This is the second of a 5-part series from guest-blogger, Dr. Dunstan Lowe, who teaches Classics at the University of Kent. “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.

The classical museum becomes a ruin: Legendary (PC: 2008).
The classical museum becomes a ruin: Legendary (PC: 2008).


Computer games are fully capable of presenting the ancient Mediterranean in life, as we have seen. Computer games can equally well present its afterlife, i.e. ruined in the modern day, in the same forms in which modern audiences encounter them in real life: as tourist sites, as archaeological digs, and
as museum exhibits.

In a recent article on representations of the past as past in computer games, Andrew Gardner acknowledges that we are more likely to see archaeologists providing excitement as adventurers than archaeology providing excitement as a discipline:

Many kinds of media are engaged in the representation of archaeology, and most of them are more widely popular than those provided by archaeologists themselves…games have generally been ignored as modes of representation of the past.1

With their usual affinity for implausible scenarios, computer games have offered several strategies for representing antiquity in the heritage sector. In Medal of Honor: Airborne (2007) the ruins of Paestum, under the process of excavation, are opened up for an exploration that is invasive in every sense.2 The player is parachuted into the site to fight an enemy garrison, which involves exchanges of fire within the trenches of the dig itself. This provides atmospheric surroundings rather than professional insight, but it is not impossible for mass-produced games to enter a high level of archaeological detail. While not primary classical in focus, Barrow Hill (2006) goes even further by casting the problem-solving player in the role of an amateur archeologist, investigating a supernatural murder-mystery in rural Cornwall. It is an unusual exploration of a Stone Age site which involves using various tools of the trade, from the trowel to the GPS.3 Like certain other examples of the relatively easily made point-and-click game,4 Barrow Hill is a labor of love, but it did achieve mass distribution through chain-stores, demonstrating that the subject matter had widespread appeal.

By contrast, the Tomb Raider series, one of the most successful computer game franchises of all time, has repeatedly sent its heroine Lara Croft on action-oriented forays amidst modern ruins and relics. While various global cultures have been involved, including those of Cambodia, Scandinavia,
South America, China and (in particular) Egypt, classical Greece and Rome have featured more than once.5 In Tomb Raider Chronicles,6 Lara Croft visits Rome to explore Trajan’s Markets and the Colosseum in their modern, tourist-site incarnations. However, the Tomb Raider franchise places the emphasis on the touristic pleasure of varied scenery and not on the history of any given site, except insofar as it contributes to raising the stakes of the overall plot.

The myth-inspired first-person shooter Legendary (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360: 2008) casts the player in the role of mercenary master-thief Charles Deckard, who becomes involved in an apocalyptic invasion of monsters when he opens Pandora’s Box.7 Most of the action consists of running battles in a series of urban locations as they undergo destruction, including a cathedral, office blocks, and London’s Houses of Parliament. Since the Box was the prize exhibit in a major museum exhibition, however,8 the first segment of the game involves escaping from the classical wing of the museum while its artifact-filled rooms are themselves turned into fragmented ruins. Objects on display include various classical statues, most of them broken and missing limbs, as well as vases and Egyptian artifacts. More significantly, the architecture of the museum itself features colossal neoclassical columns, and when Deckard enters the main hallway above the Box, a pair of these breaks and collapses around him. Thanks to the power of an object from Greek myth, the museum’s classical gallery is transformed into a landscape of classical ruins, creating a fitting prelude for the more contemporary scenes of urban devastation waiting outside.

Treating the modern world as a frame for the ancient, as in an archaeological site or a museum, is not the only way to create a double-layered interaction with the past. A second method frequently occurs, which relies on the distinct properties of the digital medium: games set in the past will often allude to relics of the past indirectly, through standard framing devices such as title screens and menus. These elements inevitably distance the player,9 but are usually designed to blend as much as possible into the fictive world of the game. When this world is the classical past, the very sight of ruins would theoretically interrupt the player’s immersion. In practice it does not, to judge by the colorful range of examples on offer. For example, the popular home console game Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods (1991) pits the player (an aspiring son of Zeus) against the other gods in a series of tactical games using mortals as pawns: clearly a mythic setting. Despite this, the image which acts as title card for the mortal world is the ruined Parthenon, certainly one of the most iconic images of ancient Greece that we have, but which does not exist in the notional “Age of Myth” in which the game itself is set – let alone in its ruined, twentieth-century state.

The dead past as frame for the living: Gladiators of Rome (PC: 2002).
The dead past as frame for the living: Gladiators of Rome (PC: 2002).

