Total War: Three Kingdoms is set during the collapse of the Han dynasty in China during the 2nd and 3rd century AD. By 230, three states dominated China: Wu, Shu and Wei. It’s the story described in the historical text Records of the Three Kingdoms and more famously in the 14th century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
It’s also what Creative Assembly drew upon when they made Total War: Three Kingdoms, a historical strategy game which set multiple sales records for the franchise when it released in 2019. Dan Snow interviewed writer Pete Stewart and senior designer Dominique Starr, exploring fact and fiction in gaming and the research undertaken for Total War. Here’s 5 ways they were inspired by history.
1. Sticking to the sources
The scale and detail of Total War: Three Kingdoms can be hard to comprehend. How do the designers go about recreating a vast conflict in ancient China, incorporating both legendary warlords and embattled landscapes? “Well the historians have done a lot of work for us!” says Starr. “There’s a lot of source material and we have research work we use as a reference.”
“We used other academic sources to help us formulate a better impression of how things were back then, and also the records of the Three Kingdoms itself was written at the time of the Three Kingdoms period and that, in itself, has a wealth of information [about] the people, the way they lived, the economy and that kind of thing.”
2. Gathering visual inspiration
The creators were also inspired by the fictional Romance itself, although it was written 12 centuries later. To visually embellish the campaign map and battle map in Three Kingdoms, meanwhile, Creative Assembly’s designers were inspired by images of contemporary China as well as popular culture.
While the designers can label different films for inspiration, the landscapes of modern China proved suitably rousing. “People often asked us how [we] make China look so romantic and enormous and daunting,” says Stewart. “I was like, have you been to China? That is what China looks like.” The visuals were rounded off, says Starr, “with a slightly modern Chinese art twist.”
3. Negotiating romance and history
It was important for the Total War team to recognise the difference between the romanticised version of the story and the history. “We recognise that a lot of what’s in the novelisation might not fall into strictly historical material, so we actually have two modes in the game,” says Starr.
“We have a romance mode and a records mode. If you go in the romance mode, the characters are slightly larger than life. They stride into battle single handedly felling entire units of enemies. Whereas if you take a step back and play the records mode, your characters are generals, they have bodyguards, they’re slightly less superhuman. A bit more grounded.”
Creative Assembly happily indulged with creative license when it came to special abilities and combat styles. “Particularly, we use a lot of Wuershan movies,” says Stewart. When asked if the history ever interrupts gameplay ideas, Stewart and Starr instead found the opposite. “One of the beautiful things about Three Kingdoms is that it met a lot of our design ambitions,” says Starr.
4. Animating the experts
Senior designer Starr credits the “amazing depth” artists go to when researching the clothing of the period, the materials, the armour and the weaponry. The Total War team also depends upon a team of animators to recreate the combat styles and weapon handling in the game.
“We’ve got a very talented team of animators who try to help recreate the fighting styles and we also have one of the biggest motion-capture studios in the UK,” says Starr. “We get martial arts experts and other combat experts and actors to come and physically perform or represent the moves that your characters will have in the battlefield.”
“Seeing someone come in dressed up in their suit with all the little balls on,” says Starr, “seeing them do their moves, and seeing that translate into the game engine afterwards […] is just fantastic.”
5. Sharing a knowledge base
While certain members of the Total War development team will have more in depth knowledge of the history than other members, Stewart says that the team collectively share a “knowledge base” which helps govern the balance of historical material in the game.
“For my part,” says Stewart, “I’m much more well versed in how the Han actually worked as a bureaucratic system. There are other people who are better at Romance knowledge than me, and together we find our way through the correct path.”
“At the start of the project, every discipline immerses themselves in the period in some form,” adds Starr. “The character artists will look at the clothing of the time, the environment artists will look at architecture examples and other references. Designers will be actually reading accounts of the time [and] reflections on what it was like to live in the period.”
The result is that Three Kingdoms permits players to replicate history on a grand scale, despite its sandbox nature. Where other games are perhaps more analogous with historical film, presenting exciting yet linear narratives, says Stewart, the Total War series presents a world that is “significantly more immersive, if only because of the sheer density of detail.”