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The Portrayal Of Joan Of Arc In Age Of Empires II

Examining the story of Age of Empires II from both a historical and creative perspective, writer Ryan Rigney delves into how the dev team handled its portrayal of Joan of Arc -- comparing history to game.

Ryan Rigney, Blogger

August 9, 2011

23 Min Read

[Examining the story of Age of Empires II from both a historical and creative perspective, writer Ryan Rigney delves into how the team handled its portrayal of Joan of Arc -- comparing history to game.]

In the centuries since her life and death, Joan of Arc has been portrayed in a number of different, often conflicting ways: as a French heroine, and as a vile witch deserving of death; as a person guided by divine inspiration, and as an ordinary girl who was merely misguided. The types of media used to tell the story of Joan of Arc are just as numerous and varied as the messages behind the stories; the tale of the illiterate peasant girl who led an army and altered the course of a war has been told through plays, books, film and, in recent years, interactive digital media -- the video game.

Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings is one such video game that attempts to once again weave the story of the Maid of Orléans. The second entry in the multimillion-selling series is a real-time strategy game for Windows/Mac-based computers, and it allows players to control hundreds of on-screen units at once with the swipe of a mouse.

Although many players flock to the game for its competitive multiplayer component, the core of the experience lies in a selection of five separate military campaigns that push players through battles and significant events connected to popular historical figures like Genghis Khan, Barbarossa and (of course) Joan of Arc.

As with several of the campaigns, the creators of Age of Empires elected to pull not only from the image of Joan that historians generally agree upon, but also from myth and legend.

To say that Joan -- who was condemned to death at the stake by the English in 1431 and later canonized by the Catholic Church in 1920 -- is a controversial figure would be an understatement at best, leaving the game's developers in something of a predicament: what is the best way to represent a person as complex as Joan of Arc using an interactive medium?

This leads me to the driving question behind my research: among the various portrayals that have been made of her since the 15th century, from the popular to the theological and from the political to the scholarly, which canonical representations of Joan of Arc influenced the depiction of her in Age of Empires II's campaign about her?

Joan of Arc: The Saint With Recharging HP

"Death is by now an old companion, but for Joan, we will face it again."

– February 19: The Journal of Guy Josselyne (Age of Empires II)

Each of the six missions in Age of Empires II's Joan of Arc campaign is decidedly heavy on combat, while the more intricate political and personal details behind the story's major players are told through short, storybook style cutscenes that bookend the game's interactive segments.

These cutscenes are narrated by an entirely fictional character, Guy Josselyne (so named after one of the developer's ancestors), who tells the tale from the perspective of a French soldier under Joan's command. The story picks up on a late Februrary morning at an army camp near the French city of Vaucouleurs, where Joan had recently arrived to request an escort to Chinon for a potential meeting with the Dauphin -- the soon-to-be King Charles VII.

"She told us she did not know how to ride or fight," writes the bedraggled-sounding Josselyne. "She told us that she intended to rescue France." The fictitious soldier goes on to paint her as a prodigious speech-giver and mobilizer of the downtrodden. "The darkness lifted from the men's souls. Her voice rang with conviction, and we drank in her every word. I may have lost my faith, but Joan has not lost hers, and that is enough for me."

The developers of Age of Kings accomplish several things by establishing a fictional character as a narrative filter for players over the course of the campaign. By not letting Joan to speak for herself, the game's designers avoid the obligation to comment on the veracity of her claims of divine guidance.

The story picks up long after the transpiring of Joan's supposed meeting with the three saints/angels who told her to drive the English from France and bring the Dauphin to Rheims for his coronation. By not depicting the meeting with the saints, it is not asserted that Joan either did or did not have God on her side. This allows the developers to avoid any potential controversy, and keeps the focus on Joan's military campaign.

Age of Empires II team member Dr. Greg Street (who now works as lead systems designer for Blizzard on World of Warcraft) claims that potential religious controversy was intentionally avoided for the sake of the game's publisher -- Microsoft.

"We were published (and later owned) by Microsoft, so we didn't want to give anyone a reason, legitimate or not, to make a stink out of our portrayal of religion," says Street. "Part of the spirit of the Age series is that you represent the guiding force of your civilization, and we included civilizations with a wide variety of religious backgrounds. We didn't want to represent any particular religion as being more correct than any other."

