CLASSICAL ANTIQUITY IN VIDEO GAMES: Playing with the Ancient World

Christian Rollinger (editor)

Bloomsbury (2020) h/b 312pp £85 (ISBN 9781350066632)

This is the first edited volume to be devoted to the eponymous subject in its entirety, at one fell swoop doubling the amount of scholarship available to those seeking more information on the use of classics, ancient history, and classical archaeology in computer games. It is an extremely timely publication as, in the wake of the release of Assassin’s Creed Origins in 2017 and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey in 2018 (the former set in Hellenistic Egypt and the latter in Classical Greece), and, perhaps more pertinently, their accompanying Discovery Modes, the profile of classical antiquity in computer games has never been higher and an entire generation of school pupils and university students are supplementing their formal educations with considerably more immersive informal ones.

The volume opens with a prologue that consists of two chapters from its editor. In the first, ‘Playing with the Ancient World: An Introduction to Classical Antiquity in Video Games’, which serves as the introduction to the volume as a whole, he presents a brief survey of the history of computer games with particular emphasis on historical-themed ones; questions why classical reception studies has not yet interrogated computer games as enthusiastically as it has other types of popular culture; enumerates the limited previous scholarly approaches to the subject; and details what this volume will do to build on these. In the second, ‘An Archaeology of Ancient Historical Video Games’, he delves much more deeply into the subject of the appearance of classical antiquity in computer games and presents a useful typology as a starting point for analysis: this comprises economic simulations and city-building games; strategy games; action-adventure games; and it includes numerous and varied illustrative examples of each type.

The meat of the volume is divided into four parts. The first, ‘A Brave Old World: Reconfigurations of Ancient Cultures’, is predominantly concerned with the aesthetics of computer games, namely issues of accuracy and authenticity (not the same things) in classical games. David Serrano Lozano’s chapter ‘Ludus (Not) Over: Video Games and the Popular Perception’ considers the relationship between what we see in computer games and what we have seen in films, and how the latter has influenced the former. Tristan French and Andrew Gardner’s chapter ‘Playing in a “Real” Past: Classical Action Games and Authenticity’ utilises Ryse: Son of Rome and the Assassin’s Creed franchise to demonstrate how, as time goes on, computer game developers are creating games containing more accurate and, perhaps more importantly, at least from the perspective of the gamers, more authentic historical and archaeological content for what is becoming an increasingly more sophisticated audience. Sian Beavers’ chapter ‘The Representation of Women in Ryse: Son of Rome’ focuses on a particularly atrocious and critically panned computer game and considers the overwhelmingly negative ways in which the few female characters in it are depicted and why they are depicted in these ways.

The second part, ‘A World at War: Martial Re-Presentations of the Ancient World’, focuses on the most popular way in which the classical world is used in games, and that is as a setting for historical, mythological, and fictious violence and conflicts. Dominic Machado’s chapter ‘Battle Narratives from Ancient Historiography to Total War: Rome II’ explores the role of the much-maligned cut scene using the historical event of the Battle of Teutoberg Forest in AD 9 and the historical figure Arminius as a case study. Jeremiah McCall’s chapter ‘Digital Legionaries: Video Game Simulations of the Face of Battle in the Roman Republic’ utilises two of the most technologically sophisticated approaches to ancient warfare found in computer games, those of Fields of Glory II and Total War: Rome II, to investigate the extent to which the models used in them can be used to elucidate ancient battle conditions, as they involve a degree of immersion that is simply not available elsewhere.

