Take what you know about documented human history. Mix in some famous faces from generations past. And then, around these pillars of reality, weave a story that takes what we know and shifts it – sometimes slightly, but more often, dramatically.
Alternative histories are a common narrative framework for video games (and TV, novels and movies), but when they’re delivered with an air of authenticity borne of significant research, the results can be pretty spectacular.
Below you’ll find ten such gaming examples – but first, a caveat, or two. Alternative futures? No dice, there. So there’s no Fallout or Shadowrun, no Metro games or The Last of Us– and while Cyberpunk 2077 lit up E3, it gets no love here. (Ghost of Tsushima and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, though? Let’s talk, when you’re ready.)
The games that follow then twist the history books to create new timelines, but they are all grounded in the real culture and technology of an era. No Civilization, either, as amusing as promotional videos like this and this are.
Let’s keep these stories linear, and universal for all players.
Wolfenstein: The New Order / Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
With Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus on the Nintendo Switch giving us all the opportunity to murder Nazi scum from the comfort of a bathroom sit-down – look, nobody’s judging here – MachineGames’ Second World War “what if” is a great place to start.
2014’s The New Order showed players how Hitler’s forces used highly advanced technology to triumph over the Allies and become the preeminent global power – and The New Colossus picks up directly from where its predecessor left off, with protagonist BJ Blazkowitcz and a small but determined resistance fighting for their freedom in an oppressive early 1960s that’s pretty far from enjoying a summer of love.
These are both thrilling, violent, funny and surprisingly tender games that depict their widescreen horrors in vivid detail, while finding space for relatable human stories.
Another game that uses a rather different ending to World War II as its narrative springboard, 2003’s Freedom Fighters is set in a world that’s not been overrun by Nazis, but by the Soviet Union. As the decades pass, the United States remains resistant to the threat surrounding it – but all that changes when the Soviets invade New York in the game’s present day (so, a good 15 years ago).
Stepping into the shoes of plumber-turned-action hero Chris Stone – who, alongside his brother Troy, kind of represents the other gaming siblings with a penchant for pipe-fitting – the player must end the Soviet occupation of the Big Apple. Which Chris does, even if Freedom Fighters’ version of Luigi (I guess?) doesn’t make it. Spoilers, but come on, you’ve had 15 years.
While its visuals have definitely aged, Freedom Fighters’ premise and atmosphere are still strong, even now, and its squad-based play allows a kind of strategic depth that was far beyond most shooters of the time.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Like this was going to miss the list. In the first Red Alert, World War II was radically altered by the death of Hitler at the hands of a time-travelling Einstein. For 2008’s third entry, the Soviets dive into the past themselves and kill Einstein, so he can’t lend his technological genius to the Allies’ war efforts. And so, we’re launched into a three-way tussle for power between the Soviets, Allies, and the Empire of the Rising Sun, who arrive armed with gigantic transforming mechs (obviously).
Featuring trademark Command & Conquer real-time strategy gameplay, with just a few twists, it’s the deliciously hammy cutscene acting from the likes of J.K. Simmons (now an Oscar-winner for Whiplash), George Takei and, most memorably, Tim Curry as the Soviets’ top dog that guaranteed Red Alert 3’s place in the gaming history books.
As horrific as war is, Red Alert 3’s alternative-history vision is refreshingly madcap and colourful. All together now: “Spaaaace.”
The Resistance series
This PlayStation-exclusive series, which kicked off with the PS3 launch title Fall of Man in 2006, is perhaps even more ludicrous than Red Alert 3 in its set-up . Here an alien race called the Chimera mounts an invasion of Earth in the early 1900s… but unlike the celeb-starring strategy game, Fall of Man’s execution is a whole lot grittier.
In this alternative history, the Second World War as we know it never happens. Rather, the world is united in defending itself against an alien menace that uses terrestrial organisms to develop an army of mutant soldiers. Gross.
The first game begins in 1951 – and, brilliantly, travels to the exotic locale of Grimsby as part of its first-person shooter action (and, later, Bristol). Which is awesome, obviously. Australia’s here, too, albeit referenced only, and mostly because civil war’s broken out there. Bummer.
Realistic weapons of the era rub barrels and stocks with an arsenal of a rather more fantastical variety, and while Fall of Man ends on kind of a downer, don’t be alarmed: inevitably, humanity wins the day. It just needed to wait a couple of sequels.
Dontnod’s recent supernatural jaunt around 1918 London might be centred around the actions of resident blood-suckers, but its background – an outbreak of Spanish flu that would claim the lives of at least 50 million people worldwide – is devastatingly real. Its London is a dirty, diseased place, which can be made all the worse depending on the player’s actions.
Kill to sate your thirst, and the neighbourhood’s going to hell, basically.
Vampyr’s not an outstanding game by any means – as FANDOM’s review details – but its setting is an arresting one, before environmental repetition sets in. What better time for a fanged predator to pick off their victims than during an epidemic? A few more bodies, what’s the difference?
