The brilliance of Crusader Kings 2 is how it pairs sweeping ambition and scope with the grit and grime of medieval life. Players are treated to the minutiae of court intrigue, religious tension, and bizarre family drama in Paradox’s vision of grand strategy set in the broad Middle Ages.
CK2 has always been about breadth and depth. It can be both a small-scale struggle for the future of Warwickshire, England, or a modded dive into the life of a god with some all-too-earthly problems. The world you inhabit is the one you create, rather than something forced on you by the developers. And in any good dynasty, rolling with the punches is part of the job description.
In this edition of ‘If you like,’ I look at books, comics, and films that speak to the highs and the lows of life during the Middle Ages, a period where the modern imagination can make history and fable to collide in spectacular ways.
Northlanders, written by Brian Wood, various artists
In Northlanders, we get a healthy dose of medieval imagery dealing with the essential human experiences—life, death, and love. The first collected volume of the comic series that began in 2008 deals with the return of the viking Sven to his homeland in the Orkney Islands. It’s a bloody homecoming on many of the pages, but all that violence is tied neatly together by Brian Wood’s subtle and detailed writing.
With many stories that seek to represent or inhabit a medieval mindset, the experience of their characters can seem distant to our own in many respects. Wood gets around this challenge with detailed exposition and dialogue that complements the suitably-bloody approach to the series’ artwork. Northlanders ran for 50 issues before it ended, covering a variety of story arcs set in and around Western Europe. Those can now be found here seven collected volumes.
The Name of the Rose, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud
On its face, the film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s often-purchased-but-rarely-read novel is a murder mystery. But the film has an important political message as well, about the power of both reason and laughter to touch our basic humanity. What Annaud’s 1986 work also has are some of the strangest and most-intriguing characters to ever appear in a “medieval” film.
Set in an Italian abbey where monks are turning up dead, Sean Connery and a very young Christian Slater turn in convincing performances as the leads. But the movie’s lasting impact, in terms of characters, can be seen in the casting of Ron Perlman as an abbey resident with a dark past, and F. Murray Abraham as an over-the-top agent of the Inquisition. The bleak desolation of medieval life and the precariousness of survival in 1327—both physical and spiritual—is written on all their faces.
The Accursed Kings by Maurice Druon
With the success of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, that world’s mythology has even found its way into Crusader Kings 2’s more-grounded universe through its active modding scene. So when Martin calls another book series “the original Game of Thrones,” it gets my attention.
In his seven-volume historical epic The Accursed Kings, novelist Maurice Druon traces the ups and downs of French nobility during the 14th century. Originally published during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the novels are available in a very-readable English translation. The new editions even carry a foreword by Martin explaining their influence on his imagination. He writes: “The Accursed Kings has it all. Iron kings and strangled queens, battles and betrayals, lies and lust, deception, family rivalries, the curse of the Templars, babies switched at birth, she-wolves, sin, and swords, the doom of a great dynasty … and all of it (well, most of it) straight from the pages of history.” All themes that should find an audience among CK2’s committed fanbase.
And be sure to check out Martin’s other reading recomendations on his Not A Blog—there’s a lot more to dig into.
Excalibur, directed by John Boorman
John Boorman, of Deliverance fame, knows something about violence, lust, and base cruelty. We get all that and more in his take on Arthurian legend. Featuring a veritable who’s who of Irish and British character actors in roles large and small, the 1981 film is campy, sexy, and even stirring when it wants to be. While I wouldn’t place this artifact at the “realistic” end of the spectrum when it comes to themes common to Crusader Kings 2, it shares much of the same sensibility. Even for King Arthur, life is more often than not a struggle. And one that can change in an instant, whether on the battlefield or in the bedroom.
For a take on medieval life more in-line with art house national cinema than lusty Hollywood epics, also be sure to check out the Czech film Marketa Lazarova, directed by Frantisek Vlácil. The black and white epic features stunning cinematography and a suitably-brutal and conflicted story that should have a lot to offer kings and tyrants. The Criterion Collection edition of the film is excellent, the opening of which you can see here.
Patrick currently works as web editor for Hinterland Studios, which is making The Long Dark. For more installments of ‘If you like...’, check out the other games he's covered in this series below:
- If you like Doom
- If you like Overwatch
- If you like Tom Clancy's The Division
- If you like Metal Gear Solid 5
- If you like Dead Space
- If you like The Witcher
- If you like Dishonored
- If you like Mass Effect
- If you like Skyrim
- If you like Fallout 3
- If you like Deus Ex
- If you like Company of Heroes
- If you like STALKER
- If you like Her Story
- If you like American Truck Simulator
- If you like Rainbow Six Siege
- If you like Far Cry Primal