The third part, ‘Digital Epics: Role-Playing in the Ancient World’, concentrates on a specific genre within computers games, that of the RPG (i.e. Role-Playing Game). Roger Travis’ chapter ‘The Bethesda Style: The Open-World Role-Playing Game as Formulaic Epic’ does not focus on computer games set in classical antiquity but rather on computer games that have what he sees as clear relationships to the epic tradition, and can, as a result, themselves be seen as digital formulaic epics in the manner of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. He observes three key features of these games that appear to conform to the Homeric model: significant exploration of the game-world; progression by performance; and community affiliation. Ross Clare’s chapter, ‘Postcolonial Play in Ancient World Computer Role-Playing Games’, utilises the computer games Nethergate: Resurrection and Titan Quest to study how gamers are encouraged to interact with different cultures within game worlds, considering issues of imperialism and colonialism. Nico Nolden’s chapter, ‘Playing with an Ancient Veil: Commemorative Culture and the Staging of Ancient History within the Playful Experience of the MMORPG, The Secret World’, uses a computer game in which history comes alive to investigate how history is depicted within computer games, and cautions that since computer games do not themselves last for ever, it is imperative that scholars seek to engage with them sooner rather than later, otherwise valuable data will be lost.

The fourth part, ‘Building an Ancient World: Re-Imagining Antiquity’, takes a more reflective approach, detailing specific adventures in the creation of classical games. Neville Morley’s chapter ‘Choose Your Own Adventure: The Melian Dialogue as a Text-Based Adventure’ covers his experience of making a web-based text game with Twine software, and his realisation that turning historical events into games can actually develop and deepen our understanding of those events and their participants. Maciej Paprocki’s chapter, ‘Mortal Immortals: Deicide of Greek Gods in Apotheon and its Role in the Greek Mythic Underworld’ recounts his experience as a consultant and writer for Alientrap Games and explores the tensions that can arise when attempting to satisfy two competing sets of professional demands. Alexander Flegler’s chapter, ‘The Complexities and Nuances of Portraying History in Age of Empires’ likewise focuses on the difficulties of reconciling the demands of historical accuracy with the demands of playability in the Age of Empires franchise. Erika Holter, Una Ulrike Schäfer, and Sebastian Schwesinger’s chapter, ‘Simulating the Ancient World: Pitfalls and Opportunities of Using Game Engines for Archaeological and Historical Research’ analyses the digital reconstruction of ancient places and spaces and argues that digital sensory archaeology can benefit from using game engines to facilitate academic research. 

The volume concludes with Adam Chapmans’ epilogue, ‘Quo Vadis Historical Game Studies and Classical Receptions? Moving Two Fields Forward Together’, which considers how the subject (or subjects, if you prefer) can progress, as it is likely that computer games and history will remain firmly entwined for the foreseeable future.

Considering the relative dearth of scholarship currently in print on the subject of classics, ancient history, and classical archaeology in computer games, this volume of essays would not have had to do very much to ensure its indispensability, but the simple fact is that it manages to do a great deal in under 300 pages. The strength of the volume is the sheer breadth of its coverage. While high-profile and critically acclaimed franchises such as the Assassin’s Creed, Total War, and Age of Empires series receive plenty of attention, so too do smaller-scale and critically maligned games. Yet, for me at least, where the volume really shines is in its detailed and in-depth exploration of specific case studies, such as Beavers’ excellent contribution on the representation of women in Ryse: Son of Rome, and Machado’s on the Battle of Teutoberg Forest and Arminius in Total War: Rome II. The chapters by Morley and Paprocki that illuminate the process of making a classically inspired computer game, whatever the genre, are also very important, and will surely enrich the classicist, ancient historian, or classical archaeologist’s understanding of the computer games that they seek to study and critically analyse, as well as inspiring the creation of new ones.

However, the volume’s weakness is the huge and glaring imbalance in the gender of its contributors: of its seventeen contributors, only three are women; of its fourteen chapters, only two of these are authored or co-authored by women; and one of these focuses specifically on the subject of women in computer games. This unintentionally perpetuates the harmful misconception that girls and women do not play computer games, and that, on the rare occasions that they do, they are chauvinistic and focus their attention on women rather than anything else. This is completely unacceptable, and steps should have been taken to address it prior to publication.

With that said, the volume is a valuable addition to the sub-discipline of Reception Studies, and invaluable to anyone interested in learning more about classics, ancient history, and classical archaeology in computer games. Several of the chapters open with attempts by the authors to pre-empt queries regarding why they have chosen to spend their time on something so frivolous with justifications for their decisions; hopefully going forward, such justifications will no longer be considered necessary.

Jane Draycott

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