The key to a great historical game is to ensure that the history doesn’t spoil the game. Relic Entertainment knew, from the very beginning, that Age of Empires IV had to feature the Mongols. They were the clear lynchpin civilization, both an iconic force in Age of Empires II and an iconic force in history, famed for their lightning-fast horse cavalry, with an empire stretching 9 million square miles, from East to West, encompassing nearly all of Relic’s game world.
Or, to put it bluntly: “We were like, OK, well, they fought everybody,” says Quinn Duffy, the game’s director. “So now we can start to figure out who else we can include."
The task now was to reduce 500 years of history into “an essence” of a civilization: an abstraction concocted to fit the rules of a game.
Some elements of history mapped perfectly. Odegai Khan, the third son of Ghengis, expanded a giant Yam network, an early pony express: postal stations where a horse or runner could rest as they transmitted a message across the empire. The team at Relic reimagined these into small stone circles: outposts that give units a speed bonus as they ping around a player’s base.
Other ideas were abandoned. The team motion-captured horses. Instead of the cartoonish turn-on-a-dime the animals pulled off in the previous games, in the new one, horses would be realistic, with a full suite of animations, slowing down and arcing in circles to their target. The game was unplayable. “Everyone hated it,” says Adam Isgreen, franchise creative director at World’s Edge, collaborating with Relic on the game.
Finally, there were the aspects that both Duffy and Isgreen acknowledge are simply ahistorical. The Mongols in Age of Empires IV are nomadic: Their towns can be packed up on wagons and relocated across the map. In reality, says Duffy, while this may feel “authentic,” it is inaccurate: As the Mongols spread from the Ghengis Khan era into his sons and grandsons, they settled, building cities and fortifications. “That’s always an interesting battle,” he says. “We’re always struggling with the impact of authenticity and the abstraction of that authenticity into gameplay.”
Next to the Civilization and Total War games, Age of Empires is the most iconic series in the genre of historical games. The fourth in the series arrives 15 years after the last entry, but, in recent years, all three previous releases have had fresh makeovers, in the form of HD and so-called Definitive editions. Evidently, all three have their own followings, but the first (beginning in the Stone Age) and the third (set during the European colonization of the Americas) are generally considered inferior to the second (set in medieval times). The fourth returns to medieval times, and the team has admitted their game is directly inspired by Age of Empires II.
When I was 9, my dad bought me a copy of Age of Empires II under the pretense that, since I refused to stop playing games, I might at least learn something about history. And I did, in a way: Even if the history itself was shaky (even then I knew that the Chinese invented gunpowder: why so few gunpowder units?), the passion for this history, told through gameplay, was infectious. I was captivated. I was Joan of Arc, protecting the Orleans Cathedral from the hated English; I was Attila the Hun, letting Bleda, my murderous brother, die at the tusks of the iron boar. These historical figures were so much more absorbing than a typical sci-fi or fantasy setting; I studied the Middle Ages at school because of them. Age of Empires turned players toward the past and compelled them with its bloody, battle-strewn vision.
There is no better example of a perfect Age of Empires setting than in one of the earliest missions in the new game. The Bayeux Tapestry unfurls before the player; you will soon be at the heart of it. Suddenly, the player is transported to 1066, to the Battle of Hastings, controlling William the Conqueror. A narrator, speaking in the past tense, explains that the player must rout Harald of Norway's troops. Bold horsemen gallop up a green hill into a swarm of spears. It’s classic Age of Empires: iconic battles brought to life. Duffy and Isgreen emphasize that it was the physical traces of history—metallurgy and artwork in the British Museum; archaeological sites finding Byzantine coins in Japan—that most inspired their return to the Middle Ages for Age of Empires IV.
“The thing that drives Age of Empires is to inspire a love of history in everyone worldwide,” says Isgreen. “And how can we drive towards that goal of connecting people from all these different backgrounds and histories and cultures, in ways that they can relate to each other?” Isgreen says that he was galvanized by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s 2014 reboot of the show—he wants the game to feel like a passionate and adored history teacher.
