If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that pirates are awesome. My fascination with the Golden Age of Piracy (1650 until around 1726) really began when I was at university and decided to write an independent study on the wreck of Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge. I found the subject of piracy so interesting that I chose to write my final year dissertation on the pirate port of Port Royal, Jamaica.
Golden Age pirates were without a doubt criminals, and many were bloodthirsty murderers, but there is something about their lives of freedom on the Seven Seas that people have found captivating ever since Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This book is also responsible, however, for popularising a whole host of pirate cliches that still dominate our perceptions of these figures today. Buried treasure sure is an alluring concept, though in reality it was a rare practice, and as cool as plank-walking might seem, the single recorded incidence of it wasn’t carried out by pirates. Talk Like A Pirate Day may be a fun diversion on 19th September, but of course real pirates didn’t actually talk like pirates at all.
I’m sorry if it disappoints you to learn that pirates weren’t as yar-har-fiddle-di-dee as you might have previously thought, but the reality of piracy is far more enthralling than a couple of swashbuckling types with stripy shirts, eye patches, peg legs and hook hands.
Did you know, for example, that Blackbeard never killed a single person before the battle that ended his life? He instead created a terrifying persona, growing a huge, monstrous black beard, lighting fuses in his hair and spreading stories about how he was the Devil incarnate. He was known to take some of the men down to the hold, close all the hatches and set fire to gunpowder, filling the space with thick smoke for a game of last man standing. He would always be the last man, sat calmly in the corner, breathing in the smoke like a beast from hell:
‘Let us make a hell of our own, and try how long we can bear it.’
As mothers tucked their children into their beds, they would say ‘beware Blackbeard, for he will take your soul’, telling them horrific stories of the man called Edward Teach in order to scare them into being good boys and girls. Even Blackbeard’s own crew swore he had supernatural attributes, reportedly seeing strange shadows and ghostly apparitions on the ship.
As you probably assumed, Teach was not a demon, but simply a very clever man. He knew the power of reputation, spreading the Blackbeard myth to instill a crippling fear into anyone who might come across him. If you saw a ship approaching yours flying the Jolly Roger of Satan himself, a dark man standing on the deck with smoke billowing out of his flaming head, you would give him what he wanted. Blackbeard never killed anyone because he didn’t need to.
With pirates being as awesome as they are, they’re a natural fit for video games. That said, I feel that to this date the ultimate pirate game still doesn’t exist. The wildly successful Sid Meier’s Pirates! came close for many (regrettably I am still yet to play it), though most modern gamers will be familiar with pirating through the lauded Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
AC IV puts players into the fancy boots of pirate Edward Kenway, who in series tradition joins the ever-present Assassin Order to war with the equally ever-present Templars. The game gives you command over a ship, The Jackdaw, and a shanty-loving crew and allows you to sail the Caribbean, battling and plundering other vessels on the high seas. It was barrels of rum – uh, I mean – fun, but it was still emphatically an Assassin’s Creed game rather than a straight pirate game, requiring you to progress through Edward’s linear story rather than experiencing the true freedom of piracy.
Edward Kenway in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
It is with this in mind that I have come up with the features that I would have in my dream pirate game. If this were to be made, it would be the pirate game to end all pirate games, the holy grail of virtual sea doggery. Without sacrificing fun and exciting gameplay, it would be an accurate representation of piratical life and allow muggins in his mum’s basement to experience the immersive thrills of being a savvy, scurvy-ridden lad with a cutlass and a rag-tag band of drunk, toothless cutthroats at his side. This is the past. This is the future. This is the past colliding with the future. This is the… puture. Ahem. Full sail ahead.
Rather than forcing you into the pantaloons of a trendy chap from Swansea, the ultimate pirate game would allow you full control over your character’s name, look and ship, but also your background. Golden Age pirates came from far and wide – Britain, Spain, France, the Americas and numerous other places.
Importantly, there were different reasons for becoming a pirate. Many were down and out sailors willing to risk their lives for more money and a taste of adventure, whereas others like Bartholomew Roberts served on ships attacked by pirates and decided to join them. One famous pirate, Stede Bonnet, was in fact already very wealthy and hadn’t sailed a day in his life, but turned to a life of nautical robbery because he couldn’t stand his wife any more.
‘In an honest service there is thin commons, low wages, and hard labor; in this, plenty and satiety, pleasure and ease, liberty and power; and who would not balance creditor on this side, when all the hazard that is run for it, at worst, is only a sour look or two at choking. No, a merry life and a short one, shall be my motto.’
– Bartholomew Roberts
This hypothetical game would allow players to not only choose which country they originate from, affecting their place in the world from the start, but also what drew them to piracy, affecting certain statistics and conditions. Playing as a woman would also be an option. Mary Read and Anne Bonny are the two female pirates that everyone knows about, but there were many others too and, while some disguised themselves as men, others didn’t feel the need to hide, wearing a style of clothing unique to their gender.
