This is the fourth 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.

Spartan: Total Warrior (PS2, 2005)
Spartan: Total Warrior (PS2, 2005)


The vast majority of computer games containing classical remains, however they are encountered, do not correspond to any actual past. They follow a fourth mode of representation, Fantasy, which offers unreal versions of antiquity in which ruins are retrojected into the ancient past, to replace their own originals. A second common characteristic, linked to the first, is that they can also be superabundant. The range and variety of such games shows how much, and how often, players privilege the aesthetic and symbolic qualities of ruins over their historical or topographical accuracy.

The ability to restore ruins to their original form is a luxury of the modern era. Before archaeology became a science, viewers of classical sites were accustomed to regard the decayed state of ancient material remains as irreversible. It is difficult to imagine taking these remains for granted as part of the fabric of the world. For example, while instructing his readers on how to make a threshing-floor, the 4th century agricultural writer Palladius advises “next you must flatten it, with a round stone or any old broken piece of column”.1 To a modern reader, the idea of living after a lost age of architectural splendor, amidst its broken remains, might seem intensely melancholy—but for a modern player, far from it. Computer games rarely bid explicitly for pathos in their presentation of ruined landscapes. Indeed, there is often little indication that such ruins should, or could, be
connected with some pristine, intact version of themselves. Fragments of masonry, shells of buildings, and arbitrarily scattered columns can cover vast areas without amounting to a city, neither modeled on actual ancient sites, nor even governed by the logic of urban planning. This echoes many portrayals of the past from pre-archaeological times, for example an impressive Flemish tapestry held in Toledo Museum that shows Rome being built under Romulus’ guidance.2 The actual buildings, like the human figures, are a blend of the late antique and the contemporary; columns stand in isolated groups in the background, and bits of columns and stone blocks litter the foreground. The artist imagines the original Rome not as pristine, but as already in the ruined state of his own day, which is (in a perverted sense) more authentic. The retrojected ruin is a blurring of antiquity with its own future, which nonetheless makes the past seem past. The paradox is expressed well by the words of Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Tancredi: “If we want things to stay the same, things will have to change.”3

Yet there are more immediate ancestors than Flemish tapestries for the pre-ruined and capriciously arranged forms into which computer games fantasize Greek and Roman material culture. Just as Roman arenas and cityscapes in the “Reconstruction” mode often take visual inspiration from Hollywood spectaculars (above all Ridley Scott’s 2000 revival, Gladiator), the special effects and visual design work of Ray Harryhausen set many trends for classical fantasy in games.4 Two recurring elements are a non-classical version of Medusa with a snake’s tail and prominent breasts, as in Clash of the Titans, and skeleton warriors, as in Jason and the Argonauts.5 Yet we might also credit him with a more general visual stereotype, namely landscapes made of ruins (or “ruin-scapes”). Both of the above films feature scenes set within Italy’s spectacular Archaic Greek temples: Perseus’ arrival and departure from Medusa’s lair, and Jason’s fight with the Harpies. The sites are shown in their modern state, by modern standards admirably preserved, but within the context of the film inappropriately ravaged. Even if these two films cannot on their own bear full credit for the Fantasy mode of presenting ruins, they are a milestone of its emergence in late 20th century popular media.

Jason and the Argonauts (Columbia Pictures, 1963)
Jason and the Argonauts (Columbia Pictures, 1963)

The primitive and simplistic graphics of the earliest computer games offer some of the starkest illustrations that ruins, to be authentically ancient, can never have been new. (This of course is in direct contradiction to the approach taken by games in the Reconstruction mode.) In early games such as Gladiator,6 much of the very sparse graphical detail is devoted to cracks in the walls. Had the biggest computer game franchise of the ’90s received a classical installment, the same priorities would have applied. Super Mario’s Wacky Worlds is a time-traveling game that was never
made, an abortive project for the Philips CD-i in 1993. Its Greek levels contain simplistic allusions to Greek culture: the Koopa turtle enemies wear laurel wreaths, except in an area inside the Trojan Horse where they wear (Roman) military uniforms instead. The most noticeable feature, however, is the already-ruined architecture to which all other graphic detail is devoted. Platforms are made of broken blocks; columns with crazily stacked drums appear in the foreground and background, as do crumbling temples; there is even a headless, one-armed statue of a Koopa. Classical architecture
is just as stubbornly decayed in many games that were actually made and marketed. The Japanese science-fiction shoot-‘em-ups Time Soldiers (Arcade: 1987) and Time Slip (Super NES: 1993) both feature levels set in ancient Rome which contain crumbling marble columns (as well as mediaeval
elements). As with Altered Beast, non-Western computer game artists can reveal modern popular culture’s core expectations for the look of classical antiquity.

