This is a revised and extended edition of an article I originally wrote in Hebrew for Israeli tech maganize TekTok prior to One Tank In May's release. As the game was originally aimed at a local audience I didn't find it nessassary to translate it at the time. I was convinced to translate it eventually but never got around to it until now. I hope it'll help devs trying to make history-based games!

Documentaries became really mainstream in recent years, didn't they?

Once considered the domain of niche history channels and gravely-voiced dads who sleep in front of the tele, documentaries evolved into fascinating, high-budget, cinematic experiences. Carefully constructed twists and turns powered by sharp editing - these films, TV series, and podcasts (specifically true crime ones) are now an attraction that glues many to the screen.

Audiences are ready and willing to experience real-life stories about real people in exciting and innovative ways. So... why don't we have documentary video games? Or, at least, ones based on true stories?

Oh, well, it's easy. Because they are interactive. History was, and is, linear: it was not written by player agency, but by victors. It happened in a very specific way, by very specific people who made very specific decisions.
We are also very protective of history, and for good reason: if you're a documentarian and you cut too many corners, not only have you betrayed the inherent trust of your audience, but you have essentially distorted the historical record. "Zeitgeist", "Super Size Me", "Jenin Jenin", "S-Town" and the previously mentioned "Serial", every Michael Moore film - all of these docs experienced some sort of controversy pertaining to the way they told their stories.

And sure, video games are an extremely versatile, creative, and expansive medium, but they do have limits - again, harkoning back to the fact they require player involvement. Maybe there are stories that only non-interactive media, like film, television, and literature can tell; stories staged by artists and writers, their pacing vigilantly calculated. In Fuck Videogames, designer and programmer Darius Kazemi argues that video games (and interactive experiences in general) suffer from an overexcessive amount of hype, and that interactivity doesn't inherently make art more engaging or interesting simply by virtue of it being interactive. In short - the fucking medium is the fucking message.


A book cover caught my eye from beyond my computer screen. It did not feature a tank, but its title promised one. Simply named "The Tank" (הטנק), it was an Israeli war story, written by promising Israeli author Assaf Inbari. "Well," I thought, "you got me. Let's see what you're worth."

After reading it I'm happy to announce that there is indeed a tank in the book. A real tank, standing naked and destroyed to this very day in Degania Alef, a few minutes' drive away from the Sea of Galilee. Five different people claim they destroyed it during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and essentially saved Degania (and the country) from the wrath of the Syrian army. "The Tank" - the book that is - promised to cover the stories of these men, and tell their stories in full.

After reading the first chapter I immediately jumped from my bed and got into a Google-searching, new-tab-opening, bibliography-reading whirlwind of excitement, trying to find as much as I could about the battle, the individuals who fought in it, and why no one could give me A STRAIGHT FUCKING ANSWER about who destroyed it. I felt like I was a detective, or, well, a director of a true crime doc. While falling through the rabbit hole, I eventually got to one clear conclusion: wow, that's a great concept for a video game.

The werecked Syrian tank in Degania Alef. Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher, CC-BY-SA

But uh... how does one even begin to design such a game?

I mean, I have fond memories of good ol' World War II shooters, and we'll briefly get to them shortly. But in my research, I also found many smaller stories, stories ones we don't really think about on a day-to-day basis. Tiny ones, by folks who didn't have the fate of the free world on their shoulders, and just wanted to fit in or figure out what they wanted to do with their lives.

I've organized these games into three different groups - design philosophies, if you will - which developers, both small and large, subscribe to in order to make history a playable reality.

NOTE: Needless to say, game design and narrative design is subjective as all hell. I am not an industry veteran nor do I study game design academically. Don't treat this as anything but an op-ed (or part of a dev diary about One Tank in May).


Listen mate, don't sweat the small details. What's important is to immerse players in the ambience, give them a sense of place. Evoke a certain... (flips through dictionary) verisimilitude.

Reconstructions go by the "emotional truth" of a given situation, and use traditional gameplay tools (sounds, sights, objectives and pacing) to accentuate that emotional truth. These games are heavily rooted in genre, and don't tend to mold or change their core gameplay structure for the sake of plot.
Attempting to reconstruct a "playable LEGO model" of a story isn't lazy. Quite the opposite really: copious research is required to get the team immersed into the time period to create credibility. Atmosphere is hard to create, and immersion is harder to maintain - especially when you're banking on these tools to sell the action.