Street touts the value of presenting the campaign's story from an outside perspective. "Dramatically, I also thought it was more powerful to not get inside Joan's head," he says. "Ultimately, the most interesting part of her story is the amazing influence she had on other people. I thought it would be cool to try and show that. Personally I also think the Joan story is more interesting when you aren't entirely sure whether she was nuts or actually talking to higher beings."

Although for the most part the game avoids discussions of holy influence on Joan, she is characterized as a larger-than-life figure throughout. Her first meeting with the Dauphin is mentioned in one of the post-mission cutscenes, which depicts Joan commanding the attention of every person in the chateau at Chinon as she approaches a fearful Dauphin. Joan confronts the Dauphin, demanding to know why he has not yet been crowned King of France. Men seem to shrink away from Joan's mighty gaze, despite her small stature. "She stands only to the shoulder of the shortest man," notes the narrator. "But all of us must look up to speak to her."

The idea that Joan possessed an almost superhuman charisma is a recurring theme throughout the course of the campaign's events. "The force of Joan's will is titanic," it's noted in one story segment. "She has gathered to her banner swearing brigands and knaves and turned them into patriots and heroes." With each progressing mission, players are in fact given command of ever-larger groups of soldiers, reflecting the idea that Joan's influence and popularity increased over time, giving her access to larger numbers of recruits.

On occasion, Joan is portrayed as a legendary heroine on par with figures from popular myths. In one cutscene, Guy Josselyne relates one instance in which Joan instructed him to search for an ancient sword buried beneath the altar of a local church. Josselyne reports that upon searching the church, a rusted blade belonging to Charlemagne himself was found.

The story is based on a myth that has been reported by numerous sources, although most report the blade as having belonged to Charles Martel, not his descendant Charlemagne. This particular anecdote is striking in its Campbellian nature; what could possibly be more dramatic than a heroine fulfilling her own prophesy about a hidden, legendary blade?

In another cutscene, Joan prophesies that she is to suffer a wound at the battle near Orléans. Her prophesy is realized when an arbalest bolt knocks her from her horse at the height of the battle. Joan recovers quickly from the attempt on her life, and the battle to lift the siege from Orléans is won.

Joan and the narrator return to Orléans, where "the entire population cheered us on from windows, rooftops, and city streets. They fired artillery into the night sky and shouted aloud their nickname for Joan: 'La Pucelle' -- The Maid of Orléans."

Joan's portrayal in combat is a topic worthy of an entirely separate discussion, but the ability for players to do with her as they please -- she can be held back for her own safety or pushed to the front of the line as a striker unit depending on a player's whims -- makes it difficult to pin down whether this aspect of her character is represented accurately. Traditional historians like The Hundred Years War author Anne Curry give ample credit to Joan and her impact on the tide of the war, but suggest that she was more valuable as a symbolic rallying point than as an actual force in physical combat.

In the game, Joan is simultaneously stronger than a normal unit while also serving as a weak point in the player's army, since losing her results in an automatic "game over." Age of Empires II: Age of Kings lead designer Mark Terrano says that originally Joan and other "hero units" were meant to be represented as having a positive impact on their entire army.

"In the original design I actually wanted a 'hero aura' to surround these legends that would inspire the troops nearby to fight much harder," says Terrano. "Having a legendary leader that was thought of as favored by God (or that was a living god) was a significant battlefield advantage." Ultimately, Terrano says, it became difficult to manage which units were "powered up" by their saintly heroine's aura of effect ability, resulting in a higher failure rate. This resulted in the decision to simply make hero units like Joan more powerful than regular soldiers.

After the events of the game's fourth mission, which follows Joan and her men as they free the captured French cities of Rheims, Chalon, and Troyes, Joan is portrayed as a decidedly Christ-like figure. "As we rode into Rheims, a sea of peasants and lords knelt before Joan," says the narrator. "Some even knelt to kiss her horse's hoof prints."

This imagery seems intentionally referential to the Biblical tale of the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem. In the Bible story, the people of Jerusalem greeted Christ by throwing their coats upon the ground and putting palm branches on the road before him. It would only be a week later before Christ's crucifixion. Likewise, only one mission after Joan's triumphant entry into Rheims, she is captured by Burgundian troops and executed at the stake. The analogue to Christ seems to suggest that Joan herself was a divinely-inspired figure.

This image of Joan as a figure surrounded by supernatural events has a basis in oral tradition. Many of the English subjects attending Joan's execution at the stake later reported seeing various supernatural events as Joan breathed her last.

