Making history

How 'Age of Empires IV’ uses documentaries to bring history to life

Or why a crossbow is a lot harder to use than you might think.


When you sit down to play a video game, you probably aren't expecting to learn much, except perhaps how many headshots a zombie can take before it goes down, or whether or not your friends have been practicing their Rainbow Six Siege skills (they haven't).

However, strategy games like the recently-released Age of Empires IV allow players to experience the frenetic battles and novel technology that defined history firsthand — if from a bird's eye view — and the developers behind AoE are determined to fully embody those events for players to see for themselves.

That's why developers World's Edge and Relic Entertainment partnered with the British production company Lion Television in order to create in-depth mini-documentaries that cover the tech and culture of the civilizations that you pilot through epoch-defining world events, such as the Battle of Hastings. As franchise narrative director Noble Smith puts it, these videos are a major weapon in AOE4's attempt to inform players with the same intensity and thrills as a good episode of Top Gear.

Smith points out that the previous Age of Empire games used a combination of evocative art and voice-over to set the historical stakes for their campaigns. However, in the 15-plus years since the last entry in the series, technology has progressed enough to allow the game to include 4K footage of the very real battlefields where these clashes took place, and the then-cutting edge weapons that allowed one side to carve out a victory. Though AOE4 tends to focus on the military side of things, Smith notes that a good portion of the docs cover ground that you might not expect, such as the process used to create medieval paint, or the traditional music of the Mongol civilization.

“We wanted to show the parts of everyday life that get abstracted in the game.”

"I think a lot of people expect for us to go deep on some of the war aspects of the game, like the trebuchet, the crossbow, the heavy cavalry," Smith says. "But we wanted to show the parts of everyday life that get abstracted in the game. Like, you send a villager to build a farm, but in real life, most people's whole lives were centered around the harvest."

Smith continues: "We wanted to emphasize that this isn't a mass-produced world, that this is a world where everything is made by hand, down to the individual arrows. There's one expert that makes the shaft of the arrow, another one who makes the feathers on an arrow, and another one who makes the tip of the arrow, and so on. All that has to happen 10,000 times before you go to war, so we wanted to show that in a real and lasting way."

The final game features more than 20 of these video clips, and they're primarily used to stitch together its main single-player mode, which features four campaigns set in the Middle Ages, which include the Norman conquest of England, the Hundred Years' War, the triumphs of the Mongol Empire, and the creation of Moscow.

These campaigns serve as an on-ramp to the complex but accessible action that Age of Empires is known for; for example, in the first Norman mission, you control William the Conqueror's army as he storms Senlac Hill to slay King Harold and end the era of Anglo-Saxon rule. As the game rudely informs you in the next mission, however, that potted story you heard in Western Civ class isn't actually accurate, as William the Conqueror had to spent the next few years putting down northern rebels in order to actually cement his claim.

These videos are quite slickly produced, and they ground the finely-tuned clockwork systems of the strategy milieu into something much more lively and concrete. The soaring drone shots of the rolling plains that hundreds or even thousands of men died on so long ago are striking to view, but the most impressive effect in the game comes when overlaid ink soldiers march across these modern landscapes in the same way they would have on the day of battle.

"We wanted to show these places are alive right now."

"We wanted to show these places are alive right now," Smith says. "There's cars in the background, but we wanted to give the feeling that events resonate through time, and you can still go to these places. We want to inspire people to do that."

My personal favorite of the videos is the above-linked clip on the crossbow, which makes it clear just how much strength it takes to cock and shoot the "easy to use" weapon. It also shows off how crossbowmen would carry large shields as mobile cover to hunker down behind, which makes a lot of sense, but runs contrary to their usual depictions in popular media.

Narrative designer at Relic Lauren Wood says that the mini-docs didn't just help establish the tone of the game — it also helped with mechanical ideas, too. According to Wood, the game's designers were so impressed with the video that showed how medieval warriors made incendiary arrows that they decided to add them to the game. She says that the documentary that covers Mongol music is her favorite in the game, because of how it reflects the importance of the horse to Mongol society. (The clip features a throat singer who performs a praise song to one of Genghis Khan's horses.)

The documentaries cover historical esoterica that even armchair experts might not be familiar with, such as how some warriors from Moscow wore masks shaped like a human face in order to inflict psychological harm to their enemies. Another tells the story of how Henry V (then known as Prince Hal) was struck in the face with an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and the army had to bring in a blacksmith to create a new tool in order to extract it. Narrative lead Philippe Boulle personally appreciated this latter addition, since it involves an emergency room technician who demonstrates how the tool was used on ballistic gel.

As a whole, the combination of Age of Empire IV's versatile campaign mode and the impressively-detailed videos that power it make it the perfect place for even non-strategy fans to dip their toes into the intimidating RTS genre. (The lengthy but skippable tutorial that the game opens with is just the crash course that many of us lapsed Age of Empires players might need.) The fact that the game is now available on Xbox Game Pass just makes that process that much easier. You don't need to know how a crossbow works in order to conquer England, but it presumably helps. Just ask William.