The word "cinematic" might spring to mind, and it's no coincidence: in the early 2000s, World War II shooters were a capital-f Force to be reckoned with, following the success of the Medal of Honor series. These games spiritually echoed the larger-than-life cinema of Steven Spielberg, and his style would influence future WWII shooters, and the FPS genre as a whole. The sub-genre dazzled players with intense gameplay and "historical accuracy", as exaggarated as it was, in favor of good action.

The single level that most represents this era is probably the D-Day mission from MoH: Allied Assault. While movie buffs could only passively watch the landing, gamers experienced it for themselves, all from the eyes of a lowly American G.I. - agressive shelling, hails of gunfire, intense screaming. The gratification of scaling the beach and taking the fight to the Germans.
I would say it still holds up today. It is absolutely terrifying the first time you boot it up, not only thanks to great sound design, but also because the player is weak and defenseless. You're forced to be patient and cognizant of your movement. It's no wonder it's become a staple for any self-respecting WWII shooter.

The first Call of Duty game, which was created in part by MoA devs, pulled a similar rabbit out of its hat. The famous Stalingrad level threw players into the battlefield without a rifle, forcing them to frantically rush through the gates of hell in search of something to fight back with. Granted, you don't stay defenseless for long, but it does do a fairly good job at mechanically expressing the sheer desperation and bravery of the Soviet troops.
Trying to break away from the competition, the Brothers In Arms series tried to emulate genuine tactical manuvers (albeit in a very rudimentary manner). Players control the C.O. of an American paratroopers brigade in France, taking charge and shouting orders while experiencing a personal story clearly inspired by classics like Band of Brothers.

RECONSTRUCTIONS ARE GREAT FOR games where the player is but a small cog in a much larger machine, games based around large-scale historical events, or sim games. This allows the player to have sufficent agency while still immersing them in a certain time period.

SEE ALSO: Paradox's historical Grand Strategy games (Hearts of Iron, Europa Universales, etc.), Basically Every Realistic FPS Based On A Real War


In game design, abstraction refers to the practice of taking a certain action and translating it into managable and understandable game mechanics and systems.
Easiest example: in Super Mario Bros., you don't need to individually rotate Mario's leg bones to make him walk or jump. The act of walking and jumping was abstracted to a simple press of the D-pad or the A button.

QWOP by Bennet Foddy does exactly that.

I think it's safe to say every game you've ever played uses abstraction to create a smooth, intuitive and accessable gameplay experience. Hell, we've even abstracted abstractions: When you play an RPG, you don't need to connect individual neurons in your character's prefrontal cortex to learn a new skill. Our self-learning process is compressed down to an integer simply called "experience points".

So yeah, THAT, but for narrative design.

In place of letting the player take part in a big, historical event, we can abstract it: breaking down its narrative to the most essential components and building a game around that. Now, constructing a gameplay loop around a narrative rather than the other way around often suggests a linear story structure, almost to a fault. Then again, these kinds of games are interested in using mechanics as a way to express themes and story rather than for the sake of player agency. This is what some scholars and designers call "mechanics as metaphor".

Iranian-American game designer Kurosh ValaNejad turned the American-backed 1953 Iran coup into a short game called The Cat and The Coup. Playing as elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh's cat, players solve simple platforming puzzles while their owner looks profoundly confused and demented.
While its art design is filled with Iranian references and culture, the game has no concrete time and place - "Persian rooms in the void" is the best you're gonna get. Its puzzles often revolve around tilting and shifting rooms in weird angles. These design decisions reinforce the game's overall theme of confusion, chaos and a lack of control over one's destiny - culminating in the world literally collapsing under your feet.

In Coming Out Simulator 2014, developer Nicky Case simulates a "semi-fictional" conversation they had with their strict parents, in which they (attempted to) come out as bisexual. A visual novel with a reletively large amount of variables and event flags, it manages to conjure a tangible sense of weight behind every dialogue decision, creating unease and tension.
COS2014 isn't a game you win or lose - you can spill the beans or decide it's best to keep it a secret. Rather, it wished to express the difficulties of its namesake by way of a personal story.

ABSTRACTIONS ARE GREAT FOR shorter games about tiny/personal events, games that require a certain order of events. As a matter of fact, this was the philosophy I subscribed to the most while developing One Tank in May, as it's perfect for a game about a specific short incident.