Historian Ingvald Raknem reports that "one of the spectators cried out that he saw the name of Jesus leaping across the flames, and another, an English soldier who had been eager to have her burnt, declared that he saw a white dove emerge from the flames and fly in the direction of France." Indeed, it's impossible to separate Joan from her reputation as a legendary heroine capable of prophesy and supernatural abilities, which may be why so many were eager to cast her as being a witch and a heretic rather than one guided by God.

Mark Twain Meets Windows 98

"The English put her on trial as a heretic. Joan's mind was as sharp as her sword, and she avoided all of the cunning verbal traps of her prosecutors. In the end, Joan would not renounce her mission. The English found her guilty -- and burned her at the stake."

July 14: The Journal of Guy Josselyne (Age of Empires II)

It's established early on in the game that members of the Dauphin's court were out to defame Joan, perhaps out of jealousy of her influence with the future King of France. The story is told from the perspective of a fictitious soldier who is totally loyal to Joan and her cause, and as a result any of Joan's detractors are described as evil and selfish.

Because the man telling the game's story is also integrated into the story itself, there is no pretension of impartiality; anyone questioning Joan's motivations is immediately dismissed as immoral, and Joan can only be viewed through a lens clouded by admiration.

The game's narrator outright classifies the Dauphin's advisors as direct enemies to Joan. In the game's fifth mission -- titled "The Siege of Paris" -- players are told to expect reinforcements at the halfway point of their siege on Paris, but are instead greeted by one lowly cavalry unit, who informs the player that "we are all that the king could afford to send."

The prelude to this mission explains that "the king's evil advisors now seek to destroy Joan," and that "it is only a matter of time before they succeed in poisoning the king's mind." Players are then further directed toward the assumption that it's the conniving advisors who were behind the insultingly scarce "reinforcements" when a nameless French soldier declares "Treachery! The king's wicked advisors want to see Joan defamed... or worse!"

This focus on the king's advisor's as the source of Joan's woes most likely finds its roots in one of the primary sources that the Age of Empires II team referred to during development of the game: Mark Twain's literary biography of Joan, titled Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Street, who wrote all of the dialogue in the campaign, called it his favorite source, even recommending it based purely on its merits as "a good book."

Fellow team member Sandy Petersen, a designer on the game (and later the lead designer on The Conqueror's expansion), also sang the praises of Twain's book, saying that he "recommend[s] Mark Twain's biography of Joan d'Arc to everyone."

Twain's biography spends a bit of time discussing the examination of Joan of Arc as a part of King Charles VII's effort to determine whether she was inspired by God or Satan. Twain asserts that after Joan spoke to the king, "his doubts were cleared away; he believed she was sent of God, and if he had been let alone he would have set her upon her great mission at once."

Twain goes on to note that the king's advisors were the ones to accuse Joan of Satanic inspiration. "Your Highness says her Voices have revealed to you, by her mouth, a secret known only to yourself and God," the advisors say to the king in Twain's book. "How can you know that her Voices are not of Satan, and she his mouthpiece? -- for does not Satan know the secrets of men and use his knowledge for the destruction of their souls?"

Twain wastes no time wondering if Joan truly has been inspired by Satan. Just like Guy Josselyne in Age of Kings, he admires Joan to a fault. The possibility of her being a witch is never considered; instead, the advisors who suggest that she may have impure motives are cast as snakes in the king's ear.

The aforementioned Inkvald Raknem offered criticism of Twain's take on Joan of Arc in his book, Joan of Arc in History, Legend and Literature. According to Raknem, Twain largely sticks to the facts in his presentation of Joan, but missteps by romanticizing her.

"Twain makes Joan a heroine of medieval romance, not by borrowing traits from others," argues Raknem, "but by casting her in the pattern of the hero of romance and by exaggerating her character traits, and indeed, by ennobling and idealizing her." Raknem goes on to make the case that "Twain overlooked Joan's weak sides and mistakes. He cannot be blamed for this, since his narrator was Joan's admirer and was unaware of these aspects of her character."

An interesting but very much related side-note: Twain's biography of Joan of Arc was penned in pseudonym. The book is presented as if it were written by one Sieur Louis de Conte, a fictionalized version of Joan's actual page, Louis de Contes, and then translated into English by another writer.

