by Goran Damnjanovic, Gaming Columnist
Published in Gaming on 29th October, 2018
Alternate history timelines are found in many novels, movies, comics, and TV shows, probably because humans are fascinated by "what if" scenarios showing what could happen if some history events ended differently, happened after or before they've occurred in our timeline, or never took place at all. The sheer number of possibilities is astounding so alternate history is a pretty popular source of material for works of fiction (and if the quantum multiverse theory is correct, all these alternate histories happened in some version of the Earth present in this limitless multiverse) and alternate history tales are dime a dozen in most storytelling media.
But in video games, alternate history stories aren't as frequent as they are in other media, at least when it comes to alternate histories of our civilization and not some eerily similar culture like in Dishonored's depiction of 19th century society that takes place in a different world, or some fantasy or Sci-Fi setting set on planets that don't have any ties to Earth, like in the Witcher series or many space flight sims. And even when we get a game with an interesting alternate history premise, that game usually ends up as being rather poor in other departments like is the case with Damnation (a game set in the US where the Civil War lasted for decades), Turning Point: Fall of Liberty (a game similar to Wolfenstein but with much lower standards when it comes to gameplay and visuals), or The Order: 1886, a game with simply fantastic alternate history premise but with a poor execution that left fans to wonder how many excellent sequels would we got if, in some alternate timeline, The Order: 1886 ended up as a great game?
Fortunately, there are quality alternate history games and if you want to play them all you'll need lots of time on your hands, mostly because if you want to enjoy an alternate timeline it is needed to visit all of the games happening in it. That means we mostly included video game series based on alternate histories because picking just one game from each series wouldn't be fair to the series as a whole. And now, let us delve into the best of what the gaming industry can offer when it comes to the good ole "what if" scenarios.
An automatic entry, Fallout series is one of the best examples what can you do if you create a solid alternate history premise and then build a quality construction around a healthy foundation. The story in Fallout is a story about mankind fascinated by the energy of the atom. Instead of using nuclear energy just in the form of nuclear power plants, the society turned to it as a source of power in cars, planes, and helicopters, but oil still remained extremely important for world's energy needs. The divide between our and the world of Fallout took place shortly after the end of World War II.
In the world of Fallout, the transistor wasn't invented thus leading to the completely different course of events. Without the main ingredient that lead to our world's rapid technological advancement (every piece of technology we use today from smartphones to the internet has its origins in the invention of the transistor that happened in 1947) the Fallout world stagnated. The fashion and technology kept the 1950's level but the lack of oil, which was much more important in this timeline led to many resource wars. China never embraced the free market and the USSR never failed, leading to a completely different distribution of power.
The US transformed to a sort of a totalitarian country and the Middle East drove the world's economy with its huge oil reserves until it was bombarded with nuclear missiles. Europe also fought for Middle Eastern oil but after that part of the world was destroyed, the continent clashed into many localized wars. Nuclear power was modified to be used in cars and other vehicles, but it was too late because China needed oil badly. Finally, China invaded Alaska because of its huge oil reserves, the US annexed Canada in order to use its resources to reclaim its northernmost state, which they ultimately reclaimed. And then, in 2077 a year after Alaska got reclaimed by the US, China launched a massive number of nuclear missiles towards the US, and vice versa. The world ended in just a couple of hours in the event known in Fallout world as the Great War. And the world that rise out from the nuclear ashes is the post-apocalyptic world of Fallout we all know and love.
In Prey reboot, the world followed our timeline even longer, right until one event failed to happen in 1963. Instead of being assassinated, President Kennedy survived and later joined forces with the USSR in order to develop a joint space program. Of course, the two powers didn't join because some higher cause with a goal to together drive mankind forward but because Russians discovered alien life form on their first satellite (Sputnik) and asked the US for assistance.
The two countries built a space station around Sputnik, effectively closing down the Typhoon organism and spent the next couple of decades studying it. The USSR imploded in 1991, like in our timeline, so the US continued to operate the station without the other country's assistance. Their researches became more and more extreme until the incident that saw human scientists dying because of the Typhoon infestation.
The aliens onboard the station were kept alive from 2000 (when the US abandoned the station) until 2025 when TranStar corporation (the company owned by the main character's family) bought it, renamed it to Talos I, and continued Typhoon research studies. TranStar developed NeuroMods which, once injected into a human brain, gave humans all kinds of new abilities. But after a new incident Morgan Yu is left stranded on Talos I and then the game begins.