Super Mario's Wacky Worlds (CD-i, 1993)
Super Mario’s Wacky Worlds (CD-i, 1993)

A different style of game repeatedly showing the classical world in crumbling ruins is the head-to-head “beat-‘em-up”. Since most of the attention is on the violent foreground action, the themed locations in the background are mere window-dressing, and the Fantasy mode applies regardless of whether these locations are supposed to be in the past or in the present. In Hercules: Slayer of the Damned (1988), the mythical hero fights skeleton warriors in a token Greek
landscape composed of three damaged columns and a statue. Various mutilated statues, broken columns, and crumbling monuments may be seen in the backgrounds of Blandia (Arcade: 1992) and TMNT Tournament Fighters (Super NES: 1993), as well as in the parody Strip Fighter 2 for the TurboGrafx 16 (1993).7 Other products of the action-oriented arcade, roaming beat-‘em-ups and fast-paced platformers, have shown a similar inclination for decrepit environments within the classical past. Myth: History in the Making features elements of Greek myth;8 the second level is decorated with statues and huge, broken columns.9 In Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone (Arcade: 1991), “Rome” is a generic assembly of ruined columns, populated by scantily clad male archers and a larger, armored warrior. (It is not clear whether this Rome is in the past or present, although time travel seems to be implied, since Cleopatra is the final enemy of the game.) Yet in these action-intense games, the imagery of time-corrupted remains is localized to particular backdrops among a broader selection, and remains essentially tokenistic.

Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone (Arcade, 1990)
Double Dragon 3: The Rosetta Stone (Arcade, 1990)

The extreme example of the Fantasy mode, often found in the most creative classical games, is a landscape of ruins which is not limited to geographical area, and indeed—as in the sixteenth-century tapestry mentioned above—lacks any sense of location or infrastructure. Such games present endlessly extensible terrains of ruins to pass through, which fill the area of play almost like wallpaper. An early example is the arcade game Pandora’s Palace (1984), which sought to imitate the popular design of the groundbreaking Donkey Kong (1981). Rather than a plumber seeking to rescue a girl, this game presents a Roman-looking soldier running and jumping (in endless repetition) to reach Pandora’s Box and defeat Death. Like Mario, the hero must take a zigzag path through moving hazards, and can gain temporary invincibility by collecting a special bonus (in this case a bunch of grapes). However, instead of crooked girders, he passes through slightly richer environments. The first is Greek in theme, the second Egyptian: both are configurations of crooked, cracked stone blocks and broken-off columns. Even though this soldier is part of antiquity, his game habitat is automatically already ruined. As the very title of Pandora’s Palace implies, nothing is as classical as a landscape of abandoned vases and broken columns.9 They can appear without warning in otherwise “reconstructed” classical worlds. The strategy game Battle For Troy (PC: 2004) appears to portray the Trojan War at a suitably early dramatic date, but it is not long before large quantities of broken columns appear on the maps (as a foretaste of increasingly fantasist touches including skeleton warriors, magic, and Cyclopes). Olympus no Tatakai, a.k.a. Battle of Olympus (NES: 1988), resists all temptation to batter and crush its white marble buildings. However, even this game finally succumbs in the “end credits”: any Orpheus who successfully rescues his princess from Hades is rewarded with the spectacle of the sun rising behind a distinctly time-ravaged temple. The visual style of classical Greek and Roman art and architecture is admittedly distinctive in itself, but the audiences of most computer games, and arguably of 21st century mass entertainment in general, seem to know it best in a state of advanced decay.

A world of ruins: promotional image for NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits (Wii, 2009).