SEE ALSO: Dys4ria, Welcome to Elk, Cosmic Top Secret


Somewhere in between the two extremes we've discussed sit journalistic games. Mechanically speaking, they generally lean more towards the simplistic side, but that's mainly because they explicitly exist to educate. This is often illustrated by the addition of meta content like informative tooltips, historical notes, interviews, quotes, or even 3D scans of actual people and locations. In other words, it's not only about believability, it's also about fundamentally communicating an important story.

Education's a noble goal, no doubt about that. But it's easy to fuck it up and make a game that breaks its own immersion every once in a while for the sake of "informational tidbits". On the other hand, if done correctly it can not only inform players but also immerse them a time and place they've never been a part of.

Take 1979 Revolution for instance, another game about an Iranian coup: the Islamic Revolution in its titular year. A TellTale-esque "interactive movie", players take on the role of an amateur reporter in revolutionary Iran, as he attempts to understanding what's going on aroudn him while also contemplating his future.
Make no mistake, it is a fictional narrative (albeit based on true stories), but it does try to inform players about Iranian culture in general, the Islamic revolution in particular, and the actual, real people who were involved in it - either through logs (which also feature real pictures and quotes) or through the narrative itself.

Finally, let's talk about #Hacked. It's a fascinating webgame I found while researching the topic back in 2019, made even more interesting considering it was commisioned by none other than Al-Jazeera. The game's domain had expired and the game was seemingly exspunged from the news agency's website by the time I write these words (2022).
Essentially, it was a stylized experience where players, LARPing as an Al-Jazeera reporter, are tasked with writing the story about Bashar Al-Assad's "army of hackers". Throughout the game, you'll solve simple puzzles (clearly inspired by ARGs) and texting various contacts and informants to get to the bottom of the story.

The most memorable part of #Hacked was its extensive use of live-action footage. It not only included impressive, timely B-roll, but also interviews with real people whose lives were affected by the Syrian Civil War or its army of hackers - which I found to be the best part of the experience.
It was as sleek as it was janky, as heartening and endearing as it was artificial and blunt. Here's how I summed it up back in 2019:

I'll admit, #Hacked entertained me for an hour or so, and it did manage to inform me about a forgotten corner of a bloody civil war. It also reeked of self-importance, shoddy writing, and an overbearing educational agenda. This came to a head when I was asked to "chat" with incredibly verbose Dark Web hackers with no semblance of irony, humor, or self-awareness. A shame, because it has some good ideas, and I would like to see more things like it.

Finally, a word about "edutainment". I wouldn't be so quick as to stick that label on the games we've discussed just yet. First, the label carries certain connotations: edutainment games are usually thought of as "kids games" - which isn't strictly true in our case. Second, journalistic games understand that if they wish to educate, they must first make an engaging narrative or mechanical framework. If edutainment games stereotypically exist as educational first and games second, journalistic games treat education as a feature or a selling point, rather than the main attraction.

JOURNALISTIC GAMES ARE GREAT FOR personal stories in larger historical contexts, little-known stories where the people involved are still alive and can add credibility to the game. It is very easy to let your educational ambitions get ahead of you, especially if a certain subject is near and dear to your heart. But always remember players won't bother knowing more about your game's setting if the game is boring.

SEE ALSO: Attentat 1942


There's an inherit flaw I didn't catch in the original Hebrew article in 2019. I painted these design philosophies as pillars that may intersect sometimes, but they're mostly independent of each other. With time, I've come to understand that's misleading - these tenants are branches of the same tree, a gradient if you will, and they can weave in and out of each other.

For instance, is Valiant Hearts, a World War I adventure game, an "abstraction" because it's a fictional narrative focusing on personal stories with simple mechanics, or is it a "journalistic" game because it includes educational factoids? Probably leans more heavily on the abstraction side if you ask me, but it also has some educational ambitions.

I don't want to get hung up on definitions. It's all potayto/potato to me, frankly. I'm just a guy who likes to give pretentious names to things. When all is said and done, the most important thing to the end consumer is whether or not they're getting a good game.
I hope we see more games based on true stories. Don't know about you, but the minute you tell me what I'm about to watch (or play) actually happened, I'm immediately more involved, engaged, and care about the characters. Maybe it's how we're wired. Maybe it's the weight of knowing you're playing as, and experiencing a story about, real people. Maybe it's because I'm a history buff. Maybe it's because reality is, more often than not, stranger than fiction.