Always Already Ancient: Ruins in the Virtual World, Part Five: Conclusion

This is the last 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.

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP, 2008)

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP, 2008)


This broad-ranging survey has shown that computer games can feature classical architecture and artifacts in a variety of ways, each of which tells us something different about the nature of the medium. The Reconstruction mode is perhaps the most predictable, since it most naturally communicates (in Edgar Allan Poe’s words) “the glory that was Greece / And the grandeur that was Rome”. These two concepts, especially the latter, fuel the popularity of antiquity in city-building games, which allow the player to create intact and thriving classical cities. However, this is the only style of game in which ruination is not a key aesthetic element. It can still creep in at the margins, like the ruins just out of reach in Rome: Total War. The Heritage mode, which appears in a diversity of game types, gives the player the opposite perspective on the past. It causes them to look back upon ancient objects and monuments in the modern-day frames of tourist destinations, museum exhibits and archaeological sites. Many computer games even display a new technique of juxtaposing past and present, by overlaying their versions of the living past with imagery of the time-worn past. Standing between these opposite extremes of Reconstruction and Heritage is the Destruction mode, which is far from unique to classically-themed games, but represents another recurrent response to the challenge of Greek and Roman ruins. Obeying the computer game imperative towards action and interactivity, these games subject classical remnants of all kinds—object or cityscape, facsimile or fantasy, pristine model or specimen of decay—to violence of equally diverse forms: smashing, toppling, detonations and aerial bombardment. Sometimes this is mere cinematic spectacle, shown near the start of the game experience or at critical points, as part of the plot. In some instances, however, the player him- or herself is allowed, encouraged, and even compelled to destroy classical materials personally. This is clearly a guilty pleasure in itself. At the same time, it is just one among many versions of computer games’ insistence upon connecting the life and the death of ancient material culture by any means available.

The fourth and final mode of representation, Fantasy, overlaps with each of the other three and is by far the most widespread, even though it is nonsensical. The ancient world is presented as ruined in its original state, to be dwelt or adventured among by the inhabitants of classical history and myth themselves. Sometimes recognizable objects or monuments appear, but geographic or logistical principles are rarely applied. This naked fabrication of classical ruins generates often vast and fascinating environments with absurd ease: monsters, treasures and grandiose follies are thrown together in whatever arrangement suits the style of play, and any remaining space is filled with a series of small walls. From the earliest computer games to the most recent, ruins have sometimes filled an entire game world, and sometimes a specific location within one, as they do in the two classical Harryhausen movies whose influence is often apparent. In computer games more than in any other medium, the iconic symbol of Greek and Roman antiquity is the broken column, whose missing piece is almost as important as what remains.

The Fantasy mode is the only one that confounds logic and requires special explanation. Why are ruins so often already ruins in the past? Historical (or mythical) plausibility clearly yields to some other imperative, but what? A number of answers can be suggested, some of them pragmatic. For example, ruins are more interesting than immaculate constructions, visually, spatially and texturally. Their irregular appearance and haphazard configurations produce more graphical detail than intact, rectilinear forms. Damage also turns colonnades into stepping-stones and ramps, presents obstacles, opens up internal areas, and creates new spaces in which to hide, explore, or whatever the activity in question might be. A different, but related concern is the need to make the past recognizably ancient, irrespective of the dramatic date. For example, it would be difficult to identify the Venus de Milo if it had arms. The problem would not be so acute if postclassical Europe had not already sought to recreate the classical world in so many ways already. As things are, an intact Venus de Milo, a whole colossal statue of Constantine, or even an undamaged stone wall or floor risks looking Neoclassical—and in a sense, they are.

Remains of the colossal statue of Constantine (Source: BBC)

Remains of the colossal statue of Constantine (Source: BBC)

A different set of answers relates to the more abstract qualities of ruins. Stressing the antiquity of an environment can evoke everything that antiquity stands for: it can add grandeur, prestige, and a sense of mystery. Certain Hollywood films have turned antiquarians and archaeologists into action heroes and set them amid glamorous ruins from the past. Many games glamorize ruins in the past, using similar techniques: inscriptions, traps, hidden points of access, and valuable relics or important sites which have lain hidden for enormous lengths of time. To the untutored modern eye, classical artifacts and ruins in real life might look like mundane and inferior debris. Many computer games in the Fantasy mode give them exactly the opposite qualities: exotic, superior, and always somehow valuable to the player. A contrasting, more complex aesthetic response to ruins, which is
arguably present in at least some computer games, is pathos. Most explicitly articulated in the art and literature of the Romantic period, this emotion hardly fits comfortably with the usual orientation of computer games towards machismo, spectacle, and the successful attainment of goals.  However, the gloomy atmosphere of many ruined environments cannot be entirely in the service of inducing fear and suspense. Even games which do not explicitly connect classical ruins with death and loss cannot remove these associations entirely. Even within the Fantasy mode’s paradox of an already-aged past, signs of damage and decay imply the irresistible passage of time, and the passing of actual historical civilizations which have left an equally irresistible hold on the present. This somber note may well enrich whatever blend or variety of motives have ensured that, for designers and players alike, the appeal of ancient ruins in computer games is perennial.

