Looking for Canada in Games

Montreal, Video Games

SWERY at the Owl's Nest bar in Osaka

“Originally, Deadly Premonition was supposed to take place in Canada. However, when I brought the idea to game producers, they told me the story should take place in America, as it is the country that generates the most sales.” – Hidetaka Suehiro (aka SWERY)

Today marks 150 years since several British colonies in North America united to form a new dominion under the British Crown. Confederation may be fascinating1 to Canadian history nerds like myself, but it’s not exactly summertime blockbuster material. Our separation from the mother country was a lot like Canada itself: peaceful and amiable, but perhaps lacking panache.

Four years ago, Canada’s video game industry surpassed the UK to became the third largest in the world. Some of the best-selling and most acclaimed games are made out of studios in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and Edmonton. However, this fact would be easy to miss; video games are rarely permitted to be distinctly Canadian. Canada is where media is made, but hardly ever where it’s set (see “Vancouver Never Plays Itself”).

To that end, I thought I’d take this sesquicentennial opportunity to celebrate the handful of games that are proudly and unambiguously set in Canada. This list is definitely cursory and incomplete2, so if you spot any conspicuous omissions let me know in the comments below.

Bare Minimum

Wikipedia’s list of “video games set in Canada” is dominated by sports games. For instance, there are apparently twenty-seven Formula One games that feature the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal. NHL, NBA, MLB, PGA, and FIFA games painstakingly render Canadian players, teams, and arenas.

With no disrespect to sports games, I subjectively consider these titles a bare minimum in terms of portraying Canada; that’s just where the teams happen to be. If the sport moved elsewhere, so would the game franchise.

Honourable Mentions

These games are mostly set outside of Canada, but merit an honourable mention for having some level or segment that is distinctly Canadian.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution splits its focus between Detroit and Shanghai, but the developers at Eidos Montreal snuck in one brief section in their home city. The mission features a great skyline flyover with an oversized Olympic Stadium.

Similarly, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is principally set in the 18th century Caribbean, but the present-day metafiction takes place at the headquarters of “Abstergo Entertainment” in Montreal (inspired by Ubisoft’s own office!)

Mass Effect 3 doesn’t spend much time on Earth, but it opens with an escape from Vancouver as the Reapers begin their invasion. Art director Derek Watts notes that they specifically chose a Canadian city (over Hong Kong or Rio) to acknowledge Bioware’s Canadian roots.

Sly 2: Band of Thieves has a heist set in Canada. Players take part in the Lumberjack Games run by Jean Bison (literally a bison), and seek to collect energy from the Northern Lights.

Like the show, South Park: The Stick of Truth portrays Canada in its idiosyncratic flappy-headed style. The game has the Prince of Canada send players on a cross-country quest to meet the Earl of Winnipeg, the Minister of Montreal, and the Bishop of Banff.

Finally, while it takes place entirely in Europe, Valiant Hearts: The Great War depicts a significant event in Canadian history. The Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917) marks the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a combined offensive.

Set in Canada

This category highlights games that are nominally set in Canada, but otherwise aren’t particularly Canadian. For instance, the Dreamcast survival horror game D2 takes place in “the Canadian wilderness”, but that mostly serves the purpose of being an archetypal winter environment. In fact, the setting was allegedly inspired by director Kenji Eno’s visit to snowy New Zealand.

Vancouver hosted the Olympic Winter Games in 2010, which resulted in two officially licensed games by Sega: Vancouver 2010 and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games. I imagine they have a lot in common with the licensed Olympic games set in other countries.

While rather divergent in terms of theme, the games Until Dawn and Nancy Drew: The White Wolf of Icicle Creek are both set in winter lodges in the mountains of Alberta. The former also features the wendigo, which is a monster from Algonquian folklore.

Distinctly Canadian

The Yukon Trail is a 1994 educational game set during the Klondike Gold Rush. While it’s told from an American perspective (the player starts out in Seattle), the game portrays an important era in northern Canada’s history. On their journey, the player will even encounter Sam Steele, the legendary officer of the North-West Mounted Police.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game is a beat ’em up based on the bestselling comic series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. Like the comic, the game is distinctively set in Toronto, with levels featuring landmarks such as the CN Tower, Casa Loma, and TTC Streetcars.

Set in a rural 19th century village, the action-strategy game Sang-Froid – Tales of Werewolves features monsters from French-Canadian mythology. Studio founder Yan Pepin wanted to “create a game inspired by the old Quebec folktales he had grown up with”.

Fort McMoney is a NFB documentary and strategy game about the Athabasca oil sands. The episodic web game allows players to virtually tour Fort McMurray, interview real residents, and make decisions about how their virtual city should develop.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue’s protagonist fights with the British Americans (i.e. the Templars) against New France (i.e. the Assassins) during the Seven Years’ War3. Players can sail the open world of the North Atlantic, visiting settlements in Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland.

The Long Dark is a survival game set in the Canadian wilderness. Players are confronted with the real-life dangers of hunger and exposure, and must explore and scavenge to survive. Creative director Raphael van Lierop says that he was inspired by the natural surroundings of his home on Vancouver Island, and that he seeks “to make games that have a Canadian angle to them”.

Kona is an interactive murder-mystery set in northern Canada in the 1970’s. It’s an unapologetically Québécois game; while the audio and subtitles are localized, the in-game text textures are all in French. It also features an original soundtrack by Quebec folk band CuréLabel.

Happy birthday to my former home and native land. My sincere wish is that, for your bicentennial, the number of games set in Canada will be so large that it will impossible to list them all in a single short essay. 🇨🇦

1. While not directly about Confederation, I recommend Pierre Berton’s “The National Dream”.
2. The lack of games by and for indigenous peoples is a particularly glaring omission on my part.
3. Americans call it the “French and Indian War” but that’s a silly name.

Header image of the Owl’s Nest bar in Osaka excerpted from toco toco ep.24

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