After you beat the game (warning: spoilers ahead!) you realize that it was all a simulation and that you are in fact a Typhoon organism that was given Morgan's memories and that the Earth is already overrun with aliens. The whole game was an experiment trying to infuse you with human emotions, sense of morale, and empathy and, depending on your choices, you are terminated or left alive by Morgan's brother Alex, and the cliffhanger ending hints that in the future sequel, we might try stopping Typhoon invasion of the Earth.
The new Wolfenstein series, which started with Wolfenstein: The New Order, uses an exciting alternate history storyline that sees Nazis conquer Europe during the World War II, with the US resisting until 1948, when Nazis take control of the country by launching a nuclear bomb on New York. From then on, the world is held by Hitler's forces and that is the way of the world for decades.
During the first game, B.J. Blazkowicz and his resistance friends manage to put a large dent in Nazi operations in Europe, but the real fun starts in Wolfenstein: The New Colossus. In the sequel, Blazkowicz gets beheaded but he somehow survives, he learns that KKK rules the southern US, and he travels to a secret Nazi base located on Venus. And after the main game ends, we learn that Blazkowicz managed to kill the entire command structure of the Nazi in the US and that the country slowly started to fight against the Nazi occupation.
This one is an excellent semi open-world shooter with RPG and survival elements and by many, the original Stalker and especially Stalker: Call of Pripyat, are some of the best PC exclusive games ever. And the excellent gameplay is supported by an intriguing alternate history storyline.
The infamous Zone, the huge radiated area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, was repopulated by military and scientists shortly after the 1986 disaster with them using the unique irradiated environment of the Zone for conducting various experiments. But after some experiment goes wrong, the whole area suffers a second disaster, making the Zone extremely dangerous place filled with physical anomalies, mutated animals and humans (who turned into horrific monsters) and valuable artifacts, which possess unique abilities.
These artifacts are the main reason why people decided to inhabit the Zone despite its extreme inhospitality. Military wants to control the Zone and to have control over artifact trade, and Stalkers (freelance mercenaries, explorers, thieves, and adventurers) come to the Zone to explore it and to get and sell artifacts.
Over the course of the first game, we learn that seven scientists managed to create a hive mind by connecting their consciousness and forming C-Consciousness. This self-aware hive consciousness tried to bring world peace by attempting to assert global mind control but something went wrong and C-Consciousness triggered the second disaster and created the Zone.
It later enshrouded Chernobyl and the nuclear plant in a mind-destroying force field known as Brain Scorcher created a monolith inside the nuclear plant that brainwashes anyone who somehow manages to discover it and created the Monolith army made out of brainwashed stalkers.
The protagonist of the first game (stalker named Strelok) discovers all these secrets and ultimately destroys the C-Consciousness, making the Zone disappear and for normal life to return to it. But, as these stories go, that didn't happen.
At the end of the third game of the series (Stalker Call of Pripyat), we learn that after he destroyed the C-Consciousness new anomalies appeared at the Zone, along with catastrophic emissions that somehow made the Zone expand. In the aftermath of Stalker Call of Pripyat, it is hinted that the Zone will soon encompass the whole of Europe.
Okay, where do we start here? The whole Metal Gear Solid universe is one huge alternate history world filled with extremely complex storylines, numerous events that didn't happen in our world, powerful secret organizations that control governments across the world, and advanced weapons and scientific discoveries that can turn the tide of world events.
Each game is filled with lore and aside from slowly learning about world's events and interesting and wacky histories of characters, you will also play amazing games based on stealth and infiltration gameplay and in each game missions can be completed in multiple ways meaning that stealth isn't the only option. And when it comes to which game from this cult classic series is the best well, you have to play them all in order to find your favorite because every single game is a masterpiece in its own way.
Metal Gear Solid games have stories so long, complex, and intertwined that we could create a standalone feature covering many storylines covered in each game, but here we would just mention that the world is governed by a secret organization called The Patriots (also known as Cipher), soldiers known as Solid, Liquid, and Solidus Snake are clones of the original Naked Snake also known as The Boss and that Metal Gears, found in almost every Metal Gear Solid game, are in fact giant robotic machines armed with nuclear missiles.
Resistance: Fall of Man came out as one of the launch titles for the PS3 and soon after became known as one of the best shooters on the platform. Along with Killzone games, Resistance series offered the best FPS action on the PlayStation 3.