(Video by @stellalune)

Computer games sometimes seem to dictate new tropes of classical entertainment to their audiences, or borrow them from its slightly older relative, cinema. In fact, they often prove to be further embedded in Western cultural traditions than is commonly thought, and precedents for them might exist in a variety of historical contexts. Each of the four modes for representing classical remains identified above, for example, can already be found in England (and elsewhere) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Crystal Palace, venue of the Great Exhibition of 1851, was an excellent example of the Reconstruction mode. It contained several replicas of ancient settings; among them was a Pompeian house, which was not located among the other “dead civilizations” but instead in the “modern” half, perhaps because it was considered a domestic exhibit. Queen Victoria herself dined there before it was opened to the public.1 The Heritage mode is of course represented by the opening of the British Museum in 1769 and the spread of public museums more generally, but a way for the present to frame the past as entertainment soon emerged. Throughout most of the nineteenth century there were two fashions for living people to imitate antique objects, creating a more arrestingly hybrid experience of the dead past in a living, modern context.
Actors in theatrical or domestic tableaux imitated paintings; in more public settings, “living statues” in chalked faces and woolen wigs imitated marble sculptures. These two practices gave spectators playful viewing experiences, each modeled on the museum, art gallery, or private collection of antiquities, with the added frisson of suspended human activity. The Destruction mode might be detected in the great classical disaster novels of the 19th century, The Last Days of Pompeii with its volcanic eruption and Quo Vadis? with its Great Fire of Rome,2 but it would be manifested much more blatantly before the century was out. Bulwer-Lytton’s novel inspired more visceral interpretations than the printed page could offer: a theatrical version was staged in 1877, and had there not been technical difficulties, it would have featured an onstage eruption.3 By the late 1880s, “pyrodramas” were recreating the disaster in both England and America as a firework show featuring a collapsible Pompeian landscape.4 Such entertainments are forerunners of those offered by computer games like Rygar: The Legendary Adventure or Spartan: Total Warrior.

Rygar: The Legendary Adventure (PS2, 2002)

Rygar: The Legendary Adventure (PS2, 2002)

When we come at last to seek examples of the absurd Fantasy mode in a time when classical scholarship (at least among the privileged elite) was more widespread, we might expect to be disappointed. In fact, it is the elite themselves who provide something suitably unhistorical. Artificial monuments became popular in British gardens and scenic locations in the early 18th century. Most of the original examples were Greek or Roman temples, such as those of Flora and Apollo in Stourhead Gardens, or those of Victory, Arethusa, Pan, Aeolus and Bellona in Kew Gardens in London.5 Later, as tastes diversified, merely decorative monuments known as “follies” began to be made. Some of these were intentionally constructed in a ruined state, such as the mediaeval-style Wimpole’s Folly, built in Cambridgeshire by “Capability” Brown in 1769. Unsurprisingly, the two trends were often combined. Frederick the Great’s Ruinenberg, built at Potsdam in 1748, is one example; Sir William Chambers’ Ruined Arch, built in Kew Gardens in 1759, is another.6 Classical ruins were capriciously fabricated and strategically placed for the sake of visual enjoyment, just as they continue to be in computer games.

Ruined Arch, Kew Gardens (Source:

Ruined Arch, Kew Gardens (Source:

With allowances for variation in audience and intended effect, it is clear that responses to classical ruins in the Industrial Age were as diverse as those of the Information Age. It is equally clear that in one way or another, all of the phenomena listed above are implicated in the transformation of classical antiquity into new forms of visual entertainment, whether for mass or specialist audiences. Computer games seem to be a valuable index of popular tastes and preconceptions about Greece and Rome. Their preference for ruins seems to emphasize the gulf of time between then and now, which is perhaps regrettable. Yet at the same time, the sheer scale and diversity of classical themes in the medium suggests that by catering to the various desires of computer game players, antiquity is set to remain an object of fascination in the public eye.7


1. I owe these observations on the Crystal Palace to a fascinating paper presented by Shelley Hales in Oxford on July 20th 2009, at a symposium entitled “Antiquity in the Public Imagination: The ‘Democratic Turn’ in Classical Reception Studies”.

2. E. Bulwer-Lytton 1834; H. Sienkiewicz 1895.

3. E. Sherson (1925: 204).

4. M. Wyke (1997: 157).

5. The temples in Stourhead Gardens were built by Henry Flitcroft in 1744 (Flora) and 1765 (Apollo); those in Kew Gardens were built by Chambers in 1758 (Arethusa and Pan), 1759 (Victory) and 1760 (Aeolus and Bellona).

6. It is debatable whether the Ruined Arch is a folly, since it originally functioned as a bridge for livestock. The rubble which originally surrounded it has now been tidied away and replaced with asphalt: as a ruin it is now, ironically, “ruined”.

7. At the time of writing, a number of games with classical content are in production (Gladiator A.D. [renamed Tournament of Legends, ed.] by High Voltage, Mytheon by Petroglyph Games [rel. 2011, and only ran for six months, ed.], God of War III by SCEA, Highlander: The Game by Widescreen Games, and Dante’s Inferno by Visceral Games). All of them feature ruins significantly. Game Republic are also developing a computer game [released in 2010, ed.] tie-in for the forthcoming movie Clash of the Titans (dir. Zanuck) which is likely to conform to this pattern.


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