These in-game streets are littered with poster reminders of death overseas, suffered as part of what was then The Great War; while all around the propaganda, bodies pile up in the grisliest fashion. Vampires have never munched through Whitechapel, but if they had at the time of this game, you wonder who’d have actually noticed.
Another game set in the aftermath of World War I, 2000’s Crimson Skies takes what is perhaps an even more radical direction into alternative history than Vampyr achieves. An all-action air-combat game, this 1937-set cult classic plays out in the skies over a USA rather different to the one we know.
The very real Wall Street crash of 1929, aka Black Tuesday, sets in motion events that lead to several states seceding from the country as a whole, with Crimson Skies’ map featuring such territories as the Nation of Hollywood and Confederation of Dixie.
And if that sounds a little bit like BioShock Infinite, you’re spot on – in Irrational’s 2013 shooter, the airborne city-state of Columbia has seceded from the US. Want another similarity? Crimson Skies’ protagonist is called Zachary, sharing a name with Infinite’s ostensible villain.
Where the two games differ is their enjoyment factor: Crimson Skies is a boisterous, bright and terrific-fun dogfight ‘em up. And Infinite is Infinite.
The Order: 1886
OK, The Order wasn’t amazing. Elementary shooting, janky movement, a confusing story, Big Black Lines. But that setting, uh! So much more could have been done with it. That setting is of course, 1886, depicting a rather different Victorian England than what the records show.
Here, Knights of the Round Table, their lives extended by a substance called Blackwater, protect the common folk of Queen Victoria’s time from half-breeds – or werewolves, to you and I. Oh, and there are vampires involved too, but that whole part of the plot’s never really explained, save for announcing that Jack the Ripper was actually one of the undead nasties (despite Jack’s murderous activities not commencing until 1888).
But, putting all the nonsense to one side, 2015’s The Order’s visually powerful Victorian London is a wonder to behold, mixing recognisable elements – the Underground, Westminster – with technology far beyond what was actually possible in the 19thcentury.
In the game, much of this innovation is the work of scientists like Nikola Tesla, who cameos hereand supplies the titular Order (the Knights) with all manner of fancy gadgets. What shines brightest here, though, is the facial hair. Never has a game realised its hirsute heroes with such follicle-precise detail. Beautiful.
The Chaos Engine
A moment’s pause, please, for a terrific throwback. The Bitmap Brothers’ 1993 shooter – for the Amiga and other period systems, and so much more since – is set in a Victorian Era overrun by grotesque creatures and destructive automata born from time-travel experiments. All top-down arcade action, The Chaos Enginewas one of the best titles of its time, and remains a blast to tear through today, solo or with a co-op buddy.
It’s all fantasy, of course, but a fantasy rooted in the research of one Charles Babbage, regarded as the “father of the computer”. Babbage is also an influence not only on this retro classic, but also several works of steampunk fiction and sci-fi, including William Gibson and Bruce Sterling’s novel The Difference Engine– which The Chaos Engineis actually loosely based on.
It’s an alternative-history tale that’s well worth exploring before you cut loose on this seminal 16-bit relation, which you absolutely should.
The Assassin’s Creed series, because, come on, now…
If you’ve played one Assassin’s Creed, you know the formula. A few famous faces from the history books. Some alternative history shenanigans. Contemporary elements that most of us ignore. It’s a proposition that’s worked for over a decade now, and looks set to work again with the forthcoming Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, set during the Peloponnesian War of the fifth century BC.
The most wonderfully weird series instalment, though, has to be The Tyranny King of Washington, a DLC expansion to 2012’s so-so, 18thcentury America-set Assassin’s Creed III. Here, the player has to overthrow a George Washington who, on acquiring a notorious Creed-series MacGuffin in the shape of an Apple of Eden, turns into a ruthless dictator based out of a flipping pyramid in the centre of New York.
Yes indeed, friends: in The Tyranny, you will kill Washington. The most famous of Founding Fathers, dead. Sort of. Look, it’s Assassin’s Creed. You know how it goes. No-one ever really dies.
Ryse: Son of Rome
Finishing up on a BC adventure you can play today, Xbox One launch title Ryse: Son of Rome might not have sent critics into a giddy spin, but playing through its alternative-history takes on the highs and lows of the Roman Empire’s expansion, via Warrior Queensand Wicker Men, actually makes for a pretty absorbing trip back in time.
Crytek’s 2013 hack-and-slasher suffers from overly repetitive combat, but there’s sparkle aplenty to its mood-setting cutscenes and evocative environments, moving from Rome itself to an ancient Scotland that the Empire couldn’t conquer.
And if you’re looking for a game that takes established history and distorts it absolutely to suit its narrative, without inserting time travel or aliens into proceedings, this is the one.Fancy ending Emperor Nero in a way entirely removed (but way more dramatic) than how it actually happened? Or seeing Boudica come a cropper in a Rome she never went near?
Step right up, and strap in your sides for a wild ride that makes Horrible Histories look like The World at War.