Just as Twain tries to avoid taking responsibility for his glamorized portrayal of Joan of Arc via his use of a biased narrator, so too did the Age of Empires dev team avoid potential controversy or criticism through their implementation of Guy Josselyne. The connections between de Conte and Josselyne -- both fictional characters writing about Joan of Arc with a bias in her favor -- are too strong to ignore. Mark Twain's approach to telling the Joan of Arc tale was out-and-out duplicated.

The game's narrative does not belabor the trial and execution of Joan of Arc; a few short sentences prior to the the final level in the campaign summarize the entire ordeal, from her capture to her death. It is noted that Joan "avoided all the cunning verbal traps of her prosecutors," but the focus of the story quickly switches to the actions of the French army after her death. The player's goal is to strike at the heart of the English stronghold of Castillon; doing so brings the campaign to a close.

For the most part, accusations of heresy against Joan are not discussed. When one of the game's final story segments mentions that Joan had been convicted of heresy, no potential explanation of this is offered, in much the same way that the game doesn't address the fact that Joan claimed divine guidance.

It's really somewhat impossible to look objectively at the game and determine if any of Joan's actions are saintly or merely politically motivated. The fact is that players of Age of Empires II don't actually know who or what is guiding Joan, and this is largely because of the nature of the real-time strategy genre. The players themselves are a sort of disembodied, omniscient force with the power to guide Joan and her army.

Mark Terrano addresses this."This was an intentional design decision," Terrano says about the positioning of the player in an omniscient position. "In the Age of Empires games we always treated the player as a 'guiding force' for the civilization."

Fellow designer Sandy Petersen had more to say about the matter, calling the choice of perspective a narrative technique. "We intentionally positioned the player as a sort of semi-omniscient guiding spirit," says Petersen. "Think of it like a novel written in third person. After all, if we have you be a specific person, then questions can arise. 'How can Joan see beyond that forest? Why does the game continue when my hero is dead?' etc."

The need to represent things from a broader perspective, especially in an RTS, is understandable, but one can't help but wonder if the developers of Age of Empires didn't miss a really interesting creative opportunity by not literally casting the player as God in the Joan of Arc campaign.

After all, units in the game respond aloud to players' commands with verbal acknowledgements, almost as if the player is some sort of audible voice commanding them, so it wouldn't be entirely farfetched (especially given the context that Joan of Arc claimed to be under the command of God) that the player's role could be changed to that potentially more controversial perspective. Street stressed the importance of avoiding asserting one religion as "more correct" than any other, but if Joan is taking her commands from some unknown force in the game as opposed to God, does that not make her a heretic?

Joan of Arc: Creator of Nationalism?

"Dead France returns to life. Our army swells with new recruits. In olden times, men swore fealty only to their particular lord. Now we fight not for insolent lords and ladies, but for France. For all of us Joan is France. There is no distinction in our minds."

– June 25: The Journal of Guy Josselyne (Age of Empires II)

In modern France, Joan is often utilized as a symbolic rallying point for conservative French nationalists who promote her as an icon representative of a former, more glorious France that kicked out invaders and reclaimed land for exclusive use of the French.

The far-right National Front party in France holds an annual "Joan of Arc" day, in which members camp out in front of statues of the maid and deliver speeches promoting their values, which they perceive to be in line with the ideas promoted by Joan of Arc.

The party stands primarily for nationalist ideals, among other things standing against the euro, globalization, and immigration, thus earning it a reputation from opponents as being racist. The National Front often cites Joan as inspiration for their "France for the French" ideology.

Likewise, the Joan of Arc campaign in Age of Empires II time and time again contends that Joan became a source, if not the original source, of a sense of nationalistic unification amongst the French.

Deborah Fraioli notes in her book, Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years War, that some would argue that Joan of Arc "both created nationalism and rose because of it," but states matter-of-factly that our modern idea of nationalism would not truly begin to take shape for centuries.

Fraioli goes onto to argue that in Joan's time "few historians would admit that nationalism as yet existed," but that "French patriotism had certainly been aroused... instead, the focus of pride in one's country was the king."

So why include these details about Joan's alleged creation of nationalism in the game? At the conclusion of the game's campaign, the game's narrator goes so far as to say that "The Hundred Years War has ended. Even more importantly, Joan's acts reignited a sense of French nationalism. Peasants and nobles alike no longer belonged to lords and kings, but to France herself. We will not let Joan be forgotten." These assertions frame the Joan of Arc story in a way that one of her own soldiers simply wouldn't have seen them.

