Malta in video games? It happened long before the dinosaurs...
With this year’s release of ‘Dominion Malta’ – an expansion pack for the ‘Jurassic World Evolution 2’ simulation game, available on PC and consoles – the Maltese islands seem to have been firmly anchored, not just within the ‘Jurassic Park’ movie universe… but also, in the wider world of video-gaming.
But while ‘Dominion Malta’ might be the best-known Malta-themed video-game on the market right now… it is by no means the only one. Long before the age when ‘Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth’, other game-studios apart from Frontier Development had occasionally set their sights on Malta, as a possible setting for a video games.
Not very many, granted (not counting ‘mods’, and other player-generated content, I could only find around eight titles online). And some of those earlier efforts have undeniably aged worse, than others.
Nonetheless: here are a couple of other instances where ‘Malta’ – or at least, a computer-generated version of the island – doubled up as a backdrop to classic video-games, in the past.
Age of Empires 3 (2005)
Genre: Real Time Strategy
Developer: Ensemble Studios
Accuracy rating: 1/10
It’s the Great Siege of Malta, all right! Just not the version you learnt about at school, that’s all…
In Act 1 of the main campaign, you get to play as Morgan Black: “a Scottish-born mid-level commander of the Knights of Saint John, [who] defends their last stronghold on Malta from the forces of Sahin ‘The Falcon’ of the Ottoman Empire.
“When the Turks flee, Morgan and his superior Alain Magnan discover a stone library telling of the Lake of the Moon; the Fountain of Youth, a rumored source of eternal life; and a secret society called the Circle of Ossus, who seek the Fountain for their own gain…”
Hang on, wait. A Scottish-born Knight of Malta? ‘The Fountain of Youth’? ‘A secret society called the Circle of Ossus’? When did any of THAT happen, in 1565?
And who the heck are Alan Magnan and Sahin ‘The Falcon’, anyway? What happened to the true protagonists of the 1565 Turkish invasion of Malta: Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette, for instance… or Turkish Admiral Ali Pasha (assisted by the much more famous Barbary corsair, Torgut Al-Rais: aka ‘Dragut’)?
Oh, well. If anyone was expecting a historically-accurate depiction of the Siege of Malta, from this 2005 entry to the massively influential ‘Age of Empires’ franchise… they’d be in for a disappointment.
Leaving aside the obvious historical inaccuracies, in the campaign story-line – including that the Turks only fled Malta, because our hero Morgan Black succeeded in ‘blowing up all their hidden ammunition caches, in an undergound cave’ – the setting itself bears almost no resemblance to the Maltese islands, whatsoever.
All the historical locations associated with that war – The Grand Harbour, Mdina, etc. – are somehow bundled up into a single ‘siege’ scenario; featuring fortifications more reminiscent of a typical medieval castle, than anything built by the Knights themselves. And with its sandy, palm-strewn beaches, Malta itself only comes across as a mere re-texturing of existing map designs, for some of the Caribbean islands you will visit later in the campaign.
Nonetheless, the game does have a few additional touches, to compensate for its otherwise woeful disregard for history. The ships that transport Morgan Black to the New World are named after the three forts besieged by the Ottomans: ‘St Elmo’, ‘St Angelo, and St Michael’ [note: and as a bonus easter-egg, any naval unit created by the Order will automatically be named after a random Maltese town or village: from ‘Bormla’, to ‘Zabbar’.]
Moreover, the game comes complete with its own map/scenario editor: enabling players to ‘rectify’ the above shortcomings, by creating their own, playable versions of the Great Siege. This feature was further integrated into the 2022 ‘Age of Empires III: the Definitive Edition’ (in which ‘The Maltese’ are actually one of the playable civilisations).
Lastly, it must be noted that – for all its flaws – ‘Age of Empires III’ is by far the most successful, and best-known, of the entries on this list. For better or worse, then: its own version of Maltese history is by now probably the ‘definitive’ one, in the eyes of millions of gamers worldwide…
Chronicles of Mystery: The Scorpio Ritual (2008)
Genre: Adventure, Point’n’Click.
Developers: City Interactive
Accuracy meter: 8/10
In an opening cut-scene that will surely remind you of ‘Tomb Raider’: ‘Sylvie Leroux’ (your playable character) receives a phone-call at her Paris office, informing her that her uncle – an archaeologist – had mysteriously gone missing, while working on a dig in Gozo.
Leroux (you) promptly flies to Malta: where she finds herself beset by mystery and intrigue, as her investigations lead her through the streets and squares of Valletta; into conversations with ‘Maltese’ NPCs (who all speak with suspiciously Eastern-European accents); and all the way to a very recognisable Dwejra, in Gozo… where Leroux enters a previously undiscovered ‘megalithic’ (but suspiciously Greek-looking) temple, and…
… well, to go on any further, would only be to spoil all the fun in what is a delightful (though unfortunately, rather obscure) classic adventure game, created by developers who evidently DID put a lot of work and effort, into historical (and geographical) accuracy.
Which is not the say that ‘Chronicles of Mystery: The Scorpio Ritual’ is always spot on, in every last detail. Leroux’s trip from Valletta to Gozo, for instance, correctly follows the road that takes her to Cirkewwa, where she duly boards the ferry for Mgarr harbour…
… yet strangely, she steps off the ferry to find herself right outside the Gordan Lighthouse, limits of Gharb (in other words, on the clean other side of the island!). Much more improbable than that, however… the lighthouse itself appears to have been built directly on top of Dwejra’s ‘Azure Window’! (You know: the one which collapsed, just a few years after this game was released…)
But no matter: if you close an eye at such fanciful embellishments – which also include a preponderance of ‘cobblestones’: a paving which doesn’t actually exist, anywhere on the islands – there can be no questioning the wealth of detail, and eye-candy, that this hidden gem of a game contains.
Its portrayal of Valletta, in particular, stands out as particularly convincing. From the wooden Maltese balconies, to distant church belfries, to fictitious (but plausible) street names like ‘Pjazza Skola’… all the way down to the presence of a real Valletta restaurant – ‘Rubino’s’ – albeit translocated to a different street… it all adds up to a level of authenticity rarely seen, in other titles.
And if you look very closely at one corner of Pjazza Skola (clearly modelled on Valletta’s real ‘Pjazza Chelsea’): you will notice that the proprietor of a certain ‘Corner Workshop’, is named… ‘S. KAWLATA’! [The Maltese term for – how can I put it? – a ‘cock-up’![
That level of tongue-in-cheek detail – in a game that otherwise gives you just a superficial overview of the islands – can only mean one thing, really. Though ‘City Interactive’ is a Polish company, as were all the developers themselves: its location manager, at least, must have known Malta rather well.
The result? An absolute ‘must-have’, for fans of both Melitensia, and ‘point’n’click’ adventure-games alike…