Time Loops and Ethics in the Total War Series

From Robert A. Heinlein’s short story ‘–All You Zombies–’ (1959) to films such as Groundhog Day (1993) and Tenet (2020), the literary and audio-visual arts have nurtured and popularised the ethical quandaries that arise when humans alter the fabric of time. Such experiments, though, rarely feature in historical fictions. If they do, the focus is usually time travel. This can be explicit, with characters utilising time machines, or – more often than not – implicit, with the audience performing an imaginative leap back in time. There is, however, another temporal mode, instigated by video games, which constructs a different relationship to the past. This mode can be summarised as the temporal loop made possible by the ‘savegame’ function.

In this post, I want to consider the ethics of this loop in the Total War series (2004-present). In particular, I am interested in how savegames blur the mechanics of gaming with a representation of the past and the player’s interaction with that past. In doing so, savegames appear to undermine long-standing, though not universal, models of time used to explain the past and impose order and meaning, offering instead the leisure of temporal loops to endlessly replay traumatic events, from military defeats and colonial expansion, to the collapse of civilisations. Whether it is morally right for developers to produce – and players to replay – such events without hope of breaking the cycle, challenging the narratives presented, or necessarily understanding these events on a deeper level, remains an open question. Can rematches develop into an ethics of engagement with the past that allows for creativity and reflection? Or do they serve only to engrain recursive ideas and practices?

Recursive Loops

Developed by The Creative Assembly Ltd, the Total War series is one of the most critically and commercially successful computer-based historical strategy game franchises ever created. The original Shogun: Total War (2000), set in 15th century Japan, has given way to global instalments, such as the early modern Empire: Total War (2009), as well as sequels to the acclaimed Rome: Total War (2004). More recently, the series has broadened its scope, incorporating fantastic and mythical pasts. Total War: Warhammer (2016) and Total War Saga: Troy (2020) make use of the same turn-based strategy system, interactive map, and real-time battles that made the series famous. I will focus here on those instalments set in antiquity, including Rome: Total War (2004), which introduced the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of Imperial Rome, and Total War: Rome II (2013), which notably retained this setting. Total War: Attila (2015), like the Rome: Total War: Barbarian Invasion (2005) expansion pack, picks up the story almost four centuries later, offering players the chance to explore the later Roman empire (the so-called ‘decline and fall’).

Saving a video game is, by now, a customary practice – so much so that it rarely features in discussions of historical video games, where accuracy and authenticity is more often the focus. Formal mechanics, however, have the potential to generate wide ranging ethical implications for the consumption of history. The settings of the Total War series, from the grand campaign to one-off historical battles, are a looped record of the past. The time loops that save games create within the franchise are thus a microcosm of the gameworld itself. The player, like characters in films who have become stuck in time, is able to exert some, though not much, control over these loops, usually by resetting them. In Total War, this means either beginning a new game, or creating a save file that protects against defeats in battle and any disastrous campaign decisions. Unlike films that play with time, historical strategy games sell themselves on the premise that players can experience historical periods, make decisions, and affect the outcome of events. And yet, as with time loops in films, any action undertaken within the loop lacks significance as its effects will be overwritten when the loop is reset. In removing historical contingency while offering the same historical settings across multiple games, the Total War series sheds light on the nature of the past in strategy games, where the vast majority of history is disregarded in favour of snapshots, often tied to imperial expansion or collapse, which remain more or less determined regardless of player intervention.

At the same time, the Total War series offers the chance to explore alternative histories by borrowing from and expanding the revisionist capacity inherent in historiography, meaning that the effects of ‘saving’ history might not be as ethically dubious as they first appear.

Creative Loops

Simulations allow users to test ideas without endangering others. While the ethics of repeatedly conquering territory, eliminating cultures, and treating populations as dispensable cannot be ignored, time loops have the capacity to offer alternative modes of historical engagement that are worth thinking about. In Rome: Total War, it is not possible to start an industrial revolution or continue playing beyond a certain date. These limits to the time loop are important because they constitute an element of realism and focus player attention on the particulars of the loop in question. Producers of counterfactual histories/fictions typically express a sense of responsibility to history, making it clear why undermining what happened has consequences for how we might think about the past. This enables counterfactuals to give voice to the voiceless, advocate the possibility of change, or indeed offer alternatives to hegemonic narratives by amending the past in search of a more optimistic future (for more on counterfactuals and games, see Ylva Grufstedt’s excellent blog post from 12 May). The blurb for Rome: II provides a flavour of this. ‘The Imperator Augustus Campaign Pack,’ it claims, ‘is set in 42 BC during the chaotic aftermath of Caesar’s grisly murder. The republic remains whole, but its soul is divided as three great men, the members of the Second Triumvirate, hold the future of Rome in the palms of their hands … will you fight as a defender of Rome and defeat the other members of the Triumvirate? Or lead another faction on a campaign of conquest and expansion, and take advantage of the chaos as the Roman civil war rages?’

