Movies have embraced period pieces since the beginning of the medium – from historical costume dramas to gangster epics, Hollywood has always made good use of a wide variety of eras. While games are beginning to rival film in terms of production value and storytelling, the industry is still largely tied to a small handful of settings – primarily modern military combat, Tolkien-derived fantasy, and science fiction.

It’s a shame, because – perhaps better than any other medium – video games are capable of not only telling a vivid period story, but entirely recreating long past cultures and time periods.

This list represents the best of the game industry’s efforts and mining the rich subject matter of human history. Hopefully, the success of these games will show that gamers are willing to embrace subject matter that beyond space marines and M16s.

Note: I’ve left off a couple of games that I think many would have expected to be on the list. The most notable is BioShock. BioShock is an amazing game, due in no small part to its amazing art deco architecture and period vibe. However, it’s more of an “alternate history” than a period. Rapture never existed (though it may someday), and thus it’s not really a period piece. Another series I left off was Destroy All Humans, which has mined the ‘50s and ‘60s, but obviously more as a tribute to the cheesy pulp sci-fi and horror films of that era. Basically, a spaceship disqualifies your game from being a period piece.

Oregon Trail
Publisher: MECC
Release Date: 1971

 This is the granddaddy of video game period pieces. For many schoolchildren in the U.S. in the ‘70s and ‘80s, MECC’s Oregon Trail was not only their introduction to historically themed video games, but video games in general. Using text and primitive graphics, this computer game allowed you to step into the boots of an American pioneer making the treacherous journey west to settle in Oregon. You and your family loaded up the covered wagon, bringing food, supplies, and ammunition for the trip. Sadly, many of said supplies were destined to be lost in a dangerous river crossing, presuming you didn’t succumb to a snakebite or dysentery first. Hunting (which became more complex in later iterations of the game) was always popular – perhaps the first “shooter” gameplay many of us experienced. The game also provided a formative tutorial in item management and inventory.

The best part? Because it was “educational,” you could actually play it in the school computer lab and not get in trouble. While it seems primitive by today’s standards, Oregon Trail was remarkably evocative, letting us imagine what life was like for those hearty souls that settled the American west.

For a fascinating look at the making of Oregon Trail, check out this story from the City Pages.

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