The history depicted in the game is pretty much the same as ours up until the end of World War I. After the end of the first global conflict, Europe develops a trade organization similar to the EU, thus preventing the rise of Nazis, the Great Depression and World War II. Russia on the other side goes into complete isolation, which culminates with the construction of a huge wall cutting all ties to the European continent and the total comms blackout that happens in 1921.
All is silent until 1949 when the Red Curtain (the huge wall) is breached by alien forces known as Chimera, primary antagonists in all Resistance games. The Chimera arrived on Earth at the beginning of the 20th century when a meteorite carrying their DNA crashed in Siberia in what is known as Tunguska Event. The aliens use a virus that quickly spreads among the human population, causing horrid mutations to humans and turning them into human-Chimera hybrids.
The Chimera forces quickly conquer all Europe and in 1950 they invade England by digging tunnels below the English Channel. Thus begins the first game, in which players control a Special Operations soldier who possesses superhuman powers given by him by experiments that included infusing humans with altered Chimera virus. He manages to halt the alien force in wiping out England but the aliens ultimately overcome resistance in England and invade the US.
The second and third game of the main Resistance series takes place in the US. The second sees players trying to stop Chimera in erecting climate-altering towers (which they ultimately built in England), preventing aliens from changing the climate and making it inhospitable for humans. The third game is the last in the series and in it, players stop Chimeran forces from opening a wormhole to their home planet, and once the wormhole is closed the humanity starts fighting back the alien invasion forces.
Command & Conquer real-time strategy franchise dominated video game world during the nineties and during the better part of the aughts with its main serial and wacky spinoff embodied in excellent Red Alert games.
The main serial was a serious and dark take on alternate history. It all began with the catastrophe that happened in 1995 when a meteorite carrying crystal of alien origin crashed into the Tiber river in Italy. Because of this, the mineral found in the meteorite was named Tiberium. But Tiberium wasn't a normal crystal, this one is a non-carbon based crystal that spreads across the land corrupting and mutating all life while leeching carbon-based minerals and metals, thus speeding its growth.
The organization known as the Brotherhood of Nod discovers a way to harvest and use Tiberium and to turn it into a valuable resource. While extremely valuable, Tiberium's toxic features made the Global Defense Initiative to battle Nod which leads to three Tiberium Wars. The ending of the second war sees Nod launching a Tiberium-filled rocket that crashed into Earth, spreading the crystal all across the Earth.
And finally, in the third game aliens known as Scril arrive on Earth lured by the huge amount of Tiberium. The three factions clash and aliens eventually get defeated but at a huge cost because GDI uses a Tiberium-based bomb to destroy structures built by Scril, contaminating the Earth even further.
Red Alert games are, on the other hand, proper alternate history games that include a huge number of different timelines, depending on various endings players can unlock. The first game starts with Albert Einstein traveling back from 1946 to 1924, removing Hitler from history and preventing WWII from happening. But this paves way for the Soviet threat, with USSR conquering China and invading Europe, only to trigger an alternate WWII. The first game ends with Staling defeated (this is the canon ending) and Allies victorious.
The ending of the first Red Alert game ultimately leads to the Tiberium crisis in 1995 (Kane, leader of Brotherhood of Nod was a part of Red Alert as Stalin's advisor) and the storyline of the main C&C series.
Red Alert 2 and 3 present yet another alternate timeline in which Allies, USSR, and the Empire of the Rising Sun (in the third game) battle among themselves for world control. While the second and third games include lots of alternate history events, only the events depicted in the first game as seen as the official canon story for the Command & Conquer universe.
Assassin's Creed series is the perfect example of a successful video game franchise built upon the alternate history foundation. The whole premise is that history is much more than we know about it, with each game featuring an alternate explanation of various historic events.
The humanity didn't evolve on its own; we are a product of the old human-like race called Isu that settled the Earth tens of thousands of years ago. We are genetically engineered as a slave race that was to help Isu but we ultimately rebelled against the First Civilization and inherited the Earth. And Isu stayed in our legends, depicted as gods.
And after the war and the catastrophe that followed it, human history truly begins. And throughout the history of the two ancient orders, Templars and Assassins are battling over control of ancient Isu artifacts that possess immense powers.
Each game is filled with alternate depictions of various historic events and each game is filled with historical figures, most being members of either Templars of Assassins. As is the case with Metal Gear Solid games, to explain it all would need a standalone article so all you can do is to play each game and find it all out by yourself. There isn't a flat-out bad Assassin's Creed game so if you by any case missed this excellent video game series, start from the beginning and from the first game that got released in 2007.