Not only do these tokens conjure Greek (or Roman) myth and history into being with remarkable ease,10 they also suggest an unfamiliar environment rich with potential treasures. Another advantage of endless ruins in games is that they offer an interesting space of play, both visually and tactically. “Platformer” games are particularly amenable to repetitious configurations of scenery, providing many classical environments in the Fantasy mode throughout the eighties and nineties. The loosely myth-based Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters (GameBoy: 1991) contains absurdly repetitious expanses of identical broken columns to negotiate. Both the widely-republished Rastan (Arcade: 1987) and its arcade sequel Nastar Warrior (1989) contain levels filled with ruined columns.11 A more recent platformer has taken the idea to a new extreme. The critically-acclaimed downloadable game NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits (Wii: 2009) is the story of Nyx, a winged girl who befriends Icarus on his visits to the sky.12 When a solar flare turns the world to a column-strewn desert, simultaneously melting Icarus’ wings, she sets out to find and rescue him. The player guides Nyx through increasingly complex and challenging obstacle courses, composed mainly of gigantic columns and pieces of masonry. These are purely a means to an end: some collapse when touched, and others can be “grabbed” and manipulated using the Wii-mote. This version of ancient Greece is composed purely of fragments, which dictates both the design and the aesthetic of the gameplay. In both respects it participates in a longstanding platformer tradition, in which the very platforms themselves are the drums and blocks of a lost classical age. More recent computer games have become far more complex, both in art direction and in design. Environments are more varied, bringing fantasy games closer to fantasy cinema, in which ruins belong to specific areas. The above-mentioned Spartan: Total Warrior, for example, besides applying the Destruction mode to Sparta and Rome, also engages in the Fantasy mode by staging part of the game amidst the colossal tumbledown masonry of “Troy, ruined city of legend”.13 Rise of the Argonauts (2008), an interpretation of Jason’s voyage to retrieve the Golden Fleece which is just as creative and almost as violent, features several ruined areas.

Rise of the Argonauts (PC, 2008)
Rise of the Argonauts (PC, 2008)

Some of these are small, like the part-submerged shrine near the harbor of Mycenae, or the collapsing shrines of Hermes here and on Nisyros, the island of the Centaurs. The connection
between grand ruins and strange powers is most evident in the game’s portrayal of Tartarus itself as a gloomy mass of stout, Doric-looking architecture, littered amidst valleys of solidified lava. However, the largest number of broken columns and arches is to be found on the island of “Kythra”,
once the home and now the lair of the High Priestess Medusa: she is now a grotesque monster whose body protrudes giant eels. These examples reveal a tendency to follow Harryhausen’s
version of the Fantasy mode, in which pockets of ruination are confined to specific locations. The contents of the computer game locations described above even bring specific Harryhausen movies to mind. The city of Troy in Spartan: Total Warrior is filled with skeleton warriors, and also contains a blue, many-headed Hydra; both of these enemies appear in Jason and the Argonauts. The monstrous Medusa in Rise of the Argonauts lives amid the columns of an ancient temple hidden within ruins, as does the Medusa of Clash of the Titans. Likewise, the chamber where she is found in God of War (PlayStation 2: 2005) is littered with fragments of stone. In the sequel God of War 2 (PlayStation 2: 2007), her obese sister, the Gorgon Euryale, inhabits a fully ruined, colonnaded hall within a gloomy mass of broken architecture called “Ruins of the Forgotten”.14 These examples suggest that computer games are now taking cues not only from antiquity itself, but from the new forms into which it has been transformed, within emerging “canons” of popular culture.

A whole landscape of ruins: Titan Quest (PC, 2006).

Several myth-inspired computer games of more recent times have shown that classical ruins can still constitute entire game worlds. The enormously popular “dark fantasy” role-playing game Diablo II (PC: 2000) inspired two mythology-themed imitations: Titan Quest (PC: 2006) and Loki: Heroes of Mythology (PC: 2007). Although Titan Quest is based on a fixed world map, its Greek locations are so filled with interchangeable tumbledown temples, graveyards and tombs that they define the very landscape. Even the major cities that are visited—Athens and Delphi—are also damaged, owing to a general onslaught of evil beasts, which completes the pattern. As the game progresses, Egypt and Asia are revealed to look largely the same; the Great Sphinx is smashed, the Great Wall of China partially collapsed. The final location, Olympus, is the ultimate example: it is seen in total disarray, freshly shattered by the huge Titan Typhoeus.15 Likewise the environments in Loki, although fundamentally different in design, are very similar in aesthetics, containing large areas of uniform ruins in the Greek quarter of the game.16 Loki even features a small amount of random map generation, meaning that the layout of areas such as “Poor Districts of Troy” and “West Courtyard of Knossos” will be different for each player. The fact that these environments can be infinitely generated in Loki is merely the literal application of a general principle for all classically themed computer games: in the Fantasy mode, all classical landscapes can be infinitely generated. A second principle is that since ruins are commonly retrojected into the past, the concept of conservation becomes meaningless. The combination of these two factors removes any sense of innate value from classical ruins and turns them into an atmospheric “raw material”, to be created, shaped and destroyed as desired.17