Saving the so-called ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ of Rome is significant, not only because these periods are historically interesting for what did happen, but because they are historiographically interesting for what might have happened differently, as historians, novelists, and film makers have shown. Aside from Rome: Total War, where the player must start as one of three Roman factions, the series has taken a decentred, egalitarian approach to its campaigns. Each game offers players the chance to play as ‘barbarian’ tribes and eastern powers, to explore a range of cultures. This optionality, when underpinned by time loops, allows for a holistic exploration of the ancient world at these strategic moments, empowering those that the record has not favoured. Such an approach also fosters reflection, with players observing, for instance, how the use of ‘historical events’ within the series helps them contemplate the changes they have wrought to history by playing the game.

Meanwhile, certain baked-in positions in Attila show that it is possible to explore alternatives and still end up with the same result familiar from history. Playing as the Western Roman Empire in Attila is significantly more challenging than playing as the Eastern because of the way the game imposes penalties to account for the difficulties the West faced in late antiquity. Even with the ability to save before a battle, manipulate the AI into making bad decisions, or perform luck manipulation ahead of sending a spy to assassinate an enemy general, it is near impossible to retain control over the empire. The AI itself struggles when playing as the Western empire, suggesting that the game’s algorithms will inevitably serve up what happened historically. With the Eastern empire, it is much easier to maintain a strong position. We can think about this in relation to how repetitive practice in time-looped films appears to bestow on the protagonist preternatural powers. Time-looped characters know what is going to happen, and this allows them to make small but meaningful changes over the course of predetermined events. Such clairvoyance models the way that players might approach localised play, where they can make use of foresight to achieve the improbable, all the while knowing that they cannot materially affect the course of history.

Challenging Loops

The Total War difficulty settings offer a further means to investigate how historical strategy games establish principles of conduct vis-à-vis the past. If the player selects ‘Legendary’ difficulty in Rome II and Attila, they are unable to manually save the game. Instead, the game autosaves progress before battles or at the end of a turn, each time rewriting the previous autosave. The player is only able to turn back time in a limited way, meaning that mistakes carry penalties. As one fan notes, this leads to a more literal experience: ‘when you control an empire your enemies aren’t going to let you call a redo.’ In recreating a state of historical contingency for advanced players, the ‘Legendary’ setting shows how game mechanics can further nuance the ethics of play by limiting freedoms, fostering realism, and encouraging players to think through the consequences of their actions. This setting is considered by many fans to be tedious, while for others it is a challenge. Respecting causality and the historiographical mode is not, as we have seen, essential for ethical play. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that players are able to tailor their experience of the past in-game in a way that is at times more – and at other times less – responsive to the temporal mode familiar from historiography thanks to the integral nature of the difficulty mechanics.

Breaking the Loop

Characters that have become trapped in time loops, through acts of repetition, first learn to game the system, before ultimately turning inward to reflect on themselves and their relationship to those around them. In Total War, players have the chance to learn how to defeat the AI. They also, however, have time for self-reflection, both in-game and following a campaign, when the loop is suspended. Then, it is possible to bring the skills, ideas, and knowledge gained into a new campaign, or even conceptions of history beyond the gameworld. This is certainly reflected in reviews of the franchise on Steam, which often focus on the player as historical problem-solver. From an ethical standpoint, time loops in historical strategy games raise issues around the types of past represented, along with the nature of engagement on offer. They also, however, present alternative ways to make use of the protean nature of the past in games, to rework the familiar and strategize anew.

Richard Cole is an interdisciplinary scholar working on Classical Reception, historical fiction, and digital representations of antiquity. He is currently part of the multi-disciplinary team on the Virtual Reality Oracle project at the University of Bristol, where he holds the role of Research Associate in Ancient Greek History and Virtual Reality. His latest article – ‘Breaking the Frame in Historical Fiction’, published in Rethinking History – develops his PhD thesis, which explored the role of framing and paratextuality in historical fiction set in the ancient world.

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