Total War Troy has called its design philosophy the “truth behind the myth.” But what is that “truth?” And do you even need to find the “truth” behind a myth? Or would the game be much better if it embraced the myth, instead? These are my impressions on Total War: Troy from its trailers and blog posts.
In a blog post talking about the design philosophy of Total War Saga: Troy, the developers at The Creative Assembly explained that their design philosophy was called “the truth behind the myth.” In that blog post, the Game Director, Maya Georgieva, explained the basic tenets of the philosophy:
It all exists in the myths and legends of the ancient Greeks with one significant caveat – myths are far removed from reality. . .Instead of forfeiting an attempt to expand the series into this exciting age, we decided to draw from that source – very carefully and concisely, by separating the impossible from the still less probable but feasible, until we could filter out a core that could be at the heart of a great new Total War game.Maya Georgieva, Total War Saga: Troy Game Director
The basic methodology, in other words, was to imagine an artificial binary – that between myth and reality. The mythic, to the developers, was problematic, and only the probably historical could be properly included into the game. There are several critiques one can make of this design philosophy in its entirety.
The Entire Story Is a Myth
The most basic critique is that the entire story is a myth – there is nothing historical about it. To be sure, there is a site on the banks of north-eastern Anatolia that shows the ruins of a relatively great city that was probably destroyed in war. The geographical features of the beach also seem to match the Homeric description. That is the absolute extent, however, of the historical relevance of the Trojan war.
There is absolutely no evidence for a wise Priam or haughty Agamemnon; enraged Menelaus or prodigal Paris1; noble Hector or mighty Achilles. There is no evidence of a mighty alliance of Greeks sailing across the Aegean, setting their sights on an unconquerable stronghold, and, after ten years of failure, finally razing it to the ground. The entire story existed only in the imagination of the Iron-age Greeks – and through them, us.
How can one claim that one is engaging in a “historical” endeavor, sifting the possible from the impossible, when, in fact, there is no basis to even begin imagining that the very poles around which the entire story revolves ever existed! Surely, a Trojan war might have taken place which led to the destruction of a city named Troy – but the Trojan war, with its characters and motifs that have such cultural relevance for us today, remains and will always be a myth.
If the mythic is truly problematic, then the entire story must be problematic and not eligible for a Total War title. This, however, brings us to a much larger problem with the design philosophy, and one that is at the core of the development.
The Mythic Is Not a Search for Material Explanation
In a video I made on this very issue, I discussed that the the mythic elements of the Iliad are not problematic – they are, in fact, the greatest opportunity for the entire series. The mythic is not problematic – and to imagine that the mythic is only a way understand the material world around us is a gross misunderstanding of how myths actually functioned in the pre-modern world.
In the same article, Georgieva explains how she imagines myths functioned in the Homeric age:
The myth of the god of metallurgy Hephaestus tells us he’s the son of Hera (and sometimes Zeus, but not always – which is already curious), and he was thrown to the Earth on the island of Lemnos after his birth – hence his deformity. Hera was queen of the gods, and the goddess of marriage, the sky, and the stars of heaven. Can this account relate to an astronomical event? Did the starry sky “give birth” to a meteorite that gave us metallurgy?MYTHS, MONSTERS, AND MEANING: THE TRUTH BEHIND THE MYTH
Every scholar of myth, literature, and pre-modern storytelling would roll their collective eyes – if not outright shoot themselves – with that account. The primary function of myth is societal and communal meaning making, not materialistic meaning making. In other words – it is US who searches for continuous material explanation, not the pre-moderns!
Thus, it isn’t relevant to an exploration of the Iliad at all to try to imagine a scientistic explanation of Iliadic events – that is alien to the entire Iliadic ethos. Rather, what makes most sense, if one is to make a game surrounding the Iliad myth, is to embrace the mythic, and let it create its meaning.
Embrace the Myth – Create Meaning
It would have been far better for Total War Saga Troy to abandon the “truth” – however it conceptualizes that concept – and embrace the myth entirely. Since embracing the characters of the Trojan war is engaging in myth making anyways, embrace the idea entirely. Let the Iliad be the Iliad. Don’t strip it of its cultural and societal meaning markers, and don’t pretend like doing so somehow makes the game more “historical.”
Myths are important cultural and societal stories that give shared meaning and social cohesiveness to societies. The Marvel/DC comic book universes, or Star Wars, or the Lord of the Rings, are all examples of modern myths. If one were to try to look for a proper scientific explanation behind Marvel superhero powers, or Star Wars characters, or, God forbid, the Lord of the Rings, it would not only dilute and make the stories unintelligible – it would be disrespectful to the stories themselves.
Instead, the game should have been designed in such a way that embraced the mythic nature of the war. Instead of consulting historical and scientific writings, it should have consulted the treasure trove of modern research on the role and motifs Greek plays, poems, and epics. It should have tried to imagine how the ancient Greeks imagined themselves through their projection of their heroes, and tried to portray that world. In doing so, we would have had a game more true to the Iliad, freed from the burden of rampant unhistorical speculation, and a beautiful exploration of how societies bring meaning into their collective lives through myth.
Instead, we have some kind of mutilated hybrid – neither myth nor history – a wasted opportunity of paying homage to one of the most influential works in the history of Western civilization. What we actually see is a great consternation in the Western mind, which is obsessed only with the material, about anything which engages with the immaterial. Total War Saga: Troy is as much an indictment about our own lack of imagination as it is an attempt to recover some kind of lost history.
1 While Priam and Paris are possibly mentioned in historical documents, the details of their exploits are myths of the Greek oral tradition.