Technology is amazing. It's so great, it's next to impossible to truly appreciate just how phenomenally, staggeringly, unbelievably indescribably great it is.
Every day we play with the kind of power that would have medieval villages setting up pyres (or to be more accurate, gallows, since English witches were hanged rather than burned), and every day it becomes harder and harder to be impressed.
Innovations become features, features become expectations and expectations become the status quo. And so, the world becomes another slice more cynical and blasé.
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It's Google Earth that does it for me. Only a couple of years ago, the mere idea that we'd be able to load up one program and zoom from the atmosphere down to our own back garden in one more or less fluid pan was nothing short of sci-fi. Literally. That was one of the stock special effects when movies like Men in Black wanted to show off.
Years of development later, it's bordering on time-travel and teleportation. Archaeologists use it to track ancient civilisations. You can visit distant lands at street level, and where once famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower were simply squat splats on a pixellated landscape, they now stand tall – admittedly, in the middle of flat fields – as proud hybrids of 3D models and photo-realistic textures.
The most recent big release is the Ancient Rome layer, which tries to recreate the city at the height of its power. The graphics firmly smack of an educational project – all very clean, with simple textures – but speaking as an amateur classicist, I don't mind.
You get museum-style explanations of what everything is, a few indoor scenes to explore and, of course, all the Google tools so you can find out whether there's now a Starbucks where once there was some great ancient relic. Probably. It'd be too depressing to find out that there is, so I haven't checked, but you feel free.
Stories the key
What this kind of environment can't offer, though, is any real feeling of the culture itself. I've never been a fan of museums, mainly because I've never cared much for objects behind glass or crumbling architecture. Rock is rock.
Instead, my interest in history tends to be focused around books and the stories that emerge from these cultures. I couldn't care less about how the Greeks built their towns, but I love that we still use the staff of Hermes as one of our primary symbols for medicine and that Cloud Cuckoo Land survives as an expression.
It's odd that games – interactive experiences entirely built around stepping into and interacting with unusual worlds – have always failed miserably at picking up the baton. Usually, they immediately bail out of depicting their time-period properly, or try and compensate for the smell of edutainment wafting out of their armpits by throwing in bizarre extras. Demons. Magic. Time-travel.
Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed is one of the most shameless. It's not actually set in Crusades-era Jerusalem, but in a lab in the near future, where a guy called Desmond is hooked into some machine to relieve his ancestor's racial memories, or some such nonsense.
Amusingly, there were due to be novels based on the game, until complaints from the Ismaili resulted in the author being told to keep all religion out of them. "I guess the Crusades were about shoe size or something," he grumbled on his blog.
The easiest way to 'do' education is to throw in reams of information and hope that someone, somewhere, will actually read it. It always fails, but it makes researchers happy. For my money, the best thing to do is to concentrate on feel. Anyone who's interested in taking it further will do so, whether it's buying a book or going to visit somewhere in real life. I've done that.
The interactive Gabriel Knight 2 featured large segments devoted to Ludwig II of Bavaria and I doubt I'd have been as interested in poking round his fairy-tale castle at Neuschwanstein or the markets of Marienplatz had I not enjoyed exploring them while werewolf hunting.
The Last Express is another that caught my attention; a murder mystery set in a rolling microcosm of the major powers involved in World War I. Play for the atmosphere. Play for the history. Play for the plot. Your choice, at least if you were one of the three people who bought the damn thing.
Still, history always repeats itself. At some point, someone will find a way to harness both education and entertainment into one single word that doesn't send terrors down the spine. With a few more complex layers, maybe it'll even be Google. Right now, I'm happy just footling around the world.
By tomorrow, I'm sure Google Earth will be back where it's been for the last year – buried in my programs menu while I play Left 4 Dead. But that's tomorrow. There's plenty of today still left.
First published in PC Plus, Issue 277