This is the first of a 5-part series from guest-blogger, Dr. Dunstan Lowe, who teaches Classics at the University of Kent. In 2005 he realized that there was a huge, unexplored intersection between classical antiquity and gaming, and has been studying it ever since. Besides this piece, he wrote another on gaming for the book Classics For All: Reworking Antiquity in Mass Culture, and hopes to write much more. “Always Already Ancient” was first published in print in the 2013 volume, Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age. It is reproduced here by permission of the author and publisher.
What kind of relics make the past most vivid? Those that are bright and clean, some insist, full of the sparkle of youth they had when new. For others the marks of use and time are crucial to living continuity. A past freshly made or revived and a past convincingly scored by time and use answer different needs and inspire different consequences.1
Whenever the distant past reappears in the present, it is transformed: a balance must be struck between the authentic qualities and features which make it “old”, and the chasm in time and culture which forces it to be “new”. In the above quotation, Lowenthal describes two opposite types of relic for two opposite tastes: those with their youth restored, and those with their long life or afterlife on display. Computer games have explored both of these options, and further variations. We should perhaps be surprised that in this medium which is young itself and still largely youth-oriented, the “old” version of the past has been far more popular: the distinctive columns and arches of classical Greece and Rome are sometimes neat and dazzling, but more often broken and overgrown. The following broad survey of games featuring classical material remains is intended to identify and account for particular trends, and in the process to demonstrate the quantity and diversity of source material, which is difficult to collect together and has not previously been formally documented.2
Classical computer games are prolific. Why do the dead civilizations of Greece and Rome keep reappearing in this manner? Perhaps because a pre-existing preoccupation has never gone away:
Seemingly the sentiment attached to ruins (or, to put it another way, a complex discourse on ruins) is particular to Western culture, and it could be argued that it is not so much linked to the fall of empire in itself as to the unique balance between continuity and discontinuity following the collapse of the Roman empire.3
This quotation is a valuable starting-point. The following discussion will indeed involve a small number of European precedents, or at least parallels, for the ways in which classical ruins are presented. However, the computer game examples collected here are not simply mechanical revisitations of familiar cultural ground. For one thing, many were created by writers, designers and artists from non-Western cultural backgrounds (especially Japanese), and some of their approaches to Western classical culture are consequently oblique and creative. It will also be argued that players and designers borrow influences from other popular media, and videogame antiquity can therefore involve receptions of receptions. The importance of “sentiment” cannot be ignored but is difficult to quantify, and the topic is therefore reserved for the conclusion of this discussion.
In what follows, I will argue that computer games have four modes of representing the past. While all of these involve recognition of the gulf in time separating the present from antiquity, each one (to extend a fanciful but convenient metaphor) locates the player differently in relation to that gulf. The first, “Reconstruction”, sets us securely on the distant side. The second, “Heritage”, keeps us here in the present. The third, “Destruction”, represents the moment at which we lurch over the distant precipice into nothingness; finally the fourth mode, “Fantasy”, suspends us in the air upon a non-existent middle ground. Although these categories are neither sharply distinguished, nor peculiar to classical antiquity as opposed to other periods or cultures, they articulate a breadth of approaches taken within the still-maturing medium of computer games. As will be suggested at the close of this discussion, they also connect computer game receptions of antiquity with far older elements of the classical tradition, because precedents may be discovered for all four.
Every post-classical era has envisioned ancient Greece or Rome as it was, or rather, as it should have been. The 20th century introduced various new techniques for this, some designed to provide the intimate and mundane, others the grand and spectacular. The desire to revive the past has found expression in perhaps every creative medium produced by humankind, and computer games are no exception; in fact, they are better equipped than most to let individuals explore versions of the past for themselves. Some computer games present the past as new, which is the Reconstruction mode, usually combining the banalities of ordinary people’s lives with occasional glimpses at splendor. The vast majority of these belong in a particular style of game, namely the city-building strategy. These constitute a subcategory inside the larger group of historical “empire-building” games, whose focus is on urban planning rather than on diplomacy and warfare. There has been no classical reconstruction of this specific type with a solely Greek theme.4 Rome is the archetypal “New City” of antiquity, and players seem eager to build it in a day. Although Greece offers its own imperialistic narratives (Athens, Macedonia) and monumental architecture (the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, the theatre of Epidaurus, the temple of Zeus at Olympia), it is Rome (and other Roman cities, that also grow into models of the capital) whose urban life is most frequently recreated.
Attractions vary between Rome-building games, but the fundamental concept is surprisingly consistent. The combat heavy Rome: Total War (PC: 2004) allows the player to view the people walking the streets of its cities, one per territory, which can be built up (although not created) by the player.5 Two other long-running PC strategy franchises, the Caesar and Civilization series, each produced new iterations in 2006: Caesar IV and CivCity: Rome respectively. Each of them challenges the player to build up Roman colonies, and later, Rome itself, at various points in the history of the civilization to meet specific targets. Imperium Romanum (PC: 2008) is a more recent arrival in the now densely populated Roman-empire-building category of games.6 As a superficial remake of Glory of the Roman Empire (2006), and because of its faulty programming, it was received negatively by critics.7 Variations in the mechanics and aesthetics of the Rome-building project will no doubt continue while such games retain their loyal consumer base. It is nevertheless clear that part of their abiding appeal is the ability to display urban monuments in their prime. Among all the fields of combat in Rome: Total War, there is only one actual ruin. It appears in the corner of the terrain of one of the historical battles—the River Trebia—and it is mere scenery, a temple lying in the snowy hills just outside the boundary of play. The ruination of an actual city is the consequence of military defeat or economic disaster and is therefore avoided in games of this style—which sets them apart from all the other games discussed here, which embrace the imagery of ruins and decay in a variety of forms.
1. D. Lowenthal (1985: 181).
2. Many of the games cited have been available on more than one game system (arcade cabinets, Macintoshes, PCs, and various home consoles and portable devices). For clarity I have cited only the first published version of each title, and more than one if simultaneous. Content can vary between versions, and this is indicated wherever relevant.
3. S. Settis 2006: 81.
5. The mechanics of this game (and of its fan mod, Rome: Total Realism, 2005) are discussed in Ghita & Andrikopoulos (2009).
6. This game, not to be confused with Funsoft’s Imperium Romanum (PC: 1996), is revealed by its Spanish and Italian release title Imperium Civitas II to be the fifth in Haemimont’s Imperium series. It is a reworking of Glory of the Roman Empire (2006), which had been published in Spain and Italy a few months later with minor alterations as the fourth installment, Imperium Civitas.
7. The sub-title of B. Todd’s review for GameSpot.com, posted on March 18th 2008, is ‘Old- fashioned city building and bugs turn Imperium Romanum into an ancient ruin’. This is harsh indeed for a game of this type, whose target players enjoy creating prosperous cities and energetic populations.