placing these texts and items in-game to be collected or accessed by players.

Fallout 4_20160226150431

Clearly, I’m a collector (Fallout 4)

The population of game environments with such meticulously recreated ‘old’ historical objects and media sources both remediates these kinds of materials and uses them for specific purposes. In certain videogames, they might used to reveal or grant players knowledge of the game world’s unique, often counter-factual history. Think the voxphones (audio recording devices) and kinetoscopes of the Bioshock universe: We might call these digital data fragments collectible and viewable audio-visual historical sources. These items often record the personal testimonies of the people who have experienced life in Rapture or Columbia, and have some bearing on the game’s ‘plot’ as the player progresses through it from start to end. Kinetoscopes especially in Bioshock Infinite serve as propaganda tools to convince people of the righteousness of Columbia’s ‘mission’ and pure connection to America’s founding fathers, unravelling and presenting the history of its inception, and the struggle of its own founder, Zachary Comstock. By hearing and seeing these story fragment the player’s wider sense of narrative cohesion and the history of these fictional spaces and places progresses with them.

The use of audio recordings or computerised data logs is also a main (and often chilling) feature of the Fallout universe. Audio tapes (known either as holodisks or holotapes) and HAM Radio broadcasts can be discovered amongst the rubble of post-apocalyptic Boston, California, or Washington D.C., and are an auditory glimpse into the past. Data entries can be accessed on many of the surviving pre-war computer terminals that are scattered around various locations. In some cases, these recordings are actually sources that the player is required to collect, looking for clues, piecing together fragments of a wider story that allows them to complete their quests. But in general, accessing these sources is to tap into the ‘lived’ experiences of real people trying to survive in bunkers, vaults, or in the open world.

“Wayne, I’m leaving this message with Marcie in case you come looking for me, though I pray you don’t. The military took over the hospital and everything has gone to hell in the city. Things here… they’re… it’s bad Wayne. People are dying every day and most of the time all we can do is watch and try to make them comfortable. One of the other nurses told me she heard a radio signal that sounded like you and the boys. I don’t know if it’s true, if… you’re still out there, but we’ve got a way out and I’m going to try to find you.”

– ‘Bonnie’s Holotape’, Fallout 4

Very often, listening to or reading these messages is to hear the voices of the dead in this alternate historical universe. You might even find the person’s corpse (or bones) lying next to the tape you pick up and listen to, or the diary entry you read. There is no explicit narrative need for Bethesda to take the time and energy to create these testimonies and place them in-game, but in doing so, the world becomes a dynamic place, a place where life has existed and has passed, creating a sense of this world’s past, and the experiences and suffering of its inhabitants, the victims of nuclear war. And ultimately, that’s part of its charm, one of the reasons the Fallout series is seen as such an historically aware game, though containing very little ‘real’ history.

Players are in various ways encouraged to participate in this kind of collection (or excavation?) of old texts and materials. Several of Fallout 4‘s unlockable trophies/achievements explicitly reward the player for collecting things that are old. ‘Future Retro’ encourages players to collect holotapes that allow you to play ‘retro’ minigames on the Pip-Boy or any computer terminal, based on actual ‘retro’ arcade games like Donkey Kong and Space Invaders. ‘Scavver’ rewards players for collecting a certain amount of ‘old’ pre-war objects—old telephones, typewriters, toys, tools, and the list goes endlessly on—, which can then be scrapped and used to build other ‘Wasteland D.I.Y’ projects. This is actually one of the main features of the game, leading to a whole array of other kinds of rewards. Others encourage players to find and collect old magazines (‘Print’s not dead’), and Vault-Tec’s promotional Bobbleheads (‘They’re not dolls…’, ‘…They’re action figures’). In fact, collecting any of these latter items actually adds to player’s skill set, and determines how effective they are at navigating the world and interacting with (and killing) what they find there.

Whether or not these (often narratively unnecessary) collectible items are purely ‘little more than a lazy way of extending the game’s lifespan’, they are there to be accessed and collected. And, very often, if that thing is there to be accessed and collected, it will be, no matter how pointless it might seem to the player doing so. (See Chris Sullentrop’s ‘I Can’t Stop Collecting Stuff in Video Games‘.)

‘Old media’ sources are also used to create a sense of a ‘real’ place and time, grounding the game in its apparent historical context, both legitimising and affording a sense of authenticity to the game world, its characters, and narratives. The world of Red Dead Redemption has two cinemas that can be visited, both of which play short ‘silent films’ for players to pay ‘$2’ to sit and watch. Though invented cartoon versions of the ‘real thing’, both take (tongue-in-cheek) aim at topics or issues  ‘contemporary’ to America’s West in the early twentieth century.


While some use fiction to create their own sense of historicity, others use the past more directly. When driving the streets of 1940s Los Angeles, L.A. Noire’s car radio plays old episodes of The Jack Benny Program and The Bickersons. This is in addition to players hearing ‘real’ recorded songs by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and Thelonious Monk (music similarly being one of the key supporting features of the Fallout and Bioshock universes’ manufacture of a sense of authentic time and place)

Mimicking the form, content and styles of ‘old’ media objects and texts to convey information and knowledge to the player, affords this information a sense of authenticity, and further grounds the game environment in its recognisably historical setting. Though often the ‘real’ world has actually moved-on, this postmodern medium tethers itself to the past through the deployment of the very artifacts that belong there. Creating new (or reusing old) versions of these historical sources suggests to players that what they’re experiencing is authentically drawn from the past, and asks then to participate in the construction of what might be considered historical narratives. And, is therefore in itself a new kind of historical knowledge acquisition, whether realised or not.



Filed under Games, history, Music

2 responses to “Seeing and Hearing the Past in Video Games

  1. p2d2

    I believe that it’s the developers way of being creative with collectables, fleshing out a deeper narrative out of its fictional world and squeezing in concepts that didn’t make it to the final product; all in one fell swoop. Fully enjoy these sort of features in games because it hooks you in and truly humanizes the world your playing in.

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