Bartholomew Roberts from Charles Johnson’s ‘General History of the Pyrates’
Just as with Blackbeard, reputation needs to be significant in the game. If you want to spread tales and become a force of terror in order to remove the need to kill your foes, you can. Depending on your background, you will need to earn the respect of your crew and other important figures to ensure you don’t become the laughing stock of the West Indies. Grow your reputation to gain influence and notoriety around the game world, letting you carve your own place in the hierarchy of the Golden Age.
The game would feature a dynamic crew system, in which every member has their own name, skills and personality. With a small number of exceptions such as Stede Bonnet, who paid his crew wages, the men on board pirate ships all received a percentage of the plundered wealth. My game would allow you to control this, but be careful as the crew might mutiny if they don’t get what they want!
Individual crew members can like or hate you, as well as having their own ambitions. If they’re doing well, why not promote them, while demoting or getting rid of those being troublesome. Just as Bartholomew Roberts left the position of Third Mate on a slave ship to join his captors, you can take your pick of recruits from the crews of the ships you take. The game would allow you to form your crew exactly how you want, from the cook all the way up to the First Mate. Just make sure you don’t keep someone who wants you dead – you don’t want them scheming or you’ll get a knife between the shoulder blades.
In Assassin’s Creed IV, you could steal a ship’s booty and crew, but couldn’t really take the ship itself as a prize. In this game, you would be able to do whatever you wanted with it once the deed is done. Like it more than your own ship? Commandeer it. If not, salvage it for parts to repair and enhance your current vessel. Or, how about delegating it for a high ranking crew member to captain, adding it to your fleet or sending it straight to a port to sell off its cargo? You earned it, so you may as well enjoy it.
ECONOMY AND POLITICS
I’ve been playing a fair bit of a game called Port Royale 3. While it’s not the most polished game ever and can be quite repetitive, it’s an engrossing simulation of 17th-century New World economics that has you sailing around a map of the Caribbean buying and selling goods for profit while building and maintaining relations with ports and helping to develop settlements.
Basically, I want Port Royale’s economics and trading systems in my pirate game, but better, because this isn’t real and I can aim as high as I want. These would tie in directly to reputation – the more notorious you are, the less likely merchants are going to accept your sweet treasure! To overcome this, increase your influence in port towns through bribery, or by assisting your men in attaining positions of power. Perhaps you can even strive to become governor!
Each settlement would have its own industries, economic situations and politics, much like Port Royale (but again, better, just ’cause). While we’re at it, how about we add to this a living, breathing cast of characters akin to Crusader Kings – individuals who can be manipulated to change the course of history. The world is your oyster!
Gameplay of Port Royale 3
Always believe in your soul. You’re going to amass a lot of loot, so you might as well be able to choose exactly what you want to do with it. The cargo of rum or silk you acquire from merchant vessels can be sold en masse to vendors or artisans, whereas valuables can be auctioned off for cold, hard cash. Put this money towards ship repairs, improvements or armaments, or join the guys in the tavern and blow it all on booze and strumpets, increasing statistics like charisma and intimidation and sharing stories of your adventures to increase reputation around the Caribbean.
Have a long term goal, or don’t. Investing money into a personal home, plantation or settlement would provide long term benefits, or just live in the moment.
How would you react if you were offered a pardon from the King of England? Would you retire your life of piracy and seek out other ventures, or would you tell the King to do one before capturing an English trade ship and cutting off its captain’s naughty parts with a rusty knife? Would you perhaps take a letter of marque and become a privateer, working with a country’s government by limiting your targets to their enemies? Or, would you live according to chaos, killing everyone on the water and watching the world burn? Do what you want because… you know.
Being a freeform game with no defined story, giving it an ending would be difficult. Perhaps it could cut off in 1722 with Bartholomew Roberts’ death, an event which is seen as one of the clearest signs the Golden Age was coming to an end. Maybe once the game finishes, you could see how your pirate ranks against the big names like Calico Jack Rackham and Black Sam Bellamy.
As for character death, it could be up to the player how it is handled. Do the standard act of loading a previous save, or let the game continue. The story of your pirate’s life and death would enter the pages of history and you would continue playing as their First Mate, who takes the reins as captain. How would the crew respond to their captain’s demise? How would you respond? Why not sink a couple more hours in and find out, sinking a couple more Spanish brigs in the process.
The game I have hypothesised might never be made but imagining something that puts into players’ hands all the intricacies of the Golden Age of Piracy and allows them to ‘live the life’ is certainly an enticing thought. Get it right and it’s essentially time travel, an interactive history lesson that lets you explore the seas and coasts of the 17th and 18th centuries, learning the reality behind the myths and having a whale of a time while you’re at it.
With an average lifespan of only two years, it is a testament to the impact pirates had during the Golden Age that the names of these men are so well-known to us today. You would be forgiven for thinking that the legendary Blackbeard’s reign lasted a lifetime, not a mere couple of years. In such a short space of time they explored the world, obtained great riches and enjoyed themselves wholeheartedly, albeit chopping off the odd finger of someone who didn’t quite agree with their methods.
A merry life and a short one, but a life nonetheless.
And thus endeth the Word of Tom.