The Caribbean of the 1700s, the when and where so many of our pirates inhabit, was a churning of people and ships. It’s also Treasure Island and Peter Pan and movie adaptations of theme park rides. Even though piracy spans all histories and geographies, this is the usual backdrop, the site for adventures for boys and girls (historically, mostly boys, mostly European).
And videogames, so often set on creating adventures, haven’t ignored this history. Of course if you’re using something, like, say, European imperialism as a stage, it goes without saying you can’t really deconstruct it (for a treatment of these issues, see Liam Burke’s Dog Eat Dog, a game not about pirates but about colonialism in the Pacific Ocean).
Anyway, in no particular order, here are ten of the best games about pirates:
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
The newest and highest-resolution game on the list is a mess of history, conspiracy, and science fiction. These pirates’ philosophy(drawn heavily from the work of historians like Marcus Rediker) lines up well with the freedom-defending Assassins, they just have a little bit of self-interested greed to get over. While the text that surrounds the game deals in part with issues of representation and equality, most of the pirate-work involves swinging on ropes, Errol Flynn style.
I’m sure that the central character on this board game’s box art looking like Geoffrey Rush is a total coincidence. Each of the two-to-six players has an identical card deck of pirates getting ready for retirement (a theme running through these games and also heist movies: one last score). The goal is to outplay your opponents so that at the end of the game you’ve got the most money and can found a pirates’ retirement colony.
MLB 13: The Show
Sure, it’s a baseball game, but it’s got Pittsburgh Pirate Andrew McCutchen, Major League Baseball’s 2013 season MVP on the cover. Trivia: The Pirates got their name in the late 1800s when an official called the then-named Alleghienies’ shady player-recruitment strategies “piratical”.
The Monkey Island series
Point and click through the adventures of Guybrush Threepwood, his love, Elaine, and his nemesis, the Ghost (then Zombie, then Demon, then…) Pirate LeChuck. These games are at their best when they focus on wordplay: insult swordfighting asks you to one-up your opponent in punning insults. The third game, whose animation still looks beautiful, has a moment where Guybrush, swallowed by a snake, frees himself with an emetic made by combining maple syrup and an ipecac flower. Syrup of ipecac is actually made from the roots of ipecacuanha, a Brazilian plant whose name is a Portuguese transliteration of an indigenous word for “duck penis”.
Originally hosted by Glorious Trainwrecks, the Pirate Karts are named after not-quite-legal video game cartridges that would promise to hold several games (the most recent PK contains 1005). They’ve since expanded, entering a Pirate Kart in the Independent Games Festival and displaying another on a kiosk at the Game Developer’s Conference. None of the Pirate Kart games are pirated; think of them as gaming’s bedroom 4-track recordings: small, rough, a little messy, and better for it.
It’s like the videogame of one of those Harlequin romance novels that have punny titles like “Plundered Hearts”. Entirely text-based, the game gives you descriptions of locations and objects and you respond with text inputs. I included it here because I wanted to show the breadth of game types and protagonists (this one has a woman!) that piracy supports, but this comes with a pretty big warning: very early in the game, I died as a result of barely-euphemised sexual assault.
Sid Meier’s Pirates!
Sid Meier’s Pirates! has been released on literally every system ever (videogame, computer, weather), including ones that stopped being made before its introduction on the Commodore 64 in 1987. The most recent version is available on PC and iPad and Windows Phone 7 and Blackberry (no, really). Fight hand-to-hand and ship-to-ship, dance with governor’s daughters, build a fleet and reach the game’s goal: retirement.
Wing Commander: Privateer
Not every pirate game is set in some version of the Caribbean in the 1700s. WC: Privateer’s abbreviation makes it sound like a single-person restroom, but in reality this space sim let you be a space pirate. Or you could be a merchant. Also, there are giant cat people.
Yohoho! Puzzle Pirates
Three Rings MMO was free-to-play before it was cool (it is now not-cool again). Groups of players can sail on a ship together, each one playing a different puzzle game. The compulsive swapper can run the bilge pump in a match-3 game while a carpenter fits oddly shaped blocks into a hole. Basically if my Candy Crush Saga obsession could help my mom’s Mafia War, but not on Facebook.
Zack and Wiki: The Quest for Barbaros’s Treasure – This Wii point-and-click adventure game looks like a Saturday morning cartoon full of puzzles. Zack is a young pirate and Wiki is a golden monkey that flies with his tail and turns into a bell when you shake the Wii remote. Ringing the monkey has strange effects on the world, and is just one of the techniques you use to solve puzzles and search for treasure.
Brian Taylor took a college survey course on the history of maritime piracy, where he learned the only Latin he knows: hostis humani generis.