The 2002 strategic role-playing game Gladiators of Rome offers an even more blatant equivalent in its presentation of ancient Rome. After progressing through smaller, regional arenas, the successful trainer of gladiators will, in the final challenges, pit their team against opponents in the Colosseum
of Rome. During fights, this setting is naturally shown at its spectacular best, bedecked with flags and crowded with cheering spectators. However, although the Colosseum is alive inside the challenge, it is unmistakably dead on the level-select screen as the partial skeleton which confronts modern visitors, even though its modern urban surroundings have been removed. According to such games, the Colosseum and Parthenon would seem disconcertingly “modern” if seen with a genuinely ancient eye: the ravages of time are part of their identities, even if this involves an implicit disconnection
between the game’s action and its frame. Nor do time-ravaged framing elements always evoke iconic individual monuments. The eccentrically Victorian classical roleplaying game Invictus (2000) is set in the mythical past, but nevertheless decorated in very Romantic style with mottled, fractured, pseudo-classical ruins.10 Likewise, a generically ancient-looking mural forms the backdrop for the text introducing each level of Alexander (PC: 2004), the strategy game based on Oliver Stone’s movie. If this mural were healed of its faded colors, cracks and abraded texture, in other words if it were to become naturalized within the world of the game, it would not look ancient. An extra spur towards representing the classical past as already ancient, even when this conflicts directly with the premise of the game, is the plain fact that computer game artists are not art historians and therefore tend to use the marks of age as a crutch towards “antiquating” their work. An immensely popular computer game of the late eighties,11 Altered Beast (1988), is an outstanding example. Created by the Japanese company Sega, it presents only the most superficial allusions to the classical West. The
hero is a centurion, revived from a pseudo-classical graveyard by a white-bearded god who wants his peplum-clad daughter to be rescued from the wizard “Neff”. Two-headed dogs play an important role in the action, perhaps alluding to Cerberus, and goat-man hybrids appear among the enemies, but here the Western classical allusions stop; by collecting “Spirit Balls” the centurion can transform into beasts including werewolf, dragon and tiger, and Neff finally takes the form of a rhinoceros in golden armor. Yet one of Altered Beast’s few tokens of Western classical culture, and perhaps the most insightful, is the image on the “attract mode” title screen: the characters of the game are portrayed as grey stone figures in a severely damaged relief carving, with large cracks and pieces broken off. This frames the “living” content of the game as taking place in a distant, legendary past with admirable clarity: the game provides no scene-setting text, and none is required.

Roth gives the following formula for how representations of ruins preserve them for further uses:

Every framing creates the possibility in turn of aesthetic reframing, of transmuting the framed ruin into another aesthetic configuration.12

As we have seen, the framing of ruins in computer games in the Heritage mode can either mimic  real-life phenomena (the “original framings” of tourism, archaeology, museums) or, inversely, use the imagery of time-ravaged remains to contain and supplement “real-life” reconstructions of the past which are in themselves immersive. In the latter scenario, ruins are not merely framed, but instead are the frame. In both cases there is the same apparent compulsion to juxtapose the preserved traces of antiquity with the revived original, as if they needed to validate one another.


1. Gardner (2007: 255).

2. Medal of Honor: Airborne (PC: 2007).

3. Barrow Hill (PC: 2006).

4. Another point-and-click game based on a historic site is the poorly received Anacapri: The Dream (PC: 2007), made with thousands of photographs of Capri. It includes archaeological remains among various other locations, but also uses the common plot device of time-travel in order to include the Emperor Tiberius (and even the sea-god Nereus) as speaking characters.

5. Many locations in the series evoke Greek and Roman antiquity. The plot of the original Tomb Raider (PC, PlayStation, Saturn: 1996) revolves around the revival of the civilization of Atlantis, and involves the discovery of “King Midas’ Palace” beneath a Greek monastery. In Tomb Raider: The Prophecy (GameBoy Advance: 2004) Lara explores a Roman villa on “Laconia Island”, where she fights skeleton warriors, and reads a Latin inscription. Hellenistic Egyptian locations in Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation (Dreamcast, Macintosh, PC, Playstation: 1999) include “Pharos”, “Temple of Isis”, “Temple of Poseidon” and “Cleopatra’s Palaces”.

6. Published concurrently on Dreamcast, Macintosh, PC and PlayStation in 2000.

7. As in God of War (PlayStation 2: 2005), the Box is an ornate metal chest resembling S. Spielberg’s Ark of the Covenant. The introductory montage portrays the classical myth of Pandora and her jar as a misinterpretation of the Box’s true nature.

8. The museum superficially resembles New York’s Metropolitan Museum; the exhibition is named “MYTHOS: Creatures of the Ancient World”, implying that the curators know more than the protagonist.

9. For a detailed discussion of one such element, the HUD or “heads-up display”, see Galloway (2006: 35-36).

10. The Victorian character of the game is reflected not only in its title, taken from the famous 1875 poem by W. E. Henley, but by the identity of the in-game advisor, a woman named Homah who claims to be “the center of knowledge” and promises to “sing the praises of your valiant deeds”. The idea that Homer was a woman also belongs to the late nineteenth century, thanks to S. Butler’s book (1897).

11. Altered Beast was published in arcades, then on the Amiga, Amstrad, Atari ST, Commodore 64, MSX, NES, PC, Sega Genesis and Sega Master System, and has recently been revived on the Wii Virtual Console and Xbox Live Arcade.

12. M. Roth (1997: 3).

Part Three Coming Tomorrow: “Destruction”

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