When asked about the decision to portray Joan as a nationalist symbol in a time when nationalism didn't truly yet exist, Greg Street explained away the situation as a byproduct of the developer's need to condense an abundance of history into very small playable campaign.

"Most 'French' citizens at the time probably identified much more strongly with their local village than they did a unified country," admits Street. "While the story was Joan's, it fundamentally wasn't a game about Joan or any particular individual, but a game about your civilization, in this case the Franks (we had to condense 1000 years of history into a single civilization, and we thought 'Franks' sounded more historical and exotic than 'French'). Thus our interpretation was more how the French view her now."

If anything can be taken from Street's defense (especially the part about naming the civilization "Franks" because it sounded more "historical and exotic" than "French"), it's that the Age of Empires II team was willing to take certain liberties for the sake of keeping a historically-grounded story simple and easy to understand.

Another example of this sort of design concession in the name of simplification occurs at the end of the game (shortly after Josselyne makes the previously-mentioned remarks about Joan's re-ignition of French nationalism). Guy Josselyne breaks the fourth wall by mentioning the beatification of Joan of Arc as a saint, an event that didn't actually happen until nearly 500 years after her death.

To have a character who was supposedly an eyewitness to the events that transpired in the early fifteenth century reference a religious ceremony that took place in the twentieth century is not something you do accidentally; the AoE team willingly situated the narrator of their story behind a more modern lens, thereby openly acknowledging their desire to tell a good story rather than an entirely historically-accurate story.

What It All Means

The version of Joan of Arc that appears in Age of Empires II's campaign of the same name is a hodgepodge of history, myth and religious representations, and the game's creators will readily admit that. The juxtaposition of fun and historical accuracy in video games continues to be a subject of discussion for game developers and scholars alike, but one can't help but wonder whether if in this case a bit lesser dosage of myth and legend would have actually impacted the enjoyment of the player in any measurable way.

By telling Joan's story through the voice of a brazenly partial narrator, Ensemble Studios was able to re-tell the story of a figure firmly entrenched in both history and modern religion without dipping any toes into potentially controversial waters. Over a decade after its release, AoE II stands tall as a highly polished strategy game that changed its genre forever -- whether its storytelling techniques stand the test of time in a similar way remains to be seen.

An early draft of this article was submitted as a paper for the course 'Representations of History in Videogames' (Prof. Nicolas Trépanier, University of Mississippi).


Curry, Anne. The Hundred Years War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993.

Dolgin, Ellen Ecker. Modernizing Joan of Arc. London: McFarland & Company Inc., 2008.

Raknem, Ingvald. Joan of Arc in History, Legend and Literature. Oslo: Scandinavian UP, 1971.

Fraioli, Deborah A. Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years War. London: Greenwood Press, 2005.

Gower, Ronald Sutherland. Joan of Arc. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1893.

Twain, Mark. Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. New York: Harper and Brothers 1896.

Street, Greg. Personal interview. 3 May. 2011.

Terrano, Mark. Personal interview. 3 May. 2011.

Petersen, Sandy. Personal interview. 3 May. 2011.

France-Presse, Agence. "French far-right holds 'skinhead-free' May Day march." Vancouver Sun. 1 May. 2011. 3 May. 2011. http://www.vancouversun.com/story_print.html?id=4706208&sponsor=

Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. Dallas: Ensemble Studios, 1999.

Pritchard, Matt. "Postmortem: Ensemble Studios' Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings". Gamasutra. 7 March. 2000. 6 May. 2011. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3437/postmortem_ensemble_studios_age_.php

John 12: 12-13. New King James Version.

"Age of Empires II: Age of Kings Credits & Details." Metacritic. 6 May. 2011 http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/age-of-empires-ii-the-age-of-kings/details

Bernard, Lance. "The Sword From Heaven: An Inquiry into Joan of Arc's Sword, Found at the Church of St. Catherine de Fierbois." St. Joan Center. 2001. http://www.stjoan-center.com/JoansSword/TheSwordFromHeaven.html

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About the Author(s)

Ryan Rigney


Ryan is a freelance journalist who has covered the video-game industry from every angle for publications and sites including Mac|Life, PC Gamer and GamePro. His experience covering the iPhone/iPad gaming scene led him to create Pocketful of Megabytes (www.PocketfulofMB.com), a blog about downloadable games for handheld devices, where he is the acting editor-in-chief.

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