Like most historical games, the Age of Empires series has been criticized for its presentation of history. For starters, explains Bret C. Devereaux, an assistant professor in ancient history at North Carolina State University, Age of Empires contains no actual empires. “The empires in Age of Empires are not empires at all, but fanatically murderous nation-states, projected backwards in history hundreds—if not thousands—of years before any such idea of a state existed,” he wrote in a 2019 blog post on the topic.
What’s more, he explains, nations in the game series are both homogenous and anachronistic, perpetuating cultural stereotypes modern people continue to hold. It’s also been pointed out that there’s no class conflict in Age of Empires: Villagers labour happily on their farms without question or pushback. “They just released the trailer for the French,” he says. “And I rolled my eyes because they’re like, ‘As the French get into the feudal age’—there were no French in the feudal age! France was a patchwork in this period.”
The most grievous historical issues stem directly from the game’s mechanics. The original opening cinematic of Age of Empires II opens with two kings playing chess; as they make moves on the board, their armies on the battlefield fight correspondingly. It still provides an excellent metaphor for the game—as one streamer points out in extraordinary depth—and for the real-time strategy genre in general. Games like Age of Empires are all about annihilating your enemies and stealing their land, which leaves those games and their creators open to imperialist and colonialist criticism, like the kind Elizabeth LaPensée levels against Age of Empires III in this article on video games and indigenous cultural expression. Taken seriously, these mechanics are not just ahistorical as a point of fact, says Devereaux, but mirror ideas that have had awful historical consequences.
“The way those mechanics express themselves in historical context is that there is a zero-sum pool of resources on the map, and the way that you succeed as a state is to annihilate other populations until you control their resources,” says Devereaux, “There’s a reason I point this out. We don't generally think very well of states that pursued that strategy right? That’s Lebensraum: that's some Nazi stuff, quite literally.”
To be clear, Devereaux says that he is “obviously not saying Age of Empires is going to create Nazis.” (Though, historical games are, actually, enjoyed by Nazis.) Even so, the gameplay echoes some pretty bad ideas about history that its creators have to bear in mind. If Age of Empires II persuaded me to study history at school, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that it could have—or did—shape my perceptions in other ways, too. After all, why would actual, real-world troops be encouraged to play military-themed video games?
Age of Empires, of course, is not a sim: An accurate depiction of history would require a redesign of the mechanics from the ground up. Both Duffy and Isgreen admit that the real-time strategy genre is an issue. “The format of RTS is relatively constraining,” says Duffy. “It’s about a big economy, building up these big armies and fighting to the bitter end. And we know, historically, that didn’t always happen. History is full of nuance and diplomacy.”
Nevertheless, it is clear that Relic accepts the weight of responsibility this time around. For example, at many points in Age of Empires IV, there is an attempt to teach, in Duffy’s words, history “outside of conquest and fighting," from written history to fully narrated documentaries that offer historical context. The latter are particularly interesting: They might show an armorer jumping up and down on a suit of Mongol armor, demonstrating why it deserves a +2 rating in the game; or focus on the years of hard labor put into building a castle that a player can construct in a minute; or show how an army was kept content with food, money and sleep.
Gone are the caricatural accents and bad acting, replaced by a dispassionate, History Channel-esque narrator. Duffy says the team consulted scores of experts and academics and linguists to try and mitigate the sense that Relic was speaking for other cultures. Often, he says, they got it wrong: one expert pointed out that the way they had translated the name of a weapon was offensive, ascribing it an origin that is contested. But the team understands that how we play through history can distort our perception of it, and that Relic has a responsibility to address that. “What can we teach people about history?” says Isgreen. “And how can we connect people to these other cultures?”
Age of Empires IV will rightly attract criticism. There’s ultimately a point where gameplay and history become parallel, explains Duffy, and the two streams cannot cross. The team’s goal is progress. “Trying to be as accurate and as faithful and as sensitive as possible to the history was really important,” he says. “No one will ever get it all right. But I think trying is the important thing.”