1. tunc premenda est rotunda lapide vel columnae quocumque fragmento (Palladius, Opus Agriculturae 7.1).

2. Fifth in a series of eight tapestries depicting Romulus and Remus, from the workshop of Frans Geubels, c. 1560 (published in G. Delmarcel 1999: 155-162).

3. “Se vogliamo che tutto rimanga com’è, bisogna che tutto cambi” G. Tomasi di Lampedusa Il Gattopardo (1958: 41).

4. Jason and the Argonauts (dir. Chaffey: 1963) and Clash of the Titans (dir. Davis 1981) are only the two most obvious examples.

5. These two monstrous forms may pre-date even Harryhausen’s designs. Both of them appear in the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game (as “Medusa” and “Undead Skeleton”).

6. Published concurrently by Mike Green (through Richwood Software) on the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum in 1985; not to be confused with games of the same name by Pegasus Software, SNK, Taito, Midway and Acclaim.

7. In Blandia, the home environments of Gurianos and Diokles both feature broken columns. Confusingly, there are three different games all entitled TMNT Tournament Fighters (for the NES, Super NES and Sega Genesis) and published simultaneously in 1993: the Super NES version features an environment entitled “Mt. Olympus” in which broken columns, a ruined temple, and even the Sphinx of Giza are visible. In Strip Fighter 2, the home environment of the long-haired fighter “Medusa”—a caricature of Street Fighter 2’s Blanka—contains a crumbling Parthenon-like temple and two damaged sculptures of nude women (one a relief, the other a colossal reclining statue).

8. Published concurrently on Amiga, Amstrad, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum in 1989.

9. In the ZX Spectrum version, this level is called “Greece Four Hundred BC”; in the Amiga version it is called “Skyros: Isle of the Sirens”.

10. Even games set in modern times can rely on the stereotype that Greece and Rome are ruin-scapes. In Out to Lunch (Super NES: 1994), an entirely unclassical game in which a cartoon chef chases his escaped vegetables, little scenery is needed in the level called “Greece”: there is a background featuring broken columns, and a foreground made of them.

11. A. Blanshard (2005: 166).

12. The arcade version of Rastan does not actually feature classical columns, but they fill the first half of Level 3 in the Master System version, as well as Level 1 of Nastar Warrior. Both games also feature snake-tailed Medusas and skeleton warriors, suggesting that these ruins are Harryhausen-inspired, although its greatest debt to fantasy cinema is evidently to Conan the Barbarian (dir. Milius 1982).

13. The original title, Icarian: Kindred Spirits, was altered soon after publication in response to a copyright infringement claim.

14. Quoted from the narration and subtitles which introduce level 8, ‘”The Sentinel”. Arguably Troy is shown as a sacked and abandoned city, and therefore plausibly “ruined” within the context of the game, but the notional date of 300 BC is not to be taken seriously. The corpses of many of the warriors are still intact, as revealed when they are raised as zombies (as well as skeleton warriors) by the sorcerer Sejanus.

15. As if to emphasise the point, Euryale winds herself around one of these columns during her fight with Kratos, whereupon he tears it down, causing its fragments to crush her.

16. The expansion Titan Quest: The Immortal Throne (PC: 2007) continues the story beyond Olympus and reveals further ruination in Rhodes (where the Colossus is in pieces), Epirus, Elysium and Hades.

17. The four worlds of myth through which any character must travel, before finally confronting Loki himself, are Greek, Egyptian, Aztec and Norse. The order depends on the character-class chosen.

Part Five Coming Tomorrow: “Conclusion”

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