Shogun: Total War and the art of a great video game story

Do you remember the first time a video game told you a story? By that I don’t mean the first time you played a video game that had a story. I mean the first time it made one up for you, like a grandmother who’s reached the end of her book of fairytales, but the grandchildren are crying “One more, one more!”. I mean the first time a game took a bunch of random numbers, fed them through a system of switches and levers, and somehow outputted a coherent, mesmerising narrative? Do you remember the first time you experienced this magical moment that only games can provide?

I do.

It was 2003, and the game was Shogun: Total War. I’d picked it up a couple of years prior and played with it a little. I’d gone “wow” at its ability to render hundreds, sometimes thousands of tiny soldiers on impressive 3D terrain, then forgotten about it in favour of the new Medal of Honor or something. I’d never been much of a strategy guy. Up to that point, the only strategy game that had held my attention for longer than a few hours was Age of Empires, because of its elegant simplicity and that compulsive rhythm of advancing your civilisation.

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